Had he finished that novel he was writing, Keith Reinhard would have been hard-pressed to come up with a mystery as compelling as his own death.
A colorful Daily Herald sportswriter with a distinctive and unruly shock of gray hair, Reinhard disappeared 20 years ago during his personal sabbatical in the mountains of Colorado shortly before his 50th birthday. The official search for him was called off Aug. 14, 1988, after hundreds of searchers (one of them killed when his small plane crashed in the rocky terrain) logged more than 10,000 man-hours without finding a single clue.
In the old mining town of Silver Plume where settlers once speculated for silver, all that is known about Reinhard's fate is speculation. The sportswriter, a staple at suburban high school games for 22 years, had taken a 90-day leave of absence to explore a life he envisioned for himself someday in Colorado.
"I love these mountains and want to live in them before I die in them," Reinhard wrote in a letter to his friend and boss, Bob Frisk, at the Daily Herald. Reinhard put in a plug to cover a young Michael Jordan and the "up-and-coming" Bulls when he returned to the paper.
But while nursing a hangover the afternoon after a massive townwide party in the hamlet of 140 people, Reinhard announced that he was going to hike to the top of Pendeleton Mountain. He was never seen again.
Romantic rumors that he had committed suicide or faked his death soon were dismissed. Many people, including the local sheriff, speculate that Reinhard fell or had some accident on the rugged mountain, where nature is unforgiving and a body can be difficult to find. Another rumor speculated that the reporter had stumbled onto an illegal dumping operation and had uncovered the murderous truth about a previous mystery ruled a suicide.
"I believe there was foul play involved," Kai-Allen Reinhard of McHenry says of his father's disappearance. "Until somebody speaks about something, I don't think there will be any resolution. But I enjoy talking about it, because that means he's still around."
The youngest of Kai-Allen Reinhard's four kids is a 7-year-old boy named Keith.
Most loved ones are at least open to the idea that Reinhard met with foul play, says Astrid Reinhard, the sportswriter's first wife and mother of his children. A retired police dispatcher who lives in Mundelein, she used to "check the 'body found' file to see if anything matched, and there was never anything."
While saying she can see how the death might have been an accident, daughter Tiffany Fraser says she's "still kind of open-minded" about the murder theory.
After 20 years of mystery and rumors, "I would believe in pretty much anything - even an alien abduction," says Fraser, a mother of Tyler, 5, and Riley, 9 months. "We did psychics. We did all that stuff. The older you get, you realize fate is fate."
Reinhard's third child, Sven, joined the Navy shortly after his father disappeared. He died at age 39 in a tragic accidental carbon monoxide poisoning while transporting a bus back to Illinois in 2001.
"Keith would have been glad to see how the people he cared about have made something with their lives," says Reinhard's widow Carolyn O'Donnell, who remarried nine years ago. Acknowledging she thinks about all the odd details of his disappearance that don't add up, she says she'll "always cherish the time we had together" while realizing that "he would have wanted us to find some measure of happiness."
"Sometimes the answer is that there is no answer," O'Donnell says. "We might never know the answer, and that's OK."
Family members have made pilgrimages to Silver Plume. Reinhard's sister Lynn Crocco of Zion and Astrid Reinhard had hoped to put a plaque on top of the mountain in his memory in 2004 - but the rough terrain and a storm made them retreat. On the plaque is a poem Keith Reinhard wrote in grade school: "Oh, God, I want to wander/I want to wander til I die/With the mountains as my living room/My only roof the sky."
"I do think that somehow, some way, we'll find the truth," Crocco says.
What happened to Keith Reinhard?
"I get asked that all the time," says Frisk, who remembers how Reinhard organized old-timer tourneys and other events throughout the suburbs. "He was a heck of a guy. Everybody loved him. He was so passionate."
Reinhard would have turned 70 next month.
"I'd love to find out what happened. This lingering, never knowing, is very difficult," says Fraser, who works as an accountant for the film industry in California. "I'd love to do a movie about it, but there's no ending."