|Cover Story||February 3, 2011|
By lyle e davis
Strange how stories happen. An unusual, sometimes terrible, incident happens and people try to put the puzzle together to truly understand all that happened. And why.
You get a fragment of a story here . . . probe a little more, get another fragment . . . and you hope eventually all the pieces fall into place so you will know what really happened.
Joe Duggan, an excellent writer for the Lincoln Journal Star in Lincoln, Nebraska, recounts just one example:
Chuck Kleveland needed a haircut.
So he left his family's home in Chester on Christmas Eve morning 25 years ago to drive the 12 or so miles to the barber in Hebron.
But when he rushed into the house a little while later, his hair looked the same. His expression did not.
"He went straight back to David's bedroom," Kathy Kleveland said, referring to their youngest son. "I thought, `Why is he walking so fast?'"
His wife didn't have to wonder for long.
"He told me, `I just found a little dead boy.'"
Assured his own boy was OK, Kleveland told his wife the story.
He was on a dirt road about a mile east and a little north of Chester when a bit of color caught his attention. He stopped his pickup, got out in the frigid air and approached a grassy ditch along a harvested cornfield.
He saw the frozen body, partially covered by snow.
The boy was thin, maybe 55 pounds, about 5 feet tall. He had blond hair.
And he wore blue pajamas.
When this little boy was found wearing a blue blanket sleeper on Christmas Eve in a ditch, this unknown child was given the name of “Little Boy Blue” and buried by the townspeople of Chester and Hebron.
Though they didn’t know his real name, this community came to love him anyway, and in turn, he defined them.
A community that wept at his funeral, that buried him under the name Matthew, a name that means “gift of God,” and referred to him as “Little Boy Blue,” because of the blue pajamas he was wearing when found.
“The church was completely packed and nobody had any idea who this child was,” said Thayer County Attorney Daniel Werner.
To this day, the town of Chester, Nebraska, still cares for his gravesite in its roadside cemetery. People still lay toys, cars and coins on his grave. The community built a roadside memorial for him, then rebuilt it after a tornado.
And it bears the logo, “A small town with a big heart.”
"Nebraska is the best part of this story," said Gregg Olsen, a Washington author who wrote in "Abandoned Prayers," a true-crime paperback about the case that hit No. 7 on The New York Times bestseller list in 2003.
In the days that followed Kleveland's heartbreaking discovery, investigators focused on determining the cause of the boy's death and his identity.
And so things went . . . for about two years. Then things began to happen that would slowly, ever so slowly, begin to unravel the mystery, and perhaps answer the sordid question, “who would leave a dead child in a ditch, in the middle of winter, in the middle of Nebraska? And why?”
In 1987 the Reader’s Digest ran a story about this tragic little unknown boy. Other media picked up the story as well.
Then a phone call came in from, of all places, an Amish community in northern Ohio. A woman read the story and wondered whether the mystery boy was a relative who had not been seen for several years. She contacted authorities, who, in the days before forensic DNA testing, used a fingerprint to confirm the identification.
Little Boy Blue was Danny Stutzman, a 9-year-old from Dalton, Ohio. The sheriff and Nebraska State Patrol investigator Jack Wyant furiously searched for the boy's father, Eli Stutzman.
Eli Stutzman was an Amish dairy farmer. In 1977, his pregnant wife, Ida, died from smoke inhalation after a fire broke out in their milking barn. Many believed Stutzman set the fire, although the circumstances were never investigated.
The investigators found out quite a few other interesting things about Eli Stutzman. One, while he was from an Amish community, he did not seem to take well to that rigorous and religious lifestyle. Word was that Eli was unhappy with the marriage, did not want any more children, and he wanted to be free of his wife and children so he could practice another life style, that from within the homosexual community.
They found him in Azle, Texas, almost two years from the date of Danny's discovery in Nebraska.
It turns out that Eli Stutzman had been on the run for some time. Texas authorities had been loooking for him for murdering his roommate, Glen Pritchett. While on the run for that murder, Stutzman lived in La Plata County, Colorado, in 1985.
During that time in Colorado, two men from Durango, – David M. Tyler, 36, and Dennis Slaeter, 24 – were killed.
Tyler was found dead Nov. 10, 1985, in a small utility trailer outside Automatic Transmission Exchange, a business he co-owned in the 1400 block of Main Avenue.
Slaeter was found shot to death Dec. 5, 1985, in the basement of Junction Creek Liquors, where he worked as a clerk.
Evidence suggests Stutzman and Tyler knew each other and possibly attended the same party two days before Tyler’s body was found. Both men were gay and used drugs, according to Gregg Olsen.
Olsen, who spent two years researching the case for his book, said Stutzman wanted out of his marriage and the Amish community to live openly as a homosexual. He and Danny left Ohio in 1982 and for the next three years they lived mostly in Colorado and Texas.
In summer 1985, Stutzman left his son with a Wyoming family in an informal foster care arrangement. He went back to get the boy on Dec. 14, telling the foster family he was taking Danny back to Ohio for Christmas.
During an interrogation by Nebraska authorities, Stutzman said his son was on antibiotics for a bad chest cold when he arrived in Wyoming to pick him up. The boy slept in the back seat of Stutzman's AMC Gremlin as they drove across Nebraska.
During a driving break, the father said, he discovered his son was dead. Stutzman said he tried to resuscitate Danny before dumping him in the ditch "to let God take care of him." Then he gassed up at Kleveland's truck stop in Chester before driving south to Salina, Kan., to hook up with a boyfriend.
