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An empty chair

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STILL LOST:Dep. Chief Stephen Dorsey explains the timeline of Tricia Reitler’s disappearance using a board that has tracked the investigation for the last 25 years.
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IN MEMORIUM: Gary and Donna Reitler grieve with over 50 people who attended the dedication ceremony for a Red Sunset Maple tree planted in the memory of their daughter, Tricia Reitler, in Seybold Park five years after her disappearance.
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REMEMBER:A plaque was placed near the Red Sunset Maple tree that was planted in memory of Tricia Reitler.
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STILL WAITING FOR CLOSURE:Garry and Donna Reitler stand in front of a billboard at 41st Street and Western Avenue which asks for information concerning the disappearance of their daughter, Tricia. The billboard is one of two billboards that were on display in Marion in 1998, five years after their daughter’s disappearance.

BY Brian Powers - bpowers@perutribune.com

After a quarter century, the disappearance of Indiana Wesleyan student student Tricia Reitler remains an unsolved tangle.

Thursday marked the anniversary of the day the 19-year-old went missing, an event that deeply affected the Marion and university communities. Parents without a daughter, siblings without a sister, friends without their companion and a town without answers have not given up on the search for what happened to her.

Reitler was last seen in the early evening hours of Monday, March 29, 1993.

She had gone to what was then a Marsh Supermarket and bought a root beer and a magazine, according to a receipt recovered by investigators. She never made it back to her dorm room.

After extensive searches, the only hints of Tricia Reitler since then have been the discovery of her bloodied clothes in a tree, along with small droplets of blood and an earring on a sidewalk.

Reitler was a runner.

As a matter of fact, she had gone for two runs that day, which had been unseasonably warm.

Her father, Garry, said her active lifestyle was likely to be a hinderance to the tracking dogs once the search commenced because her scent was all over the area.

The story of Reitler has been featured on CNN, CSPAN, Dateline and even Jerry Springer. Books have been written and there’s even a made-for-TV movie, but none of that matters to Garry and Donna Reitler. Nor does it matter to the local police officers still haunted by the case.

After 25 years, Donna Reitler’s strategy in coping with her daughter’s disappearance has remained constant. She had no choice but to carry on, stuck between trying to move on for the sake of her husband and their three other children, but also not wanting to move on for fear of feeling she would leave Tricia behind.

“You tell yourself, ‘Oh, just one more day. Just one more day,’ and here you are 25 years later,” Donna said.

That feeling is not uncommon among others involved in the case. Retired Marion Police Det. Jay Kay has been an integral part of the investigation since the beginning days of the case.

“It’s a case that’s been worked by multiple agencies for years. It’s still difficult, there’s no doubt about that,” Kay said. “I’ve always tried to stay positive. I’ve always believed sooner or later, the answers will come forward.”

A large chunk of the story involves a man named Larry Hall, formerly of Wabash. Hall is serving a life sentence for kidnapping a 15-year-old Illinois girl named Jessica Roach in 1993, whose body was found in a cornfield in Indiana.

Hall was convicted and imprisoned for Roach’s kidnapping, but not her murder.

Larry Hall has confessed to more than 30 murders since his conviction, including those of Tricia Reitler and the 1987 disappearance of another Marion woman, Wendy Felton.

The trouble with Hall’s confessions is he has recanted them. Several times. He has admitted to the murders of the women, but then told police he was having dreams or visions or even making it all up for attention.

For reasons, such as in the case of Larry Hall, police can’t just take a person’s word for it; there needs to be actual evidence linking the confessor to the crime or crimes. This is where Hall has come up short.

“I did interview him (Hall) again about a year ago and, again, he said he did it (confessed to the killing) for attention,” Kay said. “There’s been no physical evidence yet, to my knowledge, to link him to any crimes.”

Christopher Hawley Martin, formerly of Wabash, is an ordained minister and an author.

During the writing of his 2010 book, “Urges: A Chronicle of Serial Killer Larry Hall,” Martin had numerous conversations with Hall and attributes his lack of cooperation to a sense of control, as well as diagnosing Hall with a case of paraphilia – a condition characterized by abnormal sexual desires, typically involving extreme or dangerous activities.

“The thing you need to know about serial killers is that these guys own these girls,” Martin said. “If he gives up Tricia, then he loses her.”

Martin said Hall told him of accomplices who still live in Wabash, one of whom recently moved back from Marion. He also said Hall told him he disposed of bodies with the trash, which could be another reason why he won’t confess.

“It’s one thing to admit to the rape and murder of a girl, but it’s another to say you dissected someone and threw them away like trash,” Martin said.

Either way, Martin attributes Hall’s lack of cooperation in giving up the location of Tricia Reitler’s body to psychology.

“It’s all about the psychology of it,” Martin said. “That’s the main reason he won’t admit to it; he’s now in prison for the rest of his life and the fantasy is all he has left.”

