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ALSEA BAY, OREGON
THE first of the winter storms had begun just after Thanksgiving. For a little over three weeks the rain pounded the Oregon coast, driven inland in violent gusts, until the very ground seemed in danger of being swallowed up by the spreading wetness. The water ran everywhere: down the eaves of every building in the tiny hamlet of Waldport, Oregon; down the drain-spouts, down the narrow blacktopped roads, into the corrugated drainage culverts, down to the thundering seas, themselves alive with vaporing wisps of pelleting spray.
The wind off the ocean topped out around thirty knots, shoving the drops sideways, working the frigid water inside jacket collars, sleeves, down shirt fronts, anywhere it could find bare flesh. The temperature was only in the low forties, but the wind made it seem much colder. Aubrey Von Mader walked with his burly shoulders hunched, ducking the hurtling drops, the way one does in a land that gets nearly fifty inches of rain each year. Either you learned to live with the rain and the cold on the coast, or you moved; it was as simple as that.
Von Mader picked his way through the small town, crossing the glistening highway until he came to the entrance to the Bayview Mobile Home Park, an assortment of tidy doublewides arrayed across a sandspit that jutted into Waldport’s pond-like Alsea Bay, separating the bay from a tidal estuary called Lint Slough. He had been visiting a friend on the ocean side of the highway, and now he decided to visit his mother and father in the mobile home park before returning to his own place in Newport, about fifteen miles north on the coast.
As he turned into the mobile home’s driveway, Von Mader realized that his parents’ van wasn’t in its usual spot; he guessed that they were visiting someone. Taking a last drag on the cigarette he’d been smoking, Von Mader went to the rear yard of the house, where the waters of the slough lapped along a barricade of rip-rap placed there to protect the spit from the tidal action. Von Mader made ready to throw his cigarette down on the glistening grass, then decided to pitch it into the slough. As he looked over the edge, Von Mader’s blood ran cold: floating there in the tidal current was the still body of a very young child, clad only in underwear.
Von Mader’s mind went blank. He stood staring at the thin little figure, bobbing gently in the water. His first conscious thought was of a fishing boat that had capsized offshore the week before, claiming the lives of four men. The inevitable eventuality of fishermen lost at sea was one of the most sorrowful aspects of life on the coast; every year brought another toll of those who wrested their living from the sea. But in almost the same instant Von Mader knew that this boy could not have come from the lost vessel: no one would dress their child merely in underwear while out at sea in the middle of winter. No, this was something far more sickening—Von Mader’s instinct told him he was looking at the awful result of something horribly evil.
After some time had passed—Von Mader wasn’t sure if it was ten seconds or a lifetime—a voice inside his head told him to go inside and call someone. Without knowing quite how he got there, Von Mader was at the telephone, dialing 911. He went out to the front of the mobile home to wait. About ten minutes later, he saw the first of what would eventually be a parade of emergency vehicles pull into the narrow blacktop lane that led into the mobile home park.
Alighting from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s patrol car was Deputy Brady Endicott. Close behind was a second deputy, Lieutenant Ed Stallard. Von Mader took Stallard and Endicott around to the back of the mobile home. The little boy’s body was beginning to float away, and Von Mader realized that the tide was running out. Endicott pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, and waded into the water to pull the small form onto the bank. He and Stallard put the boy on a tarp on the concrete sidewalk that ran near the bank. Von Mader went inside to get away from the awful scene. He’d seen death before, but this—this was more than he could handle.
Later, after all the emergency vehicles had left—after the small body had been taken away by the hearse from Bateman’s, the local funeral home—two detectives asked to talk to Von Mader. They wanted to know if he knew who the little boy was. Von Mader said he’d never seen him before. There were “marks” on the body that caused them concern, the detectives said, and Von Mader knew the detectives believed that the boy had been murdered. The detectives walked through the mobile home, looking at things. One spotted a water pistol—perhaps the sort of thing a small boy might have, or be interested in. Von Mader explained that his mother used the squirt gun to keep a pet cat housebroken. He knew the detectives were just doing their job—that sometimes, the one who discovers the body is also the one who needs to be investigated. It didn’t bother Von Mader. What bothered him was the face of the little dead boy. Von Mader knew he’d be seeing that in his mind for a long time to come.
