June 18, 2007 12:00 PM

As Craig Stebic told it, he got home on the evening of April 30 in the Chicago suburb of Plainfield, Ill., and gave his two kids money to go out and buy candy. Shortly afterward he explained to police, he was working in the backyard when his estranged wife, Lisa, 37, who lived at the house though the couple were in the midst of a divorce, left with her purse and cell phone. And simply vanished. Since then, insists Stebic, 41, a welder, he has not seen his wife, whose car was found in the garage and whose phone and credit cards have not been used. “Suffice it to say people don’t simply disappear,” says Lisa’s cousin Melanie Greenberg. “She’s somewhere, and somebody knows something.”

More than a month later police still say they cannot answer either the who or the where. And into that vacuum a great deal of speculation has flowed, mostly concerning Craig’s behavior. He has refused to take a polygraph test and has declined to make the couple’s two children—daughter Lexi, 12, and son Zach, 10—available for interviews with investigators. What’s more, on May 14 police arrived in the middle of the night at the Stebic residence with a search warrant. According to local news reports, authorities had obtained the warrant because they had found traces of Lisa’s blood on a tarp in her husband’s pickup truck. Without confirming the details of those reports, police impounded both the couple’s vehicles but say they have no suspects or even persons of interest in the case. What’s more, they have sought to play down the focus on Craig, who steadfastly maintains his innocence. “We would like to talk to Mr. Stebic and the children, but those are his rights,” says Plainfield Deputy Police Chief Mark Eiting. “It may raise suspicions—however, we deal with facts.”

One clear fact is that the Stebics had a deeply troubled relationship. Married for 14 years, Craig had filed for divorce in January, citing “irreconcilable differences.” Over the past six months, he and Lisa, who worked in the cafeteria at a local elementary school, had gone to great lengths to avoid seeing each other. “Lisa would go and work out in the evenings because of the tense situation at home,” says Greenberg. On the day she disappeared Lisa had filed a petition through her lawyer to have Craig evicted from the home. In the filing she called him “cruel, inconsiderate, domineering and verbally abusive.” But Craig’s attorney Dion Davi contends that his client, who called one of Lisa’s friends to say she was missing on May 1, knew nothing of the filing at the time of his wife’s disappearance, and that it was nothing more than a common legal maneuver to get him out of the house.

Still, one neighbor recalls disturbing encounters she frequently witnessed between Craig and Lisa. “I saw him be incredibly intimidating, standing over her, yelling at the top of his lungs in a full-blown rage,” the neighbor says. Davi dismisses such accounts, pointing out that “no facts have come forward to implicate” his client. Davi says that he advised Craig not to take the polygraph, and that he voted to keep the kids off-limits from police because of the “great stress and trauma” the children were subjected to during the nighttime search of the house.

So what did happen to Lisa? Her friends are certain of one thing: She did not simply take off on her own. All say that she was looking forward to her life after the divorce. She had started losing weight and had recently gotten a butterfly tattoo on her back to celebrate her impending freedom. “She was very positive that this would be done with and they’d each go their separate ways,” says Lisa’s younger sister Jamie Bouma, who spoke with her the week before she went missing.

Meanwhile Lexi and Zach have remained with their father. (Craig recently filed for sole custody of the children, arguing that if his wife reappeared she could take them away; the petition was denied.) Lisa’s sisters have tried to comfort them as much as possible. “They obviously love and miss Lisa, but I don’t think they completely understand what could have happened to her,” says sister Debbie Ruttenberg. It is an anguish and an uncertainty that the whole family is being forced to deal with. Says Ruttenberg: “Our hearts just ache without her, without knowing where she is.”

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