You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy
A father’s lie.
It starts with a 911 call early Wednesday morning.
The boy’s father calls authorities and says his 5-year-old son got out in the middle of the night and he’s missing.
As it turns out the boy has autism and is non verbal.
3 days later, this call will turn out to be an awful, horrible lie. This call, the catalyst for a 3 day search that brings hundreds of people, caring and praying and hoping to find a child alive, will end up being the beginning of one of the most horrible murder investigations in recent memory.
The 911 call is the fuse that lights the explosion of media attention, tireless police work, and selfless dedication by strangers who will come to this community. Law Enforcement and perfect strangers search endlessly for a child that has been murdered and hidden far from the light, unbeknownst to anyone.
Many will comment over the course of the 3 days, that the father’s tone is hard to read on the static filled call as the dispatchers work hard to pull facts from the supposedly grieving parent.
I get a tip just after 8:30 am. Wednesday morning.
The source asks if I have heard about the unfolding search for the child.
The answer is no.
90 minutes later, My photographer and I are in the tiny community an hour west of Nashville.
The seriousness of the moment fills my windshield as sheriff’s units, blue lights swirling, block intersections.
I see a THP helicopter hovering over a pond. The equanimity of the water is radically disrupted as a ferocious wind descends on the pond from the massive rotor blades ripping through the chilly air.
I stare at the magnificent machine, so big, so powerrful, literally hovering 10 feet above the murky pond. I can’t see the pilot through the smoky glass, but I can make out the heat seeking Fleer device, used to locate deviations in temperature. The hope at this moment is the boy’s body temperature will be vastly different than the frigid ground and it will show up like a glowing red thermal X marks the spot on the pilot’s control panel.
Unfortunately, that moment will never come in this theater of lies.
We park on a country 2 lane. At 10 am, there is no crime tape, no perimeter, no organized effort to separate news media from the scene.
I step toward the squad cars in the intersection.
“Any luck?,” I yell to the deputy.
“We’re looking,” the lawman says, his head on a swivel.
The moment is fluid as citizens on foot and bikes and four wheelers manuever down the country road.
I watch as the citizen searchers that are discernibly growing by the hour, strain their necks, peering over wire fences to the high grass beyond.
They are looking for any sign of a 5-year-old who could be in trouble.
I am preparing for a live shot at 11 am.
But social media is already hard at work churning up concern for a baby who is lost, presumably cold and scared and tired.
People are drawn to this intersection as if it were the monolith in the Stanley Kubrik film, 2001.
As I prepare my thoughts for my fast approaching live hit at 11 am, a woman with pink hair approaches. She is a resident in the area. She is friendly and eloquent. She quickly brings me up to speed telling me that she is a friend of the family. She says she is confident that the little boy will be found. She tells me the child has run off before, but has always come back safe and sound.
We chat about the cold temperatures and how he was last seen in his pajamas. I’m wearing multiple layers including 2 coats. I’m shivering. I can’t imagine being out all night, in a thunderstorm in frigid conditions, barefoot, cold, wearing only a thin layer of pajamas.
I push the thought out of mind, replacing it with optimism that the boy will be found soon, perhaps while I’m live at 11 am, and we can all go back to other things.
My live shot at 11 am is filled with helicopters and four wheelers and crime vans and intrigue.
The story grows exponentially as other newsrooms see my facebook posts and live shots and make this corner in the middle of a quiet community the epicenter of news for the next 3 days.
I’ve seen this many times in my long career. Live trucks arrive and change the dynamic of the scene. They are big and their generators are loud. They are painted billboards that draw your eye to them. Citizens are naturally curious and they begin to arrive by the score.
Within a few hours, a small strip of crime tape is placed on a phone pole and wooden street sign.
News people naturally stand behind the tape, as dozens of volunteers begin walking to the command post, where they will be instructed how to search in a grid pattern that has been established by the TBI.
As 4 pm approaches, my thoughts of optimism are waning. The temperatures have risen slightly. For that I am glad. The little crossroads in the tiny community is now filled with people. Vans and trucks and vehicles of all sizes are parked around us, making travel down this narrow road not only difficult, but dangerous.