That afternoon, after everyone had gone, Von Mader thought it was probably best that he had been the one who found the boy. The mobile home park had a number of elderly residents, and for some, the gruesome sight might have been the last thing they ever witnessed.
That evening, Von Mader walked back to his friend’s house on the other side of the highway. He decided to stay the night there because his parents’ mobile home suddenly seemed threatening. The image of his horrifying discovery burned into his thoughts, and it wouldn’t go away—not then, and probably not ever.
Almost as soon as he saw the body of the boy floating in the slough, Ed Stallard knew that he had a big problem. It was the underwear. Like Von Mader, Stallard knew that that meant the boy almost certainly had not come from a wrecked fishing boat, or even a car that had run off a road somewhere. The only reason a child would be wearing virtually no clothing in the middle of the wet, rainy season that was winter on the Oregon coast had to be foul play.
That was such a ridiculous phrase: “foul play,” as if murder was some sort of game with rules. It was a Britishism that had crept into the American idiom, a bit of typical understatement holding that homicide simply wasn’t at all sporting, old chap; still, there it was, and even the news media now routinely used the phrase, as in “foul play is [or is not] suspected.” Stallard knew that under the present circumstances, it would only be a matter of hours before the news of Von Mader’s discovery disseminated throughout the coast community, and probably with the obligatory reference to “foul play.” But that wasn’t necessarily bad. The news reports could be useful—especially if the reports helped the police figure out who the child had been.
Already Stallard knew the body wasn’t that of a local boy. None of the neighbors living near the park were missing any children of the young victim’s age and description. It seemed most likely that the boy’s body had been brought to the slough and dumped there into the water after he had been killed elsewhere. That meant the child’s home could be just about anywhere. Although Lincoln County had a permanent resident population of about 45,000, the county’s status as a tourist destination meant that as many as 50,000 more people might be in the area at any given moment.
Soon after he had recovered the body from the slough, Stallard made the telephone calls necessary to activate the Lincoln County Major Crimes Team. This was the most efficient way of dealing with difficult crimes in a mostly rural area, because it drew on investigative expertise from the three largest incorporated cities of the county—Newport, Toledo, and Lincoln City—as well as the county sheriff’s department and the Oregon State Police. Not for Lincoln County was the sort of turf-war jealousy that often bedeviled rival departments in larger jurisdictions; Lincoln County simply couldn’t afford not to use all of its relatively sparse resources as effectively as possible.
As it happened, the major crimes team was already at work when Stallard called it together; a fatal stabbing earlier that same day at Lincoln City had required the team’s convening. Now Stallard arranged to have detectives from the team meet at the Waldport town hall for an initial briefing on the dead child. Because the body had been found in Waldport, which contracted with the county for police services, the sheriff’s department would be the lead investigative agency. Stallard assigned the case to one of his department’s detectives, Patricia Miller. Miller, known as Trish, would be the inquiry’s primary investigator until the case was solved, and after that, if the case ever went to court.
The immediate challenge faced by the major crime team was identifying the small victim. Stallard guessed the boy had been somewhere between 4 and 6 years old; he appeared to be healthy and well-nourished. It wasn’t very likely that a boy like that would go unmissed. The boy had to have a parent or parents someplace. The canvass of the neighborhood had yielded no results, so that meant the boy probably had come into the county from outside. Stallard’s worst fear was that they might be dealing with a murderous pedophile—someone who had kidnaped a child from some distant location, and then had driven through Lincoln County and dumped the victim there. In that case, the perpetrator could have been several states away by the time the boy had been discovered.