Investigators didn't believe him. But without evidence, or even an autopsy, pointing to a crime, the prosecutor decided to charge him with felony child abuse. That charge was eventually reduced to abandoning a body and concealing a death.
"I've always thought that he killed Danny," said former Sheriff Young "But proving it was something else."
It is unknown if Stutzman and Slaeter knew each other, although Tyler and Slaeter were acquaintances, Olsen said.
If police can prove Stutzman played a role in the 1985 murders, it could expose the Amish-born Stutzman as a serial killer.
They brought Stutzman back from Texas and he stood trial. Stutzman was convicted of abandoning a body and concealing a death, a misdemeanor, and sentenced to 18 months in prison. During his trial, he claimed that Danny had died unexpectedly while they were driving from Wyoming to Ohio. Out of fear, he ditched the body along the roadside and covered it with snow.
He walked out of a Nebraska prison but soon into Texas custody. He was wanted there for the 1985 death of Glen Pritchett, the 24-year-old former roommate of Stutzman's. Pritchett was shot through his left eye. His body found in May 1985. In a ditch.
For killing his roommate, Stutzman was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but he was paroled in spring 2005 after serving only 16 years.
He never faced prosecution for the 1977 death of his wife, who was eight months pregnant when she died in that suspicious barn fire.
It’s not surprising that the Amish community from which Stutzman came was in a state of shock.
Violent crime–and non-violent crime, for that matter–is so unusual among the Amish that any time it happens, it’s bound to get attention.
The Amish know that just being Amish is not a free pass. The individual and the decisions he makes are what count. They acknowledge that there is good and bad behavior within their own communities, just as the same is true in the modern world.
They also realize that by virtue of the way they live, the spotlight is on them even more. The Eli Stutzman story, as well as being tragic and unfortunate, is an extreme example of that.
As for Danny? The generation that would have been Danny Stutzman’s has grown up without him. He didn’t graduate from high school, go to college, marry or have a family.
But the pathologist who conducted the autopsy held a different opinion: Low temperatures caused the marks. The pathologist found signs of respiratory illness, but officially declared the cause of death as inconclusive.
Thayer County Sheriff Gary Young retired in September 2001, and lives in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas. He recalls that pleas for information yielded tons of tips, from across the United States, Alaska and overseas, but nothing solid.
Young said he remembered the panic the community felt, wondering if some sick killer would hurt one of their children.
“The case never really got solved. I won’t put any blame on anybody. It’s just one of those things. We didn’t get a good, conclusive autopsy,” he said. “I really think there was more to it than what we know.”
Said Young: “I just have it in my gut that there’s something we didn’t get.”
“Back then, I said, we didn’t get him, but maybe God will,” Young said.
Charles Kleveland, the gas station owner who found Danny’s body that night, said people haven’t forgotten. He repeats what he has said for years, “The only person who knows what really happened is Eli.”
Eli Stutzman was released on parole in Texas on March 31, 2002, after serving time for killing that roommate in 1985 in Travis County, Texas, months before Danny’s death. He was convicted in 1989.
After his release, he lived in the Fort Worth area. He never mentioned Danny to any of his lovers or friends, Olsen said.
In 2007, HIV-positive and 56 years old, he killed himself by cutting his left arm.
Stutzman never changed his story, nor did he confess in a suicide note.
What truly set the story apart, author Olsen said, was not the mystery, but the compassion demonstrated by the people of Chester.
They made the mystery child, no one's child, everyone's child.
One resident donated a cemetery plot. The mortuary donated its services, and residents pitched in to buy a casket and headstone.
An estimated 400 people - more than all of Chester - attended the funeral at the United Methodist Church. They gave him a name: Matthew, which means "gift of God."
Olsen, in a phone call to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed that Eli Stutzman was found dead in his Fort Worth apartment on a Wednesday afternoon. The medical examiner would not confirm it, but some sources indicate Stutzman had been stabbed in his bed.
“I’d always had hope that Stutzman would one day confess to what he’d done with Danny, Ida, Dennis, and David. Guess some mysteries will never be solved,”said Olsen.
Gwen Tietgen, another writer for the Lincoln Journal Star, interviewed residents of Chester and recorded these reactions:
“We have people stop in all the time wanting to know where he’s buried,” said Gail Wendover, a waitress at Foote Cafe in Chester.
A roadside memorial is located just up the road, to the left of Foote’s Cafe. The cemetery is on the right side of U.S. 81.
“I always recommend the book. It’s graphic, but it’s the truth,” Wendover said.
Wendover moved to Chester in June 1985 and remembers the community’s shock.
Said Thayer County Attorney Daniel Werner: “Do I wonder? Ya, obviously. I’m the kind of guy that’s suspicious that more happened than we will ever know,” he said. “But being suspicious and being able to prove it in a criminal court beyond a reasonable doubt are two different things. I never really believed that Danny died naturally, but I’ve never been able to prove he died otherwise.”
It’s the kind of thing that never goes away. The child was found, abandoned in that kind of condition. It tugs on your heartstrings.”
Visitors still leave flowers, toys and coins at his grave. As time passed, the ordeal softened hearts and made people more appreciative of each other.
And the folks in Nebraska still remember, Little Boy Blue.
Sources: Joe Duggan, Lincoln Journal Star in Lincoln, Nebraska
Gwen Tietgen - Lincoln Journal Star
Gregg Olsen, author of Abandoned Prayers