Official Site of Speaker, Historian and Author Sean Munger

Interesting People, Missing Persons

Disappeared: Lee Cutler, missing 7 years.

Did you find this article after viewing an episode of Disappeared on Investigation Discovery? You may be interested in some other missing persons cases with equally compelling stories who have not been featured on TV, like Stevie BatesAlan MorseMickey GuidryLinda Grimm. You may have a tip that could help!

The disappearance of Lee Sterling Cutler, age 18, from Buffalo Grove, Illinois is one of the more famous missing persons cases of the past decade, having been profiled on an episode of the Disappeared show on Investigative Discovery. I find it interesting not simply because of the mysterious circumstances of his case, but because Lee himself seems to have been a very interesting person; he is the first missing person I’ve profiled on my site that is also filed under the category Interesting People.

First, the case itself. Lee, age 18, was a senior at Adlai Stevenson High School in  Buffalo Grove, Illinois. He was quite contemplative and religious, very active in a local Jewish synagogue and a Jewish youth organization of which he was one of the leaders. The Disappeared show highlighted his introspective nature, journal-writing and his relatively intense, but friendly, personality. On October 20, 2007, he left the house of friends where he’d stayed the previous night, ostensibly for his job at a local mall. He was never seen again. Lee’s Charley Project casefile details some of the further discoveries:

On October 21, Lee’s locked 2007 Toyota Corolla was found parked at a rest stop near the bluffs east of Baraboo, Wisconsin, along the Baraboo River. This area is nearly 200 miles from Lee’s home. Searchers found Lee’s backpack and some of of his blankets were found near the Baraboo River. Lee’s pants, containing his wallet, identification, some cash and his car keys, were partially submerged in the river. Among the items located were an empty bottle of an over-the-counter pain medication and sleep aid; a copy of Into the Wild, a true story about a young man who went to seek adventure in the Alaskan wilderness and wound up dying there; and letters addressed to Lee’s family and girlfriend. The notes did not specifically mention suicide, but in one letter to his mother, tucked into the Into the Wild book, Lee wrote “I’ll finally get to sleep” and apologized for “being a coward.”

In circumstances like these, suicide is an easy conclusion to reach, but several things don’t add up about that theory. Why would he drive 200 miles to commit suicide in a little-known park? Why the empty pill bottle and the copy of Into the Wild? Finding one or the other would be much more consistent with cohesive and plausible theories, but both together is a little unusual. Furthermore, while people do sometimes commit suicides by jumping into bodies of water, in this particular case Lee’s body was quite likely to have been found if that’s what happened. It’s possible that the suicide theory was a deliberate red herring, but perhaps that’s reading too much into it.

into the wild

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the true story of Chris McCandless, an idealistic young man who died of starvation while on a spiritual quest. Numerous young men, inspired by the book, have tried to imitate this “quest,” sometimes with tragic results.

The Disappeared show postulated the theory, evidently supported by very little evidence, that Lee might have gone to Israel to join the IDF (Israeli Defence Force). He seems to have expressed interest in the IDF and in visiting Israel at various points. The Disappeared show also noted that the day of Lee’s disappearance, October 20, 2007, has numerological significance tied to specific verses of the Torah which use the term lekh lekha–“to go out.” Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I would hazard a guess, from knowing what evidence can be known by a passive member of the public who did not know this young man personally, that whatever Lee Cutler planned to do that day had some sort of religious or spiritual significance, even if–or perhaps specifically if–its meaning was something only he understood. Maybe it was suicide after all; maybe he went to Israel, though I doubt it, because if he did one must explain why he hasn’t been seen there in the 7 years since, despite the considerable publicity the case generated. But whatever happened it seems that Lee himself, and not someone else, at least initiated the process by his own choice.

This is what interest me about Lee Cutler and his case. A young man who read the Torah, wrote in a journal and analyzed his life in very deep and contemplative ways clearly had a thought process, however inscrutable it might be to us, that led to his ultimate fate. If we knew more about that process maybe we would know what happened to him–or maybe not. Personally I find Lee Cutler’s mind more interesting than his disappearance. It’s my hope that this mind still walks among us, somewhere on this planet.

The cover image of Into the Wild is copyright (c) 1997 by Random House and this edition (c) 2011 by Pan Books. I believe my use of it constitutes fair use.


  1. So do you have any theories about what happened to him?

    • It’s hard to come up with theories in a case like this. One can only say what probably didn’t happen. If he committed suicide I don’t think he did it on the site where his stuff was found, which begs the question, if suicide was his intention, why take pains to conceal where it takes place? I don’t think he fell into the water; the authorities are virtually certain that in this particular place (clearly not true of all watery locales) his body would have been found. I find it difficult to believe he went to Israel and has never been seen there in 7 years or changed his mind and contacted his family. So that leaves us with a pretty unusual mystery.

  2. casey

    I read your entries every day (I’m a history ‘buff’) and it’s always a pleasant surprise when you post a missing persons entry. It tends to be kind of a niche interest that one seeks out via Websleuths or missing persons sites and I appreciate the wider audience these people’s stories are reaching through your blog.
    I emailed you months back- i would still LOVE to see an entry by you about the Three Missing Women from Springfield, MO!

    • Thanks so much! Yes, it is a niche interest, but the missing persons posts I do tend to be pretty popular. I’ll look back through my email and take a look at the Springfield women case. It might be something that Peter Henderson would also be interested in.

      • casey

        Great, thank you! I don’t know P. Henderson by name, what is his site called? I’m from Springfield and was 12 yrs old when the women disappeared. It was a huge deal in our relatively small city and I’ve been fascinated by this case for years. I’m so glad it has generated so much attention via the Internet. Websleuths topic on them has a group of very dedicated posters.
        Sorry, I don’t mean to hijack this post.
        thank you for the reply.

