Fifteen years after sheriff’s deputies, horseback riders and National Guard helicopters scoured the area around Clinton in a fruitless search for 2-year-old Wesley Dale Morgan, FBI agents took to the woods again Wednesday in a renewed effort to locate the boy.
Wesley’s mother, Ruby Renee Havard Freeman, reported the child missing in May 2001, saying he’d vanished from the yard of her Bluff Creek-area home on La. 63 after she briefly left him playing with puppies while she went inside to fix lunch. Despite a massive search of the area and extensive publicity surrounding the case, Wesley hasn’t been seen since.
Federal investigators now plan to “inundate the whole Clinton area,” reinterviewing possible witnesses and digging through 15 years of case notes and reports, said Craig Betbeze, an FBI spokesman. Betbeze declined to say whether new information prompted the FBI to reinvestigate the disappearance.
Local FBI agents as well as the FBI’s national Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team will spend the next couple of weeks “totally immersed in the case,” Betbeze said, and the agency is deploying other resources including billboards and investigative technology to try to find the boy, who would now be 16 years old.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to turn over a new leaf and somebody will have new information for us,” Betbeze said.
Wesley’s disappearance has haunted relatives and residents in East Feliciana Parish and has vexed federal investigators and East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office detectives alike. A number of law enforcement authorities, including Sheriff Talmadge Bunch, have long suspected the boy’s then-19-year-old mother had something to do with his vanishing, though no hard evidence has substantiated those beliefs. Family members have steadfastly denied any involvement.
The mother’s attorney, Rhonda Covington, said Freeman is excited about the renewed FBI effort to locate her son and holds out hope he’ll one day be brought home alive.
“She’s got her hopes up,” said Covington, an East Feliciana Parish public defender. “We think this is probably the best hope we have of finding him. Hopefully, there will be a result this time and not another disappointment.”
For weeks after Wesley vanished in 2001, a virtual army of searchers — including law enforcement officers from neighboring parishes, Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola prison guards, volunteer firefighters and a stream of volunteers — poured through the low hills, creeks and thick woods surrounding home where Freeman and her then-boyfriend, Burnell Hilton Jr., lived. Authorities set up roadblocks to solicit information while helicopters equipped with thermal imaging gear and specially trained cadaver sniffing dogs combed the area.
Deputies followed up on reports of buzzards circling over the trees and the graves of pet animals in a fruitless hunt for the child.
“I may be crazy, but at this point I’ll try anything,” a frustrated Bunch told The Advocate in June 2001, after consulting with a California “psychic detective,” the Rev. Rosemarie A. Kerr, who suggested deputies to search an area near Bluff Creek.
Betbeze said he couldn’t discuss details of what FBI agents will be doing in the coming weeks to try to crack the case but would say they’ll be working with state and local law enforcement to conduct “countless interviews and extensive searches throughout the course of this investigation.”
Ken Lanning, a retired FBI special agent who specialized in crimes against children, said the team of federal investigators will likely re-examine the thousands of leads and reports turned up during the early days of the investigation.
During few weeks of searches for missing children, Lanning said investigators are often inundated with tips and possible leads. At the same time, managing the resources devoted to the case — hundreds of officers with state and federal task forces and swarms of volunteers — is a challenge for those leading the investigation, Lanning said.
“You’d go into this case and apply these new resources: Make sure everything has been done, make sure there’s not something in a file somewhere that wasn’t followed,” said Lanning, who now works as a consultant in Virginia. “You go back there with a fresh set of eyes, new people and a fresh perspective.”
Investigators quickly focused on Wesley’s family after the boy was reported missing. For two weeks, deputies kept up around-the-clock with the boy’s mother, who also was interviewed for hours at a time by local detectives and FBI agents. The FBI administered polygraph tests to both Freeman and Hilton, her boyfriend at the time.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Hilton less than two weeks after the boy’s disappearance in an unrelated 1998 shooting in Zachary, saying information turned up during the missing child investigation identified him as a suspect. He later pleaded no contest to aggravated battery in the case.
Freeman was arrested in 2008 on allegations that she’d tried to sell another baby as part of an adoption agreement. The Attorney General’s Office, which handled the case, dismissed the charges, citing evidence the proposed payment legally covered legitimate expenses.
“She should’ve never been arrested, ever, for that,” said Covington, the attorney. “I just wish people would stop bringing that up.”
Bunch, who was first elected sheriff in 2000 but will leave office at the end of June, has maintained his belief that Freeman was involved, positing two years after Welsey’s disappearance she’d spirited him away to avoid the possibility of losing custody. This past December, Bunch told The Advocate he believes Freeman sold the child.
Covington called those claims “pure speculation” and said she’s challenged the sheriff to produce any evidence suggesting Freeman may have been involved in the boy’s disappearance. Covington also said early missteps in the investigation may have left evidence uncollected.
“There’s not one shred of evidence that connects her to the disappearance,” Covington said. “They couldn’t find the child so she must’ve done it — that’s basically what the reasoning was. She has always been consistent with her story as to what happened.”
Lanning said high-profile missing child cases can place a tremendous amount of pressure on investigators to turn up leads.
“The younger the child is, the more the pressure applies to police. As they drag on to a day, a week, a month, to a year, the leads dry up,” Lanning said. “I’m not saying that isn’t a possibility, but are you considering that simply because you don’t have anything else?” Bunch declined to comment on the case Wednesday, saying he was waiting to see what the FBI might turn up before discussing the case.
“I’m going to let them handle it,” Bunch said.
Although there have been few recent clues, federal and local investigators say the case has remained active throughout the 15 years since Wesley disappeared. “We’ve never stopped investigating the case,” said Sgt. Kevin Garig, an East Feliciana Parish detective, in December. “Some months we have more leads than others.”
The case has also continued to attract attention from the community as well. Richard Sobers, a retired Baton Rouge policeman who lives a few miles from where Wesley was last seen, has been working the case unofficially for several years, investigating leads on his own — often to the consternation of local authorities. Sobers also welcomed Wednesday’s news.
“I’m just very excited this is taking place,” Sobers said. “I have a lot of faith in the FBI to generate what leads they need to solve this case.”
Covington, a longtime East Feliciana Parish resident, said she remembers well the desperate searches through the countryside in the initial weeks after Wesley disappeared.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like going through 15 years not knowing what happened to your child,” she said. “Hopefully we can all say a prayer that this group of people will all be successful.”
Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.