MISSING DAVID: PART ONE OF A SIX-PART SERIES
Without a trace
Watertown artist vanished 3 years ago, siblings feel the pain
It's been 1,092 days since friends in Watertown or anyone else saw David Riemens.
The stone mason and gifted artist liked to paint dragons, trains and sprites. He slept in a tree house with his dog and had an infatuation with the vagabond lifestyle.
In the early afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, he left his locked truck in the local Dollar General parking lot and vanished without a trace.
His is the solitary unresolved missing person case in Wilson County, and his absence has baffled police, family and friends. The mystery remains a constant topic of discussion for folks in Watertown where he frequented Lulu's Coffee House & Café, among other spots. Several businesses here display oil paintings bequeathed or sold to them by Riemens, a reminder of his talent and generosity.
The Bohemian soul, who mailed kinfolk and friends thousands of homemade postcards over the years, was 60 when he disappeared, weighed 180 pounds and stood about 5-foot 8-inches tall. He had blue eyes, a moustache, goatee, sideburns and normally wore his brown hair in a ponytail. He left behind his beloved dog and an amazing rock structure, likely his crowning achievement in stone, known as "the hobbit house."
His mysterious departure leaves a batch of unanswered questions: What happened to him? Where did he go? Why would he leave? Could there have been foul play?
Prepared for trip north
Just before he vanished, Riemens withdrew some cash from Wilson Bank & Trust on the Watertown square, packed a bag and let friends know that he planned to drive north to visit family.
"He called and left a message on August 6 saying he had one more thing to take care of and then would be leaving for Michigan," recalled younger brother Jim Riemens.
David's sister Wanda, who received a phone call two days later alerting her that he was missing, recollects her reaction: "I had no idea. I just wanted to get down there and get some answers. I really expected he would just turn up and answer all of our questions."
Sister Janet's immediate thought? "I had this sinking feeling that I would not see him again."
Several days later the trio drove the 538 miles to Watertown, hoping for good news.
That was three years ago, and there has been no news.
What do they believe happened to him?
"I think he's still out there someplace, and that has helped me get through this," said Jim. "In my mind I'm gonna keep him alive."
"I'm just the opposite. I'm pretty sure he is no longer alive," Wanda responded. "I think if he were alive he wouldn't be putting us through this. At least we'd get a postcard or something. Over the years he sent us several hundred. A month might go by and then a week later I'd get two or three."
Says Janet, "I felt and still do that he stumbled across something he should not have and paid the ultimate price for it."
David Riemens was born Jan. 17, 1952, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He and his five siblings (Wanda, Janet, Nancy, Marie and Jim) grew up near the community of Plainwell, 12 miles north of Kalamazoo. Today, Plainview holds a population of 3,800, more than double that of Watertown's 1,500 citizens.
The six, whose father James Martin Riemens was not involved in their upbringing, were separated for a year when they were young with the girls going to one foster home and the boys to another. When their mom remarried in the early 1960s, they spent part of their childhood on a small farm about four miles out of town.
David attended Gilky Elementary School and graduated in 1970 from Plainwell High School. His mother Vivian Crawford Smith worked at Holly's Grill in downtown Kalamazoo, and his stepfather Richard Smith was a factory laborer.
"Holly's Grill was a diner across the street from the 'Kalamazoo Gazette' newspaper. Our mother took orders at the grill, ran the cash register, delivered orders to the tables and kept coffee cups filled. She was the assistant manager," Jim recalled.
Loved painting, cars, baseball
As for his older brother's interests during his teenage years, Jim says, "He has always been interested in drawing. I don't know when he started painting. He has been drawing for as long as I can remember. The only lessons I'm aware of him taking is drafting in high school.
"Education seemed to be easy for him. He loved cars and baseball. He played baseball in high school. I think his first car was a '42 Hudson. I don't think he ever got it on the road. His second car was a '61 Chevy Impala that he loved, and I was involved with wrecking it."
Sister Janet, four years younger than David, says, "I always considered him a mountain man free spirit when I was young. I kind of idolized him for that."
She clings to a few sentimental memories, saying, "I remember when he bought one of his first cars from a grandmother because he named it Isis (after an ancient Egyptian goddess). I always remember he liked mustard, little things like that. I remember music albums that he listened to, The Doors and The Association. I became a real fan because of that. I thought he was real cool and hip."
As a teenager David work at Holly's Grill with his mother for several years and later performed utility work and housekeeping at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo.
Jim's most cherished memory connected to his brother goes back to junior high days.
