Beth Frazin knew something was wrong when her 18-year-old son, Lee Cutler, didn’t show up for work on the afternoon of Saturday, October 20, 2007. The teenager had attended a birthday party for a relative the previous night, and after returning to his Buffalo Grove, Illinois home he had asked Beth if he could spend the night at a friend’s house. Beth had given him permission, though she asked him to call her when he arrived at his friend’s home. Beth fell asleep shortly after Lee left, and realized in the morning that he had never called her the night before.
Beth tried several times to get in touch with Lee on his cell phone, but her calls went straight to voicemail. Lee didn’t respond to any of her text messages, either, causing Beth to worry that something might have happened to him. She knew that he was scheduled to work at noon that day, so she decided to stop by the Hawthorn Center Mall in Vernon Hills, Illinois to check in with him. She headed straight for the Rock America store where Lee worked but was startled when she learned that Lee hadn’t shown up for work.
Lee’s manager told Beth that it was possible that Lee thought he was supposed to come in at 5:00 pm that day. Beth felt uneasy, but told the manager that she would check back in with her at 5:00 pm to see if Lee showed up. She returned home, where she continued trying to reach Lee on his cell phone.
Beth’s calls to Lee continued to go straight to his voicemail, but Lee was notorious for forgetting to charge his phone so she knew it was possible that his battery had died. She hoped that he had simply misunderstood what time he was supposed to go to work and was spending the day out with his friends.
Around 2:00 pm, Beth called her closest friend, Penni Clobridge and told her that she was having trouble locating Lee and was getting worried about him. Penni, who worked as a private investigator, tried to assure Beth that everything would be fine. At 5:00 pm, Beth called Rock America, but the manager informed her that Lee had still not shown up. At that point, Beth knew that something was wrong. Lee, a senior at Stevenson High School, was generally very responsible and had never missed a shift at work before.
When Lee was a freshman in high school, he had founded a local chapter of BBYO, a Jewish youth organization. He was extremely active in the group, and he had planned to meet up with the group at a bowling alley at 8:00 pm Saturday night. Beth and Lee’s stepfather, Barry, decided to drive to the bowling alley to see if Lee had joined the rest of the BBYO group there. They waited for a while, but there was no sign of Lee.
It was extremely out of character for Lee to miss any BBYO events; when he failed to show up at the bowling alley, Beth feared the worst. She immediately called the Buffalo Grove Police Department and reported her son missing.
Officers were sent to the family’s home to take the missing person report. While they were there, they searched through Lee’s room but found nothing to indicate that he had intended to leave home. Although he had taken an overnight bag with him when he went to his friend’s house the previous evening, most of his belongings were still in his bedroom.
Investigators interviewed Lee’s family members and a few of his closest friends, all of whom said that Lee had appeared to be fine when they last saw him. He had spent the night with two of his friends from high school; they had stayed up late playing video games and Lee hadn’t mentioned that anything was bothering him.
Lee had driven one of his friends home that morning, dropping him off at his Buffalo Grove home at 9:50 am. He told his friend that he had to go to work and his friend had assumed that he was heading to the mall at that time.
Lee’s trail appeared to end once he dropped his friend off that morning. Investigators already knew that he hadn’t gone to work as scheduled; they were able to gain access to his cell phone records and quickly determined that he hadn’t used his phone since 12:25 am, when he had texted a friend.
Anxious to help find Lee, a group of his friends drove around to some of the places that Lee was known to frequent. They were unable to find Lee, but they did speak with an employee at a gas station who believed Lee had stopped by for gas earlier that evening. Buffalo Grove police were sent to the gas station to follow up on this lead, but after interviewing the employees there they determined that Lee had stopped by around 10:00 am, shortly after he had taken his friend home.
By the time that investigators had been notified that Lee was missing, his phone had either been turned off or its battery had gone dead. The phone company was unable to ping the phone to determine its location. Detectives had no idea if he was still in Buffalo Grove or not.
Lee had celebrated his 18th birthday on October 2, less than three weeks before he went missing. Since he was legally an adult, the Buffalo Grove investigators seemed ready to write him off as voluntarily missing. They hadn’t found anything to indicate that Lee had been a victim of foul play, and if he had willingly gone off on his own there was little they could do about it.
The first break in the case came late Sunday night, when Lee’s Toyota Corolla was found parked at a rest stop on Wisconsin Highway 33 in Fairfield Township, Wisconsin. A deputy with the Sauk County Sheriff’s Office had noticed the car sitting there and ran its license plate number through his computer. He quickly learned that the car was being sought by authorities in Illinois in connection with a missing person case.
