Jim Pitzen believes his wife's vow that she placed then-6-year-old with others before killing herself in 2011
In the half-awake, half-asleep haze of his early mornings, Jim Pitzen anticipates the thud of his young son Timmothy’s feet hitting the floor before he comes running to jump on his parents’ bed, a burst of energy embracing a new day. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about him getting up,” says Jim. “He got up at 5:30, 6 o’clock every morning. He’s always been an early riser.”
Then it hits him: Timmothy’s not there.
Not for the past four years. Not since May 11, 2011, when Jim’s wife, Amy, took their son, then 6 years old, and disappeared.
Three days later police found Amy in a Rockford, Illinois, motel room, dead by her own hand. But another mystery was just beginning: In that room Amy left a note saying Timmothy was “safe” with others who would love and care for him, adding these chilling words: “You will never find him”
It’s a vow that has held up. Jim’s hazy dream shatters as it dawns he’s facing another day without his son to wake him.
“That’s the hardest part,” says Pitzen, 44, who relocated to his native Clinton, Iowa, from the family home in Aurora, Illinois, to escape his painful memories. “I try to close my eyes and go back to sleep. It doesn’t always work.”
Police in Aurora say they’ve exhausted all leads so far. With no proof that Timmothy is dead or alive, they hope someone might recognize Timmothy, who would have turned 11 this month, in the age-progressed image created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And they still are asking for people to search for clues – Timmothy’s Spider-man backpack, perhaps, or a child’s discarded toys – within a six-county area of rural northwestern Illinois where they believe Amy, 42, spent some of her last untraceable hours.
Jim believes his son is alive in someone else’s hands. And he knows he’s not the only one hurt by Amy’s actions. Two sets of families – his and hers – also struggle daily.
“You don’t leave your children,” Amy’s mom, Alana Anderson, tells PEOPLE. “You don’t give your children away. I had some trouble forgiving her for what she did to herself. I don’t think I can ever forgive her for what she did to her child.”
For Jim, the hoped-for reunion with the son he fathered after overcoming Hodgkins lymphoma and the threat of chemo-induced sterility defines his days and nights.
“I always wonder what she told Timmothy,” he says softly. “Why hasn’t he tried to call? We taught him how to dial 911. ‘This is your number, this is your mom’s number, you know where you live, your address,’ all the stuff you do. We got one of those little IDenticards for kids, with his fingerprint and his name and a picture of him, so if he got lost somewhere you could find him.”
The card was among the items found in the motel room where Amy died.
“He’s not with his mom,” says Jim. “He’s not with his dad. Who are these people he’s with? And how do they know him?”
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In their investigation, police built a timeline of mother-and-son’s movements. For three days after Amy checked Timmothy out of his kindergarten class behind Jim’s back, they appeared to enjoy a happy odyssey, visiting a zoo and staying overnight at two different indoor water park resorts, never farther than 200 miles from home.
During those frantic days, Jim wondered if he’d done something wrong. In the months just prior, there’d been a simmering argument over a cruise that Amy planned and took with a girlfriend over Amy’s birthday, leaving Jim behind. Although he says Amy had long been taking prescribed medication for depression, and resurgent tensions between them had fueled the thrice-divorced Amy to talk of divorce again, he says he detected no clues ahead of her actions.
Police, however, discovered toll records that showed Amy made two unexplained trips months earlier to the area of rural Illinois where her final cell phone calls were traced. Neither police nor her friends and family have been able to find a connection, while noting that Rockford is home to both an airport and train station.
Amy’s own affections for her son are not in doubt. While Amy had once expressed concern about having a child – fearful she might pass along her depressive tendencies, according to her mom – Timmothy caused Amy to blossom.
“Every person I’ve talked to has said Amy would never hurt Timmothy,” says Aurora Police Det. Lee Catavu. “Therein lies the mystery. No one in her life has been aware of her falling off the grid before, or having unaccounted-for blocks of time when she might have been able to accomplish this.”
Over the years, Jim’s mourning for his wife, whom he buried beneath a headstone that reads, “Loving Mother,” has evolved into something with a harder edge.
He’s learned to understand Amy’s depression in a way that he did not previously. “Depression is a sickness,” he says. “It’s something that has to be treated. It can’t be ignored.”
“I forgive, but it’s going to take a lot to get over this,” he says. “It’s taken a lot of therapy, and a lot of searching and going through it day after day after day, to learn that it wasn’t my fault; she had planned this for a while. ‘Cause you just don’t do something like this without having some plan that goes along with it.”
He remembers a family trip to Colorado, for which Amy spent months preparing Timmothy – who grew into a boisterous handful starting around age 2 – for the long drive. “I don’t know if she prepared him for this, too, over months. ‘You’re going to go live with these people. Daddy and I gotta take care of some things, and then we’ll come back and pick you up’ or something I just – I don’t know.”
“How can a 6-year-old kid not want to go home and see his mom and his dad and the kitty cats?” he asks. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
In his home, reminders of Timmothy surround Jim: Timmothy’s drawings and photos still on the fridge. Timmothy’s moon-face nightlight hanging on his dad’s bedroom wall. His son’s stuffed animals spilling in a pile beneath Jim’s bedroom TV, and resting on the headboard above Jim’s bed.
But while he leaves the detective work to police, Jim keeps close to his cell phone, the one whose number Timmothy had memorized, as he goes to bed each night and wakes each morning with the same hope.
“Maybe I’ll see Tim in the morning,” he tells himself. “Maybe tomorrow they’ll find him.”
• To read more of Jim Pitzen’s story and the search for Timmothy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.