http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/VA-news/VA-Pilot/issues/1994/vp941211/12120209.htm A CHILD VANISHES, AND STILL, NO ANSWERS
December 11, 1994
State trooper C.J. Ellyson comes to a well-beaten path, marked by a red ribbon on a sapling, and stops:
Here, the boys slipped into the woods with a loaded BB gun, imagining themselves great hunters in search of a kill.
Ellyson moves under towering oaks, gnarled maples and bare pines, retracing their steps:
Five-year-old J.R. couldn't keep up, wouldn't be quiet and didn't listen to his older cousins, Tommy, 9, and Lloyd, 8.
The trooper reaches an abandoned trailer.
Here, J.R. wouldn't go on. He wanted to go home. He was hungry. Tommy couldn't understand why his little cousin was making a fuss. J.R. turned back alone, while his cousins moved on.
That much, the polygraph and psychological tests confirm.
The rest, Trooper Ellyson doesn't know. So he speculates:
Little J.R. is halfway home when he looks around. The forest, bathed in early morning light, casts the same seductive look in every direction. He doesn't know where he is. He doesn't know how to get home. He runs back to the abandoned trailer. But his cousins are gone. He's walking, now running. Panic sets in. Then . . .
``I don't know, I don't know,'' Ellyson says. ``My kids would have screamed.''
This is a killing field, where men, women, even preachers, armed with rifles and high-impact bows and arrows, rustle behind laurel bushes and take aim at deer, bear, turkey, rabbit and squirrel.
This is a forest that swallowed up a little boy from Leesburg, Va. On May 1, Victor Dwight Shoemaker Jr. - J.R. - vanished from the rugged mountainside near the remote hamlet of Kirby.
The massive searches are over, the media glare has subsided, but still no answers. J.R.'s case is a rarity - about 95 percent of all missing Virginia children are found. Most are teenage runaways. Only 3 to 4 percent are cases of parental abductions. Fewer than 1 percent are kidnapped by strangers.
Foul play hasn't been ruled out in J.R.'s case, but authorities say there's no evidence that the 5-year-old was abducted or murdered. Even so, the West Virginia State Police have been joined in the investigation in recent weeks by the FBI - under the jurisdiction of the federal kidnapping law, according to special agent Peter J. Krusing.
In other words, J.R. may have been taken across the state line.
But details are not forthcoming - other than the fact that the FBI was aware of the boy's disappearance and monitored the case until moving on it in late November, or thereabouts.
Even such dates are under close wraps. ``I can't get into specifics,'' said Wells L. Morrison, special agent supervising the case. ``But the FBI considers this matter to be a high priority investigation.''
This matter was only supposed to be a family reunion.
Early that Sunday morning, cousins Tommy and Lloyd waited on the trailer stoop while Nettie Shoemaker dressed J.R., her only son, in a pair of red shorts, a red T-shirt and Nickelodeon sneakers. Hunting gear. At least for a 4-foot, 40-pound suburban boy.
J.R. loved the woods, perhaps even more so because he lived in the confines of a Leesburg apartment. He loved to cross creeks and climb trees and, even in snow, he hated wearing socks and shoes. Every time Nettie and his father, Victor Sr., took him to Hampshire County to visit ``Pap,'' his step-grandfather, J.R. always recognized the turn into the Short Mountain Village subdivision, a rough-hewn pocket carved out of the wilderness.
He was sharp - a whiz at Super Nintendo video games. He was clever - a crack at imitating a Texas drawl, a West Virginia twang. And, he had a good sense of direction.
J.R. knew the woods so well that one time, when cousin Tommy had killed a rabbit, J.R. bounded alone back to the trailer to announce the news to his mother. ``He always knew how to come back,'' Nettie said.
After all, the three boys had played in these woods countless times. It was no different on this particular Sunday. Nettie, a 44-year-old assembly-line worker in Loudoun, went out, lit a ``Basic'' menthol light 100 and, at 8 a.m., May 1, did not know this would be the last time she would see her little boy.
``I saw them go up the hill.''
Within a half-hour, Tommy and Lloyd emerged from the thicket alone, heads down. Nettie knew something was wrong.
``Where's J.R.?'' she asked three times.
He's up in the woods, they told her.
``They never looked at me, nothing,'' Nettie said.
Pressed for details, the two boys told J.R.'s parents where they had left J.R. in the woods. Only they got it wrong:
It wasn't where they actually parted company.
``I don't think they lied, I just don't think they told the whole truth,'' Trooper Ellyson said.
The boys already knew they were in trouble - they had been told to keep an eye on J.R. Even more, they knew they weren't supposed to play around empty trailers, like the kind they left when they last saw their 5-year-old cousin.
