The last time he saw his son, Jim Pitzen watched Timmothy, then 6, hop from his dad’s Jeep and bound toward his kindergarten teacher, saying goodbye to his parents and swinging his Spider-Man backpack in “this little waddle run, like a chubby old man,” Jim recalls. “I told him I loved him and to be good. And then he was gone.”
Thirty minutes later on that morning of May 11, 2011, Jim’s wife Amy, 42, returned to pick up Timmothy at his Aurora, Illinois, elementary school, citing a family emergency.
Three days after that, police found Amy dead in a motel room in Rockford, Illinois, with self-inflicted slashes on her neck and wrists. Nearby was what police characterized as a suicide note. In it, Amy wrote that Timmothy was “safe” with others who would love and care for him. She added, “You will never find him.”
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Since then, as police have engaged in a desperate search, Jim Pitzen, 44, has awaited word of his son’s fate, all the while hoping to reunite with the boy he wistfully describes as “a little mini-me.”
The story he tells PEOPLE – of overcoming cancer to father a child; of the family he and Amy began to build together; of her long struggle with depression that contributed to marital tensions, talk of divorce and perhaps a final, unexplainable act – is riven with the mystery of Timmothy’s disappearance.
With no proof and no unexplored leads, police can’t say whether Timmothy, who would have turned 11 on Oct. 18, is alive or dead.
But Jim believes he knows the answer as he keeps up hope.
“She loved that little guy so much,” he says. “I can’t see her killing him. I just can’t.”
To read more of Jim Pitzen’s story and the search for Timmothy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.