      • Donna Haynes

        I live near Springfield and I have never heard of this being solved and to my knowledge no one is looking for them now.

  3. Tina

    Some people have noticed a striking resemblance to a “John Doe” found in the woods of Louisiana. While they only had a skeleton to go by, the reconstruction looks uncannily like him. While they estimate 35 on the low end of age, the bones had been exposed to the elements for at least 2 years. I really think the mother/family should have the DNA or dental records compared. While no one wants to find Lee Cutler dead, he did love the book “Into the Wild”…and this man was found in the wild, dead within the same time frame.

    Here the link to FACES Lab. Case #: 11-46:

  4. Mr. Incognito

    Being someone of faith myself, I agree with your theory that whatever Lee was doing was very likely within the realm of his faith.

    Some thoughts; these are not necessarily coherent of one another.

    1) Could he have been performing a baptism ritual? Lee was a guy who felt compelled to explore the deepest regions of the human condition, particularly the gravity of which the human condition had on his own being. Possibly, this was a spiritual ceremony that represented a fresh root for Lee; he went into the water to be away from the confines of his former life and emerged cleansed, ready for a fresh start.
    2) Could the pills have been used in conjunction with something along the lines of a vision quest? //According to Wikipedia: A traditional Native American vision quest consists of a person spending one to four days and nights secluded in nature. In many Native American groups the vision quest is a turning point in life taken to find oneself and the intended spiritual and life direction. // Again, this hypothesis is coherent with #1; a spiritual ceremony symbolizing a fresh start for Lee.
    3) Could there be more than one person involved? Lee paid in state admission to a Wisconsin State Park. I would not allege it is a huge stretch to see a clerk for this state park charging in state admission to an out of state customer for various reasons. All the same what if Lee had someone else in the car with him? Did they question the clerks working at the time Lee paid for his admission?

    While Lee seemed to know and interface with many people around his community Lee possibly sought a deeper connection. As someone who spend a great deal of his time delving deeper and deeper into the human condition one could speculate Lee wanted a friend who could connect on this level. Maybe he believed he found this friend online. Time passes as he waxes on about his connection to the world, a connection that probably makes him feel alone, but with this new found friend he feels a tad less alone. Maybe they both share a love of certain books such as Into The Wild or more importantly what these books represent.

    Lee appears to like the idea of alternate worlds to escape what he perceives as being secluded. This is perhaps why he took in a fascination with talking to truck drivers. The lifestyle of a trucker could very well in Lee’s eyes be an alternate “universe” that he could fantasize about in his mind to feel an euphoria of escape.

    After he talked to this friend for a long time they decide it’s time to meet…
    They will live out their plans of a new life…. This could help explain the question why would he drive 200 miles.

    If they both participated in #2 then we can possibly cut the pill consumption in half..
    Would be interesting to look at Wisconsin disappearances around the same time…

    Darker theory:

    Perhaps he met this newfound Wisconsin resident and he/she was not as they claimed to be. After all, Lee’s mindset **could** have made him naïve and venerable.

    Maybe the ride through the Wisconsin State Park was Lee’s newfound “pal” looking for a body dump. Or perhaps this person was looking for a kill zone, saw this would not be a good spot, and told Lee about this other place (where his car was found) they should go for whatever reason.

    Maybe Lee did get lucky and obtained in state admission and this park was their meeting space….

    (Would like to know where the park is geographically in relation to the spot where Lee’s car was found. Also would love to see outdoor footage of Lee’s Walmart trip.)

    There is a plethora of other avenues I would like to research concerning this case to formulate theories surrounding many questions in my head.

  5. Penguin

    What u didnt mention was the amish village near by
    ..mayb he has amnesia

    • Thanks for the comment, but I’m afraid I don’t understand. Why would the proximity of an Amish village have any relevance to this case?

    • I know this is old but I had to reply! This case is so interesting and he reminds me SO much of myself! I too live in Wisconsin, about the an hour away from this park. I used to go there at least twice a year. This state park has many bluffs depending where he was. He could have fallen and hurt himself, tho I doubt it highly. I will also make mention that I have never heard of them not retrieving a body there with all the drowning and climbing accidents. I believe that Lee set this up as a departure from his life just so his mother and family wouldn’t look for him but the book was a cryptic message. He was so deep in thought. I think he needed to do this to escape his own demons. Not sure of where he went or if he’s still alive.

      • Veronica

        I completely agree with you Betsey I also myself find Lee Cutler’s case to be interesting Ever since I saw his story on dissappeared.Ive been drawn to his case and I check once in awhile to see if he’s been found.I think he is alive and I hope that he truly is happy wherever he is 🙂

  6. Look I have provided the info earlier too…I think I have seen this guy in India……during my trip to Srinagar I saw in a famous garden alone n lost ….plz have a check there too…I have seen him in august 2014

  7. chris

    Hey, I have to tune in. I also live in Wisconsin and seeing Lee and I are/were the same age I really feel like I relate to him very much as well. In fact I have went to this very rest stop that his car was found at. In fact I walked the very river and area his backpack and stuff was found. I ended up adding his mother on Facebook/messaging her and bless her soul I hope one day she gets amswers. If you ask me. Lee crossed the bridge and walked down the river until he felt he was far enough away that he could do what he set out to do. I truly believe he on one of the bluffs nearby. I think he wanted to disappear but didn’t have the heart to have his mom bury her son so he did it in a way that there will always be hope. I don’t think he realized that in some ways the unknown is worse though. He went to that place knowing he wasn’t going home.

  8. alicia

    the first time i saw this episode of disappeared i was shocked by how much i related to lee & i truly hope that he is still alive and well even though i realize how unlikely that is … i hope someday his family will find answers good or bad and they will be in my prayers

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