"He was a couple of years ahead of me. In middle school I was having a hard time with a bully. David was in high school and came by and stood up for me in front of the whole school and got me out of that bully situation," he reminisced.
Jim also recollects that David did a bit of hitchhiking as a teenager and also would occasionally hop a train to Kalamazoo with a cousin.
Gone to Tennessee
David and Julie McManus, his high school sweetheart, wed in 1971 and moved to Middle Tennessee in the mid-1970s, settling in DeKalb County where they took up a laid-back lifestyle near Dowelltown in DeKalb County.
"It was not really a communal lifestyle. Everybody was in separate dwellings, so it was a bunch of people in separate houses, more of a community of people from different places," recalled McManus over the phone from her home in Sacramento, California.
After they divorced in 1978, the couple remained close. She shares that just before David went missing, she received a long letter and a lot of pictures from him.
Shocked when she got word he had vanished, she believes her ex-husband was murdered.
"That's the only estimation that makes any sense to me. He will probably never be found. I can't think of anything else," said McManus. "It would not be like him to just take off and especially, leave his dog behind. When we were married, he would tell me and just take off for a few days, but he would have not left his dog behind. His dogs were his babies, always."
Footloose and free to travel
David never remarried He lived the life of a bachelor and worked when he wanted to.
"When asked what he does for a living, he would reply, 'Whatever I want to.' I would imagine the stone work was the most profitable work. He worked for an airport, a county park and a drafting company that I am aware of," said Jim about his brother.
He notes that David never made a habit of carrying much cash. "I don't think he used money very much. He would always have what he needed, but it would not be a lot."
Jim said that David began taking adventures to the American Southwest in his 20s, and he made repeated trips over the following decades.
"A lot of his paintings in the later years have details about that lifestyle, lots of teepees and coyotes and desert scenes. It was important to him," said Janet.
Longtime girlfriend laments
Kathy Lynn Gold had known David for 40 years, going back to their early 20s in Kalamazoo. Today she lives near Lawrence, Michigan, in a cabin that he helped her build 12 years ago.
"He was the most free-spirited, artistic and loving person, but he also has a gruff side and was very much of a loner," she says. "He was one of my most loved people and still is. I've lived alone most of my life, and if I was ever in a situation I could not handle on my own, I would call David and he would come to me, He was someone I could always depend on."
David visited Gold frequently on his trips to Michigan, and she visited him and her close friends Laura and Donald Nuessle about once a year in Tennessee.
"He did all the chimney rockwork on my cabin, which is magnificently beautiful. The day he disappeared he had planned to drive to my house to do maintenance work on the rockwork. I waited all night, and he did not come," she remembered.
"The next day I got a call from Laura, and when I heard he was missing, my heart sunk. As the days went by, I went through the grieving process... He and I thought as we grew older we would live on the same land as helpmates and companions, and I thought it was about coming to that point when he disappeared.
"I think he must have met with some type of foul play. I don't think he would have ever put Laura, Donnie, Julie and me and all his other beloved people through this grief and sorrow we have all felt since he disappeared."
Soon after David's disappearance, his brother Jim, aided by donations from kindred folks in Watertown, rented space on a billboard beside Highway 70 calling attention to the family's plight. It stayed up for three to four months.
A reward also was posted for information that would lead to David Riemens' whereabouts.
"We do have about $2,000 that was collected by the good people of Watertown. The Crime Stoppers organization posted a $1,000 reward when he first disappeared, but I don't know if that is still active," Jim said.
As for how the Wilson County Sheriff's Department has been handling the investigation, he says, "I believe they're doing everything that can be done. This is one of those situations where they have nothing to go on: absolutely no lead. They have been very cooperative, and every time we have asked, they go over what they are working on."
Describing her absentee brother's personality, Wanda says, "He was carefree most of the time. He liked to pick up and go and do what he wants and when he wants to do it."
"He's a leader definitely. He did things his way. He did what he had to do to get by but was pretty much a free spirit, I guess. He wasn't tied down. He'd be gone in a moment's notice. That's what I keep hanging on to," said Jim.
"It's like a part of me is missing. I can't name it, but there is a loss," Jim revealed. "There's a feeling that something is missing. We didn't see him a lot, maybe once a year, but I like to think that he's out there and OK. We've lost one sister already. It's a tough thing to live with."
Without closure the ordeal continues to take its toll on David's siblings. Without knowing whether he is dead or alive, there can be no funeral, yet Janet shares, "I'm still grieving."
As for what she misses most, besides the obvious, Wanda says, "I miss going to the mailbox and finding a postcard."
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.