SEA ISLE CITY — Some things have changed since 2009, when Tracy Hottenstein’s body was found on the muddy banks of the 42nd Place bay during the city’s Polar Bear Plunge weekend.
But Hottenstein’s parents, Charles and Elizabeth, still have questions a decade later.
What happened to the 35-year-old Hottenstein between the almost six hours from when she left the Ocean Drive Bar & Restaurant at 2:15 a.m. Feb. 15 and when her body was discovered at 7:50?
How did the pharmaceutical sales rep and lacrosse coach from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, get from a bar near the ocean side of the city to the banks of the bay near the Sea Isle City Marina a half-mile away?
Why did she have three fractured ribs, and why was her body cut and bruised if she died from hypothermia?
“This situation is very difficult for us, losing our daughter,” said Charles Hottenstein, 76, who added her birthday was Feb. 18. “For the first five or six years, we came down and talked to everyone we could talk to. We put brochures and signs around. We walked during the Polar Bear Plunge and handed out brochures to people.”
The parents went to their daughter’s grave Friday in Pennsylvania, decorating it with flowers and Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies memorabilia. They also put Valentine’s ornaments at the grave and released heart-shaped balloons. The cemetery let the parents build a memorial garden with plants, flowers and a bench.
They put a wreath at the marina where their daughter was found. They updated it in the fall when they last visited. They also stapled to the marina wall the flyers they handed out looking for information.
Elizabeth Hottenstein, 77, is upset the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office does not list their daughter’s death on its website as an unsolved, still open case.
“We’ve been told by Cape May County that if she was chased into the water or pushed into the water, it would be a homicide. My feeling is we don’t know what happened, so it’s 50 percent one and 50 percent the other at the moment until there is something that proves it in one direction or the other,” Elizabeth said Friday.
The Polar Bear Plunge celebrated its 25th anniversary this weekend.
In 2009, the event drew a record 1,450 participants, according to sponsors, but anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people were expected to be in the city for this weekend’s festivities, said Jim Bennett, plunge chairman.
Proceeds from plunge registrations go to the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and the city’s Tourism Department to promote the city’s summer activities, said Bennett and Mayor Leonard Desiderio.
In the decade since Hottenstein’s death, there have been changes in the city, but the alterations may not be specifically related to the Hottenstein case, said Paul Baldini, the city’s solicitor since 1993.
The review process for large-scale events in the city was upgraded a couple of years ago, Baldini said. Some of it is Homeland Security-related, including the plunge weekend, he said.
“I do know they have more cameras. I don’t remember if there are ones specifically on the boat slips, but there are new cameras in and around the marina area,” Baldini said.
They may have widened the area where people plunge and added more lifeguards, Baldini said.
The city’s weekly newsletter this week reminded everyone that walking with open containers in public is illegal in the city.
“Please leave your adult beverages at home or at the bar,” the notice said, adding jitney service is available on the island during the weekend.
A quick scan of the beach Saturday afternoon showed many people with red plastic cups and bottles or cans of beer.
One of the changes in the city that resulted from Hottenstein’s death was the addition of about eight permanent, marine-based, steel ladders to the docks at John F. Kennedy Boulevard, so someone could lift themselves out of water and onto the docks more easily and by themselves, said Michael Cardinale, 24, who installed the ladders as an Eagle Scout project in 2011.
“I had been thinking of a couple of ways that I could benefit my community obviously, but also possibly make that never happen again,” said Cardinale, a Sea Isle resident who is currently in college in Florida.
Michael Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant on Park Road, grew up in the neighborhood where Hottenstein died. He used to post fliers in his storefront asking for witnesses to provide information. He said the last time he had a flier in the window was at least a few years ago.
“That was a horrific loss for that family. Any parent would have a deep, deep sorrow that lasts with them throughout a lifetime. My heart goes out to them,” said Monichetti, who founded an annual run and walk for autism that will take place Sunday as part of the weekend’s festivities. “You are never supposed to bury a son or daughter before yourself.”
Staff Writer Molly Bilinski contributed to this report.