Hope revives in 1955 case of missing Sullivan totSisters of missing boy provide DNA
By Victor Whitman
Posted: November 08, 2009 - 2:00 AM
Janet Haiss reflects at her parents' former farmhouse on Denman Mountain in Grahamsville, where her 22-month-old brother Freddie “Tookie” Holmes disappeared 54 years ago. She's hopeful that modern science might help crack the case of his disappearance.
Dorothy Brown finds herself in crowded places peering at men she doesn't know. She looks for blue eyes and curly blond hair that remind her of her missing brother. She hasn't seen him in more than 50 years, but she holds out hope that he might be out there.
Brown's brother was 22 months old when he walked away from the family home in the secluded Catskill woods on Denman Mountain.
He was never seen again.
"I used to go up there once in a while, touch base I guess," said Brown of the two-story home that still stands off a steep road in the Town of Neversink.
"It has always bothered me. I had children of my own, but it doesn't do the same thing. I find myself in an airport, and I look to see if somebody could look like my brother. It is hard when you are a close family."
Frederick Holmes, known as "Freddie" or "Tookie," disappeared on May 25, 1955. Hundreds of men and boys searched the rugged terrain for days. Troopers concluded that the boy fell into one of the gorges that slice across the mountain or that a black bear grabbed him. They could never explain why no remains of the boy's clothing turned up. People searched the crevices and woods for a month. No trace of the baby was ever found.
Brown and Janet Haiss, Freddie's two surviving sisters, believe their brother is still alive. And this summer they were given hope again of solving the 54-year mystery.
Two national missing persons organizations and the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office are re-examining Freddie's case. The sisters recently submitted a DNA sample that will be used to create a profile for Freddie. The profile can be compared with DNA in unsolved crimes or when people come forward with stories of being snatched.
The family has always believed Freddie was kidnapped.
"He was a beautiful child," said Brown, who was in the eighth grade when her brother disappeared. "He had long, blond curly hair and you could put a dress on him and take him away. They could have taken him to Indiana, Kentucky, who knows? I have never felt that he is dead."
Gertrude Holmes, the boy's mother, believed her baby was taken and sold. Police came to her with photographs of nameless boys that had been found. Gertrude died at age 61. Her daughters say she was never the same after her son vanished.
"She had a hole in her heart, that is how she described it to me," Brown said. "I think it contributed to her early death."
Freddie's disappearance proved too much for his father.
Thirteen years after the boy went missing, Roderick Holmes, a town highway worker, walked into the same woods that swallowed his son and slashed his neck and wrists. He was found lying face down in a thicket near the Tri-Valley Central School, "a stone's throw" from where the boy disappeared, the then-Times Herald reported in 1968. He was 51.
Two brothers and two sisters died without knowing what happened to their brother. A third sister, who was born after Freddie disappeared, also died.
Brown has taken the lead in the family in trying to revive the case. She kept the newspaper clippings and contacted the state police a decade ago requesting the case file. Troopers had no records of the investigation.
The family moved away a short time after Freddie disappeared. The house is now a hunting lodge. At 66, Haiss has trouble walking on the uneven ground where her brother vanished.
"I would let him know that we were thinking about him, that he was not forgotten," said Haiss, who has lived most of her life a few miles from her old home but hadn't been back in many years.
"He is in your heart and your mind," she said. "It is always a little there."
This summer, the sisters gained new hope when they connected with Todd Matthews. He works for a national missing person's network and solved the baffling case of "Tent Girl" a decade ago.
Matthews recommended DNA testing and directed the sisters to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The nonprofit will create the DNA profile for Freddie using the sisters' DNA.
Matthews now works as a systems administrator for the Department of Justice-sponsored program The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. He has written a history on the little evidence available on the Freddie Holmes disappearance. There's a possibility someone could read the story and come forward with information.
"It was completely forgotten and I wanted to change that," Matthews said. "That is one thing I could do for that family."
In September, the sisters provided a swab sample to authorities in Sullivan County, where Haiss still lives, and in Milo, Maine, where Brown lives. It will take about six months to create the profile and then be analyzed against DNA profiles of unsolved cases around the country.
Freddie's profile could be compared with the DNA profile on file in the infamous "Boy-in-the-Box" case in Philadelphia. A boy with curly blond hair and blue eyes was found, beaten to death, in a cardboard box in 1957. He was about five years old. Brown has always feared the boy might be Freddie.
"Our cold case unit at the center has opened a file on this," said Robert Lowery, executive director of the center's Missing Children's Division. "We are going to work with law enforcement and see if there is anything at all in the historical records. It looks like Sullivan County is taking a strong interest in this with us "» . Here at the National Center we will always look for these people, no matter how old this case becomes."
The day he disappeared
Freddie Holmes was last seen around 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, wearing brown corduroy overalls and a long-sleeve polo shirt. His brothers and sisters were in school. Gertrude was crouched in her vegetable garden in front of the house. The boy probably walked by her and stopped at a cobbler's shed next to the home.
The landlord, a shoe repairman who sometimes stayed with the family, was working in the shed. Freddie peeked inside and the man spoke to him. He was the last to see the boy before he vanished.
More than 1,000 people searched the woods and crevices of the 3,000-foot mountain, walking in a solid line. Authorities ripped away the floorboards of the garage and house, and later dug up Gertrude's garden, looking for a body.
They found a stolen power saw under the floor of the cobbler's shed and charged the shoe repairman with possession of stolen property. He was never connected with the boy's disappearance.
Gertrude and Roderick were taken to Albany for a polygraph test and were cleared.
Freddie Holmes, who would be 56, remains an infant in the minds of his sisters. In one of the few photographs taken of the boy, he was 14 months old and standing on the porch holding his arm out, his fingers stretched and reaching. His mother kept one of his toys, a green rubber policeman riding a motorcycle. The boy's white teddy bear and a duck-shaped rocking chair that Brown made for him in school have been lost.
"He belongs to us," Brown said. "There is always a little bit of a spot that is missing. It is missing, no other way to describe it."
Janet Haiss’ parents’ old farmhouse on Denman Mountain in Grahamsville looks much as it did those 54 years ago when her baby brother mysteriously disappeared.
One of the few remaining photos of Freddie Holmes.
This toy motorcycle cop was carefully kept by Freddie Holmes’ mother after her 22-month-old son disappeared outside his Grahamsville home in 1955.