No Helicopter Ride, No Son
There has never been a person who went missing on the Hawaiian island of Molokai who was not ever found. That is, except for Jeff Zoltkowski.
A helicopter ride may have meant the difference between life in general for his family, and life lived in the “not knowing”. Twelve years later, there is still no Jeff.
If Jeff is still alive, he is no longer a young man. He is 35 now.
When his mother, Karen, sees an image of a young, carefree, Jeff in her mind’s eye, she sees him walking down the beach with a friendly dog, feeling joyful about the sand, sun, and life in general. She remembers Jeff as a very caring person, who makes friends easily. “He smiles a lot and is very accepting of the differences of people from all walks of life. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do career wise, but I am sure it would have been helping others in some capacity.”
If only someone had helped Jeff back on March 31, 1993.
Karen takes us back twelve long years in time to the time of Jeff’s disappearance.
“Jeff decided to take a semester off of college and go experience life. He originally decided to go to Colorado and after a discussion with a friend of his father's changed his mind and went to Hawaii. When Jeff first went to Hawaii he stayed on the island of Oahu. He went to the library and researched the islands. He found that Molokai was the least commercial island and had a high percentage of residents with Hawaiian blood. He wanted to experience the real Hawaii. He called home and friends numerous times when he was in Oahu. He called and spoke to my daughter and told her he was going to Molokai and wouldn't be calling for a short time.
During his first couple of days on Molokai he ran across a man that was backpacking with three other friends and had then became separated from them. Jeff told him that he would stay with him, and walk out with him if he did not get rescued. The other young man flagged down a helicopter and he was rescued. The authorities spoke to Jeff but he had just got there and didn't want to leave at that point. Jeff helped someone else, but later on no one helped him when he needed it.
Still backpacking on March 31, Jeff flagged down a helicopter leased by the Land of Department & Natural Resources. His foot was bleeding and he was exhausted. They landed and Jeff requested assistance. They said they couldn't take him because they had camping supplies in the helicopter, but they would take his backpack. They did offer to send a commercial helicopter back for $650. Jeff did not have that amount of money on him. They claim to have taken his backpack to lighten his load. It would have taken a healthy person 10-12 hours to hike out.
Inside his backpack was money, his driver’s license, my Blue-Cross card and my telephone charge card. They took his backpack back to their base, and placed it under a desk, where it sat for two weeks. They did not send search and rescue, or fill out a report.
When they saw the missing person’s report on Jeff, they called the police. Two weeks later, the Molokai Police called me and told me the story about the helicopter.
Jeff’s not making it out is certainly possible, however, the Marine Re-Con Units went in twice, divers looked in the ocean, and professional back packers camped in the area for a week. There was no sign of Jeff.”
Back then, things were very different in the world of missing persons and with the help available. Karen explains: “I wish in the beginning I had known that the family is basically on your own. There was no one to turn to. You have to fight for your child. You cannot take time to be in shock. You must react immediately with strength and determination.”
Karen has some very human fears about what may have become of Jeff. “My greatest fear is that someone hurt him and they are getting away with it and that someone did not value who and what he is. I fear that someone out there knows where Jeff is and does not care enough to tell. I fear that he is ill or hungry, and I can't help because I do not know where he is. I fear that I will go to my grave not knowing where he is. I fear that I will not know how to deal with it. Some days are easier than others. I pretend to be ok, but my heart is broken. I deal with it like every other parent that has a missing child - one second at a time, praying for the Grace of God.
When your son is missing, he is the first thing you think of in the morning, and the last at night. You try to be joyful about simple things in your life, and you pray that the future brings news about your beloved son. You pray that he is safe and not hungry or ill. You hope that you can continue to take one breath at a time because the hole in your heart is so painful.”
Karen, however, has not stuck her head in the sand, pretending that everything is normal in her life. She continues on with the search for her son, year after year. She says the experience has taught her more compassion towards others. When other families get the help of the media, Karen prays that they find their missing loved one. She then thanks God for any found child, and for the attention that is generated for our cause.
The message Karen has for all of us is: “Our family thanks you for taking your time to look at his picture, place his poster, and to care about my son. If you think you have seen Jeff, please call the contact numbers on his poster. Please remember all of the families who have a missing loved one in your prayers. Your gift of caring gives us hope."
Karen may not know it, but she is a role model for all of the mothers of missing children who have not yet come as far as she has down this road. This is the road less traveled that only those of us who live in the “not knowing” can step foot upon. Karen has not become bitter and does not shake her fist at God in anger because of what has happened to her, and to Jeff.
Karen, you may have felt that it was we who gave to you, but it was you who gave to us. You’re a steadfast beacon of light in an often stormy sea.
Jeff does not have his own website, but you can find a link to a printable poster, additional photos, and any available updates on the Project Jason Forum in the Missing Adults section.