May-June 2020

Love & tragedy

For Jeffanie Rantung-Kramar, what was supposed to be a honeymoon in paradise turned into unimaginable heartbreak

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With search-and-rescue efforts underway in Molokai, each new day filled Jeffanie with hope for her husband’s safe return and fear that yet another day had passed without any sign of him. “I was pretty much tracking time with each sunrise,” Jeffanie says. Everything in between was a blur.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, the first full day of the search, Jeffanie made three trips to town and bought a bag of rice each time so she could make some for Stephen once he returned. She was at loose ends, and still alone, when Jan Place, a retired local business owner, knocked on her door that afternoon. Place had heard about Jeffanie’s situation at a church prayer meeting after the pastor’s wife received a text from an off-island friend. “She was just a scared little girl,” Place says. “So I introduced myself, took her into my arms and held her as she cried.”

A little more than 7,000 people live on Molokai, a small fraction of Hawaii’s population of about 1.4 million, and the island is 38 miles long and 10 miles across at its widest point, according to a Smithsonian magazine article that describes Molokai as a “throwback to an older, simpler Hawai’i.” The island’s unspoiled nature is part of its charm. A single main road runs from one end of the island to the other, and directions are given based on the nearest mile marker. “We don’t all know each other, but you kind of know who belongs here and who doesn’t,” Place says. “It’s a close community, and if there’s a need, people jump in the way they did with Jeffanie and they start helping.”

Place took Jeffanie to her home, cooked for her and had her stay the night so she wouldn’t be alone until her family arrived. Locals donated two extra rental units at the condo building so her relatives would have a place to stay.

A local schoolyard served as home base for the search team, which included at least 12 firefighters who canvassed the area on foot while the department’s Air One helicopter covered a larger stretch of land from above, according to The Baltimore Sun. They were joined by members of the Police Special Response Team and a tracking dog.

In Facebook posts on her own account and that of the Maui County Police Department (which serves Molokai), Jeffanie urged people to help look for Stephen, fearful that the 72-hour window for the official search-and-rescue effort would end too soon.

“I cannot leave the island without him,” Jeffanie wrote. She emailed friends and Stephen’s extended family—including her father-in-law’s seven siblings and their children—to ask if they knew of anyone on neighboring islands who might join the search. When an executive at Freddie Mac called, she asked if the company could help generate news coverage, hoping that would bring out more volunteers. “I was desperate,” Jeffanie says. “I didn’t want to speak to 30 reporters a day and repeat the story over and over again, but I did it.”

Jeffanie, her cousin and her sister kept themselves busy hanging “missing honeymooner” posters in town, with two photos of Stephen on the couple’s wedding day. Jeffanie’s cellphone number and on-island address were listed on the posters. On occasion, she’d ride with the lead detective as he searched, and a young local woman Jeffanie met took her into the mountains, where they looked for Stephen together one afternoon.

Lian Chong Kalima saw a report about Stephen’s disappearance, connected with Jeffanie on Facebook, and arrived at her condo unit shortly after the detective delivered the news of Stephen’s death. “She looked so broken,” says Chong Kalima, 31, who works part time as a teacher and owns a local cleaning business. Many locals showed up to pray alongside Jeffanie and her family, drop off food and pay their respects. Later that day, on Sept. 21, Jeffanie cancelled Stephen’s flight home and helped arrange for the transfer of his body from Molokai to Maui to Maryland.

Chong Kalima and her husband kept Jeffanie company during her last two days on the island. They took her riding on their ATVs and showed her scenic spots, anything to get her mind off the tragedy. When Jeffanie said she wanted a tattoo of a tropical scene similar to one Stephen had on his right arm, Chong Kalima connected her with a tattoo artist. The tattoo on Jeffanie’s upper right arm—which took three hours to finish—captures the Molokai sun rising on water flanked by mountains and shining on a small black cross in the center.