For families of missing children, the pain is not knowing
May 13, 2013 6:00 am • By Todd C. Frankel
To her, he’s 9 years old. Brown hair and blue eyes, freckles along his nose. Small gap between his two front teeth.
“That’s what I remember, this little 9-year-old boy,” his mother, Peggy Kleeschulte, says.
Scott Kleeschulte disappeared in 1988. He walked out of his house in St. Charles on June 8, the start of summer vacation after first grade. A neighbor spotted him a few blocks away. Then Scott was gone. Vanished. No body. No clues. Among the missing. After 25 years, he’s still missing.
That’s all his mother knows.
She has suffered a quarter-century of worry and fear. Time has not dulled it. She still chokes up when talking about him. She still can’t bear to keep pictures of him up in her home, the same house on Leverenz Street where she and her husband raised Scott and his four siblings. She still thinks about him all the time.
She just wants to know what happened to her boy.
“That’s the main thing, to know one way or another,” Kleeschulte says. “It’s just hard to not have the closure.”
When any child goes missing — in those panic-soaked first moments — the ending is unknown.
In almost every case, the end comes quickly with the child returned home alive, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. Most often they are unharmed. That was what happened earlier this month in Bloomfield, Mo., where authorities found a 9-year-old boy who had simply lost track of time playing by a creek, terrifying his mother.
Sometimes, the resolution takes days. Some are runaways.
Kidnappings by strangers are uncommon. But learning what happened can take years, as it did in Cleveland with last week’s stunning rescue of three women about a decade after they were abducted.
But in the rarest of missing-children cases, the end never comes. Families are left to forever wonder, years unspooling without any idea whether their child is alive or dead, whether he or she suffered or went quickly. It is, many say, the worst possible outcome.
‘I WANT AN ANSWER’
Kelly Murphy knows what it feels like.
She runs Project Jason, a nonprofit in Yakima, Wash., that assists the families of missing people. She said every family she had helped was thankful for the resolution when it came, even in worst-case scenarios involving a brutal murder. It surprised her at first. But she came to understand.
“Because having an answer is better than not knowing,” Murphy said.
She started Project Jason after her son, Jason Jolkowski, disappeared. He was 19, on his way to work at a Fazio’s restaurant in Omaha, Neb. He left behind money in the bank, his car, his family. That was on June 13, 2001. Investigators and his family never turned up a clue. He just vanished.
“I want an answer,” Murphy said.
Murphy watched the recent news out of Cleveland and felt elated. It was a miracle. It gave hope to mothers like her. The families in Cleveland got their answer. They no longer needed to contend with the confused feelings of loss that often arise in missing-children cases, when it’s not yet known exactly what the grief is for.
“No one can really know what it’s like to have ambiguous loss,” she said, “until it’s happened to you.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children currently tracks about 3,500 cases of long-term missing children. There are probably many more cases the nonprofit does not know about, said its senior executive director, Robert Lowery.
In Missouri, the state highway patrol counted 494 adults and 206 children last year among its active missing-person cases stretching back to 1953. Some were missing for weeks and others, including John Wagner, for years.
Wagner disappeared in Monroe City, Mo., in the northeastern part of the state, in 1968. He was 16. He would be 61 today. But his family is still looking for answers, using the Feb. 18 anniversary of the day he vanished to try to raise awareness of his case.
The statistics are grim. The chance of a missing child’s returning home alive fades with the passing hours and days. But then there is the Cleveland case. Plus the rescues of kidnapped children such as Shawn Hornbeck, Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard.
These can’t be the only missing children out there alive, said Lowery. “There have to be other children in this peril.”
And the public is fascinated. Meaghan Good can’t trace the exact moment when her own deep interest began. But now Good, a resident of tiny Venedocia, Ohio, runs CharleyProject.org, which runs summaries of more than 9,000 unsolved missing adults and children from across the country. It is a comprehensive database.
Good said she was motivated by a desire to keep these cases in the public’s eye. The number of visitors to her website tripled and then surged even more after the rescue of the Cleveland kidnapping victims.
Good said she couldn’t imagine how it felt to be the parent of a missing child.
“That has got to be the worst thing that can happen to a parent, even worse than knowing they died,” she said.
But, Good said, she can take some small measure of the loss. Her brother died in a car accident when he was in high school. She saw what it did to her parents. “I know how it affected them,” she said.
Becky Perry Klino never discovered what happened to her son, Branson Perry. He was 20 when he disappeared on April 11, 2001, from Skidmore, Mo. Authorities suspected foul play.
Over the years, his mother tried to keep the public interested in the case. She paid for billboards. She set up a website. She pressed the police. She wanted an answer. She died from cancer in 2011, the case unsolved. Earlier this year, a new grave marker was installed next to hers. It was for her son, even though he is still considered missing.
Scott Kleeschulte’s mother has hope. It is not the hope that her 9-year-old Scott — who now would be 34 years old — will walk through the door of her home.
Peggy Kleeschulte hopes only for an answer.
She has struggled over the years. The emotions are hard for her to explain. “I am his mother and I am not there to protect him,” she says, her voice trembling. She drives past the scenes of the fruitless searches, and freshly recalls painful moments a quarter-century old. Her mind lapses into dark thoughts when she is alone. She takes comfort in her husband and her other children and her six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
But she wants an answer. She says it seems silly to mention it, but after her father died earlier this year, she imagined he was up in heaven and maybe he saw Scott up there. She hoped maybe her father could give her some sign of what he knew.