May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

THE LAST TIME KATHY KRAMER saw her younger brother, she feared he had lost his grip on reality. “He was talking about supernovas and earthquakes, saying, ‘If you’re centered, you’ll be saved.’ In my entire life my brother never scared me,” she says. “But that day I was scared.” With good reason. The next day, Feb. 12, 1995, Philip Taylor Kramer vanished without a trace. Neither he nor his Ford minivan have been seen since.

At 42, Kramer wasn’t the vanishing type. Once the bass guitarist for the legendary heavy metal band Iron Butterfly, he had gone on to become a rocket scientist, working at Northrop Electronics on guidance systems for the MX nuclear missile during the ’80s. More recently he had cofounded the high-tech Total Multimedia Inc. in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where his work in data compression sent the value of his stock in the company soaring to more than a million dollars. Energetic and charismatic, Kramer found it easy to sweep people into his plans. Some of his colleagues called him a visionary.

But nobody knows what visions Kramer might have been having on Feb. 12. Setting out from his home in the L.A. suburb of Thousand Oaks to pick up a business associate at Los Angeles International Airport, Kramer arrived on schedule. But then he left the parking lot, apparently alone, an hour later, steering his minivan north onto the Ventura Freeway, where he made a series of calls from his cellular phone. “I’ve got the biggest surprise for you,” he gushed to his wife, Jennifer, seemingly ecstatic. Moments later he called former Iron Butterfly bandmate Ron Bushy and reached his answering machine. “I love you more than life itself,” he said. Then Kramer dialed 911. “I’m going to kill myself,” he told the emergency operator. When Jennifer dialed him back, Kramer picked up his phone for the last time. “I’ll always love you,” he told her. “I’ll see you on the other side.” Then he was gone.

In the weeks after his disappearance—as the Ventura County sheriff’s department conducted their investigation—Kathy Kramer, 46, and her father, Ray, 78, organized a search party of 200 people that scoured the landscape between L.A. and Ventura on foot without turning up a shred of evidence. In the ensuing months, Kathy handed out 90,000 missing posters and took the story of her search to America’s Most Wanted, Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael. Citing Kramer’s sensitive onetime defense job, Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) asked the FBI to investigate, and the agency found that there was no federal violation. But two years after Kramer vanished, the strapping 6’5″ engineer—and his van—are still missing. And to make it all the more mystifying, no single explanation is entirely convincing. “The bottom line,” admits Senior Deputy Tom Bennett of the Ventura County sheriff’s department, “is we don’t know what happened.”

One theory holds that Kramer simply ran away. Not possible, according to Kathy, a single mother in Newbury Park, Calif., who remembers how close her brother was to his wife, Jennifer, and how his eyes lit up when their daughter, Hayley, 7, came into the room. “That little girl was so precious to him,” his mother, Mary Anne, recalls. But so was his career, and though Kramer held enough stock in Total Multimedia to be a millionaire on paper, the company had just emerged from a yearlong brush with bankruptcy. During that time, Kramer had to borrow money from his in-laws. Still, Kathy can’t believe her brother would abandon his wife and children over worries about money. “He would never willingly be away from his family,” she says.

Then there is the speculation that he was abducted. “He was instrumental in straightening out that flawed [MX] guidance system,” says Traficant. But Kramer left Northrop in 1986, and investigators doubt that foreign agents would want to kidnap an engineer for his knowledge of nine-year-old technology. Yet Traficant remains suspicious. “The evidence indicates Kramer could have been abducted at the airport and forced to make a series of calls to make it seem that he committed suicide,” he says.

The most cogent scenario, perhaps, involves Kramer’s having a breakdown. In the two weeks before his disappearance, he was working day and night to solve a problem his father had raised with him 30 years ago—how to transmit information faster than the speed of light. As he drove himself to exhaustion, thinking he was near a solution, Kramer’s excitement mounted. But so did his paranoia. “Taylor was starting to get worried about something,” Kathy recalls. “He told Jennifer they’d have to live behind walls.” If that line of defense was breached, Kramer had another plan which he shared with his father. “He told me,” says Ray Kramer, ” ‘If I ever say I’m going to kill myself, don’t believe it. I’ll just be asking for help.’ ”

The youngest of three children of Ray, a Youngstown State University physics professor, and Mary Ann, a retired teacher, Kramer grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where at age 12 he showed a flair for science by building a laser strong enough to burst a balloon. But like many kids coming of age in the ’60s, Kramer fell hard for rock and roll, taking up piano and guitar—playing Jimi Hendrix riffs “until his fingers bled,” says Kathy. In 1971 he and Kathy, then 19 and 21, moved to Los Angeles together, hoping to follow in the brother-sister footsteps of the Carpenters. But success eluded them, and when Kathy returned to Ohio in 1973, Kramer teamed up with Iron Butterfly drummer Ron Bushy. Although the group—best known for its 1968 rock epic “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”—had disbanded two years earlier, Kramer persuaded Bushy to relaunch it, with Kramer on bass and vocals. But after two weak-selling albums and a series of lukewarm tours the group called it quits in 1977. “We just weren’t that good,” Bushy admits.

Kramer hardly lost a beat before embarking on his own relaunch. He cut his hair from heavy metal to nerd length and registered for classes at Western States College of Engineering. He even dropped his first name, asking friends and family to call him Taylor. After graduating in 1980, Kramer signed on in 1982 with defense contractor Northrop Electronics, where he spent four years working on the MX missile. The job was sensitive enough to require a government security clearance, and Kramer’s cubicle was often marked off with tape signifying top-secret documents in his workspace.

Kramer was laid off by Northrop in 1986 and began pursuing technology projects of his own. In 1990 he and two friends started Total Multimedia, a company that was developing a new way to compress data for computerized transmission. (Undercapitalized at first, the firm in late 1994 dug its way out of Chapter 11 with a cash infusion from MCI, the communications giant.)

In 1988, Kramer married Jennifer, 39, whom he had met in 1974 and who in 1990 gave birth to their daughter, Hayley (Jennifer’s son Derek, 15, is from her first marriage). Today, Hayley keeps fresh flowers on her dresser alongside a photo showing her climbing on her outstretched father as if he were a jungle gym. “Is my daddy dead?” Hayley recently asked her Aunt Kathy. “I don’t know,” Kathy answered. “Sometimes I think he’s just lost.”

PETER AMES CARLIN

JEANNE GORDON and MICHAEL ARKUSH in Thousand Oaks and LORYA GRISBY in Chicago

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