In a corner of their garage, an Aurora family keeps a small and pristine neon orange bicycle, longing for the day when they can return it to its rightful owner — their former neighbor Timmothy Pitzen, a child who has been missing for nearly eight years.
Their anticipation surged Wednesday when word came from the Cincinnati area that someone who said he was Timmothy had been found. But the claim turned out to be false — authorities say the person was actually a 23-year-old man from northeastern Ohio.
When news broke that Timmothy’s apparent rescue was yet another hope dashed, Yamii Grande, who was in third grade when the boy she viewed as a little brother disappeared, was left in tears.
“I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but I really had a good feeling about it this time,” said Grande, 19. “It’s happened before, but it got really far this time.”
It was a bizarre twist to a story that has bubbled since May 2011, when the body of Timmothy’s mother, Amy Fry-Pitzen, was found in a Rockford motel. She had committed suicide, and her 6-year-old son, whom she had taken out of school three days earlier for a spree of zoo and water park visits, was nowhere to be found.
A cryptic note Fry-Pitzen left behind said she had left him in the care of responsible adults who loved him but that he would never be found.
That prophecy has held up ever since, but for a day and a half this week, it appeared it might finally be ending.
Sharon Hall, who lives Newport, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, said she saw a young person in a hoodie hanging out on her street about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. He seemed “nervous” and “standoffish,” she said.
“We literally just thought he was going to collapse,” she said.
Officers soon arrived and spoke with him. A police report filed in Ohio after an alert went out said he was 14-year-old Pitzen and that he had just escaped two kidnappers who had held him hostage for seven years.
One of them, the report said, had black curly hair, a Mountain Dew shirt, jeans and a spider web tattoo on his neck. The other was short with a snake tattoo on his arms. They supposedly were in a Ford SUV with Wisconsin license plates.
Newport Police Lt. Chris Fangman said the person they found was emaciated and in need of medical attention. They followed standard procedures in trying to identify him, he said, and learned who he really was when DNA results came back Thursday afternoon.
Police are still investigating, he said, and will try to determine the 23-year-old’s mental state. Authorities are weighing charges, but that will wait until the investigation is complete.
“Make no mistake about it, no one gets away with this,” Fangman said.
The Tribune is not naming the man because he has not been charged with a crime.
News of the false alarm came as a devastating blow to Timmothy’s family, which has suffered several of them since the disappearance.
“It’s been awful,” his grandmother, Alana Anderson, told reporters outside her Antioch home. “We’ve been on tenterhooks, hopeful and frightened. It’s just been exhausting.”
She said she had sympathy for the person accused of making the false claim.
“I feel so sorry for the young man who’s obviously had a horrible time and felt the need to say he was somebody else,” she said.
Timmothy’s disappearance has haunted Aurora since May 2011, when his mother pulled him out of his kindergarten class at Greenman Elementary an hour after his father dropped him off, saying there had been a family emergency.
She then took him to Brookfield Zoo and a water park in Gurnee. The next day, after stops in Racine and Johnson Creek, Wis., they went to the Kalahari Resort in the Wisconsin Dells. A security camera captured them checking out Friday morning, May 13 — the last time Timmothy has been seen.
That afternoon, Fry-Pitzen made several cellphone calls around Sterling, Ill., including one in which Timmothy talked to a family member and did not sound as if he were in danger.
Security footage showed that Fry-Pitzen was at a grocery store in Winnebago that night before checking into a Rockford motel alone. The next day, about 12:30 p.m., workers found her body.
Though she had long had depression and had tried to kill herself years earlier, her husband, James Pitzen, said at the time that his wife would not hurt their child. Other relatives echoed that belief.
Authorities said items missing from Fry-Pitzen’s Ford Expedition, including Timmothy’s car seat and Spider-Man backpack, supported the theory that he indeed might have been given to someone.
But police nonetheless made an intense search of the area where the cellphone calls were made. They later found that dirt taken from Fry-Pitzen’s SUV suggested that at some point she had been on a gravel road in Lee or Whiteside County.
They recovered her cellphone in October 2013 — a woman had found it along Route 78 in far western Illinois — but said it provided no meaningful clues.
Police have received numerous tips over the years from people who believed they had spotted Timmothy, including one that led them to a near-doppelganger in Orlando, Fla. None has panned out.
“Over seven years, you can imagine (Timmothy’s family) have been disappointed many times,” said Aurora police Sgt. Bill Rowley. “We get a lot of leads, and the idea their hopes have been raised once again over someone lying and claiming to be their missing son is really disappointing.”
He added, though, that he hoped the burst of attention could bring in new leads.
Angeline Hartmann of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said continuing publicity is indeed vital in cases of long-missing children, and that there is reason for hope in such cases.
More than 3,000 children recovered from 2014 through 2018 had been missing for at least a year, according to the center’s statistics; 234 had been gone for a decade or more.
“(Recovery) happens more often than people think,” Hartmann said. “… What we’re seeing over and over again is just because a child is not found, it does not mean that child is deceased.”
Timmothy’s family said they have not given up. His aunt, Kara Jacobs, appealed to anyone who might know where he is.
“Whatever (Fry-Pitzen) said or did to make you believe this is OK — it’s not,” she said. “He belongs with his father and his family.”
In the meantime his bicycle, given to the neighbors as a remembrance by Timmothy’s father, is waiting for the boy, undersized though it may now be.
“If he sees this, I’d tell him to come back home,” Grande said. “There’s a lot of people waiting back here for him.”