Police and Cape May County detectives will attend this month's Polar Plunge in Sea Isle City hoping to find a witness who may unravel the mystery of a Pennsylvania woman's death.
Tracy Hottenstein, 35, died Feb. 15, 2009, after leaving a Sea Isle City bar intoxicated and apparently falling into the bay, according to authorities. The Southern Regional Medical Examiner's Office said the death was an accident; the cause - exposure to the bitter elements that frigid morning.
"We want to help the family bring closure to this. Obviously, we want to make sure we get it right. That's what we're trying to do at this point," Sea Isle City police Lt. Kirk Rohrer said.
Hottenstein was found dead on the muddy beach near Sea Isle City Marina at 42nd Place, under the shadow of the Sea Isle City Bridge, the main entrance to town. She was discovered at about 7:50 a.m., five hours after she was seen leaving the Ocean Drive Bar & Restaurant several blocks from the marina.
Hottenstein was very familiar with Sea Isle City, having spent vacations there. She was in town that weekend for the annual Polar Plunge, a charitable event that drew 1,450 participants.
She was found on the bank of the bay fully clothed but missing her Ugg boots. She had three fractured ribs, leading to speculation that she may have fallen from one of the many docks in the neighborhood.
But without witnesses to the presumed accident, her death is still an open police investigation, Cape May County Chief of Detectives Eugene Taylor said.
"The medical examiner's report is a living document," Taylor said. "If other evidence is developed, that could be changed. If a witness were to come forward and say we saw someone push her in, the cause of death would stay the same but the manner could change."
Investigators found one of her boots and a pink hat she was wearing floating in the bay.
Hottenstein's final hours remain a blank slate for police and her family and friends.
"We have questions. We don't know what happened from the time she left the bar to the time she was discovered," Taylor said. "We don't have an answer. There were no witnesses. It's not going to ever be closed until we develop a witness."
The woman's family is still pursuing its own answers. Taylor said he spoke to Hottenstein's family this week.
Many people in Sea Isle City are not ready to concede to Occam's Razor, the principle that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.
"I'm having a hard time buying that she slipped and fell," said Michael Monichetti, owner of Mike's Seafood. "There are too many unanswered questions. Maybe I'm more concerned as husband and parent that I always have that doubt in my mind."
Monichetti grew up in the neighborhood where Hottenstein died. Since her death in 2009, Monichetti has posted fliers in his storefront asking for witnesses to provide information. He keeps spares of the fliers ready to go in case one gets torn or faded.
"You'll probably come in 20 years from now and it will still be there. It was a tragedy for that girl, her family and friends, and for Sea Isle City," he said.
Police will circulate fliers at the Polar Plunge the weekend of Feb. 19.
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