Remembering Ethan

Kelly McGowan

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Family, community members share memories, hope for resolution in case of missing Hampton man
    Everything seemed normal the day Iowa beat Iowa State’s football team in 2013.
    April Hemmes, an alumna of the latter and die-hard Cyclone fan, expected to hear gloating from her 22-year-old son Ethan Kazmerzak, who had attended Iowa for two years, but the call never came.
    The two years and four months since have been anything but normal.
    Kazmerzak went out with friends to watch the Saturday game at local bars and then to a small gathering at a pond northwest of Hampton on Sept. 14, and has been missing since early the next morning.
    His car has not been found and all activity froze on his credit card, ATM card and cell phone. A call was tracked from his phone around 12:15 a.m., near the intersection of 190th Street and Olive Avenue that Sunday. He had called his mom.
    Multiple aerial, land and underwater searches offered no leads in the following days and weeks. Residents scoured the banks of ponds for tire tracks and a Wisconsin-based search and rescue team scanned nearby bodies of water using SONAR.
    Friends and neighbors pooled together $20,000 to establish a reward for tips six weeks later. It was reestablished in May 2014 and increased to $100,000 in November 2015, but officials have received a slow trickle of tips, none of which have led to a break in the case.
    “It’s the nothing – the absolutely no information – that’s the worst,” Hemmes said.
    Hampton Police Chief Bob Schaefer said the investigating departments have exhausted their options until someone comes forward with new information.
    “It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like, as a parent, not knowing.”
    The Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation’s original thought was that Kazmerzak and his car had gone into a ditch or body of water, Schaefer said.
    “Most of the time, if something sinister happened, you end up finding the vehicle in a parking lot or burnt out somewhere,” he said.
    For the family’s sake, he said people should continue to keep their ears open and report information, no matter how insignificant it may seem, to the police.
    “If you think something sinister or criminal happened to him, then yeah, somebody knows something,” he said.
    Franklin County Sheriff Larry Richtsmeier, a long-time friend of the family, leans toward the criminal route due to the fact that the car hasn’t been found. Its VIN number and license plate are registered nationwide as missing and area junkyards have been searched.
    “Whether they’re still in Franklin County or not, somebody has information,” Richtsmeier said. “I honestly do feel that someday their conscience is going to get the best of them and they will come forward. But that was my opinion back when it started, and it still hasn’t happened.
    “Sooner or later, they’re going to have to answer for it. Whether it be to us, or to a higher authority, they’ll have to answer for what they did. Unless they answer to us, the family’s not going to get any closure.”
    Richtsmeier also urged anyone with information to come forward. He compared the mystery to assembling a puzzle, saying it isn’t usually one thing, but many little things that make a case.
    “When you try to put the puzzle together, the pieces start locking together and you end up with the big picture,” he said. “We would really love to get the puzzle together, but we don’t have the pieces to work with.”
    Kazmerzak’s disappearance is one of three unsolved cases in Franklin County, officials said.
• That day and night
    The last phone conversation between Hemmes and her son was a regular mother-son moment that Saturday, he needed help grocery shopping.
    “He wanted to know where he could get Durkee dressing,” she said. “The mustard. Isn’t it funny how you remember those things?”
    She didn’t think the Iowa Falls Hy-Vee carried it anymore. The talk sounds trivial now, she said, but added that calls like that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The conversation continued and he said he planned to go to Iowa Falls the next day to help his grandpa between work shifts at the Windsor Theatre in Hampton.
    “He had plans and he was going and doing stuff,” Hemmes said.
    Windsor Manager Jim Davies ran into Kazmerzak that Saturday. He was painting the outside window frames of the theatre when Kazmerzak pulled up. Davies asked to make sure he was planning to work the next day. He was.
    “That’s really the last time I saw him,” Davies said.
    Kazmerzak didn’t often call his mom late at night, but he did that night. She used to tell him to call the home phone to wake her up for any reason because her cell was normally on vibrate and not nearby. The last time his phone was used was that call at about 12:15 a.m., Sunday, a missed call to her cell phone.
    “That’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” she said. “Did he leave a message, did it not go through, was he going to say something, wasn’t he? Yeah, I get to live with that.”
    She wondered if it was an accidental call, since records later showed that she was the last person he’d previously called. She was up early that Sunday and called him back with no response. Worry began to set in when she heard that he didn’t show up for work, which Davies said was unusual for him.
    The day was surreal.
    “You sit and you wait, and you hope your phone rings,” she said. “On the TV shows, they find them in an hour or a half an hour. That’s just not how the real world works. Things don’t go as fast.”
    They went to look through his apartment, where his car wasn’t seen and nothing was disturbed. Davies said a bag remained in his place, yet to be unpacked from a recent trip.
    “You’d think if he was leaving for any period of time, that he’d take the bag,” Davies said.
    He and many other community members rallied to alert everyone and search for the missing person.
    It isn’t clear what happened, and Hemmes said she couldn’t say if her son had been OK to drive that night, but that things might have been different if he’d been driven home.
    “I just wish somebody would have driven him home,” she said. “It’s the would have, could have, should have. If [other people] see someone that shouldn’t be driving, just drive them home. Even if they’re going to be mad at you, I don’t care.”
    It was difficult for the family to see the first weeks of intensive searches wind down.
    “We knew what had to happen,” she said. “You hate to see it come to a close. You want somebody on it all the time, but that’s just not a reality.”
