Elkhart, IN -- On Jan. 28, 1991, Kari Nunemaker and Beth Swartzendruber were two teen-age girls being silly in an instant-photo booth at Concord Mall.
Lt. Tom Cutler still has one of those pictures in a frame that he's kept on his desk. The picture shows the life and vitality Kari had. That ended that night.
Cutler never met her, but he thinks about her a lot. She's the victim in what he calls the most troubling case of his 26-year career as a police officer. She disappeared that snowy Monday night and was found dead eight days later.
Ten years have passed. The case has been passed from one detective to another and technically, the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department is in charge. But Cutler, an Elkhart Police Department detective, keeps working on it. He's hopeful that DNA evidence looked at again may reveal the killer.
Kari was in Elkhart that afternoon with Swartzendruber, whose married name is now Goertzen, and a boy who was a junior at Bethany Christian High School, where the girls were sophomores. They were at the mall and went to the YMCA that evening to watch the boy and his teammates from Bethany play in soccer games.
Swartzendruber-Goertzen, who had been riding with Kari, got another ride home. "I felt like I really needed to get home for some reason. That's probably the biggest issue I have with all this is why did I leave. Probably none of this would have happened if I didn't," said Swartzendruber-Goertzen.
The boy said Kari dropped him off at McDonald's on North Main Street, where they had left his car. They were going to meet at another McDonald's in Dunlap. He said she never arrived.
Kari never came home that night either.
Her maroon 1982 Chevy Celebrity was found two days later in an alley near Morton Street. Her frozen body was found along a county road near Bonneyville Mill the following Tuesday. She'd been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated.
Even after her friend's death and interviews with police, Swartzendruber-Goertzen expected her to come back. "We were 15. It was so hard to understand what was going on. I don't think I ever knew what death was at that point," she said.
She's 25 now. She knows. Kari's death taught her.
Swartzendruber-Goertzen, like Cutler and countless others, still thinks about Nunemaker often. She thinks about it at this time of year, every time in a little different way. She thinks about it when she crosses the railroad tracks on Main Street.
Swartzendruber-Goertzen didn't cross the tracks that night. There were two trains, one westbound and one eastbound, around the time the teens left the YMCA.
One of them blocked the car Swartzendruber-Goertzen was in and she directed the driver to the Benham Avenue underpass. Kari, who had turned 16 on Dec. 2 and was in Elkhart for one of the first times since getting her license, wouldn't have known that shortcut, Swartzendruber-Goertzen said.
Swartzendruber-Goertzen got home soon after 9:30 p.m. Around midnight, Kari's parents, Don and Shirley Nunemaker, called her wondering where Kari was. Around 2:30 a.m., it was a detective who called.
At school that week, Swartzendruber-Goertzen, the four other girls in their group of close friends, and more than 200 other students and staff started wearing pink ribbons.
Marisa Yoder still has one of those ribbons. She sees it every so often and thinks of Kari.
Yoder was Kari's favorite teacher. The science teacher spoke at her funeral, where more than 1,000 people gathered. Many wore those ribbons, and classmates put pink carnations on Kari's casket.
"Today we say goodbye to Kari's body, but not to her spirit," Yoder said that day. "Each of our lives has been affected by Kari."
Ten years later, there's still pain because an innocent girl experienced evil. "I don't think a week goes by that I don't think of her," said Swartzendruber-Goertzen.
Yoder can see some of the good that came of Kari's death. The difficult time deepened her faith and reliance on God, as others have said it did for them. The tragedy brought the school closer together.
Roy Hartzler taught science at Bethany before retiring four years ago. He too remembers Kari's death as one of the darkest times at Bethany. "For me, Kari's disappearance was one of the most evil things I'd lived through personally," he said.
Those who were there remember how people at Bethany supported each other then. "I think it drew a lot of people closer," said Carla (Nunemaker) Richer, Kari's second cousin and one of her five closest friends. "I still remember the support Bethany gave during that time."
Out of that dark time came something wonderful. Her family gave Bethany some of the financial gifts they'd received after their daughter's death. That became the literal seed money for the Friendship Garden, which includes trees, benches and a fountain in a courtyard outside the school.
Kari's youth group from Holdeman Mennonite Church helped Hartzler and others install the garden. Yoder worked out there too, as she now does every spring. "For me, the garden has become the tangible expression of evil being turned into good," said Hartzler.
The spot has become a favorite for students. Kari would have liked the garden, said Mrs. Nunemaker. "I like it. Every time I see it, I can just see Kari there. I can see her sitting out there having a good time with her friends, who were her top priority," she said.
Mrs. Nunemaker was there with Kari's friends and classmates when they graduated in 1993. She was there when the graduates went to the Friendship Garden after the commencement ceremony for the first time. It's a tradition now for all the graduating classes.
