MILO, Maine — Dorothy Brown sees her little brother Freddie Holmes in her mind every day. In the vision, his tiny arms are outstretched as he cries “tookie,” his way of asking her to take him because he wanted to be held.
No one knows for sure, but the 22-month-old boy may have said “tookie” to the person his family believes abducted the blue-eyed, blond-haired tot 54 years ago. Holmes disappeared from his family’s secluded home on Denman Mountain in Grahamsville, N.Y., on May 25, 1955. The thousands of searchers who scoured the area for weeks on the ground and from the air found no clues or clothing.
Haunted by the mysterious disappearance of her brother, Brown, 68, of Milo, firmly believes Freddie was taken by someone who wanted a handsome child. Although the case went cold and was shelved, the retired nurse never gave up looking for her sibling.
“I think of it all the time. I mean, there’s not a day goes by that you don’t give it some thought. You just can’t help it — it has become my pattern of being,” Brown said.
It was Brown’s inquiries this summer about a small boy whose beaten body was found in a box in Philadelphia in 1957 that prompted the cold case to become a little warmer. She had been searching the Internet for missing persons organizations when she happened upon the story about the “Boy in the Box.” Her inquiries about the boy, who had the same characteristics as her brother, caught the attention of Todd Matthews, a representative of NamUs, a national missing persons organization.
Matthews said Tuesday he was able to connect Brown and her sister Janet Haiss of Grahamsville, N.Y., Freddie’s sole surviving siblings, to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In late October, Brown and Haiss submitted DNA samples to NCMEC in the hope that someday they can again embrace Freddie or at least find closure. The samples will be tested against those from the boy found in the box. Brown did not know how long it would take for results to come back.
On the morning Freddie disappeared, Brown recalled, she had dressed him for the day and then left for school with her brothers and sisters. Her father, Roderick Holmes, had left for his job at the town highway department.
Brown’s stay-at-home mother, Gertrude Holmes, had taken Freddie outside to play while she worked in the garden, according to Brown. Gertrude Holmes told police, after reporting her son’s disappearance, that when she last checked on Freddie, he had been talking with the landlord.
The landlord, a cobbler in his 50s who had immigrated from Italy to Brooklyn, N.Y., owned the farmhouse and occasionally would stop in to work in a shed he kept locked on the property, according to Brown. “He would come and go, check on us and then return home,” she recalled.
When Brown was told by the school principal that her brother was missing, she boarded a bus with older students to join in the search, even though she figured her brother would be found quickly because he couldn’t walk very far, and when he did, he would sit down and cry.
Thousands turned out for the search, which continued for weeks. Police first thought an animal might have taken the boy, but no clothing was found. Even though the family lived in a remote area, Brown said the only animal she recalled seeing was a woodchuck.
When no clues were found, police zeroed in on Brown’s father and mother. They dug up her mother’s garden, pumped out a small farm pond, and ripped open floors and walls in their home, looking for the tot’s body.
“I was furious — I was only 14 — to think they would accuse my mother and my father,” Brown said. “I never got spanked in my entire life. That they would hurt their baby was just beyond my comprehension.” She said her parents were given lie detector tests, which they passed.
When police searched the landlord’s garage, they found stolen items — from chain saws to tools that had been hidden beneath the floorboards, Brown recalled. They also found communist literature, which incited some of the searchers, who wanted to lynch him on the spot, she said. The landlord, who was questioned about the missing child and the stolen items, was taken to jail, according to Brown. She said she never learned what happened to him afterward.
“We all feel that he had something to do with it,” Brown said of Freddie’s disappearance. Her sister remembers the landlord saying once that “‘somebody would pay a lot of money for that baby.’ Freddie has such long blond hair, you could put a dress on him; people were looking for a lost boy, not a girl. He was the cutest little bugger you can imagine.”
Brown believes Freddie might be alive. “I think somebody wanted him and took him and raised him as a child,” she said.
She noted that the same year Freddie went missing, another 2-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed boy went missing from Long Island, N.Y., leading her mother and father to believe the children were being sold.
The family never stopped looking for Freddie, but the years took a toll, Brown said. “I guess for a long time I did think we’d get him back, but then after a couple of years, I knew,” she said. “They used to bring pictures to my mother of dead kids that they found and it would bring it all back again. My mother, poor thing. She was a simple country woman, and to be shown something like that was a constant reminder.”
Although the couple had an eighth child, a girl, four years later, their grief over the loss of their son consumed them, according to Brown. At 52, her father committed suicide not far from where his son disappeared. Her mother died on her 61st birthday of cardiac arrest. “She always said she has a hole in her heart,” Brown noted.
As she grew older, Brown chose a path where she would have contact with lots of people. She would examine the faces of men who were in college with her and in the emergency room where she later worked. When traveling, Brown said, she would arrive very early so she could watch the faces, hoping for a hint of resemblance.
When she learned of the “Boy in the Box,” Brown wrote to New York state officials to get copies of Freddie’s case, but was told there were no records. Brown was incredulous that with such a massive search for a child there were no records. “It’s just like he was an old pair of shoes. They just tossed it away,” she said.
Brown became more determined. She joined Peace4theMissing.com, working to follow up leads for the organization, which helps find missing persons.
“There’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in this country that have been missing for years and years on end; it just boggles my mind that this could happen,” she said.
Some searches have happy endings, while others only bring more grief. In one sense, Brown is praying that her DNA won’t find a match, because she knows it would mean her brother is dead. Instead, she hopes Freddie will walk into her life at some point. When and if he does, Brown said she’ll hug him tightly and will tell him that she never gave up looking for him.