Time heals nothing for family of missing boy

Sunday, December 15, 2002
By ROBIN GABY FISHER
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

It was the kind of blustery November day when the cold assaults the skin, and 11-year-old Mark Himebaugh's freckled cheeks were flushed crimson.

"Maybe I should take him with me," his mother Maureen thought as she backed out of her driveway in the bayside village of Del Haven, on her way to take a neighbor to an auto repair shop.

Mother and son were as close as needle and thread. Where Himebaugh went, Mark went, too.

"But then I thought, 'Oh, I'll just be a minute,'" Himebaugh recalls.

"Be right back," she called out as he played outside. "Okay, Mom," he replied.

That was Nov. 25, 1991. Eleven years later, what became of the red-haired, blue-eyed boy is still a dark riddle. Mark Himebaugh is rare among the 1.3 million missing children in the United States today. Most have either run away or were taken by a parent. Almost all will be found eventually.

Of the million-plus missing, 115 children a year are kidnapped by strangers, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice and released in October at the first-ever White House Conference on Missing, Exploited and Runaway Children. Fifty-seven percent of them turn up alive; 40 percent are found dead.

Five are never heard from again.

Mark Himebaugh is one of them.

"After all this time, the chances that he will be found at all are slim, and the chances that he will be found alive are extremely remote," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and the co-author of the Justice Department study.

"I can't think of a scenario that would involve this boy coming back," Finkelhor said.

His mother can't think about anything else.

"You want closure," Himebaugh, 51, said, sitting in her living room, in Cape May County, surrounded by photographs of her missing son.

"But you're almost afraid of it."

Mark's father, Jody, 55, who now lives in Vermont, also is haunted by his son's disappearance. So is Mark's brother Matthew, now 24.

For Middle Township Lt. Detective Scott Webster, the search for answers has been draining - he watches his own children grow and wonders about Mark.

Because no one who cares for him knows where Mark is or what happened to him, none of the so- called scenarios offers any comfort.

CURIOUS GEORGE

Mark Himebaugh in 1991 was a rambunctious boy with a kind heart, a keen intellect and serious emotional problems.

Nicknamed "Curious George" for his inquisitiveness, he loved animals and loved to be hugged, but he also was prone to dark moods and sudden outbursts of anger - usually over some perceived imperfection in himself.

Mark began having temper tantrums as a toddler, his mother says. The fits got worse when he started school.

By 9, he was classified as "emotionally disturbed." He was transferred from the Middle Township public school system to Ocean Academy Elementary School for special education students. His outbursts continued.

At 10, Mark was diagnosed with "possible obsessive compulsive disorder." The antidepressant Prozac was prescribed and Mark began weekly counseling.

The combination of medication and talk therapy was apparently working. A follow-up evaluation, 10 months before Mark disappeared, noted his outbursts had subsided and his attitude improved.

Notes to his mother revealed a good-natured, happier child: "Mom - Sorry about not coming home (on time)," he wrote. "I was so wrapped up in doing something! I Love U Mom - 4ever."

The Monday that Mark vanished started off ordinarily enough.

Maureen Himebaugh got breakfast for Mark and Matthew, then 12. The boys went off to school, and their mother went out to run errands.

Mark returned home at 2:30 p.m. Maureen Himebaugh found him on the couch giggling at a movie on TV, when she arrived home from the grocery store a few minutes later, and they chatted.

Mark was excited about a visit he was going to make that evening to the home of one of his teachers. He had a crush on the teacher's daughter.

When a fire broke out in the marshes near the Himebaughs' house around 3 p.m., Mark asked to go watch. Himebaugh said okay.

On the way, police later determined, Mark stopped briefly to speak with an elderly neighbor, then he talked with firefighters once he got there. On the way back home, he encountered four teenage boys from the neighborhood. He was home again by about 3:20 p.m.

That's when he saw his mother pulling out of the driveway.

Mark then headed for a county park, a few blocks away.

A park ranger who knew Mark told police he saw the boy between 3:30 and 3:40 p.m. Mark was walking into the park with a blond girl about 10 years old, according to the ranger. The ranger didn't recognize her.

Police have never identified the girl, and that was the last sighting of Mark.

Maureen Himebaugh returned home from chauffeuring her neighbor at around 4 p.m. The favor had taken 40 minutes, not 10 as she had expected, because of traffic caused by the fire.

Darkness was setting in when Matthew got home; he'd been practicing for a school play.

Himebaugh was already worried. She telephoned neighbors and friends, asking whether they had seen Mark. Matthew began searching throughout the neighborhood.

At 6 p.m., Himebaugh called police.

"I remember standing there, holding his camouflage sweat shirt, and I had this awful feeling," she said.

"I just knew that something was terribly wrong."

MARK, MARK!

Jody Himebaugh, who had separated from his wife eight months earlier, was singing in a barbershop quartet in Cape May when he got the news that his son was missing.

When he got to the Del Haven home, he found the street lined with police cars and neighbors and strangers yelling Mark's name.

Webster, of the Middle Township Police Department, was at home waiting for Monday Night Football to start when he got the call.

When the detective arrived at the Himebaugh home at 8 p.m., the area was swarming with people.

