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.