• Learning to cope
    After two weeks of searching, Schaefer said it was a “waiting game.” The family – Hemmes, her husband Tom Kazmerzak and daughter Ruth – never expected it to go on for so long.
    Richtsmeier said they have been tested immensely.
    “Life went on after this happened and [they’ve] had a lot of tough issues to deal with,” he said. “Tom and April, mentally, have got to be the toughest people I know – to go through this and keep their sanity and keep their family together.”
    Hemmes said she is assertive and likes to have control over situations.
    “And then you get put in something like this, and you just totally lose control,” she said. “I didn’t think it would go on this long, ever. I thought we’d either find the car somewhere, find him somewhere or he’d call.”
    With each installment of an award, she said her level of hope was not the same.
    “That’s just very good friends caring about our family,” she said of the group that established the award. “I thought the more the amount, the more information that would come out. That just hasn’t been the case.”
    There have been no moments of peace since the disappearance, Hemmes said. As a farmer, she gets a lot of alone time while tending her fields.
    “I realized this while I was driving the tractor,” she said, “I could very well die never knowing where my son is. And that’s a horrible thing, but it’s true for me. That’s my reality.”
    Humor helps her cope – she said it’s important to find something, “a little spark,” to laugh about.
    “It’s OK, I don’t sit and cry in my tractor all the time,” she said. “I can’t be the person I’m not. I can’t go around moping all the time.”
    Living in uncertainty and seeing its effect on the family have been the hardest parts for Hemmes.
    “You want to bear the brunt of it for everyone and not put them through pain,” she said. “But they’re in just as much pain as I am.
    “When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really sit and talk about it, because you have to live it. That might not make sense to people who haven’t been through it. Tom and I don’t sit around the dinner table every single night and talk about it, because you just can’t. You just can’t open the wound every single day.
    “It’s a wound. It’s there and it’s never going to go away completely. So why pick at it? We just get by.”
    Kazmerzak loved living in Hampton and always enjoyed the community, Hemmes said. That community embraced his family throughout their tragedy.
    “I don’t know how anybody could go through this and not have the community support like we have,” she said. “You think people might forget about it after a while, but they don’t. The support has been unreal. I thank God for it every day.”
    Someone called her recently to ask if it hurts her too much to see the yellow ribbons that community members hang around town in her son’s honor. She told them no.
    “It gives me hope,” she said. “It makes me feel that other people care just as much.”
    Hearing people tell stories about Ethan lets her relive cherished moments.
    “I have to keep him alive in my heart,” she said. “It’s great that I get to relive those stories and talk about him.”
    Attending weddings of his friends is now very difficult, and the anniversary of his disappearance isn’t as hard as birthdays, holidays and other days that hold memories. The family now travels away for certain holidays.
    “You have the memories and you take them with you wherever you go,” she said. “You appreciate them while they’re there and life goes on. No matter how hard that is, you just keep going.”
    They don’t give up. She knows Ethan wouldn’t want her to.
    “Yes, it changes you as a person. Yes, you’re not the same at all,” Hemmes said. “Whether you let it drag you down or you go on and become a better, or much changed person … you just have to.”
    Day by day, step by step, the family continues on in hope of some resolution.
• Memories
    The parents encouraged both of their children to “follow their dreams and loves.” For Ethan, that was the arts. He studied English at Iowa and planned to be a professor. On family vacations, he stuffed his suitcase with books.
    Music was another love – he played through high school and was in the U of I marching band. While his family was away on a college visit for Ruth, he got his Grateful Dead tattoo in honor of the rock band.
    “He was 18 and he knew he could do it, so he did it,” Hemmes said, laughing. “I said ‘Why the Grateful Dead?’ he said ‘Well I love their music.’”
    Though he had good college memories, he came home from school in the fall of 2012, his junior year, to “take a break and figure out what to do next,” Hemmes said. He later started working at the Windsor Theatre and moved into apartment No. 1 right above it.
    Kazmerzak was passionate about drama, and characters came alive in his many performances at the Windsor. He played Dr. William Chumley in the “Harvey” play in July and was set to direct the upcoming play that winter.
    Performing, working and living in the building was special to him – it had been in the family for 96 years since his great-great grandfather Charles Peterson began leasing the 4-year-old building in 1917. The family owned it from 1938 to 1974.
    “He had a connection and he loved working there,” Hemmes said. “He was going to start learning how to run the projector and things like that. He was really looking forward to it.”
    Davies acted in plays with Kazmerzak and considered him a friend. He described him as “a great guy – funny, sincere, he cared, very enthusiastic and he really believed in the Windsor.”
    When he approached Davies about working there, Davies thought it was a perfect fit.
    “Because his family had been so involved, I think that really meant a lot to him,” he said. “If he wanted to learn my job and be manager someday, I could see that down the road.”
    He thought Kazmerzak could have taken the theater to the next level and brought it back into the family.
    “You know, maybe it could still happen,” Davies said.
    For now, Davies keeps a missing person poster in the front window of his house to help keep up hope and awareness.
    “I look at that every day,” he said. “I keep that as a reminder – I’m not going to forget.”
    That’s the sentiment throughout Hampton, he said.
    “There’s a lot of support out there, a lot of hope and a lot of prayers,” he said. “You’ve got to stay positive. There’s a reason for everything … you just have to have faith.”

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