A search of the Himebaughs' neighborhood and the nearby Delaware Bay was under way. Bloodhounds had been dispatched, and a Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead, shining its lights on the beach and in the woods and nearby marshes. The search crew swelled from a few people to almost 100.

Webster, recalling that first night, described the intensity everyone was feeling: "We have a kid missing who has never disappeared or run away before. He had plans for that night and he was looking forward to them, so he would have wanted to come home. His mother called all of his friends and no one knew where he was. Plus, we had the Prozac and the obsessive compulsive thing. There was no time to waste. We started searching right away."

Shortly after Webster arrived at the Himebaugh home, a call came over the police radio: A firefighter had discovered a boy's red and white sneaker on the beach.

The shoe was delivered to the house where Matthew asked to see it. He turned it over to look at the sole, which was worn on the outside.

"That's his," Matthew declared. "That's my brother's sneaker."

It was the only trace of Mark ever found.

SOME HOPE

Since Mark vanished, hundreds of tips and sightings have been checked by investigators. Dozens of suspects have been questioned. Early on, both parents agreed to take polygraph tests, and both passed. Psychics have weighed in from all over the country. Mark's face has appeared on milk cartons. Posters with his picture were distributed nationwide. Theories have been set forth: Maybe Mark fell into a concealed well or pit in the marshes near his home. Maybe he walked into the bay and drowned. Anything was possible.

Authorities feel certain Mark was abducted by a predator.

"There's always hope that some day we'll know what happened," Webster said. Last month, the FBI began scrutinizing its files again. Witnesses are being reinterviewed, tips rehashed, and evidence reviewed.

Tomorrow, FBI agents are scheduled to take DNA samples from both Maureen and Jody Himebaugh. Forensic testing of DNA didn't exist when the Himebaugh case was opened. The FBI refuses to say why it is taking DNA from Mark's parents now.

The rehashing of the case comes on the heels of talk circulating in Cape May that Mark's corpse was recently discovered in the trunk of a junkyard car. The rumor reached Maureen Himebaugh, who contacted police and was told the story was not true.

Himebaugh isn't sure. "You can't help but wonder if there is something," she said, her voice trailing off.

Steve Silvern, supervisory senior resident agent in charge of the FBI bureau in South Jersey managing the Himebaugh investigation, offered little information about the recent flurry of activity. "A lot of things have changed over the 11 years as far as collection of evidence and we're pursuing that," Silvern said.

"We are doing everything we can toward re-reviewing the evidence and following up leads that emanate from that review. All I can say is we're aggressively pursuing leads, and I have some very dedicated agents working on this. They want to bring this case to closure for the family."

REMINDERS

On the anniversary of Mark's disappearance last month, Jody Himebaugh sat in the living room of the inn where he works in Woodstock, Vt., massaging his forehead.

Ever since his boy disappeared he has been plagued with migraine headaches two or three times a month. This day, he said, he could barely lift his eyelids.

Jody Himebaugh came to Vermont because he couldn't bear the reminders in New Jersey anymore, he said.

Everywhere he looked, he saw Mark. He was tormented by nightmares and anxiety attacks.

He left Cape May after Thanksgiving 1996, when his anguish became so great he found himself curled up in a corner of the basement of the inn where he worked.

"After that, I quit my job, sold everything I had and came here, he said.

Jody Himebaugh left New Jersey to forget, but he hasn't.

Especially painful are memories of the last weekend he spent with Mark. The two boys had gone to stay with their father at his apartment in nearby Cape May, and the visit hadn't gone well for Mark.

Mark was still angry at his father for leaving their home. When the two boys and their father went to the beach to fly kites, Mark had a tantrum, throwing rocks and stomping on seashells.
Now Jody Himebaugh worries about that time on the Cape May beach - the day before Mark vanished. He never asked what was wrong, and he still wonders whether it had anything to do with the disappearance.

"That drives me crazy - that I didn't find out," Jody Himebaugh said, slumping in his chair in Vermont.

"The biggest fear I have is that I will go to the grave not knowing what happened to him."

Matthew Himebaugh has suffered silently over his missing little brother. Now 24, he lives on his own in an apartment in Cape May. He works and attends community college. He rarely speaks about the events of 11 years ago, but Maureen Himebaugh said she believes that living in his missing brother's shadow has taken its toll on him.

Only once did she see her oldest son break down, she said. Then, his cry was anguished and angry. "Why wasn't it me?" he sobbed.

Whoever coined the phrase time heals all things didn't know about families of children who have disappeared, Maureen Himebaugh says.

Serenity is fleeting. The holidays are agony.

Maureen Himebaugh sees Mark's face in every shiny Christmas ball. Her eyes fill up when she opens the hope chest in her living room and lifts out a small box. It contains a wristwatch Mark's grandmother bought him for Christmas the week before he disappeared. It is still wrapped.

Maureen Himebaugh loves to talk about her son - but she is tortured to think what might have become of him. If only she had taken Mark with her to the car repair shop that day, maybe he would still be with her. If only she knew where he was.

"Not knowing is what will drive you crazy," Maureen Himebaugh said.

"You know there's a chance he's still alive, but chances are he's not. You wonder who took him. Is it a stranger, or someone I know? Was Mark hurt? Is he still being hurt? You want to believe he's alive, but then you almost wish that he isn't because then no one can be hurting him.

"And then you feel guilty for praying to God he's gone."