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The Vanishing

Smart, spirited, and happily pregnant, Kristine Kupka told friends she was going to check out an apartment with the father of her baby. That was ten weeks ago. She hasn't been seen since.

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She was a romantic -- you could see it in her room: handmade muslin drapes looped through dogwood boughs, low tables bearing plants, vases, goblets. A shawl-draped dresser displaying a tin Barbie box, pictures of herself as a child in Wisconsin and of her sister Kathy's adorable 2-year-old son, named Marshall, after Thurgood Marshall. The books on her shelves (Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement, The Philosophy of Right and Wrong, Development and Dependency) advertised a feisty, cerebral idealism. And on the floor near a stack of CDs (Jamiroquai, Liz Phair, Jeff Buckley, the Fugees) were more books, including a dog-eared copy of Two of Us Make a World: The Single Mother's Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth and the First Year. She was five months pregnant; and though the baby was unplanned and she was adamantly pro-choice (after vegetarianism, reproductive freedom was the cause she fought for most fiercely), she never considered abortion. She was thrilled about having this child, and while her friends had no doubt she could handle single-motherhood ("Kristine is the most competent person I know," says Denise Lilien, her girlhood friend from Madison, Wisconsin), they had worried about her involvement with the baby's father. She had detailed to at least eight confidants every twist and turn in her strange, sporadic five-month relationship with her former Baruch College science instructor and had shared key parts of the story with several others. And so when, shortly after noon on Saturday, October 24, Kristine Kupka, 28, left this room (opposite) with little more than the clothes on her back and didn't return, her disappearance led those who knew her well to fear the worst.

Kristine was a passionate, opinionated person with a strong circle of friends and clear, close-at-hand goals. A college philosophy major two months from graduation, with a 3.97 average, she planned to go to law school and specialize in women's issues. She had a job waitressing at the Caribbean restaurant Negril, near Chelsea Piers, that she would not have abandoned. And she was happy; to those who knew her well, suicide was unthinkable.

Indeed, her life seemed as disciplined and spirited as her room in the wide-porched house near Coney Island Avenue, in a hidden pocket of Brooklyn called Kensington. Deeming Park Slope too expensive, Kristine, who had also lived in the East Village and TriBeCa, rented two floors of this house for $2,200 a month from a Turkish family. Then she shrewdly sublet the extra bedrooms, creating a kind of MTV's Real World of frugal young urbanites: an extravagantly tattooed club bouncer, a New York Times cyber-journalist, a hotel trainee, and two college students.

Within a week, there were news reports of her disappearance (PREGNANT HONOR STUDENT IS MISSING; SIS FEARS PREGNANT BARUCH COED WHO VANISHED IS DEAD), and on November 10, her friends held a vigil. Outside Baruch's main building at Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street, they embraced, cupped votive candles, held up signs expressing their fear and outrage (KRISTINE KUPKA: MISSING 17 DAYS; 17 DAYS TOO LONG). Kristine's sister, Kathy, heartbroken and hoarse, was given a bouquet, and a plate was passed to collect reward money.

Then weeks went by without a breakthrough. As the mid-November wind loosened the flyers (PLEASE HELP ME FIND MY 5-MONTHS PREGNANT SISTER) from the maple trees, the candle-clutching group that assembled in front of Kristine's house for a second vigil was smaller, and the TV crews failed to materialize. A mere $5,000 had been raised to induce anyone with information to come forward. (It has since been doubled, with a donation from Baruch's alumni association.) Kathy Kupka had taken on the drained aspect of Dorothea Lange's dust-bowl mother. Desperate to believe Kristine might still be alive, she had spent a recent day and night in New Jersey, futilely following a telephone tipster who promised to lead her to her sister. That outing had underscored her hellish limbo: Should she hope, or grieve? Use common sense, or take leaps of faith? Speak in the present or past tense?


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