The Day Kurt Newton Disappeared
Kimberly would often spring into the shallow woods behind their house and implore her brother to join her climbing the trees or playing hide-and-seek. As Kurt quivered on the edge of the lawn, she would tease, “Kurt’s such a baby.” Once Jill asked him why he wouldn’t go with Kimberly into the woods. “Momma, there’s monsters in there,” he answered.After a hearty camper’s breakfast — fried potatoes, ham and eggs, toast, and juice — Kurt put a doughnut on a stick and warmed it over the flames, then threw the paper plates into the fire. Jill gathered the mud-soaked sneakers from the day before and with her friends walked to the bathhouse fifty yards away to wash them. Kim began playing a game and assumed Kurt would ride his tricycle around the campsite. Ron climbed into his Bronco, ax in hand, and drove off to get firewood. This is where their minds halt, confused and troubled, where Ron and Jill Newton try to snatch it all back. For then a friend from her trailer heard a plaintive “Daddy, Daddy,” as Kurt apparently ran to his tricycle, a determined little boy trying to catch his father, and pedaled away — into a mystery as deep as the forest that seemed to swallow him without a trace.
From the campground, a rut-strewn logging road runs north, parting the forest, which gives way reluctantly. An abandoned horse hovel sits back from the road, nearly obscured by undergrowth, about a quarter-mile from the Newtons’ campsite. Here, twelve-year-old Lou Ellen Hanson, returning from a walk, was startled to see the small boy churning past on his tricycle. “Hey,” she called out, “do your parents know where you are?’ but the boy made no reply as he pedaled on, and she turned toward the campground.
The road continues another quarter-mile, then forks. To the left it leads to a small campground dump on a knoll, past a shaky bridge over a stream. To the right it continues for a mile, then gives way to heavy undergrowth. For the next several miles leading to Route 27 the road is nearly impassable to all but four-wheel-drive vehicles. The road and its “back-door” access to his campground was a source of irritation to campground owner Lloyd Davidson. Fishermen would use it to fish his waters, or to use his showers. He would grumble that if it were his land and not leased from the paper company, he would have bulldozed it long ago. It was on this road, about a half-mile past the fork, where Ron Newton went to chop wood, the sounds of his ax barely audible from the dump.
Jack Hanson, Lou Ellen’s father, who served as a volunteer caretaker for the campground, found the tricycle just before the steep rise leading to the dump. It was off the road, at the edge of the woods, a position that reminded a state police investigator “of a little boy who’s been told never to leave his things on the road.” Thinking it had been discarded, Hanson carried it over the rise and heaved it atop the trash heap, then drove back to the campground.
“We hung the sneakers on the line,” Jill Newton recalls. “We’d been gone at the most ten minutes. We saw no Kurt and no tricycle, so we started walking around asking campers if they’d seen a blond boy on a big-wheel tricycle. I began to think he must have gone with the men to get firewood, but then they rounded the comer and no Kurt. We met Jack, and he told us he had found the trike at the dump. We raced to the dump, and there was Kurt’s big-wheeler, but no one in sight, not a sound to be heard.
” ‘My God, someone’s taken him!’ were my first words.” The men quickly reassured her that Kurt must have thought his father was just a little ways into the woods and had wandered in after him. They would find him in no time. “How could a boy who won’t even go into the woods with his sister around his own home go into these incredibly wild woods?’ she asked. But it would be only the first of many baffling questions with no answers.
Duane Lewis, Maine Fish and Game warden inspector, was patrolling near his home in Phillips, about seventy-five miles south of Chain of Ponds, when the call came from the regional game warden that a child was lost. A small search party had already been organized from campers to comb the logging roads. Lewis, at thirty-nine, was a veteran warden with fourteen years and nearly seventy-five searches under his belt. No search of which Lewis had been in charge had failed to find a person missing in the woods. Because the missing boy was only four and the temperature was expected to drop into the 20’s that night, Lewis called area wardens for assistance even as he sped northward.
A woods search strategy can never be haphazard. Its plotting is an intricate balance between intuition and science. With grownups the contour of the land, or the presence of streams, can be weighed against the age and expected endurance of the victim. But a search for a four year old becomes a chess match with a cosmic jester. Usually, the will of a child lost in the woods is fragile, easily broken; he will sit by a tree and cry, and within a few hours searchers will find him. But on rare occasions, a child’s stamina outlasts that of a grown man. Propelled by an inward trembling, he will outstrip his methodical pursuers, and all bets are off. Duane Lewis was convinced that “it’s much harder to plan a search for a small child,” but he was equally convinced when he arrived at the scene at 4:00 P.M. that with the twenty-nine searchers already at hand, the boy would be home by nightfall.
Soon a warden service helicopter and a search plane augmented the ground search concentrating on tote roads near the dump. Kurt had always been fascinated with the National Guard helicopters that whirred over his house, and Jill was certain he would respond to the warden’s calm voice calling him on the loudspeaker from above the trees. “Kurt, I’m up in the helicopter. Your mommy and daddy are waiting for you, and I want you to follow me back to the camp. Walk towards the helicopter. Don’t sit down. Don’t be afraid. Just stand up and walk, and I’ll take you back.” Later, Jill would consider that first day’s efforts and say, “Even if he’d somehow gotten out of the prime area, that helicopter would have brought him back.”