Some have asked how she was able to go to commencement. "I thought I had to do it and I'm glad I did," she said.
From that point, Kari's friends went on with their healing and the rest of their lives. Four of the five close friends are married and the other one is engaged. Two of them have become mothers. One friend recently called the Nunemakers to ask if she could name her daughter after Kari.
"I often wonder if she would be a parent by now too or what her career would be," said Richer. Whatever it is, she'd be doing it with flair, she said.
"She was so trendy. I would have loved to see her evolve into a young woman," said Swartzendruber-Goertzen. "She was just such a beautiful girl."
She doesn't know what her friend would have become. Her mother said she wanted to be a writer. "I could see her doing something in journalism," said Mrs. Nunemaker. "She was always making up stories, interviewing people."
One summer, Kari put together a Nunemaker fashion magazine, which she sold to her cousins. She wrote ongoing stories and talked about style and trends. "It was really creative. She did that all summer. That was all she did," she said.
The family went on too, but was different. "Everything is different when you lose a child. You don't realize how much it changes the whole structure of your family. You're not the same family. You're a different family," said Mrs. Nunemaker.
They became more caring, more sympathetic and stronger, she said.
Kari's brother and sister are doing well. Wendi lives in Wakarusa with her husband and son and is an interior designer for The Troyer Group. Darin is a Goshen College sophomore and plays on the basketball team. He's getting married this summer. "We're proud of them all. I think they've done a good job," said Mrs. Nunemaker.
She still hears from Kari's friends occasionally. Richer, who just became a mother, said she tries to send the Nunemakers a card this time of year. "Time's gone on for her friends, but she's still 16 for her parents," said Richer.
The support of friends, relatives and Holdeman Mennonite Church members got them through, said Mrs. Nunemaker. She still gets cards and flowers occasionally, even from Kari's friends. "I just want to thank everybody. That's why we've made it," she said.
Kari's mother has driven down Main Street and the alley near Morton Street and stopped at the McDonald's on a Monday night in January. She wonders what happened and hopes for some resolution to the case. "You never give up. It seems kind of hopeless, but you never give up," she said.
She has ideas about what might have happened. "I have one scenario, but then there's some pieces that don't quite go together," she said.
Mrs. Nunemaker said that Kari was generally scared of strangers and locked her car doors. She said she has questions about the boy Kari was with that night.
That person did not respond to a message from The Truth.
Police have not been able to talk to him since an interview in the days after the death. He hired an attorney and has exercised his right not to talk.
There is a suspect in a California prison, serving six life sentences plus 24 years for a rape in March 1991. Fred Mott, who first told reporters he was a suspect, was allegedly in Elkhart the night Kari disappeared and was murdered. He'd been released from prison the previous July after serving time for a 1978 sexual assault. He has also been convicted in Illinois on attempted rape. Three days after Kari's death, he violated his parole and went to San Francisco.
He has said he's innocent. "I have a defense that I'm not guilty of any crimes against Kari Nunemaker. I didn't do anything to this young lady," he told a Truth reporter in 1991.
Michael Cosentino, Elkhart County prosecutor, said, "We did not have any concrete evidence to link him with the crime other than the MO (modus operandi) on the way he operated."
Cosentino is also frustrated they haven't been able to charge anyone with the crime. "The worst crime of all is a homicide crime. To not be able to do justice by putting anyone on trial is frustrating," he said.
He is less hopeful than many that the case will ever be solved. "Unfortunately, my experience has been once a murder investigation does not come up with new leads for an extended period of time, chances of solving the crime are slim," he said.
Cutler remains hopeful and occasionally, he still gets a lead. Within the last month, police received a tip about another possible suspect who is in prison.
There is evidence, but "it just doesn't fit together," said Cutler. None of the evidence so far points to just one person. Whatever happened that night left investigators without some key evidence that could have built a case they could take to court. "This doesn't look like an accidental crime. It's well-covered," said Cutler.
He's still looking for the piece that ties it all together. "I know how hard it is to make a prosecutable case out of a death," said Cutler. "The standard is so high in this country." But since 1991, advances have been made in DNA evidence. Cutler said he wants to again work with the DNA evidence that's been collected.
Hartzler said, "I'm annoyed, frustrated and I am greatly bothered our law enforcement people could not bring a better conclusion to it. The law agencies haven't finished their job."
Mrs. Nunemaker said she's frustrated too. "They've all been nice," she said of the police. "I don't have any bad feelings. They've all been busy. This just gets slid under the table."
Cutler said he understands people's frustration and is glad people are still concerned about the case. Someday, maybe it'll result in a conviction. "I'm still waiting for the call or casual comment from somebody that might make this thing work for me," he said.
"I guess I'm just hopeful," he said. That's why after 10 years, he still keeps working on this case.
"There's nothing, in my experience, like catching the bad guy," he said.