Cold Case Unit’s end could leave boy’s disappearance unsolved

December 18, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Funding trouble leads sheriff’s office to disband program

David Adams

In May 1968, 8-year-old David Adams disappeared from Tiger Mountain as he walked home for dinner.

Searchers combed Issaquah and the surrounding area in the days ahead, as the mystery attracted attention from throughout the Pacific Northwest. The search brought as many as 1,000 people to Issaquah, but detectives and volunteers found no signs of David.

The case file sat on a shelf at the King County Sheriff’s Office for 41 years until early 2009, after the agency received a federal grant and launched a renewed push to solve several cold cases.

Despite successes in solving other years-old cases, grant funding is gone and county dollars to continue the program from September to December since evaporated.

David’s case could remain unsolved for decades more — or perhaps forever — once the sheriff’s office Cold Case Unit disbands at year end.

“We’re not walking away from these cases,” Scott Tompkins, lead detective on the Adams case, said in a recent interview. “If we were to get a DNA hit tomorrow, or if we were to get a tip tomorrow, it would be worked. But, then again, nobody is proactively working these cases once the unit is gone. That’s the difference. Nobody is picking a new case off the shelf and submitting evidence and trying to contact witnesses.”

The plan is for the sheriff’s office to reassign Tompkins and another detective to the Major Crimes Unit to work assaults, homicides, robberies and more. The agency is likely to lay off the Cold Case Unit’s civilian crime analyst.

Major Crimes Unit Sgt. Jesse Anderson said, in the past, detectives in the Major Crimes Unit used to work cold cases alongside other investigations, but the cases seldom received the required attention. The agency now has fewer resources to tackle everyday investigations, let alone cold cases.

On the Web

Read The Issaquah Press’ 2009 series about the 1968 disappearance of 8-year-old David Adams at http://bit.ly/J7WgDt.

“Now we’re looking at going back to square one. We’re probably worse off than we were before because we’ve been reduced in the number of detectives we have in Major Crimes,” he said. “Just with the everyday stuff that we have going on, there’s just no way we’re going to be able to work those cases proactively. It’s very unfortunate.”

Search yields no clues

On May 3, 1968, David rode the bus from Clark Elementary School to a stop along Southeast Tiger Mountain Road and then went to play with 6-year-old Kevin Bryce, a friend from church.

David needed to return home for dinner at about 5 p.m., and Kevin and David walked to a bridge across 15 Mile Creek. Kevin asked David if he could reach home, and David said yes and headed to the shortcut.

The moment marked the last time recorded sighting of David.

Issaquah, then a faded coal and timber outpost, captured headlines for about a week, as hundreds of searchers fanned out to hunt for signs of David.

Crime seemed almost nonexistent in remote Issaquah, and residents left doors unlocked and allowed children to roam the Cascade foothills unsupervised.

The investigation unfolded as a search-and-rescue mission. Perhaps David fell into a coalmine shaft or suffered a wild animal attack. The possibility of abduction did not shape the initial investigation.

Detectives did not collect much evidence. Searchers crisscrossing Tiger Mountain easily could have damaged clues.

The search teams combed the area for about a week after David’s disappearance, but the investigation cooled after no signs appeared.

David’s mother, Ann Adams, 79, understood the difficult task detectives faced to solve the case after more than 40 years.

“When he was lost, the protocol for that kind of thing was not the same as it is now,” she said. “They did not suspect that there was any foul play, so they didn’t look for any. There was no evidence taken at the time. As time has passed, it’s been pretty obvious that there was something or someone that intervened in his situation. If there had been more evidence taken, there might be something to follow up on.”

Community mobilizes for search

Military helicopters outfitted with then-secret infrared sensors buzzed the Issaquah area at night to search for David, but discovered nothing. Issaquah — home to about 3,900 residents in 1968 — hosted hundreds of people searching for the lost boy.

Denny Croston, a lifelong Issaquah resident and a teenager in 1968, joined friends to search Tiger Mountain near abandoned coalmines.

