THE enduring mystery of Timmothy Pitzen's disappearance continues to haunt his family 11 years on - but they're still clinging to hope the missing boy will one day return home.
Timmothy Pitzen was just six-years-old when he vanished without a trace, leaving investigators baffled.
His mom, Amy Fry-Pitzen, took him out of his elementary school in Aurora, Illinois on the morning of May 11, 2011, telling school administrators there had been a "family emergency."
Only 45 minutes earlier, his father Jim had dropped the young boy off at the front gates, telling Timmothy he loved him as he hopped out of the car wearing his favorite Spider-Man backpack.
Unbeknown to Jim, that would be the last time he would see his son alive.
Over the next three days, Timmothy and his mom embarked on a spontaneous road trip spanning hundreds of miles, visiting a zoo and two water-park resorts across different state lines.
By May 14, Amy Pitzen would be found dead inside a motel room in Rockford, Illinois, around 80 miles from her family home.
The 43-year-old had slashed her wrists with a razor blade and overdosed on antihistamines.
Next to her body was a suicide note that said Timmothy was safe and in the care of others but would chillingly "never be found."
'HE'S OUT THERE'
More than a decade later, true to his mother's words, no trace of Timmothy Pitzen has ever been found.
What happened between his final sighting and his mother's death continues to perplex investigators and there have been few valuable leads in the case.
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Eleven years on, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Timmothy is still alive - but there's also nothing to indicate that he isn't, aside from the perpetual silence.
With no end to the family's long wait for answers in sight, Timmothy's aunt Jen West told The US Sun in an exclusive interview: "I know he's still out there somewhere."
"Tim was Amy's whole world," she explained, "and deep down in my heart, I can't imagine her ever doing something to harm him physically.
"Of course, as time has gone on I've thought maybe she could have, but I always go back to thinking he's still out there alive somewhere.
"I think she gave him to someone who would love him and raise him ... obviously uprooting his whole life and giving him away would hurt him too but I'm sure she didn't think of it that way."
TROUBLE AT HOME
In the weeks leading up to Timmothy's disappearance, Amy and Jim's seven-year marriage seemed to be heading for the rocks.
The couple had their fair share of issues in the past. They almost divorced in 2008 when Jim discovered Amy had been secretly texting one of her three ex-husbands, discussing plans to meet up while he was out of town.
The discovery ended in Jim issuing Amy an ultimatum; either it was him or her ex, and if she chose her ex, Jim would be petitioning for full custody of their son.
Amy decided to stay, but their relationship was far from plain sailing therein.
Jen - Jim's younger sister - said she wasn't privy to the ins and outs of her brother and Amy's quarrels but said it's her understanding that the pair were involved in a "big fight" on the morning Timmothy disappeared.
According to Jen, Jim had driven Amy to work because her car was having mechanical issues before he dropped Timmothy off at Greenman Elementary School at around 7.30 am.
Amy, who didn't work too far away, then walked back home and drove her car over to pick up Timmothy at 8.15 am.
"My brother was scheduled to pick Tim up in the middle of the day because it was a half-day for kindergarteners," Jen remembered.
"But when he went back to pick him up, he wasn't there."
Jim Pitzen was told Amy had already taken Timmothy home hours earlier citing an unspecified family emergency. Confused, he desperately tried to call his wife's cellphone but the rings went unanswered.
As several hours passed without a word from Amy, Jim grew increasingly concerned.
Spontaneous acts of disappearance weren't uncommon for Amy, who Jim has previously said was prone to taking off for a couple of hours to clear her head when she was especially upset. But never in the past had she taken their son on one such drive.
Also likely in the back of Jim's mind was the fact that Amy had a history of severe depression and had twice previously attempted to take her own life, once before they got together and a second time not long after they started dating.
Jim, unsure of where to turn, eventually contacted his mother, who then alerted Jen to the unfolding situation.
A self-described eternal optimist, Jen said she wasn't overly concerned at that moment, sure that Amy and Timmothy would soon return home.
"I thought she was just going go for a day or maybe a couple just to cool off and she just wasn’t telling him [where they were] to get an extra dig in," Jen recounted.
"I never in a million years thought that she would do anything like this."
'I CAN DO WHAT I WANT'
While Jim frantically called family members, asking if they'd heard from or seen Amy, she and Timmothy were already en route to Brookfield Zoo, which is located 30 miles east of Aurora.
After walking around the enclosures, the mother and son headed an hour north to Key Lime Resort, a hotel and water park in Gurnee.
The following morning, Amy took Timmothy to the Wisconsin Dells, where she checked into the Kalahari Resort, stopping to buy clothes, toys, gas, and a small arts and crafts kit along the way.
Back home 150 miles away, having still not heard from Amy, Jim filed a missing person report with the Aurora Police Department, who entered Timmothy's name into a national database for missing children.
Amy finally broke her silence on May 13, picking up her phone to call home though it wasn't Jim's number that she dialed.
Instead, she called Jim's older brother, Chuck, whom she told: "Tim is my son, I can do what I want."
Timmothy could be heard playing the background of the call, Chuck would later tell the police.
"Timmothy is fine. Timmothy belongs to me. Timmothy and I will be fine. Timmothy is safe," Amy is said to have told him.
Amy also called her mother, telling her "everything's fine" and that she just needed to spend some time alone with her son.
She promised to return home in a day or two, but Amy failed to uphold her word.
LAST KNOWN MOVEMENTS
On the same day that Amy called her mom, surveillance video captured the known images of Timmothy and his mother together as they checked out of the Kalahari Resort.
The young boy is seen holding Amy's hand as they wait in line, still wearing the same Spider-Man backpack he'd worn to school two days before.
From this point onwards, the trail of Amy and Timmothy's movements turns cold.