For an hour, J.R.'s parents searched frantically in the wrong place.
Nettie knew certain things about her little boy that worried her: Sometimes, when J.R. was hiding, he didn't respond to her calls. He was afraid of the dark. He was so friendly that he could be easily enticed by a stranger.
``He always smiles,'' she said. ``He could be mad, but he always smiles.''
Less than two hours after J.R. left his mother's sight, a radio dispatcher called the McKee funeral home in the nearby town of Augusta; there, a button was pushed that set off a pager on the bedroom dresser of Robert J. Walker, chief of the local Volunteer Fire Co. 3.
On a Sunday morning, that meant trouble. Walker heaved his thick frame into his Chevy four-wheel-drive and digested the report: A 5-year-old boy was missing in Short Mountain.
Navigating the tortuous roads, Walker recalled two boys lost in a nearby forest a couple of years ago while visiting their grandparents. He and his crew searched all night before they found the boys the following morning beside a log.
Walker only hoped nothing serious had happened to this youngster.
``We're in a nice little quiet remote area of West Virginia,'' he said. ``You just don't want to think seven, eight miles from your residence you had an abduction.''
Cousins Tommy and Lloyd eventually identified the right spot in the woods, about a half mile from home, and passed a lie-detector test and play-therapy exam, according to police.
Nettie wasn't required to do the same. But J.R.'s father, a 48-year-old apartment-building janitor, was subjected to a polygraph and passed. So did Sherrie Lynn Musselman of East Freedom, Pa., Tommy's mother and the daughter of J.R.'s father's half-sister.
Criminal background checks and an investigation of the movements of every family member in the area that morning turned up blank.
But Nettie isn't satisfied: ``I still say the two boys know something. I'm not saying they're guilty of anything. I'm saying they have to know something.
The alternative is perhaps too painful for a mother to accept.
She reveals little emotion when reminded of J.R. That he doesn't like sweets. That his favorite food is hotdogs and Spaghetti-O's with meatballs. That he won't drink soda pop, his favorites being milk and iced tea. That he likes to cut up cardboard boxes and make houses. That he likes to draw pictures of little animals and snowmen.
``Everything runs through your mind from daylight to dark; you never stop thinking,'' Nettie says in a monotone. ``It's about got us ate up. We don't sleep, you cry yourself to sleep. . . . We've been on that mountain with a fine-tooth comb. . . . We never found a piece of hair, a shoe, a footprint, nothing, and it rained that night. . . . Nothing makes sense.''
Victor Sr. struggles to keep his voice from breaking: ``I'd just like to have him home right now, that's it.''
Before noon, neighbors, police and volunteer firefighters were poring through the woods, while Walker, the fire chief, set up a command post near the family's trailers. Throughout the day, Victor Sr. would approach him for updates. Had he heard anything about his son? Walker could tell both parents had been crying, but he didn't have any news.
That night, as the search continued, temperatures hovered near the freezing point under a light rainfall. On Monday - Day 2 - the Assembly of God church in Kirby turned into a 24-hour command post, while the McDonald's in nearby Romney began a weeklong practice of donating hundreds of burgers and soda pop to volunteer searchers.
Day 5, Thursday, May 6. More than 400 volunteers from West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina had already rushed to Short Mountain, searching hundreds of acres. Helicopters with heat-sensor imaging devices swooped over the rugged terrain. Divers plunged in ponds. Even local schools let their children miss class to search for J.R.
Then a body was found - that of a volunteer with the Appalachian Search and Rescue team who had fallen asleep at the wheel after a fruitless night in the forest. She had crashed into a tree and died instantly.
The search was called off.
``I know the woods pretty well. If he was in the woods, they would've found him,'' said bearded hunter John J. Pindell, a cabin-dweller in Short Mountain. ``There's something phony.''
Nettie and Victor Sr. may never learn whether cousins Tommy and Lloyd know anything more. The families have stopped talking to each other.
Since the summer, there has been virtually no contact between J.R.'s parents and the rest of the family involved: Pap, J.R.'s ailing step-grandfather; Oscar ``Butch'' Wolford Jr., J.R.'s father's half-brother, and his son Lloyd; Sherrie Lynn, her husband and their son Tommy.
``I don't know, we were close,'' Sherrie Lynn said. ``I was right there in the room when (Nettie) gave birth to J.R. From birth, I called J.R. `Sweet Cheeks.' . . . I don't know if it's just because our kids came back and he didn't.''
Sherrie Lynn knows about loss. Years ago, two of her brothers died in separate drowning accidents.
``The family isn't normal, put it like that,'' she said of her upbringing - seven siblings, seven fathers.
