The Day Kurt Newton Disappeared
“‘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.”
The temperature dropped to 26 degrees. Jill thought, “How frightened Kurt is. How he must wonder, ‘Why doesn’t my mommy come get me? ”
Manchester. Maine, heard the news at 7:00 P.M. Ron Newton had grown up beside the firehouse, and neighbors could remember the tall, thin boy racing frantically after the fire truck at the first blast of the whistle, being pulled aboard with his shirttail flying. He had joined the volunteer fire department at seventeen. He was hometown, and had never left, becoming a supervisor for the highway department. Soon streams of cars from Manchester headed north.
Jill had grown up eighteen miles away in the small town of Wayne. She had been the only girl in her one-room schoolhouse, and she lived above her father’s general store. Everybody knew Jill Lovejoy. When word spread that her little boy was lost, the cars from Wayne joined those from Manchester on Route 27. When they poured into the campground late at night, an eerie sight awaited them: Ron and Jill calling into a loudspeaker at the edge of the woods by the dump, “hoping in the still of the night we’d hear his cry.” Wardens probed the darkness, their lantern beams flashing among the trees.
By first light on Labor Day a bloodhound team scented on Kurt’s pajamas. A year earlier the same bloodhounds had been instrumental in tracking a two-year-old girl lost in the New Sharon woods. As the search party, now swelled to nearly two hundred, waited, the hounds bolted from the dump, ran ten yards, then whirled in confusion, apparently overwhelmed by the conflicting scents from Sunday’s heavy search.
The weather steadily worsened, becoming, as one searcher said, “dark, dank, and miserable with the fog settling in and everybody soaking wet and chilled to the bone.” The searchers began to realize the enormity of their task. The woods were filled with holes, “some bigger than a man,” as Duane Lewis said, and piles of rocks and boulders covered with moss, and enormous root cavities. Years of windstorms had taken their toll. Briars scratched at the searchers’ faces as they crawled through the blow-down looking in vain for a small boy’s footprints, or bits of clothing torn as he stumbled past. Holes under boulders were tediously checked, then rechecked by other searchers, each check indicated by a marking slash, until the forest was pocked with their grim graffiti. The search grew into what officials described as “the most intensive woods search in the history of Maine.”
Probably nothing grips the hearts and minds of people as does the specter of a lost child wandering helplessly in a woods, waiting for rescue. Radio and television appeals touched Mainers from all walks of life. Buses brought workers from paper mills and factories from throughout northern and central Maine. College students, crusty woodsmen, and an elite six-man mountain rescue unit joined together at Natanis Pond. Cars lined Route 27 for more than a mile, the feet of bone-weary volunteers poking through half-opened windows. To feed the searchers, who one day numbered fifteen hundred, women from the Kingfield-Stratton area solicited food from their neighbors to stock their civil defense kitchens, until soon donations poured in from as far away as one hundred miles.
The Newtons were determined that nothing would be left to chance. When Jill learned from a searcher that a top-secret plane had been used in Vietnam to find guerrillas in dense jungle, she ran to the wardens. “I don’t care what it costs or how it works,” she said. “I just want it to tell me where my son is.” And late Monday night the $10-million C-130H gunship lifted off from Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola, Florida, with her nine-man crew, the first time it would be used in a civilian search. The plane was equipped with infrared sensors and low-light television-sensor equipment for nighttime use, equipment so sensitive it could detect the heat differential between a white median strip and the blacktop road at ten thousand feet.
Jill was “wildly excited” when she heard the plane was on its way. But Ron, who was “very protective about letting me get my hopes up,” cautioned, “It’s just a machine, don’t put too much on it.”
Even veteran woodsmen were in awe of Ron Newton’s quiet endurance as days and nights passed with him refusing to rest. “The responsibility was ours,” he’d say quietly. “The burden is ours to get him back.” On Monday, returning wearily from the woods at dusk, Ron tripped and fell heavily in a deep gully. His ankle turned bright purple and swelled to twice its size. Though ordered off his feet by a doctor, he continued to end a day’s woods search at his familiar post in front of the loudspeaker, calling his son’s name into the forest. In desperation, friends laced his coffee with tranquilizers. Wednesday night, his fourth night without sleep, the drugs finally took effect. His speech slowed and he sat gripping the loudspeaker close to his mouth, unable to speak, until finally his head dropped as he gave in to his shattering fatigue. “He was the toughest man I’ve ever seen,” said Duane Lewis. “Just unbelievable stamina.”
The C-130H gunship flew a three-hour mission Tuesday morning, failing to detect a trace of Kurt. The plane was hampered by low-hanging clouds and heavy rains that grew so bad searchers could not see their way in the woods and had to be pulled out. Hovering over the search area in the helicopter, Jill would call, “This is Momma. I want you to go to where you can see the sky. Come and wave to Momma.” As the rain and fog continued into the fourth day, hopes dimmed that Kurt could be found alive, and the strain on Jill was growing unbearable.