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March 16, 2011

The Day My Husband Disappeared

On a trip to Greece for Michelle Kramer's birthday, her husband, a succesful doctor who lavished her with gifts, vanished. Her search for him turned up shredded documents, survivalist gear, and $6 million in debt.

michelle kramer
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The night before Mark Weinberger went missing, he slipped into bed with his wife, Michelle, and gently turned to her. Clicking his wedding ring against hers, he whispered, "Never say bye-bye." It was a funny little routine the two had shared throughout their three-year marriage — the ring click, the phrase. "I'm not even sure how it started," Michelle says. But something seemed different this time. Mumbling that he didn't feel well, Mark, a wealthy, Chicago-based surgeon, stood up and headed toward the bathroom on the couple's yacht, docked off the Greek island of Mykonos. Too jet-lagged from travel to follow him, Michelle closed her eyes, drifting to sleep.

The next morning, Michelle woke up at 6 a.m., alone. Mark had probably just gone for a jog, she told herself, trying to shake a chilling feeling that this could be something more serious. Mark had been acting strangely of late, due to stress over several malpractice suits. One day, he randomly asked Michelle if she would be willing to move to Europe from Chicago and live a simpler life. "Sure," she said. She would follow him anywhere. Then he asked if she could sever all ties to her friends and family. Michelle didn't take the question seriously; it was just a fantasy, she thought.

She also didn't believe the malpractice claims against her husband. He was a successful surgeon specializing in sinuses; he ran his own clinic in the town of Merrillville, Indiana, not far from Chicago. People were always suing doctors, she thought — especially surgeons who flaunted their wealth, as Mark liked to do. Anyway, she had her own problems to deal with: She'd recently suffered a miscarriage, five months into her pregnancy, and she was still recuperating. With her 30th birthday on the horizon, this trip to Greece was supposed to be a celebration. A new start.

Michelle got her new start, but not the one she expected. Her husband didn't return from any jog on that fateful September morning in 2004. Frantic, she scoured the island, fearing that he had been injured somehow and couldn't get back. Then she grilled the yacht's captain, who simply grinned and urged her not to worry. Eventually, he confided a secret: "Mark has flown to Paris for the day to buy you a birthday present. He'll be back before sundown."

Sundown arrived, but Mark didn't. He had disappeared, apparently on purpose. It seemed that Michelle's fairy tale — her romance and life of luxury — was over. On that night, she made a resolution: She would solve the mystery of her husband's stunning vanishing act. She would find him.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Michelle Kramer, now 36, tiptoes in her stilettos along the cobblestone streets of a harborside neighborhood in Baltimore, her blonde hair blowing in the breeze. Wearing a fitted camel coat and skinny brown pants, she looks like a buttoned-up Brooks Brothers model, but with a go-go-girl edge. She steps into a quiet pub, orders a steak sandwich, and recalls the night she first met her husband.

She and Mark were at a club in Chicago, she says, both with friends. Michelle, then 25, was working as a counselor at a hospital, living with her parents. She'd grown up on Chicago's south side, a blue-collar neighborhood where her Irish-German-American father worked three jobs: as a pipe fitter, snow blower, and repairman. "He worked hard — he wanted to achieve the American dream," Michelle says. "He got up at 4 a.m., had coffee and a powdered doughnut, went to work."

Michelle remembers Mark looking "very New York" in his black satin shirt that night at the club, back in 2000. "I was a bit starry-eyed," she says. She had been wowed by doctors ever since she was 13, when she nearly lost a leg after a drunk driver plowed into her. "The doctors were like gods," she says. "I decided I wanted to be a doctor, too. That wasn't something that happened in my neighborhood. You were a nurse."

Mark, 36 at the time, invited Michelle to dinner, and then to Miami for a weekend. On that trip, the two "laughed the whole flight, till people thought we were crazy," Michelle says. The couple also discussed serious topics: medicine and philosophy, as well as psychology, which she had studied in college. "He liked that we had nerdy scientific books in common," she says. "He said, 'I meet a lot of pretty girls who are pretty vapid. But you are a formidable foe.'"

Soon they met each other's parents. His family had run a popular packaged-food business in New York for years; Mark had inherited his father's business drive. He wanted to open his own clinic one day, instead of working at a group surgery center. Mark had been married once before, he told Michelle, but the union was short-lived, as he believed his wife had been unfaithful. Michelle began to picture their own future together.

Michelle sits at a fireside bar in the lobby of her Baltimore apartment building, a former tin factory converted into trendy waterfront dwellings. She jokes with the bartender about a local delicacy she discovered at a street market — chocolate-covered waffles on a stick — then continues the tale of her Hollywood romance.

She moved in to Mark's place quickly, she says. At his urging, she quit her job, entertaining herself each day by preparing for Mark's arrival home from work. A favorite activity: dressing up for him as a sexy librarian. While Mark was thrilled with this arrangement, Michelle soon began to feel unfulfilled. "I had nothing of my own," she says. "I had to do something. I'm my father's daughter." So she started studying for the GREs. Her goal: Get a Ph.D. in psychology.

Romantic trips to Greece and Italy followed; a wedding proposal on bended knee came within the year, at a historic piazza in Rome. "I looked into that ring and saw my whole future reflected," Michelle recalls. "Marriage, kids, grandkids. It was like the fairy tales my parents had read me as a child." In November 2001, she hopped into a horse-drawn carriage and married Mark at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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