With the discovery of the Corolla, the search for Lee moved to Wisconsin. Operating under the assumption that Lee had willingly driven himself to Wisconsin, authorities knew it was possible that he was simply camping nearby. His car was found near the bluffs located to the east of Baraboo, Wisconsin; it was a place where Lee had previously gone hiking with friends. A deputy was assigned to watch the car throughout the night to see if Lee returned.
By the next morning, there was still no sign of Lee. Once the sun came up, investigators thoroughly checked the area near where the car had been parked and found nothing to indicate that any sort of struggle had taken place. It appeared that Lee had simply parked the car and walked away; unfortunately, there were no visible footprints leading away from the car so they had no idea which direction he had headed.
Inside the car, investigators found a few items of clothing belonging to Lee, as well as a receipt for Kettle Moraine State Forest. Someone — most likely Lee — had paid the entrance fee for Kettle Moraine around 1:30 pm on Saturday. It appeared that Lee had driven there immediately after he left Buffalo Grove on Saturday morning, as it was about a 70-mile drive. At some point, Lee had then left Kettle Moraine and made the 90-mile drive to Baraboo.
As soon as they were notified that Lee’s car had been found, Beth and Barry drove to Wisconsin. They waited anxiously as Sauk County deputies and Baraboo firefighters combed through the fields and wooded areas located along Highway 33 between Baraboo and Portage. Almost immediately, searchers found some blankets and a backpack in a wooded area near the banks of the Baraboo River, and Beth confirmed that the items belonged to Lee. It was obvious that he had spent some time in the area, but there was no sign of him near his belongings.
Searchers spent the rest of the day scouring the woods, hills, and cornfields near where Lee had left his backpack and blankets, while an airplane equipped with a heat-detecting device scanned from overhead. They found no trace of Lee.
A press conference was held while the search was going on, and Beth made an emotional plea for Lee to come home. She wanted to make sure he knew that everyone loved him and was praying that he was okay. His stepfather told reporters that Lee had been going through a somewhat stressful time, noting that he “had a lot of stuff on his plate right now.” He was struggling to deal with the fact that his grandmother had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had also been stressed out about school. They were hoping that he had just felt the need to get away for a little while, but they feared for his safety.
Lee’s father, Daniel Cutler, made the trip to Wisconsin from his home in Skokie, Illinois. He told reporters that Lee was the kind of teenager who was always on the go and rarely had any free time. He bounced back and forth between school, his job, and activities with his youth group. He was known for being somewhat of a hippie who hated when people argued and was always trying to make sure that everyone got along.
Lee was a very introspective teenager who seemed to keep his feelings bottled up inside. Although he was always available whenever any of his friends needed someone to talk to, he rarely spoke to them about his own feelings. He had struggled with depression in the past and had even threatened to commit suicide during his sophomore year of high school. He had been hospitalized briefly after that incident and spent some time in counseling, but he had appeared to be doing better in recent months.
Lee had been particularly stressed about what he wanted to do after he graduated from high school. He had always been an excellent student and knew that his family expected him to go to college; he didn’t want to disappoint them but didn’t feel that college was necessarily where he belonged. He had family in Israel and he spoke longingly of moving there; he had even talked to his mother about going there to serve in the Israeli army. Beth had been completely against the idea and Lee had stopped talking about it, but it had weighed heavily on his mind.
At the makeshift campsite where Lee had left his belongings, investigators discovered several items that troubled them. They found an empty bottle of Advil PM and an empty package of Coricidin HBP, a cold medication, along with a couple of bottles of water. They also found several notebooks that had some letters from Lee’s girlfriend tucked inside, as well as a note to Lee’s mother. In the note, Lee wrote “My head is too big for my shoulders. Finally, I’ll be able to sleep. I know I’m not crazy. I love you, mom. Please be happy.”
Investigators found nothing to indicate foul play but were extremely concerned that Lee might have tried to commit suicide. His belongings were found only a few yards away from the Baraboo River; worried that Lee might have ended up in the icy waters, a dive team was brought in to look for him.
A patrol boat equipped with sonar spent several days going up and down the river in the area near where Lee’s belongings had been found while divers attempted to comb through the murky water. Submerged trees and other debris made the task difficult, and the divers struggled to navigate through the river, which they described as having the consistency of chocolate milk.
On Wednesday, an airplane was once again dispatched to fly over the area with thermal radar. Investigators were confident that they would be able to pick up Lee’s heat signature if he was still in the area; the radar would also be able to pick up temperature changes caused by decomposition. They spent several hours in the air but found nothing to indicate Lee was out there, dead or alive.
