Widow returns to find closure in loss of husband

LIHU‘E — Drownings on Kaua‘i are an all to tragic occurrence and when no bodies are recovered the suffering of families may linger indefinitely. The wife of a visitor who reportedly disappeared in waters off Po‘ipu last year has returned to Kaua‘i for the first time hoping to find closure.

Charles Slezak, a 67 year-old California man, was last seen Oct. 3 after reportedly going for a swim alone around 3:30 p.m. in the vicinity of Kiahuna Plantation in Po‘ipu. A three-day air and shoreline search produced no sign of the man.

Linh Nguyen, the wife of Slezak, made a brief visit from May 9-11 for the first time since losing her spouse, with the hope of finding some evidence of his fate. She is looking to find island people who may have found some clue to Slezak’s disappearance and to satisfy any lingering doubts about his fate.

“This is the very first time in my life to cope with that type of tragedy,” Nguyen said. “I really don’t know what to do. Every day I try to go to work and every time I come home and get in the house I feel so depressed.”

Nguyen visited the Kaua‘i Police Department who she said kindly briefed her. She and a niece posted flyers around the island about her husband.

Slezak was a recently retired video engineer and Nguyen said his life was his work. He planned to work past age 70, but found himself retired at age 66 when the company closed after its new owner Kodak went bankrupt.

“He went to school for more computer skills and we really enjoyed traveling,” she said.

Nguyen recently extended her retirement plans after earning a higher level clinical pharmacy license in 2005. Unable to plan an extensive vacation in 2011, the couple opted for a brief return to Kaua‘i where they would begin home shopping for retirement on the island that reminded Nguyen of her native Vietnam.

“We traveled almost every year to Hawai‘i,” she said. “We had been to all the islands but we loved Kaua‘i the most.”

After five days the couple was returning to their condo from visiting a farmers’ markets. Slezak took a short nap while Nguyen poured into her continuing-education homework.

By mid-afternoon Slezak was up and said he was going to enjoy the water for a short while on the beautiful day. He hadn’t swam yet in their visit and found a couple of small pink flippers in the condo.

“He gave me a last kiss, and came back in five minutes,” she said. “He came back and put his wallet, his house keys, his car keys, wallet and everything with me including his shoes. He said ‘I don’t need all this’ and that he would be back in less than an hour.”

Nguyen started cooking dinner. She began worrying where Slezak could be after 6:30 p.m. as it was getting dark and windy.

She walked outside and noticed there were no more tourists around. It was dinner time.

By 10 p.m. she was frantic and went to the front desk to report Slezak as missing. They called police but it was too dark to begin a search.

A massive effort involving Kaua‘i Fire Department, the police and the U.S. Coast Guard started next morning at sunrise and lasted three days in rough weather.

Helicopters and boats searched the ocean in rough weather. Three plainclothes police officers looked for Slezak on land.

The body of a Korean tourist who was swept out to sea from a South Shore beach was located the second day. Nguyen said police updated her regularly but reports of her husband were always the same.

“It was a mixed feeling of worry and hope,” she said. “I was always looking at the door and hoping to see him standing there.”

By Thursday Nguyen considered canceling her return plane reservations. She asked her volunteer-based support, Gina Kaulukukui of Life’s Bridges and Sue Kanoho of Visitor Aloha Society of Kaua‘i, if it was best to wait here for news.

The two encouraged Nguyen to return home. She said they felt it was best be in a more comfortable place and with loved ones, and that they would report any news to her immediately.

“I couldn’t stand to be alone in that place,” Nguyen said. “It was still a strange place for me to be alone.”

After giving police all the information she thought could help, Nguyen pointed out the area where Slezak planned to go snorkeling. She mentioned that he was a strong swimmer in very good health and enjoyed life.

Her only concern was that Slezak is a curious person who liked to seek out wildlife.

The incident sent Nguyen’s mind in motion. She recalled everything, useful or not, that remotely related to his disappearance.

Part of her accepted it as a tragic accident. Another part of her keeps holding faith that he just disappeared and is still alive.

Nguyen recounted stories that Slezak told about his family history. There was a suicidal stepfather and an uncle who went missing only to be discovered alive years later.

The two married late in life and didn’t have any children, she said. They traveled frequently and did everything together.

Nguyen came to California as a Vietnamese refugee after the fall of Saigon in 1975. She was already a schooled pharmacist and found work in a microbiology lab until she learned English and was able to pass her U.S. pharmacy exams.

The two met through friends at a church and married in 1988.

“He changed my thoughts and changed my way of living,” she said. “He changed everything.”

Nguyen is a practicing Buddhist and is taught to pray extensively when someone close passes away. After 49 days she believes the person must go on to another life.

Despite her strong beliefs Nguyen said she has difficulty believing Slezak is gone and is constantly reminded of his presence every day.

She throws herself into her work but said the biggest challenge of her day is coming home to an empty house for the first time after 23 years of marriage.

If there was a body to bury or cremate she said it would be easier, but that it is very hard to believe he is dead without some proof.

Slezak is Caucasian, approximately 6 feet tall and weighs about 195 pounds. He has brown hair, green eyes, a medium build and fair complexion.

Nguyen returned to post flyers and talk to people who may have found something. He was last seen wearing black and white shorts with a light blue shirt, and carrying pink fins from their rental room.

Anyone with information about Slezak is urged to call KPD Dispatch at 241-1711, the Investigative Services Bureau, 241-1696, or Crime Stoppers, 241-1887.

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or tlaventure@thegardenisland.com.

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