The teenager seemed agitated, his face buried under the hood of a sweatshirt, his nervous steps shuffling along the sidewalk. It was early Wednesday morning on a street corner in Newport, Kentucky. The teen paced more, seemingly with no destination, passing red-brick buildings and houses, the Cincinnati skyline stretched across the horizon to the north.
As local resident Crekasafra Night later told WCPO, when she pulled her car up to the stranger around 8am, she realised the hood hid a bruised, anxious face. "Can you help me?" the teen said. "I just want to get home. Please help me."
The teen said he had "been kidnapped and he's been traded through all these people and he just wanted to go home," Night said. According to a police report, the teen later said he had escaped his captors - two men - at a nearby motel in Ohio, bolting for safety over a bridge connecting Cincinnati to Kentucky.
When he later told authorities his name, it would kick law enforcement authorities nationwide into action. He said he was Timmothy Pitzen.
In May 2011, 6-year-old Timmothy was last seen leaving his elementary school in Aurora, Illinois, with his mother, Amy Fry-Pitzen, 43. Three days later, she was found dead in a motel room from an apparent suicide. The boy and his Spider-Man backpack were gone. Fry-Pitzen left behind several cryptic notes about her son's whereabouts and unanswered questions that have haunted family members and authorities.
As national attention fixed on the case, police continued searching, but each clue seemed only to sink the disappearance into more confusion.
Now, nearly eight years after Timmothy was last seen, the 14-year-old found Wednesday in Kentucky says he's the same boy whose family back in Illinois has been waiting for his return. The Chicago Tribune reported that detectives from suburban Aurora, Illinois, left Wednesday for Ohio. DNA testing reportedly will be conducted within the next 24 hours to settle one of the most confounding child disappearances in recent history.
"We have no idea if this is Timmothy Pitzen," Aurora police Sgt. Bill Rowley told the Tribune. "We don't know if it's a hoax. Obviously, everyone's hopeful, but we have to be super judicious."
Timmothy's grandmother, Alana Anderson, said she was "cautiously optimistic" after hearing the unexpected news.
"We never stopped looking for him. We are thinking about him, and we love him," she told Chicago's ABC affiliate. "We will do everything to get him back to a good life."
Timmothy's aunt, Kara Jacobs, echoed the message, telling NBC Chicago, "We've always felt strongly this day would come."
The Washington Post was unable to reach Anderson and Jacobs for comment yesterday.
Alarm bells went off for Jim Pitzen on May 11, 2011, when he went to pick up his giddy, gregarious 6-year-old from Greenman Elementary School in Aurora, about 60km west of Chicago.
"Well, he's not here," Timmothy's teacher told Pitzen that afternoon, he later told MyStateline in 2017.
"What do you mean he's not here?" Pitzen replied.
"Well, he got picked up around 8:10 or 8:15 in the morning," the teacher responded. Timmothy's mother had taken her son from the school for a family emergency, Pitzen quickly learned.
The couple was having trouble. His wife had struggled with depression for a number of years, surviving at least one suicide attempt, according to Crime Watch Daily, an investigative national television show. When Pitzen's calls kicked over to her voice mail, he tried to put the situation in the best light.
"I'm like, 'OK, she's upset with me for some reason, she needs some time to calm down,'" Pitzen told Crime Watch Daily. "I figured everything would be fine and we'd be one big happy family again."
When she didn't make contact with her husband the next day, Pitzen called police.
As Crime Watch Daily reported, security footage recovered by police would lay out her and Timmothy's wandering movements over the next days in snapshots: footage of the mother leading her son out of school by his hand on the day they disappeared; footage of the two at the nearby Brookfield Zoo, then 60km north at the KeyLime Cove resort in Gurnee, Illinois; footage of them 260km to the northwest checking into a Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin; footage of her 190km south in Rockford, Illinois, walking into a grocery store - alone.
On May 14, Fry-Pitzen was discovered dead in her room at a Rockford motel. Timmothy was gone.
She left behind suicide notes, one in the room where she died, two others mailed to family and a friend. The notes said she had given her son away and that he would never be found, CBS Chicago reported.
"I've taken him somewhere safe," part one of note read, according to Crime Watch Daily. "He will be well cared for and he says that he loves you. Please know that there is nothing you could have said or done that would have changed my mind."
Her cellphone was also missing.
In the early days of the investigation, authorities learned she had taken two trips before her death to the area where she later killed herself. Police believed the excursions indicated she had planned her son's disappearance in advance.
An inspection of her car also revealed the vehicle had recently been on unpaved roads. Searches, however, turned up nothing.
In 2013, her phone was discovered on the side of a northern Illinois road, but its data did not offer new direction.
"I always wonder what she told Timmothy," Pitzen told People in 2015. "Why hasn't he tried to call? We taught him how to dial 911: 'This is your number, this is your mom's number, you know where you live, your address,' all the stuff you do."
Pitzen continued: "He's not with his mom. He's not with his dad. Who are these people he's with? And how do they know him?"
Some of the information made public since Timmothy's possible reappearance on Wednesday may begin to fill in those answers.
According to a police report released Wednesday by authorities in Sharonville, Ohio, one of the departments that helped search for the alleged kidnappers, the 14-year-old said he had been held by two men for seven years.
He described the men as white, with "body-builder type" physiques, according to the report. One man was described as having black curly hair, a Mountain Dew T-shirt and a spider-web tattoo across his neck. The second man is short with a snake tattoo on his arm.
The 14-year-old told authorities he had been held captive by the men in a Red Roof Inn before escaping on foot, and that the men drove a white Ford SUV with Wisconsin plates.
According to WCPO, authorities have searched multiple locations of the motel chain in the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky region but have yet to locate men matching the teen's description. On Wednesday night, the FBI announced it was working with local law enforcement to determine whether the teen's story is true.
But at least one additional detail seems to link the 14-year-old discovered in Kentucky with the 6-year-old who went missing in Illinois.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the teenager told authorities his birthday was October 18, 2004 - the same birthday as Timmothy's.