One family relation, 22-year-old David W. Wolford, was arrested two weeks after J.R.'s disappearance and convicted Nov. 17 of child abuse.
Untreated for weeks, his 12-month-old daughter, Katosha Hott, suffered from a broken leg and arm and what was described to the jury as a ``hangman's fracture'' to her neck. The infant's mother pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain.
David maintains his innocence in that case. He has not been connected in any way to J.R.'s disappearance, police said.
Pap, J.R's step-grandfather, is David's grandfather, according to Wolford's mother and other family members.
``I didn't know he was related to me,'' David said in a jailhouse interview.
He and J.R. share the same blond mop and liquid blue eyes, but David said he never met the little boy and never went to Short Mountain.
``I just hope they find the little fella alive,'' David said. ``I hope nothing serious happened to him.''
In late May, the television series, ``America's Most Wanted,'' aired a segment on J.R., and the National Guard was called in. In September, an Army Reserve special forces unit descended on the scene, followed by 14 cadaver dogs.
One bloodhound appeared to pick up J.R.'s scent out of the subdivision to the paved road - the only way out by car. But trooper Ellyson discounted it as a red herring: Too many people had already trampled the area.
Earlier, scant reports had tantalized, but led nowhere: footprints on the porch of a mountainside home, but too large. Three rocks, arranged in a triangle, with a stick in the middle and three logs on the sides. Another dead end.
But town talk continued to simmer. In a dusty, out-of-the-big-city community like this, speculation has a way of spinning its own life, even more than seven months after J.R.'s disappearance.
Folks in these parts have time to theorize.
``I just think that family knows more than what they're saying,'' said Charles ``Buddy'' Wolford, making his third coffee run of the day to the local McDonald's. ``If that boy was on that mountain dead, they would've found him - unless he's on that mountain buried someplace. In that case, he didn't bury himself.''
Rumors have been so rife that some neighbors even figured Wolford, a former Romney cop, was related to J.R. because he shares a last name with the boy's step-grandfather. In fact, Wolford isn't family, although he acts like it, curling his meaty fingers menacingly when he talks of the missing boy:
``In all my years in law enforcement, I've never seen anything like this. Goddam, if that doesn't make you feel like putting your fingers around somebody's neck.''
In a way, if you live in Hampshire County, you are family. All 15,000 locals, many of them retirees and factory workers who commute across the border to Winchester, Va., seem to know each other.
Which leaves few distractions - other than hunting, the high school Trojans and the occasional adventure:
``NOW OPEN HILLBILLY HILL TATTOO HEALTH DEPARTMENT APPROVED GRASSY LICK ROAD AIR CONDITIONED,'' proclaims a home-made poster tacked on a pull-off a few miles from Romney.
It's the nature of the county seat, which boasts two traffic lights and a historical marker proclaiming the town's place in Civil War history: ``No great battles were fought here, but during the War the town changed hands 56 times.''
To live in Hampshire County, however, is not to drop off the ledge of civilization. Reporters for the 8,000-circulation weekly Hampshire Review keep a bead on the ebb and flow of news, enough that events as far as South Carolina resonate here.
``That Smith lady in the Carolinas, I think that's got people feeling, `Things come back, maybe that happened to J.R.,' '' said Short Mountain resident Charlotte D. Davis.
No reference was needed; everyone here has heard of the case of Susan Smith, the woman who confessed to drowning her two sons in a faked carjacking on Oct. 25.
For Davis, it only brought back painful memories of J.R.
``I think there was foul play,'' she says, suddenly bringing both hands to her face to hold back a flood of tears. ``I always thought the family knew what happened, everyone pretty much feels the same way, that they know. Things just don't click, don't add up. I've lived out that way all my life. . . . It just don't add up.''
Again, her hands rise. She thinks of her 7-year-old grandson.
``It really affected him. He couldn't sleep, he kept asking questions. `Was the little boy dead?' ''
If only Clinton Jay Ellyson knew.
``I've never had one like this,'' the trooper says.
On the wall next to his standard-issue office desk is a cartoon drawing of an angry-looking state trooper who looks a lot like Charlie Brown:
``God put me on Earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right Now I'm so far behind I'll never Die.''
Ellyson was the artist. He wanted to be a high school art teacher, or a barber, like his father, which he tried briefly and didn't particularly like. At least not as much as when he joined the West Virginia State Police five years ago.
He is a senior trooper, one station above the bottom rung on the promotional ladder, but lead investigator on the J.R. case. When it broke, he was assigned to no other case for two months; he was even given two senior officers who reported directly to him.
But then, leads started drying up - and slight gray patches began cropping up on his temples. ``I never really noticed them 'til about six months ago,'' he says, catching himself. ``But I don't think it's connected to the investigation. I just think old age is setting in.''
