Detectives re-examine ’68 cold case with few clues
December 29, 2009
By Warren Kagarise
Innocence Lost, a three-part series about the 1968 disappearance of David Adams.
Part 3: Clues
Investigators scoured Tiger Mountain for almost a week. Volunteers searched for days more. Still, the mountain yielded no secrets in the search for David Adams, the 8-year-old boy last seen near 15 Mile Creek in May 1968.
The disappearance baffled investigators. Left to work with few leads and scant evidence, the case faded into memory for more than four decades — until now.
In the spring, King County Sheriff’s Office investigators received a $500,000 grant to re-examine cold cases. The agency established a cold case unit; detectives treated the Tiger Mountain disappearance as a priority.
When David vanished May 3, 1968, authorities handled the case as a search-and-rescue effort. Perhaps the boy fell down a defunct coalmine shaft or suffered a wild animal attack. After exhaustive searches for David turned up no traces, people suspected something more sinister.
David played with a friend after school, and then left for the short trek home at about 5 p.m. Ann Adams, now 76, asked her son to return home for dinner just before he vanished.
“I have the firm, firm feeling that this was not an accident, that somebody was involved,” she said. “Now, whether it was an accident on their part, I don’t know if they deliberately set out to do harm to him. But somehow along in the association that they had, harm was done to him.”
The lead detective, Scott Tompkins, believes someone else caused the disappearance, too. Everything Tompkins knows about the case is contained in a binder labeled “homicide” — 41 years condensed into three inches.
Detectives collected little evidence from the area where 6-year-old Kevin Bryce last saw David. Nobody knows if searchers damaged other evidence during the hunt for the lost boy.
Tompkins said he was amazed by how little detective work was conducted in 1968, because authorities managed the disappearance as a search-and-rescue effort instead of a child abduction.
“If the community felt that he was attacked by a cougar or fell down a well, then it wasn’t on people’s minds,” he said.
‘Time is the enemy’
Robert Lowery, executive director of the missing children division for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said high-profile abductions and technological advances since 1968 reshaped the way investigators and people approach missing child cases.
“We’re more sensitive now about what happens in these cases,” he said.
Although people opened newspapers, listened to radios or watched television broadcasts filled with information about the case, many reports contained incorrect information.
The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer misidentified the lost boy as “David Adam.” Articles in the days after the disappearance carry reports about bogus sightings. Tompkins said a few reports turned out to be cruel hoaxes.
David disappeared almost a full day before the case received widespread attention. The disappearance received unprecedented coverage, but a key tool investigators use today to locate missing children — the AMBER Alert — was nonexistent in 1968.
Nowadays, information about a missing child can be beamed across TV news tickers, electronic highway signs and mobile phones minutes after authorities determine a child is lost.
But 41 years ago, authorities were unable to saturate the airwaves with the description for a slender boy, 4 feet tall, with dark brown hair and intense blue eyes, dressed in a green-and-brown plaid shirt, jeans and high tops.
“Time is the enemy when it comes to finding a child,” Lowery said.
DNA technology, another crime-solving tool, was unimaginable 41 years ago. Detectives now collect a comb, toothbrush or another item chockablock with DNA traces from missing people to aid investigations.
Not long after the King County Sheriff’s Office revived the Adams investigation, agents collected DNA samples from Ann and Don Adams and uploaded the information in a national database. The agency also collected DNA — through a quick, oral swab — from the oldest Adams child, Steven, who lives in Alaska.
Known as the Combined DNA Index System, the database helps investigators compare forensic DNA evidence nationwide.
Tompkins said DNA samples are key in cold cases. If another law enforcement agency had recovered unidentified human remains, DNA from them could be matched against genetic profiles in the database.
Searchers recovered no traces of David. The first search teams scanned the forest near the Adams house in the hours after David failed to return home. King County investigators arrived the next morning, and volunteers came to Issaquah by the hundreds to search.
