Grieving family wants safer party weekends

Hoping to prevent Shore deaths

Tracy Hottenstein, of Conshohocken, was found dead along the waterway near Sea Isle's public marina on Feb. 15, 2009, the day after thousands of tourists flooded the city for the Polar Bear Plunge.

THE WALLS OF the Sea Isle City Council room are painted to resemble a tropical paradise, with sailboats cruising in the turquoise waters beneath blue and purple skies.

During a recent meeting there, one couple and their two adult sons sat silently, staring at that idealized version of the resort town and listening as the mayor and Council members spoke about beach replenishment, youth hockey teams and why the high cost of health care would affect the 2010 budget.

This family's mind was focused on the muddy bank of a back bay just a few blocks away, a place littered with dead reeds, mussel shells and a bouquet of pink roses.

"Our names are Charles and Elizabeth Hottenstein. We are the parents of Tracy Elizabeth Hottenstein," Betty Hottenstein said after she and her husband approached the podium at the meeting.

Heads turned after that introduction and a few whispers raced through the crowd before the couple, who traveled from Telford, Montgomery County, reminded everyone of what happened to their daughter at the annual Polar Bear Plunge last year, and urged city officials to prevent a similar incident from happening again next month.

Tracy Hottenstein, 35, a pharmaceutical sales representative from Conshohocken, was found dead along the waterway near Sea Isle's public marina on Feb. 15, the day after the event. Thousands of tourists flooded the city that weekend, some paying a fee to charge into the frigid Atlantic Ocean for charity while others crowded bars and nightclubs, ran in charity races and shopped at craft fairs.

Hottenstein didn't participate in the plunge, but she did spend most of Valentine's Day inside three of the city's biggest bars. According to Hottenstein's parents, investigators learned that Tracy had been visibly drunk by 4 or 5 p.m. that day, yet was still allegedly being served alcohol shortly before she was last seen leaving an Ocean Drive bar.

Investigators still don't know how or why Hottenstein wound up at the marina six blocks away or whether she was alone when she left the bar. Her parents said a man Tracy had spent most of the day with was seen on videotape leaving the bar shortly before she did. The Cape May County Prosecutor's Office never deemed the death suspicious or named anyone a suspect.

In May, the Southern Regional Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death accidental as a result of hypothermia and acute intoxication. Tracy had also suffered three broken ribs along with bruises and scrapes along her arms and legs.

The prosecutor's office stressed in May that it was still trying to fill in the gap between the last time Tracy was seen and the five hours that passed before her body was found. Investigators handed out fliers in Sea Isle during Memorial Day weekend but Prosecutor Robert Taylor wouldn't say whether he intended to conduct a similar operation during the Polar Bear Plunge four weeks from today.

"I can only say that it's an ongoing investigation," he said.

The Sea Isle City Taxpayers Association has since sent a letter to Gov.-elect Chris Christie, asking him to appoint a special investigator in the case.

The Hottensteins admit they may never know what happened, but they have vowed to make a difference by exposing the levels of public intoxication in the city during festive weekends such as the Polar Bear Plunge.

"We know that we most likely cannot stop the 2010 Sea Isle City Polar Bear Plunge," Betty Hottenstein said at the council meeting. "But we implore you to make it a model of safety . . . You have a duty to control the overconsumption of alcohol on this weekend."

Last month, the Hottensteins sent a letter to New Jersey's Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control asking the organization to monitor Sea Isle bars during the event. A spokeswoman for the ABC declined to comment.

Betty Hottenstein acknowledges that her daughter decided to drink but insisted that the bars and city bear a responsibility to ensure the safety of tourists.

"I am not negating my daughter's responsibility and I as a parent take some responsibility myself, but in no way, shape or form has the city taken responsibility," she said.

The city, she said Tuesday, has its priorities on tourists and focuses on cosmetics, the beach and the revenue they bring in. At the time of Tracy's death, the city's public marina on 42nd Place was desolate, yet accessible to the public at all hours, and the manager there told the Daily News last year that Tracy's hat was found on one of its wobbly docks. The Hottensteins don't believe police cars patrolled the street while their daughter froze to death.

The street where Tracy was found now has new lighting, a boardwalk that spans her makeshift memorial, and a large amusement park where a parking lot once was.

Few city officials or bar owners have commented publicly on Tracy's death, particularly after the Hottensteins retained an attorney. Mayor Len Desiderio, who also owns a bar in town, left the meeting before the Hottensteins spoke and didn't return phone calls or e-mails for comment. Organizers for the plunge did not return phone calls for comment.

Councilman Michael McHale, who thanked the Hottensteins after their public comments, said Tracy's death was difficult for the city and that the family's word would not go unheard.

"Things are going to be much tighter this year," he said. "The bars know they're going to be scrutinized."

Police Chief Thomas D'Intino could not be reached for comment, but McHale said the department was still detailing its plan for the Polar Bear Plunge weekend, including the late-night hours after bars are closed.