Ellyson is 32 years old.
Stocky, direct, thorough, he remains somehow opaque behind his steel-rimmed glasses, as though they contain whatever emotion he may actually be feeling.
``I try to leave the job at the office,'' he says, then betrays himself. He has a 9-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, not much older than J.R. ``I find myself keeping a closer eye on my kids. I caught myself doing that as recent as last night at the mall.''
He does it at home, too, lying in bed before falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, semi-conscious.
``I run these scenarios through my mind. I actually get up and write them down before I go to sleep.''
Ellyson has been over everything, again and again. The woods . . . the family . . . their trailers . . . .
``There are times I sit and wonder, `What is there I could be doing that I haven't done?' ''
A few weeks after J.R.'s disappearance, events seemed to repeat themselves. Trooper Ellyson was hunched over his desk, reworking the case, when a call came in.
The same dispatcher uttered those words again: A kid's missing. The same sergeant who took the first report on J.R. took this one: A 7-year-old boy from the D.C. area was missing in Short Mountain.
Oh, God, not again, Ellyson thought. He was about to go off-duty. He didn't.
Ellyson immediately called for officers to close off the area until the dogs got there. Within an hour, the boy was found - on the other side of the mountain, where he was picked up by a Realtor and buyer. They fed him at McDonald's, then took him to the sheriff's office.
That's what should have happened to J.R., but from the beginning, his case seemed touched by grim omens. A week earlier, a power line had fallen, igniting a 23-hour fire in Short Mountain. The day J.R. vanished, May 1, was a witch's holiday, and the Rev. Bobby J. Basham of the Hayfield Assembly of God said, ``There is satanism here.'' That same week, another Shoemaker - no relation - was found dead, buried in a shallow grave in his garden in a neighboring county.
What did it all mean?
Nothing was ruled out. Not even the self-proclaimed psychics.
Ellyson was naturally skeptical when he got a call early in May from a man named Louis G. Gonot, a 41-year-old raspy voice from Bridgeport, Ohio. But he listened to the man's vision anyway:
``I seem to be the little boy. . . . I'm on this hillside. The sun would move from my right to my left. There's a crevice to this hillside. I'm looking into a valley, not a deep valley. And straight ahead of me, there's this house, a shack, something of that nature, and there seems to be a hill behind it. Looking to the right of the shack, behind it, there are trees. To the left of the shack, the trees seem to diminish. As the hill drops straight down, there is a road there. Sitting there, looking down at the shack, the boy, I feel, ends up at the shack.''
As Gonot described the scene, Ellyson became increasingly uncomfortable. The place being described in the woods existed - down to the last detail.
And there was more. Gonot had actually helped locate a body before in West Virginia. On Dec. 2, 1991, a coal miner was swept away in a flood. Gonot drew a map for authorities, indicating the man's body would be found in a fork of the creek under a bright yellow marking.
On Jan. 13, 1992, two beaver trappers found the miner's body in a fork of the creek under a tree pierced with a bright yellow feather-tipped arrow.
``It was just where he said it would be,'' said Chief Deputy Art L. Watson of the Marshall County Sheriff's office.
``There was a wild-looking person with a beard, long hair, that had something to do with this boy's disappearance,'' Gonot says, continuing his vision of J.R. ``He seemed to be watching this boy as he moved through the forest. He knows the woods, but he doesn't know the boy. Now, remember, when I'm the boy on the hill, that may mean I'm being guided to see what I need to see. The police keep missing something. There's only one vision I see every time. That is the little boy in a hole in the ground. I see it over and over again. Trapped. . . . He seems to be in a fetal position. There's still some life energy there. I don't feel dead.''
Gonot's call sent Ellyson rushing back to the woods. He found nothing.
The Short Mountain site is abandoned now, a lurid monument to J.R.'s disappearance.
Pap, J.R.'s step-grandfather, fell ill with a bleeding ulcer and moved in with Sherrie Lynn in Pennsylvania. No one sits on the busted vinyl pickup seat on the little porch built onto his decades-old trailer; idling there is a broken plastic machine gun, a child's toy.
Butch, J.R.'s father's half-brother, left the other trailer and moved in with his girlfriend. His aqua green trailer is propped up precariously by cinder blocks. A red tricycle minus the wheels is discarded nearby. A mermaid figurine with a blue fin sits on the front stoop, keeping watch.
A red outhouse decays about 50 yards away in the clearing. Peeling, torn, nothing distinguishes it - except for dozens of .22-caliber bullet holes ripped through the side. Testimony to target practice.
Empty as it is now, the Shoemakers can't stay away. They return almost every weekend to look for their son.
`Every time you go back,'' Nettie says, ``you feel close to him.''