On the warm, sunny Sunday morning before he vanished, Nicholas Blasetzky was confused.
The 78-year-old man drove to East Toledo's Harvest Tabernacle Church of God, where he had been a member for more than a half-century, but something was peculiar: The congregation was milling in the parking lot when he pulled up in his old white Buick.
Church was over.
Mr. Blasetzky was an hour late. If it had been anyone else, perhaps his fellow church members wouldn't have noticed. But this was their Sunday School treasurer, and a parishioner who for years had been a predictable fixture in the church's front pew.
He had served on the church's building committee, tithed predictably each month, and played accordion on special Sundays.
"Usually he was one of the first ones there, but that morning he was late, and he seemed irritated with himself," said Andrea Tuite, Mr. Blasetzky's friend and part-time caregiver.
The following evening, June, 5, 2000, the retired Jeep worker - known for his quiet demeanor and a knack for growing beautiful roses - climbed into his 1983 Buick.
A neighbor watched as the old white car made its way northward from his West Toledo home, disappearing in the shade of a thick canopy of maple trees that lined the street where he had lived for most of his life.
More than four years later, Mr. Blasetzky has never been seen again. His disappearance remains one of the most perplexing of the 135 or so active missing persons cases now on file with Toledo police.
Mrs. Tuite has repeatedly re-created that Sunday in her mind. And she comes back each time to the same tortured question: Did her friend's disappearance hinge that day on a decision she made?
"Some people told me I should follow him, make sure he was OK," said Mrs. Tuite.
But she knew better.
Doggedly independent, he would have been furious if he had been shadowed, Mrs. Tuite said. Despite a recent diagnosis with Alzheimer's, he was still running his own errands, going to the grocery store, driving to church.
Still, on this warm morning, Mr. Blasetzky wore a bright orange winter cap.
"My husband asked, 'Nick, are you OK?' He just said, 'Yeah,' and then drove away," she said.
It was the last time the Tuites saw their friend.
Most of Toledo's missing person cases are runaway youths, children caught up in custody battles, or even women working as prostitutes. And by far, most missing persons eventually resurface.
But Mr. Blasetzky, after whom the church's fellowship hall is named, has not been seen again.
"For someone to drop off the face of the earth, you have to think it was bad," said Detective Bill Seymour, who is handling the case. "But usually they or their vehicle is found, and you have some idea of what might have happened.
"Here," he added, "there's nothing."
For as long as he lived in Toledo, few people knew much about the Ukrainian-born Mr. Blasetzky.
"Nick wasn't the type of person to talk a lot, and when he did open up, it wasn't about anything with a lot of depth," said Ron Tuite, who with his wife had been caring for his aging friend.
Pastor Garrett Fitzpatrick, of Harvest Tabernacle, agreed.
"He was wonderful, but very quiet," he said. "Pastors are always looking for reliable parishioners. Nick was that guy."
The church, in fact, had become Mr. Blasetzky's family long ago, becoming more important after his two stepchildren grew and moved away and his wife of 45 years, Ruth, once a department-store salesman, died from diabetes in 1995.
"I think in many ways we were what Nick had" in recent years, Pastor Fitzpatrick said. "His brother had died, his children lived far away, Ruth was gone."
The brown brick building on Florence Avenue also was where he found comfort and strength.
After having joined in 1945, Mr. Blasetzky had watched the tiny church grow over the years. He served on a committee that helped the church move from a Woodville Road location to its present home on the Toledo-Northwood city line. Meticulous, he had kept the Sunday school logs and was its treasurer for decades.
"You could ask him how much was collected 20 years ago in church, and he'd be able to tell you," Pastor Fitzpatrick said.
It wasn't just routine for Mr. Blasetzky.
Devoutly faithful, he'd built a small altar in his living room on Eastway Avenue. He made church services whenever he could - as long as they weren't scheduled at night.
"He stopped driving at night a long time ago," Mr. Tuite said.
That's why Kathryn Shine, who was chatting with her sister at the kitchen table that Monday evening of June 5, 2000, noticed when her longtime neighbor, Mr. Blasetzky, climbed into his car about 7 p.m.
The backing lights and brake lights went on, then off. Mr. Blasetzky returned to the house.
"He did it a couple of times, and I remarked how odd it was," she said. "I thought maybe I should say something, but I didn't want to be the nosy neighbor, you know."
Baffled, Mrs. Shine watched as he finally pulled out of his driveway and turned northward on Eastway toward Eleanor Avenue, his car disappearing into the distance.
In his car, which bore his initials on his license plate - NRB 8 - Mr. Blasetzky had a half a tank of gas.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Tuite arrived as usual to tidy the house and found nothing unusual. The open garage door and missing Buick simply meant Mr. Blasetzky was running to the grocery store, she reasoned.
Still, one thing appeared amiss.
Charged with counting Mr. Blasetzky's pills to make sure he was taking them, Mrs. Tuite couldn't find the familiar brown bottle of medicine.
"There was a little table in the kitchen, but they weren't there," she said.
When the Tuites returned on Thursday, their unease grew. The garage door remained open.
Mr. Blasetzky hadn't returned. He hadn't called, either.
After talking briefly to Mrs. Shine, Mr. Tuite dialed 911 while Mrs. Tuite grabbed a picture of their friend off the dining-room buffet.
By the close of the day, police had placed Mr. Blasetzky's personal information and car data on national, state, and regional crime databases. Theoretically, if he or his car were to be found elsewhere in the United States, the database would alert Toledo authorities.
Investigators checked hospitals and local hotels. There was nothing.
They checked with Mr. Blasetzky's few friends and family. They hadn't heard from him.
The story of his disappearance ran in The Blade and on local television news. Still, nothing.
A few "sightings" in Ohio and Michigan couldn't be confirmed. The national database over the coming months churned out possibilities when disoriented men showed up elsewhere. Police checked out the tips. They weren't Mr. Blasetzky.
"He was just gone," Detective Seymour said.
In the science-driven language of a coroner, there are four categories in which to classify a death: suicide, homicide, accident, or natural causes.
There is evidence of none of those circumstances in Mr. Blasetzky's case, even though few people suspect he might still be alive.
To understand that, one must look through the eyes of a veteran detective who has had his share of investigations into grisly and tragic discoveries. Though bodies decay or confused elderly may be hospitalized and later buried with no identity, vehicles are a different matter, Detective Seymour said.
So if Mr. Blasetzky had been the victim of a crime, his car most likely would have been abandoned, in part, because a 1983 Buick is not the type of car sought by car thieves or chop shops. His credit cards weren't used either; his checking account wasn't touched.
The odds are even better that the car would have surfaced if Mr. Blasetzky died naturally, or run off the road, or been the victim in a traffic accident.
With nothing else to go on, police discussed the possibility of a suicide. But if that were the case, why would Mr. Blasetzky have taken his Alzheimer's medicine with him?
In California, his stepdaughter who had been handling Mr. Blasetzky's personal affairs just before his disappearance, declined an interview for this story, saying through her husband that it is just too difficult to talk about.
She had planned a return trip later that summer of 2000, to take her stepfather to California.
The complete lack of clues leaves those who knew Mr. Blasetzky baffled.
In her tidy living room last week, Ms. Shine's voice dropped to just more than a whisper as she waved her hands into the air.
"Thin air," she said. "Just like that. What more can you say than that?"
Contact Robin Erb at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6133.
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