The best estimate—preliminary, and just from a visual inspection—was that the boy had been in the water from eight to ten hours. Because Von Mader had first seen the body just before 11 A.M, that seemed to indicate that it had been put into the slough sometime between 1 and 3 in the morning. There were no obvious injuries—no gunshots, no stab wounds—so the official cause and manner of death would have to be determined by an autopsy. It was always possible that the little boy had drowned, the result of some sort of so-far unreported accident. But Stallard and the others had seen enough to allow them to guess at the true cause: probable asphyxiation, the medical people would say—manner of death, homicide. In other words, it seemed likely that the little boy had been smothered to death, if he hadn’t been deliberately drowned.
Stallard put in a call to the Coast Guard, and asked them to send up a helicopter to search the area from the air; he had some other deputies searching the banks of the slough from the water. Maybe the wider searching would turn up some sort of explanation. Maybe there was a wrecked car under the water someplace nearby; maybe someone had missed a turn in the darkness, in the rain and wind, and so had careened, unseen, into the depths. But Stallard didn’t really think so; he had, in fact, a very, very bad feeling about this . . .
THE air and water searches turned up nothing of consequence, and by the following day Stallard and Miller were not much further along. True, the autopsy was under way in Portland, and Stallard expected that to clearly show that the little boy had been murdered, and exactly how. But, for the time being, Stallard kept these thoughts to himself. The main objective at this point, he and Miller agreed, was to get the boy identified. Once that was done, then they could begin to make progress on how he had come to be in the slough in his underwear. To try to surmount this problem, Stallard briefed the local news media at a press conference attended by Sheriff John O’Brien and Lincoln County District Attorney Bernice Barnett on Thursday, December 20, 2001.
The boy in the slough, Stallard told the assembled news media, had been about four feet tall, and weighed about fifty pounds. He’d had short-cropped, light brown hair.
“The child was in very good health, was well-groomed,” Stallard said. “We believe that he had been well taken care of and at some point, somebody is going to realize that this child is missing, a relative or someone, and hopefully contact us. We’ve done a complete canvass of all the residences in the area. Nobody reported seeing this child. We’ve been in contact with the schools, both public and private, and he does not appear, at this point, to be local.”
Because of this, Stallard added, the Lincoln County Major Crimes Team had been in contact with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which had promised to produce a computerized drawing of what the boy had probably looked like when alive. In addition, he said, they’d sent teletypes to all Western states describing the boy, as well as the Oregon State Police Missing Children Clearing house. So far they’d found no reports of any missing children that matched the little boy’s description.
Sudden, tragic death was something many on the coast had come to accept as part of life—as inevitable as the turn of the seasons, as the fog that lay close in along the valley floors, as the danger of the currents over the bars at each of the small harbors’ mouths. In this week before Christmas, the coast found itself in mourning once more, this time for the four fishermen whose boat had capsized, and who were lost at sea. The month before that, two teenagers viewing tidal pools were swept out to sea by a rogue wave, and were lost. Now, even as the community reeled from those tragedies, there was the unknown little boy, lost somehow, somewhere, abandoned to the vicissitudes of the tides. The fact that no one seemed to know him didn’t make his death less important than the others; it was just that there was only so much grief that one could bear, and that had to be husbanded for the sorrows still to come.
The coast had always been a place apart from the rest of Oregon, separated by the heavily timbered Coast Range from the rich farmland of the Willamette Valley to the east. It was among the last areas of the state to get reliable transportation; until the first north–south road along the coast was finally built in the 1920s, the only official “highway” in the area was the beach—rocks, bogs and high tides notwithstanding. In the beginning, back in the late 1860s, the primary means of reaching the Pacific shore from the rest of the state was by rivers: the Coos, the Umpqua, the Siuslaw, the Alsea, the Yaquina, the Siletz, and others, most of them originating high on the western slopes of the Coast Range, gathering waters as they rolled westward down to the sea. In all, the Oregon coast stretched nearly 350 miles from the California border to Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. The shore was dotted with small harbors, from Coos Bay on the south central coast, and north, to Reedsport, Florence, Waldport, Newport, and Depoe Bay (billing itself as “the Smallest Harbor in the World”).