Martin’s conclusions don’t add up to Kay and other people who have been involved since the beginning.

“If Larry Hall’s involved, he can prove it,” Kay said. “He can tell us, he can show us, where she is. He took us out and could not, or did not, show us the proof of his involvement.”

Help from an inmate

James Keene was a major player in the cocaine trade for a number of years.

The former high school football hero was used to having life go his way until he found himself behind federal bars facing a ten-to-life sentence on drug conspiracy charges.

Keene spent about 18 months in prison.

In an attempt to bring closure to the families of missing women, Keene’s former prosecuting attorney Larry Beaumont reached out to the man he’d put in prison and offered him a deal -- if Keene could befriend Larry Hall and convince him to give up the locations of where he’d put his victims, Keene would be released from prison.

The plan, as perfect as it sounded, could only go as far as the participants were willing to take it and, in previous interviews, Keene said he lost control once he’d gotten Hall to confess his crimes. Keene blew his own cover, but was released from prison anyway.

Along with a co-author Hillel Levin, Keene wrote a book about his experiences and titled it “In With the Devil”.

Keene’s book has been turned into a TV movie, and the man said he hopes to see his story made into a movie. He envisions Brad Pitt playing himself.

Donna and Garry Reitler don’t see Keene in the same light he sees himself.

“As far as the James Keene thing goes, he blew it. There’s just no two ways about it,” Donna said. “He was sent in there for one thing, he didn’t do what he was supposed to do -- and we may have gotten answers -- we didn’t and he still got out. That makes me very angry.”

The Reitlers do, however, recognize the efforts of Keene’s prosecutor.

“What a noble thing for Larry Beaumont to do -- to try to push that through,” Garry said, adding, “for all of what James Keene builds himself up to be, he didn’t turn out to be that at all.”

Tricia Reitler’s story is not one about vengeance and anger. Her story, now told through investigators and her parents, is one of confusion. Her’s is also a story of hope.

“We want to bring her home. We want to put this behind us. We want a place to go to and say ‘here is where our daughter is,’” Garry said. “The memorial out there (on the IWU campus) has touched our hearts tremendously because, right now, it’s all we have. We’ve been reluctant to do something like that at home (near Cleveland, Ohio) because that would put a finalization on it, and we’re not willing to do that yet.”

A personal cause for police

The past quarter century of unanswered questions has taken its toll on both Tricia’s parents and the police involved in investigating her disappearance.

MPD Deputy Chief Stephen Dorsey was fairly new to the force when Reitler went missing. The case has become more than a statistic to him; it’s become part of who he is now.

“As much as we want to put bad people away for doing bad things, I think it’s also personal for us because we know how good this family is,” Dorsey said. “That makes it difficult for us because we go in with the mindset of police, but there’s also this personal side.”

For Garry and Donna Reitler, solving the disappearance of their daughter could never become their sole purpose in life.

There were three other kids at home who needed their parents. The Reitlers described how their only son’s birthday was less than a week after Tricia’s disappearance.

“We actually had to stop at Walmart here in Marion to buy his presents,” Garry said. “Then we went home and, although it was terrible, we celebrated our son’s birthday.”

The Reitlers made it a point to not let Tricia’s disappearance define their family, but they also feel a duty to Tricia to remember.

Every year, for Tricia’s birthday on Feb. 9, the Reitlers go out to dinner as a family.

One year, Garry and Donna both fell ill and called the dinner off, as they also wondered if their children were merely obliging their parents. The three Reitler children told their parents missing Tricia’s birthday dinner was not an option.

“It was neat, because if we weren’t so sick, we may not have ever known what it meant to the kids,” Garry said.

The Reitlers also have a small get-together at their home every March 29 to remember their missing daughter.

“Even then, it’s weird because it’s not like a celebration,” Donna said. “It’s kind of just a weird day... kind of an awkward day.”

Tricia Reitler is remembered by her family as someone who was always thinking of others and that memory of her carries with her parents.

“She was studying psychology (at IWU) and her goal in life was to put broken families back together again,” Donna said. “I can’t help but to wonder where she’d be in life; how many kids she’d have. The other kids have kids and are married now.”

Holidays are still difficult in the Reitler household.

“The holidays are hard. There’s still an empty chair. I may not say it, but I see it,” Donna said.

Aside from the memories of their daughter, the Reitlers are also coming to terms with the fact that 25 years have passed and the case remains open. The family has grown up with members of the police department.

“We were all young men when this began,” Garry said. “We’re on with our lives with children and grandchildren. Life goes on. Twenty-five years is a long time, and I look around and realize we were just young men and time has passed.”

The heartache of parents missing their daughter has not passed with time. And investigators of the case at MPD have aged past their youth without being able to provide the Reitlers or themselves with answers.