Local News Tuesday, August 05, 2003
Wednesday marks 10th month in disappearance
BY LEROY SIGMAN\Daily Journal Staff Writer
RICHWOODS - It was 10 months ago Wednesday that 11-year-old Shawn Damian Hornbeck got on his lime green mountain bicycle to go visit a friend. It was the last time his parents saw him and to this day authorities say they still have not found a single shred of physical evidence to indicate what happened to the boy.
This does not mean authorities have given up, said Washington County Prosecuting Attorney John D. Rupp. Even though it has been 302 days since the last reported sighting of Shawn, one member of the Washington County Sheriff's Department continues to devote his full attention to the case and other agencies are also working on it.
"Don Cooksey, the former Potosi police chief, is spending most of his time following up leads," Rupp pointed out. "He joined the Sheriff's Department last fall particularly to investigate this case."
The prosecutor, who gets regular updates from Cooksey, pointed out he is well trained. Not only was he a member of the St. Louis Police Department, Cooksey has extensive investigative training since that time.
Also spending considerable time on the case is Special Agent Marvin Singleton of the FBI, who works out of the agency's Rolla office. Rupp said that while Singleton is not able to devote himself to the Hornbeck case full-time, he is very deeply involved in the investigation. Members of the Highway Patrol's Division of Drug and Crime Control are also still very much involved in the investigation.
"There are still leads out there," Rupp said, indicating the investigators received two or three new tips in the past two weeks that they are following up on. "And they are still tracking down some older leads, some of them that go back all the way to the time Shawn disappeared."
Rupp suggested some of the older leads, while promising, have been difficult to pin down. Investigators have interviewed dozens of people about the boy's disappearance and have come up with a number of possibilities, but nothing solid.
According to the prosecutor, there still has not been any physical evidence found regarding the boy or his bicycle. "And, to my knowledge, they have not found a single eyewitness who can tell them what happened to Shawn."
The law enforcement task force formed to investigate the case has been tight-lipped regarding any specific information it has developed. Other sources have indicated many of the leads have involved people who say they were told certain things about the disappearance and others who have heard rumors about what happened.
A big task the investigators have, Rupp said, is trying to separate fact from rumor when they get a new lead. They try to determine just how reliable the new information is before spending a great deal of time chasing it down. At the same time, the prosecutor stressed, they do not take any information lightly.
"At this point I would have to say we are not anywhere close to resolving the case," Rupp said. Almost immediately he added, "But in a case such as this, one piece of information might just break the case wide open in an instant."
Rupp recalled how the disappearance of a St. Francois County couple was solved with one telephone call after nearly a year of intensive investigation had turned up no suspects. Unfortunately, in that case, their bodies were found buried on a farm in northeastern Washington County.
Although investigators and the family of Shawn have openly admitted they know there could be a grim conclusion to the case, they also hold out hope that the boy is still alive and safe somewhere. Such hope has been encouraged with the return this year of several young kidnap victims who had been missing for years.
"This is definitely a criminal investigation," Rupp said again this week, echoing what an FBI agent had said days after Shawn disappeared.
The FBI said early on that abduction is one distinct possibility. It is one of the possibilities that offers the family the most hope that Shawn might eventually be found and returned home safely.
There has also been much grim speculation about what happened and investigators have not ruled out those scenarios. They include the possibility Shawn was struck by a vehicle while riding his bicycle and the driver panicked, disposing of the body and the bicycle.
Another possible scenario that spawned many rumors was that Shawn had accidentally come upon illegal drug activities. During the intensive searches of the rugged area around Richwoods, several old meth-making operations were found but no clues to indicate the boy had been there.
Shawn had left home shortly after 1 p.m. on the pleasant Sunday afternoon, Oct. 6, 2002, saying he was going to visit a friend who lived not far away. While he never arrived at the friends' home, he was seen riding his bicycle along Route A west of Highway 47 as late as 4:30 p.m. There were other reports he was seen in the area of Richwoods School at about the same time.
Those are the last reports, at least disclosed publicly, of when the boy was seen. When he failed to return home by 6 p.m., his mother, Pam Akers, called the friend and was told Shawn never arrived. In less than 90 minutes a massive search effort was launched under the direction of the Richwoods Fire Department and the Washington County Sheriff's Department.
Over the next 10 days, hundreds of volunteers combed the rugged terrain around Richwoods in search of the boy, his bicycle or any evidence of what might have happened to him. They found absolutely nothing in the way of physical evidence.
The remote area of northern Washington County includes old mine sites, extremely harsh terrain, a lot of heavily wooded area, numerous lakes and ponds, and the nearby Mineral Fork Creek. Using horses, all-terrain vehicles and simply walking, the volunteers covered thousands of acres without success. Some of those involved in the searches were specially trained in such operations.
Even the most trained of the searchers admitted, however, that in some areas the vegetation was so dense that they could have walked within a very close distance of something and not seen it. Aerial searches were conducted and lakes were drained, but nothing found.
Pam Akers and her husband have joined with friends and relatives to establish the Shawn Hornbeck Search and Rescue Team as well as the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation. Both are dedicated to an ongoing effort not only to find Shawn, but also to help find other children who disappear.
Not only does Rupp say the criminal investigation is still very active, the prosecutor suggested it would remain a top priority for as along as it takes to solve the case.
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