“What we were thinking is that he was going home and taking a shortcut and got distracted, and as far as somebody abducting him, that came out later,” he said. “Nobody really knows for sure.”

Ann and Don Adams, 80, raised six children in their house on Tiger Mountain.

“I know for many years I felt like I didn’t want to move,” Ann Adams said. “What if David came back and we weren’t there and he didn’t know how to find us?”

David’s younger sister, Jill Stephenson, lauded detectives’ openness to listening to ideas and information, and to pursuing decades-old leads.

“We’re very happy and grateful for the work that they were able to do, and for the families that got resolution. We’re grateful for that,” she said. “But there’s maybe some sadness that this is our last chance. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Soon after the Cold Case Unit re-engaged in the Adams case in early 2009, investigators collected DNA samples from Adams family members and interviewed people connected to the case in 1968.

“It was strange that very few, if any, tips came in on that case,” Tompkins said. “But then you think back about how long ago it was and what a small community it was and how few people would have access to information in that case, and maybe it’s not so surprising.”

Detectives focus on neighbor

Investigators focused for a time on a former Adams neighbor, a 20-year-old Navy corpsman in 1968. Detectives interviewed the man and conducted a polygraph test in the days after David disappeared, police records state.

The man agreed to another polygraph test in April 2009 at the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office. The man told Tompkins he assisted in the search, but failed the test, court documents state. The technician administering the test recorded the strongest deception reading in response to, “Do you know where the body is?”

The man also told Tompkins he passed a polygraph test in May 1968, court documents state. However, the test is not included in the current Adams case file.

No conclusive evidence links the man to the disappearance. The Issaquah Press typically does not name a person until he or she is charged.

“If we had enough, he would be in custody,” Tompkins said.

Detectives collected DNA samples from David’s parents, Ann and Don Adams, and older brother Steve, and uploaded the information into a national database.

“David’s DNA profile based on his relatives is in the system, so if a jurisdiction outside King County or if King County were to find some remains, source it for DNA and put it in the database, it would link up with his profile,” Tompkins said.

Barring additional information about the case, detectives and Adams family members acknowledge the case could prove almost impossible to solve.

“They have been very upfront with us from the beginning, telling us that there was not a lot of chance that they would be able to do much as far as David was concerned,” Ann Adams said.

Mystery remains unsolved

Still, a desire to resolve the case remains 44 years after David disappeared.

“My concern is that the people that could actually answer this puzzle will not be around forever,” Stephenson said. “My parents — they’re very healthy, very active, but my dad’s 80 and they don’t have forever.”

Tompkins is sympathetic to the Adamses and other families left with unanswered questions. The sheriff’s office has more than 200 cold cases on file — homicide and missing-person investigations dating from the 1940s.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it. We try to preface it by saying, ‘It’s not that these cases aren’t important,’” he said. “These are just hard times and decisions have to be made on the day-to-day running of the sheriff’s office and budget situations.”

Though the Cold Case Unit is poised to disband, Ann Adams is grateful for the effort the sheriff’s office put into re-examining David’s disappearance.

“I never did have a lot of feeling of optimism that we would come to any more resolution than we have already as far as David was concerned,” she said. “We have seen in the newspaper where they have been able to solve several cases, and we’ve just rejoiced for those families who have been able to have their cases closed and ended in some way.”

Ann and Don Adams left Tiger Mountain in May 2011 to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Louisiana. The couple plan to return to Issaquah in May.

“Here we are retired, and we might as well be doing something that helps brighten somebody’s life a little bit,” Ann Adams said.

The commitment to service reflects the Adamses lifelong dedication to family and community — traits strengthened as the family coped with David’s disappearance.

“You only have one chance here upon the earth, so why ruin it?” Ann Adams said. “I won’t say that it wasn’t difficult for many years afterwards. Always, there’s a time of healing, a time of coming to peace with what the situation is.”

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