Military helicopters equipped with then-secret infrared sensors buzzed the area. Volunteers traveled south toward Mount Rainier to investigate reported sightings. Searchers used fabric strips torn from bed sheets on which David slept to help dogs pick up the scent.
Don Adams, then a captain in the Air Force Reserve, remembers the search dog teams well. He returned from Air Force training in Oklahoma days after his second-oldest son vanished.
But the dogs, like the searchers and the helicopters, found nothing. Don Adams, now 77, recalled a follow-up visit from searchers after organizers called off the hunt for David.
“A few weeks later, they came back, and they said the dogs had never failed to find who they were looking for if who they were looking for was there,” he said. “Based on that, I just assumed that somebody had taken him from the area.”
Detectives eyed a 20-year-old man early in the investigation, a U.S. Navy corpsman whose family lived near the Adamses. Police reports from the days after David disappeared show the man piqued detectives’ interest.
A search volunteer and Tiger Mountain residents said the man behaved in a strange way when asked about the disappearance. Neighbors told police they saw a man walking along Tiger Mountain Road the day David vanished.
A detective interviewed the man May 6, 1968 — three days after a schoolmate last saw David near 15 Mile Creek. The man told the detective he had been taking tranquilizers because, he said, he was “a very nervous person,” court documents state.
Tompkins requested a warrant in October to search mobile phone records because he felt the man, now a Lewis County resident, steered potential witnesses away from investigators. Tompkins described the man as a “person of interest” in the case.
The man agreed to a polygraph test, administered in April at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office. The man told Tompkins he assisted with the search. The man failed the test, court documents state. A technician recorded the strongest deception reading when the man was asked, “Do you know where the body is?”
The man also told Tompkins he passed a polygraph test in May 1968, court documents show. However, the test is not included in the modern-day Adams case file.
No conclusive evidence links the man to the disappearance. The Issaquah Press typically does not name people until they are charged with a crime.
Patrick Tiekamp, 64, is the older brother of the man interviewed by investigators. Tiekamp said Tompkins targeted his brother because the former neighbor happens to be “the last man standing.” Tiekamp said the investigation aggravated the post-traumatic stress disorder his brother developed in Vietnam.
“If my brother had done anything like that, he would have confided in me,” Tiekamp said.
Tiekamp said his brother served in Vietnam soon after David disappeared. In Vietnam, the man worked in a military morgue, and the word body still provokes strong reactions, Tiekamp said.
“Corpsman don’t kill people,” he added. “They save lives.”
‘All is well with David’
Ann and Don Adams never left Tiger Mountain where the family settled with David in 1968.
“There for a long time, we kept thinking maybe one day there would be a knock on the door and there he would be,” Ann Adams said. “We wanted to be there.”
They raised a close-knit family — six children in the house. A daughter was born a few years after David disappeared. Despite the disappearance and unsolved mystery, the Adamses said tragedy never forced them to become overprotective with the other children.
“We’ve had a happy, good life,” Ann Adams said. “Whoever was involved with this, I think I feel sorrier for them than I do for us. My life is just overflowing with good memories and happy days, but they must be carrying a terrible burden.”
The children biked, swam, hiked and picked berries in the thick forest nearby. Still, questions about David remained. Jill Stephenson, the Adamses’ oldest daughter, recalled how she walked through the woods as a child and wondered, “What if I came across him or his bones?”
When detectives renewed the investigation in April, the new attention the case received forced the Adamses to relive the pain from 41 years earlier.
Eileen Erickson, a longtime family friend, described Ann and Don Adams as hospitable, open people unlikely to become distracted by self-pity.
“I don’t think they’re the kind of people who would sit there and say, ‘Why me?’” Erickson said.
Searchers left the Adamses’ house about a week after David vanished. Grief lingered long after a family friend hoisted a bullhorn and ended the search.
“You just deal with grief as anyone deals with grief,” Ann Adams said. “Actually, when they contacted us last spring that they were going to open the case again, now and at this point, I can’t say that I hope they find out what happened. We’re at peace. I know all is well with David, whatever the circumstances are or were.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.