It’s been 11 hours now, and still no sign of this child. Hundreds of people have come to this neighborhood. I have watched them search culverts and walk in fields, side by side, heads down looking for a child.
Though the scene is sad, there are moments of beauty. As the sun dips lower in the sky, I take a moment and peer across a vast green field. Dozens of volunteers are in the distance, walking the grounds, hoping, praying to find the little boy. As they search, I watch 3 magnificent horses gallop around them. The horses seem free, unconcerned with the horrific scene playing out before them.
I am a few minutes from my live shot and I look at my note pad. Scribbled in dark blue ink I see words like TWRA search team and murky pond and sonar device. The image of so many divers wearing dry suits peering into this aquatic abyss is disturbing. Divers scanning for bodies under water is not an optimistic sight.
1 minute before my live shot, I see one of the many search and rescue teams that has come from a neighboring county. Their heads are bowed in prayer.
“30 seconds I hear in my ear piece.”
I call out to one of the men I know. “What were you doing?” I ask.
He tells me that they always pray before they begin a search. He says they pray for their own safety and pray that they find the child alive.
I thank the man for what he is doing, as I hear the anchor reading the intro to my live segment.
I was going to talk about something else. But the moment of the prayer is powerful, and instead, I find myself extemporaneously describing the moment I have just witnessed. I want viewers to know the good that is here, the power of prayer that is among us, and the hope that fills this search scene that the child will be found alive.
My taped story airs. It is filled with the sound and imagery of the day. The mood on the record is positive and hopeful.
But as the sun sets on this search that will last the night, I know in my heart of hearts, that this cannot end well.
Many people begin to text me the same question. DO YOU THINK IT’S FOUL PLAY?
At this moment, I don’t. The sheriff tells me from the beginning that investigators have not ruled it out, but he is emphatic that he believes this is a search for a child that has simply run-a-way.
The sheriff tells me about the bloodhounds picking up a scent by a fence line early in the morning before any of us arrive. He tells me that the scent was strong and ends at a pond. Searchers will drain that pond, and find nothing.
As night falls upon the tiny community, parking lots are overflowing with citizens who want to help find the child alive.
Over the next 2 days, the story will only grow on air and on line as the search for the child intensifies.
How could he still be alive?
Still the sheriff is optimistic that the child will be found.
Saturday morning I wake to startling revelations that the story has turned upside down.
Multiple sources are floating the idea that the father is a murderer who killed his own child.
The thought, though disgusting, is not outside the realm of possibility.
I text sources I trust.
I quickly get the same information. The father is in jail charged with murder. The child is dead, his body still missing.
By 5pm Saturday I am back in the little community surrounded by ponds. The chopper is still hovering over the water, but now it is clear this is a recovery mission.
I talk to the sheriff. He looks exhausted. I tell him that people appreciate the efforts to find the child.
The sheriff says anyone who has a child knows why search crews have worked relentlessly to find the boy and now the truth.
The sheriff tells me that this is now an active recovery operation. I ask about a possible motivation for this murder, for the lie that began with that 911 call to authorities 72 hours earlier. The sheriff remains tight lipped telling me that the facts of the criminal investigation must now be preserved.
The sheriff says that the ponds will all be searched again. He tells me that temperature affects decomposition and if the child is in the water, it could affect when and how he is found. He talks about re-searching areas on the grid already searched. He says they must find the boy’s body for closure for the family and evidence in a homicide investigation.
I thank the sheriff as I prepare to do another live shot from the little community that has been so prominently featured in the news.
As I listen to the anchor read the intro at the top of the broadcast, I stare at the little house by the pond, where the murder allegedly took place.
The yard is filled with investigative crime vans. The air is chilly and the sky gray. It’s barely 37 degrees and I swear I see snow flakes falling in the damp haze.
I think back to my optimism Wednesday morning at 10 am. I really did think we would find the child alive, cold and hungry, but ok.
Now I am saddened by the atrocity before me. A child dead. A community in shock. A family torn apart. A father charged with murder.
I finish my report and stare at the little house by the pond.
What happened there? So many questions yet unanswered. I am sure I will be back here in the days to come.