A father's torment
Ron Zoltowski has spent every day this year much the same way he has spent the past dozen years — his heart aching for any new information about his son, Jeff, who was last seen with any certainty on a remote beach along Moloka'i's rugged north shore on March 31, 1993.
In his latest attempt to find his son, Zoltowski had a forensic artist do two sketches depicting how Jeff would look today, 13 years later.
Ron Zoltowski spends much of his time at his home in suburban Detroit not far from the telephone or the computer, hoping for a call or an e-mail that will help put an end to 13 years of not knowing what happened to the son he loved so much.
Make that "loves" so much.
Several years ago a psychic told Zoltowski that his son is still alive. While he knows the odds are long, he has chosen to go along with them.
"I will never give up. I will go to my grave searching for him," Zoltowski said in a telephone interview from Michigan.
"I tell everyone that Jeff is the kind of kid that would run down a hill and stop to hug every tree in his path. He was a vegetarian, he wouldn't even wear leather. His views are different than mine, but I respect him for it."
Joseph Self, a former Honolulu police officer who spent 15 years in Missing Persons and who was the detective assigned to the Zoltowski case, has come to a grimmer conclusion.
"I think he's dead," Self said. "You know, anything's possible and he could still be out there, but after all these years, I would have to say it's a long shot, a very remote one."
Self worked on the case, both in 1993 when Jeff Zoltowski was first reported missing, and again in 2001 when reports surfaced that he had been spotted on O'ahu near the Institute for Human Services, a shelter for the homeless.
"We ran down every lead we could. We left no stone unturned, and we came up with nothing," Self said.
He said the case eventually was turned over to Maui County, which includes Moloka'i. Maui County police officials said there have been no new developments in the case for years, but added that it remains open and will stay that way until Jeff Zoltowski turns up — or his remains are found.
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The last time Ron Zoltowski heard from his son was on March 21, 1993, when Jeff called his dad to say he planned to catch a plane for Moloka'i.
"Jeff was always interested in the culture of any place he visited, and someone had told him that Moloka'i was one of the most Hawaiian places left to visit.
"He told me he was going to be hiking and camping for about two weeks, and not to worry if I didn't hear from him for a while."
Ron Zoltowski remembers the last thing he said to his son: "I told him, 'Be safe.' "
Two weeks passed, and Zoltowski thought nothing of it.
A third week went by, then a fourth, and he began to think his son might have struck up a romance.
Finally, on May 2, 1993, workers at a state Department of Land and Natural Resources base yard on Moloka'i called the Maui Police Department to file a missing-person report. Ron Zoltowski would later learn that the last time anyone saw his son alive was on March 31, 1993, when a hired helicopter pilot ferried a state worker into Wailau Valley and landed just feet from his son.
Zoltowski interviewed the two men, who told him Jeff had approached them and asked if he could be flown out of the valley.
"They said he told them his feet were blistered and bleeding. It's a 14-mile hike in off the paved highway and traverses 5,000 feet in elevation. If you're in really good shape, you can hike it in 10 or 12 hours."
Zoltowski said the men aboard the helicopter assessed his son's situation, deemed it not life-threatening and denied his request for a ride. They did, however, offer to fly his 60-pound backpack out to make it significantly easier for Jeff Zoltowski to hike out on his own, and he took them up on the offer.
Ron Zoltowski later talked to the two men and learned that they had offered to arrange for a chartered helicopter to fly back to the valley to pick his son up, but his son declined. It is unlikely that his son had anywhere close to the $650 an hour the helicopter ride out would have cost, Zoltowski said.
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Jeff Zoltowski's backpack was flown back to a DLNR base yard in Kaunakakai, where it sat for 41 days, until workers there contacted police to say the owner had never come for it.
Ron Zoltowski flew to Hawai'i in May 1993 and spent 35 days and $39,000 of his own money searching for his son.
The $650 for a helicopter ride out of the remote valley seems like such a small price to pay, in retrospect, to keep a son out of harm's way.
But in 1993, cellular phones were less commonplace, and the mobile phones that were available had a very limited range.
Ron Zoltowski said that if someone had only called him and explained his son's situation, things would be different.
But no one did.
Instead, he's come to Hawai'i twice. Both times, he's gone home empty-handed and brokenhearted.
He worked the talk-show circuit, appearing on "Sally Jessy Raphael" and "Oprah," hoping someone would recognize his son's overriding physical attribute: "He smiles with his eyes, that's the one thing that anyone who has ever met Jeff would remember about him the most."
Jeff's mother, Karen, died last November during heart surgery. Ron Zoltowski and his wife divorced nearly 20 years ago. But their son was close to both of them, Zoltowski said.
If news of his mother's death reaches his son somehow, that might be enough to make him call home, if he has deliberately stayed out of touch all these years, Zoltowski said.
That is the least-likely scenario but still a possibility, he said.
Odetta Stevens, who lives in the Kuakini area, describes the past five years as "a nightmare."
She saw a newscast in 2001 that included photographs of Jeff Zoltowski.
Instantly, she recognized the man she had seen a number of times near the Institute for Human Services.
She called the police department to report what she knew and later met Zoltowski's parents.
"I became good friends with them both — Ron and Karen," Stevens said.
She said she described the man she had seen over the phone to Karen Zoltowski, explaining that the man had a scar under his left eye, a large contusion on his cheek "and beautiful teeth."
"But it looked as if someone had whacked him in the head," Stevens said.
She said police followed up on the information, tracking a man to a video arcade on Hotel Street and finally to Kaua'i before the trail went cold.
"He just disappeared," Stevens said.
When she died last November, Karen Zoltowski's worst fears came to pass, Stevens said.
"She was so afraid of dying without ever knowing what happened to her son. I only hope that if he is dead, the two of them are together again."