While the physical search for Lee continued, detectives started interviewing all of Lee’s friends and family in an effort to determine why he might have come to Wisconsin. Beth noted that Lee’s ex-girlfriend, who he had broken up with two years before, was living in the Milwaukee area, but that was over 100 miles away from Baraboo. Although Lee had been to Baraboo before on a hiking trip, he had no real ties to the area.
Lee’s friends told detectives that he had been somewhat quiet when he was out with them on Friday night, but he hadn’t mentioned anything that might have been troubling him. His girlfriend, Autumn, had asked him if he was stressed out about anything and Lee had said that he felt like he never really had any time to himself anymore. As Lee had previously mentioned that he felt as if he were constantly giving his time to everyone else, Autumn didn’t think there was anything unusual about the conversation. Lee certainly hadn’t mentioned any plans to go to Wisconsin.
On Friday, investigators announced that divers had found a pair of tan pants draped across a branch in the Baraboo River; Lee’s wallet and car keys were found inside the pockets of the pants. His belt was draped across a branch nearby. The items were found about 300 yards downstream from where Lee’s blankets and backpack had been found.
Divers continued to comb through the Baraboo River, confident that they would find Lee if he were in the water. They noted that there were snarls of trees and branches that would have prevented a body from going past a certain point in the river, which limited the area where his body could be.
By October 30th, divers had gone through the entire area where they believed Lee’s body could have ended up but found no sign of him. They were absolutely certain that Lee was not in the water. Still, officials announced that they would continue to use patrol boats to monitor the river in case any additional clues surfaced.
Detectives admitted that they had no proof that Lee had committed suicide; it was entirely possible that he had gotten a ride out of the area. This theory was buoyed when investigators received two separate tips from people who believed they had seen Lee while they were driving on Highway 33 east of Baraboo the weekend that Lee had gone missing.
One person told detectives that he had driven past where Lee’s Corolla had been parked and noticed a light brown Pontiac Bonneville parked next to it. He saw a male he believed had been Lee standing next to the Pontiac; he thought that Lee had been speaking on a cell phone. Investigators already knew that Lee’s cell phone hadn’t been used since he left Buffalo Grove but admitted it was possible that he had been using someone else’s phone.
Lee’s friends and family were certain that he was still alive. His friends started a “Let’s Find Lee” Facebook group while his mother set up a “Find Lee” fund at a Buffalo Grove bank so she could raise money to offer a reward. She told reporters that she knew her son was still alive somewhere and she hoped that someone would call with the information they needed to determine his location.
By May 2008, Lee had been missing for seven months. His family contacted an underwater search expert who agreed to conduct a search of the Baraboo River using advanced sonar technology. The expert noted that he did not expect to find anything; he didn’t believe that Lee was in the river. Law enforcement had conducted an extremely thorough search during their initial investigation, and the expert noted that if Lee’s body had been in the river, it would have already surfaced.
The Sauk County Sheriff’s Office was adamant that Lee was not in the river; a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office pointed out that there had been a lot of rain that spring and they were confident that the resulting flooding would have dislodged Lee’s body and brought it to the surface if it had been anywhere in the water.
After conducting a search with his own dive team, the outside expert agreed, stating it would have been impossible to not find Lee if he had been in the Baraboo River. Penni Clobridge, who had been volunteering her time as a private investigator on the case, told reporters that there was a good chance Lee was out there somewhere and simply didn’t want to come back.
The Buffalo Grove Police Department reached the same conclusion. Lee’s case was administratively closed in August 2008. Lee’s name would remain entered in the national database of missing persons, but police were no longer actively looking for him. They had found nothing to indicate that a crime had been committed; they thought it was possible that Lee had tried to make it look like he had k*illed himself in order to start a new life somewhere. They assured his family that they would immediately re-open the investigation if any new information became available.
Lee’s family continues to believe that he is still alive somewhere. His cousin, a rabbi, pointed out that Lee was very devoted to his Jewish faith; he wore a yarmulke every day and spoke of moving to Israel. Suicide would have been very much against his religious beliefs and his family does not believe Lee kil*led himself. He likely wanted everyone to believe he was dead so he could live life off-the-grid and not worry about disappointing anyone. They just want him to know that he is loved.
Lee Cutler was 18 years old when he went missing in 2007. He has brown eyes and brown hair and at the time of his disappearance he was 6 feet tall and weighed approximately 150 pounds. He was last seen wearing a dark blue sweater with a red stripe and a pair of khaki pants. Lee was a vegetarian when he went missing and he had a history of depression. If you have any information about Lee, please contact the Buffalo Grove Police Department at 847–459–2560.