The Day Kurt Newton Disappeared
“If someone had asked me beforehand how I would have acted,” she would say later, “I would have said I’d go to pieces. But something happens to keep you going. You find reserves you didn’t know you had. I kept telling myself it wasn’t going to do Kurt any good if I wasn’t able to function. It seemed that every time I turned around the wardens were pulling Ron out of the woods because I was upset. Finally I said, ‘Look, I’ll tell you if I need him. But I’m going to cry. There’s no way I’m not.’ ”
She preferred to search on her own with a few friends, “going on gut instincts. I kept thinking I’d find him whimpering behind the next tree.” One day she found some holes by the horse hovel that bothered her, one in particular large enough for a child to have crawled through and way down under. Lacking a flashlight, she began clawing at the ground, desperately trying to see in. Looking up, she saw a group of National Guardsmen recently activated to search. ” ‘I’ve got to have help,’ I said, and three or four of them started digging. I was panicky by then, saying, ‘Oh, please, God, he’s got to be in there.’ And I looked down and this guy crawls out from the hole and he says, ‘There’s nothing there,’ and I said, ‘He’s got to be,’ and he said no and tears rolled down his face.”
As days passed and absolutely no trace of Kurt was found, a sense of unreality flooded Jill. “It seemed it was someone else’s child, not mine. Not our Kurt,” she said. At night, “the worst time,” she’d rest fitfully, listening to strangers bellowing her son’s name into the dark, and the thoughts crowded in. “If he panicked, if he heard a noise, if anything the noise would have kept him out of the woods, … even if he ran into the woods why haven’t we found tracks … he’d surely have taken off his jacket that first day when it warmed up …” and, as always, the questions kept turning because there were no answers. At night she faced terrible thoughts — “How does a four year old face starvation?” but in the morning searchers were buoyed by her dauntless optimism.
“You walk beside people you’ve never seen before, and they’re poking and searching, hunting, and calling his name,” she said. “With all this drive and all these volunteers, we’re going to find him. And even though he’s four, he’s very sure-footed. I know he’s scared, but I’m still optimistic we’ll find him safe.” Ron quietly vowed, “I won’t give up until they find him.”
On the fifth day of the search, the governor of Maine, James Longley, flew to the scene. He promised the Newtons, “Anything in my power I’ll do.” He called the search, which had moved into the extraordinary stage of a shoulder-to-shoulder combing of more than two thousand acres, “the most impressive experience I’ve ever had.”
The C- 130H aircraft returned and flew another mission, again failing to detect a trace of the lost child. The bloodhounds tried vainly to pick up scent pools, places where Kurt might have lingered, and which under some conditions may last for ten days. The woods search grew so intensive that although Ron Newton twice lost his pen in terrain called by Warden Supervisor John Shaw “the roughest I’ve searched in nineteen years,” it was twice returned.
Psychics from throughout New England offered their help. Later, in frustration, Duane Lewis would say, “One says east, one says north, and another tells us west or south. There’s only so many points on the compass.” The horse hovel was dismantled, as was the ice house next to the camping office. The dump was bulldozed, and workers sifted through clumps of dirt. Teams of volunteers with shovels dug along the tote road. Finally John Shaw and Duane Lewis, haggard from constant twenty-two hour days, announced they were no longer appealing for volunteers. The search would continue, they said, until Wednesday, September 10, thirteen days after Kurt Newton’s disappearance. “We’ve done just about everything we can think of” they said. “Everywhere you go there’s marking tape and our footprints.”
The day the search was to end, the governor extended it two more days. “It’s the perplexity of the situation,” he said. “When you’ve searched that long and hard. there’s always the hope that this time we’re going to hit it.” It ended officially at dusk on Friday, September 12, in the woods by the dump, with twelve wardens, six state troopers, and seventy-five volunteers making a final, mournful shoulder-to-shoulder sweep. At the end, over three thousand searchers had taken part, and absolutely nothing had been found.
Ron and Jill Newton stayed two more weeks before returning to Manchester to put Kimberly, who had stayed with friends, into the first grade. They began weekend journeys to Chain of Ponds, two people in a woods that might as well have stretched forever. Duane Lewis returned as well, a solitary figure on overgrown tote roads that he hoped might still yield the most elusive tracks of his career. Years later he would be unable to spot a sneaker thrown carelessly on a river bank, or a torn shirt discarded on a roadside, without thinking about Kurt Newton. “Every now and then in the history of mankind the incredible happens that we can’t make sense of,” he would say. “We should have found him – but we didn’t.”
The Newtons posted “Missing” signs deep into the woods, warning hunters to report any unusual signs. And then the snow came, and Ron had his snowmobile to take him deeper into the backcountry until winter grew raw and even he was forced to say enough. By then they had decided that Kurt was not in the woods, that he never had been, that somehow he’d been taken and probably was still safe. With the tenacity they had shown from the beginning, Ron and Jill determined that if Kurt were to be found, it was up to them.
“From the beginning we never discounted the possibility that Kurt was abducted,” said State Police Lieutenant G. Paul Falconer, who headed the initial investigation, adding, “but there are no facts to indicate he’s not in the woods.” A team of investigators interviewed everyone known to have been at the campground, using polygraphs when in doubt. One camper reported that she had seen a white station wagon roar out of the campground leaving a cloud of dust in its wake shortly after the time Kurt disappeared. But no such car was registered at the campground, and nobody else reported seeing it. Upon further questioning the camper hedged: perhaps she’d been mistaken.
Experienced trackers reported they could find no evidence of recent vehicle traffic on the logging road beyond where Ron Newton had been cutting wood, the only road available for a “back-door” abduction. “With so many children available in the cities, why would a kidnapper come to one of the most remote campgrounds in the state, hoping to find a child riding a tricycle alone down a deserted road?’ asked State Police Detective Richard Cook, who assumed charge of the investigation, and who heads it today.
There was a grim report that a captive bear, often teased by local children, might have been released a few miles from the campground shortly before Kurt disappeared. A bear could have carried Kurt swiftly outside the area, experts conceded, but it was highly improbable that there would be a complete absence of signs.
The police sent teletype descriptions of Kurt throughout the United States and Canada. Soon Kurt Newton stared hauntingly from post-office walls in hundreds of cities. A call came from a man in Connecticut. He had returned from camping in the Canadian Rockies. There he had noticed a small blond-haired boy staring at him with a quizzical expression. He said he was struck by how nervous the boy and the man with him seemed with each other. He saw the same boy, he said fervently, on a Kurt Newton “Missing” poster. That same week a call came from Vermont. Two waitresses were sure they had seen Kurt in their restaurant. Detective Cook drove to Vermont and found that boy. It wasn’t Kurt.
There was an electrifying day four months after Kurt was lost. A call came from New Orleans that a small blond-haired boy of perhaps three or four had been found wandering in the French Quarter. He was very shy. He responded only to names with a k sound, like Kenny or Kurt. The Newtons raced to Boston to view a videotape of the child. But even as they watched it, certain he wasn’t their Kurt, the boy was identified as the abandoned son of an itinerant Missouri woman who was hitchhiking out west, and his name was Clifford.