She drove south for around 170 miles along the Rock River toward Sterling, a small rural town about 80 miles west of Aurora, and then turned her cell phone off for the last time.
It remains a mystery why Amy headed towards Sterling, with the family having no known connections to the area.
Data from her I-pass would later reveal that she made two prior trips to Sterling in February and March, which she never mentioned to either Jim or any other family member.
Police believe she may have either been scouting a rendezvous point to hand off Timmothy to an unknown party, or even looking for a spot to bury a body, but the evidence is lacking to support either theory.
For the next several hours Amy's whereabouts are completely unknown. But at 8 pm she re-surfaced for the final time when she was seen on surveillance camera entering a supermarket alone in Winnebago, near Rockford.
Amy bought a pen, paper, and some envelopes before exiting the store.
The next day she was found in a nearby motel, with a suicide note written out next to her.
Jen was in a hospital waiting room as her close friend was giving birth when she received the call that Amy had been found dead, but Timmothy was nowhere to be seen.
"I was absolutely devastated," she said. "I was just in the waiting room trying to keep it together because I didn't want my best friend to know and for it to overshadow the memory of her child's birth.
"But I was freaking out," Jen continued. "This is just not something that happens to people.
"We were all kind of in a state of shock thinking, what do we do now? And where do we go from here?
"We were also asking ourselves, where is Tim? Is he down the street? Did he walk out of the hotel room? Is he in Alaska or something?
"I guess we're still kind of asking ourselves that," Jen added.
Determined to stay positive, Jen spent the days after Timmothy's disappearance handing our fliers and canvassing local neighborhoods.
Jim, meanwhile was beside himself with worry and was "unable to function", she said.
FEW ANSWERS, ONLY QUESTIONS
As the days turned into weeks, Jen, Jim, and the rest of their family were left with only more questions and very few answers.
Despite Amy's past mental health struggles and the apparent frictions in her marriage, Jen said there were no warning signs or red flags in the lead up to Timmothy's disappearance to suggest anything like this would or ever could happen.
"There was nothing at all, even when we look back at it now with hindsight," Jen said.
"When people ask me about Amy, I saw she was my sister-in-law; I would've left my kids with her, my kids loved her.
"I just never thought this would happen. It's not one of those situations where you can look back and be like, 'Oh yeah, I can see that happening', there was just no warning at all."
After several weeks, the search for Timmothy went cold, with investigators admitting they were no further along in finding the boy that they had been in the first few days of the hunt.
One key piece of evidence recovered by police was found beneath Amy's car: pieces of long weeds, tall grass, and dirt that were lodged beneath the rear bumper.
At one point, detectives believe Amy pulled off the main road but it's not clear if this was to hand off Timmothy, or potentially dispose of his body.
They were unable to determine specifically where this may have happened.
Inside the SUV, forensic investigators also found a "concerning amount of blood" in the backseat belonging to Timmothy. However, family members told officers it was likely from a nosebleed the boy had suffered within the last year or so.
AN ILLEGAL ADOPTION?
Eleven years later, leads in the case have been few and far between.
In April 2019, the family was given false hope when a young-looking man surfaced in Northern Kentucky, identifying himself to police as Timmothy Pitzen, claiming he had just escaped from his abusive captors who were holed up at a nearby motel.
But the claim was quickly revealed to be a cruel lie. The individual was soon identified to actually be Brian Rini, a 23-year-old man with a lengthy criminal record and a well-documented history of lying to police.
Jen called the hoax "devastating", insisting Rini's deplorable actions forced her and the rest of their family to relive the trauma of Timmothy's disappearance all over again.
But the heartbreak suffered at the hands of Rini has done little to quell Jen's optimism that her energetic, inquisitive, and "lovey" nephew is still out there somewhere.
Speaking to The US Sun on the eleventh anniversary of Timmothy's disappearance, Jen said she is regularly haunted by the words in Amy's suicide note that the boy will never be found.
But she remains determined to find him.
"Amy followed through on that promise, which unfortunately hasn't changed yet," Jen said. "But I 100,000% think that Tim is out there somewhere. I don't think she did anything.
"I believe it was some sort of illegal adoption arrangement ... I think she planned the whole thing out very well and had been planning it for a very long time."
Jen added: "But he was six when he went missing; he knew his name, his address, his parents' names, and their phone numbers.
"While I'm sure his name is something different, he will still have memories from that age, even if they're suppressed.
"The inquisitive personality he had will not go away, so I think the older he gets the more he will ask questions and kind of put things together or maybe see something that reminds him of his old life."
'GIVE US A SIGN'
Jen said the trauma of losing Timmothy never leaves her but it's particularly amplified around the anniversary of his disappearance.
The grief often comes back to her in waves, she said, and can manifest in a number of different forms.
For several years after Timmothy's vanishing, the grief materialized in the form of anger, specifically toward Amy and the lives she had shattered.
But now, Jen tends to feel sadness more than anything.
"[Amy] You got your point across …we’re missing his whole life and he’s missing ours," she said, speaking through tears.
"He’s still very much a part of our lives. Even though he’s not physically with us I can’t send him a birthday gift or ask him how art class was, but my kids know about him and he’s very much a part of us still."
For Jen, steadfast in her beliefs that Timmothy is still alive, she insists that "any resolution is fine", just knowing her nephew is okay and being cared for is enough for her now.
"If he wants to be 100% in our family, I am with that if he just wants to let us know he's okay, then I'm okay with that as well," she insisted, "because we don't know who's raising him and what they've told him.
"I don't know if that's my family standing. I don't know how my brother feels. I'm sure my brother would be like, 'come here now I need you, you need me.'
"But any communication is fine with me.
"Any level at all."