Each day, Darla and John Maurer struggle to unravel the mystery of a dreadful end to a promising young life. They are desperate for answers and determined to find them. It was their son who died.
They know any discovery will cause them pain. But it will also bring them the peace they have craved for nearly two years--since their only child, Chad, 21, was found in a garage 150 miles away, his body battered, his blood poisoned by carbon monoxide.
The Maurers don't know how and why their son ended up on the edge of a crime-infested Chicago neighborhood. They insist that it is foul play, maybe even murder, but it's all a puzzle and the important pieces are missing.
"I want to know what happened to my kid," Darla Maurer said plaintively. "We keep hoping for answers. All we keep getting is more questions. . . . It's a terrible mystery. Something is wrong in this whole case and I just don't know what it is."
The Maurers have pressured police and pushed to keep their case in the public, recently portraying themselves in an episode of TV's "Unsolved Mysteries." They've lobbied lawmakers, knocked on doors and written letters, diligently logged calls, filed responses and stored away each new nugget of information.
"We think about Chad and what happened to him every day," Darla Maurer said, clutching a tissue. "We've got to keep talking about it or John and I would lose our sanity. We've got to keep pushing law enforcement people."
"It would be a discredit to him and ourselves not to do it," her husband said. "Even if we don't come to peace, maybe Chad can rest in peace. He's the one who lost his life. We're the walking wounded."
There is little to go on and much to speculate about in Chad's disappearance on May 19, 1990. He was found two days later in an unlocked garage, the car ignition on, the fuel gauge empty.
Authorities believe Chad was in a fight just before he died. His hands, face and groin were bruised. Though the Maurers insist that their son didn't kill himself--he had plans to move to Colorado--Chicago police won't rule out suicide. They do say, however, he doesn't fit the profile and concede that they were wrong when they first reported his death that way.
Police now list Chad's death as undetermined but also note that it is possible it was accidental.
Chad Maurer was a young man on the go, an outgoing blond with surfer looks and an athlete's flair who enjoyed skateboarding and snowboarding and collected hundreds of trophies for racing dirt bikes.
Chad had a less innocent side, too: He smoked marijuana and took LSD a few times. Police speculate that his death may be tied to drugs.
The day of his disappearance, a Saturday, Chad came home for lunch from the Village Pedaler, where he had worked for only two days. He made a few sandwiches and said he was going back to work because the shop was busy.
He never did.
That Monday, Chad was found on the outskirts of an area that was Chicago's busiest homicide beat that year, with 166 murders.
Chicago police Sgt. John Ridges said that it is possible Chad was a drug courier looking for quick, easy money. Darla Maurer said one of her son's friends later told her Chad was paid twice in 1989 to transport a drug dealer to Milwaukee.
"Something happened up there to cause him to be down here," Ridges said. "Something happened right before his death. I still can't explain what happened in that garage.
"This family is so concerned and so much involved, we can't give anything back to them. It's frustrating for us. If you wanted to have some answers, this is the one we wanted to have them for. We're still at square one."
That infuriates the Maurers, who claim that Chicago authorities bungled the case from the beginning, first notifying them that Chad killed himself, then neglecting to mention all his bruises.
"Chicago was as criminally negligent as the criminals in this case," Darla Maurer fumes. "They never really asked us anything about Chad."
Ridges acknowledges that mistakes were made, including the disappearance of a jacket that did not belong to Chad but was on his front seat in a crime scene photo.
"If you want to be a Monday morning quarterback, I think there were problems," Ridges said. "I don't think anybody screwed up intentionally."
The Maurers argue that Chad wasn't suicidal: He was saving money to move to Boulder, Colo., and was considering college. He had brought in a bike wheel to be repaired days before he disappeared and planned to attend a concert the day he was found.
And his mother says: "Why drive to Chicago to commit suicide and how can you find an unlocked garage down in Timbuktu?"
Ridges concedes that doesn't make sense, Chad doesn't fit a suicide profile and he had told no one of such plans.
The Maurers became convinced that foul play was involved after viewing their son. They were shocked at what they saw: a cut and bruised face, deep bruises in the groin area; a swollen lower lip cut by his teeth; skin scraped to the bone on both knuckles; blood on the back of his shirt and skid marks on the seat of his pants.
"I get flashbacks of him getting beat up," his soft-spoken father said. "What were his last thoughts, his last impulse? Was he alone?"
An autopsy conducted by the Cook County medical examiner's office, which ruled the manner of death undetermined, cited six hand and facial bruises. It said there was no other evidence of trauma.
But in Madison, the Dane County coroner's office, at the request of the local sheriff's department, looked at Chad and found other bruises, including those in the mouth.
Roy Dames, executive director of the Cook County office, downplays the differences.
"Is it really important to make note of every single mark?" he asked. "If he had 100 marks, or 125 marks, does it really make a difference? . . . (It was) carbon monoxide poisoning."
The doctor found bruises and "did note them and they bothered him," Dames said. "He said, 'Gee somebody better investigate this.' I think we did everything that we were supposed to do."
The Maurers disagree. They keep digging.
"Every time we get somebody else involved, we get a little more information," she said.
Today, their walls are a loving tribute to Chad. Photos chronicle the squinting 24-hour-old baby, the angelic little boy sleeping with his cat, the proud, freckle-faced bike racer, the impish adolescent mocking a John Travolta dance pose, the high school graduate.
Scores of trophies and blue ribbons for bike racing line his bedroom walls, a stuffed penguin sits on his bed and a May, 1990, calendar remains with his paydays marked off.
"When you lose your only child . . . one foot of ours is already in the grave," Darla Maurer said. "We're just not the same people. We never will be."
"Our love for Chad just keeps us going and all of our good memories," she added. "No matter how bad it gets or how the case comes out, it will never take away those memories. Cope is the word. We don't live. We just cope."