Working at Mendota Elementary in 1989, Loni Kerze recalled how horrible she felt when posters of Jacob Wetterling were plastered on school walls.
Six months later, school officials did the same when her 17-year-old son Christopher vanished. Unlike 11-year-old Jacob, the teen most likely ran away from home and garnered little media attention.
The day after Christopher’s disappearance, his parents received a “farewell” letter mailed from Duluth expressing his love.
“I can’t tell you why I did this,” he wrote.
After 26 years, the only piece of evidence detectives discovered was Christopher’s abandoned van.
Loni and Jim Kerze were sitting in their Woodbury home in September when they heard the news that Jacob’s remains had been found on a farm in September, nearly 27 years after the boy was abducted, assaulted and killed.
“As a parent, I don’t think I could have lived through hearing those details about Jacob,” Jim Kerze said Monday. “But the news reminded us that there is hope.”
Christopher’s case never grew cold with police in Eagan, where the Kerzes lived when Christopher vanished, but the resolution of Jacob’s case pushed law enforcement to recently re-canvass the area near Grand Rapids where the van was found and notify business owners and hunters familiar with the area to be vigilant for any clues.
“This is a moment of opportunity,” Loni Kerze said. “It is all we know how to do.”
The Kerzes also asked police to create and send out a poster with Christopher’s age-progressed photos — he would be 43 years old today. The poster also describes two unusual items that Christopher may have had with him when he disappeared.
The items were a Mossberg 20-gauge bolt-action shotgun with a three-shell clip and a zebra print watch. It’s also believed he was wearing a light blue trench coat, black shirt, jeans and brown leather shoes.
“If we get a hundred tips and only one moves the case forward, this will all be worth it,” said Eagan police officer Aaron Machtemes. “We just haven’t had any significant breaks over the years.”
Christopher left a note in his car explaining who was the owner of the vehicle. The car was found in a wooded area near the Continental Divide Wayside Rest on Hwy. 38 in Grand Rapids. Search dogs tracked his scent into the woods along an old logging trail, but the scent eventually disappeared.
The Kerzes stressed that they aren’t comparing the circumstances of their missing son and what happened to Jacob. But they can relate to a parent’s desire to solve such a painful mystery.
“Good or bad, we would be indifferent to the resolution,” Jim Kerze said. “Whether we find out what happened to him, learn that he needs help or have a chance to reconnect with him.”
There were no red flags that the wheels may have been coming off in Christopher’s life, but they had a sense he was struggling, his father said. He was a bookworm, varsity swimmer and clarinet player. Like many teenagers, Kerze said he enjoyed skiing, paintball and computers.
Christopher was an introvert with a small but close group of friends.
The day he left home, he told his mother he wanted to stay home from school because of a bad headache. By 10 p.m., his parents grew extremely concerned when they couldn’t locate him. And it was apparent he had spent some time with the family’s beloved dog, a border collie-spaniel mix that was usually leashed.
Christopher withdrew $200 from a bank account, but there was no indication he packed a bag. Officers did three major searches in the area of the abandoned car, and they later learned the teen may have hitchhiked a ride to an unknown destination.
Since 1993, Eagan detective Stephanie Bolks has handled Christopher’s case. She has a picture of him on top of her computer. She constantly looks for new leads, examining dental records of unidentified people or applying new technology not available two decades ago.
“The detectives have been our rocks,” said Jim Kerze. “And we’ve leaned on them hard for support for many years.”
Christopher has two younger brothers, Tim, 42, and Patrick, 37. They have full lives and have moved past their brother’s disappearance, but Tim Kerze used to get angry about his missing sibling when he was younger.
“I think we realize this isn’t our tragedy, its Christopher’s tragedy and what he was going through,” Jim Kerze said.
The family Christmas tree sits in the living room, decorated with many ornaments including several made by Christopher. It took Loni Kerze years before she even considered cleaning out her son’s room. She kept a few mementos — a swimming cap and goggles and drawings he made as a child.
A smell, sound or place brings her right back to thoughts about Christopher, she said.
“You may have not cried for months, but then these will bring tears,” she said.
Jim Kerze prays any new attention to his missing son will shake a memory loose from somebody who might know a piece of the puzzle.
“When we know that one thing, we might know everything,” he said.