The Death of An Unknown Boy

updated 04/07/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/07/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Chuck Kleveland was looking for pheasants on the frozen morning of Christmas Eve when he first saw the body. The owner of a truck stop in Chester, Nebr., Kleveland, 44, was driving his pickup to nearby Hebron to get his holiday haircut. An avid hunter, he had taken his shotgun with him and was moving slowly along a rutted dirt backroad, scanning the frozen fields for game birds, when something blue caught his eye. He stopped, backed up the truck, then inched forward until he could see it lying in the four-foot-high grass about 15 feet from the road. At first, he couldn't—or wouldn't—believe what his eyes were telling him. "I thought it was a joke," he says, "a doll or a mannequin." It wasn't. It was the body of a child—a 4'3", 55-pound boy about 10 years old—a freckle-faced, blond-haired, gap-toothed kid clad in a blue one-piece pajama sleeper. The child was lying flat on his back with one hand resting on his chest. It almost seemed, Kleveland said later, as if someone had gently laid him down and had placed the boy's hand over his heart.

Using the CB radio in his truck, Kleveland called his secretary and told her to summon the police. When the emergency call went out over the police radio, Sheriff Gary Young, 47, thought somebody was playing a sick joke. A dead body found abandoned in Thayer County? It didn't seem possible. Young, an eight-year veteran of the sheriff's department, had broken up some barroom brawls and investigated a few petty thefts, but he'd never worked a homicide. The last murder in Thayer County had occurred more than a decade ago, and Sheriff Young was certainly not expecting to find any corpses on Christmas Eve. But when Kleveland led him to the body, Young immediately realized that it was no mannequin, no doll, no sick joke. Horrified, he examined the corpse. The nose and upper lip had been eaten away, probably by mice, but there was no blood, no visible wound, no sign of violence.

Later, at a funeral home in Hebron, an undertaker and several police investigators examined the body. They too could find no evidence of foul play. Ken Mahlin Jr., the Chester school superintendent, was summoned to identify the body, but he didn't recognize the boy. Neither did anyone else. And no children had been reported missing. It was eerie and frightening: an unknown boy found dead of an unknown cause. But Christmas was only hours away, and so the child was wrapped in swaddling clothes and then placed in the morgue at Lincoln General Hospital until after the holiday.

The dead boy haunted Thayer County's Christmas. News of the grim find had spread rapidly, and all over the county panicky parents scurried to find their children, to make sure they were all right and then to wrap them in huge hugs of relief. When the panic subsided, the gloom began to set in. From the start it had been a grim Christmas season, with the crisis in the farm belt casting a pall over the festivities. And now the discovery of the dead boy—people were already calling him "the Christmas child"—added to the bleakness in the rural county of 7,000.

Overwhelmed by what he had witnessed, Chuck Kleveland sat silently at his family gathering. His daughter Amy, 18, couldn't bear even to fake a holiday spirit and went to bed shortly after dinner. "I felt strange, like I didn't belong anywhere," she says, "and I couldn't celebrate anything." Many people shared that feeling. "All during Christmas, when my own children were opening gifts," says Susan Witt, 44, a nurse and mother of five sons, "I thought of this little boy who wouldn't be opening any." Coming when it did, the death of the child took on an almost mystical significance, an importance that would grow for the local people during the coming months. "We're ascribing great meaning to this," says the Rev. Jean Samuelson, pastor of Chester's United Methodist Church. "There is an aura about it. Why did God send us a child on Christmas Eve?"

After the holiday police investigators began to work on two less metaphysical questions: Who was this boy? How did he die? They figured that the first question would be easy to answer. "I thought we'd have this wrapped up in a few days," admits Sheriff Young. He sent descriptions and an artist's sketch of the boy to police departments, schools and social service agencies around the country. He noted the boy had a one-inch birthmark inside his right calf and a small circular scar on his right forearm. They fed information into the FBI's computer in Washington, where it was compared to the descriptions of all children who are reported missing every year. Leads and tips piled up—there were 150 in the first week alone—and every one was investigated. Unfortunately none of them led to the boy found near Chester. Their unexpected failure has left the investigators feeling frustrated and impotent. "He's got to be related to somebody," says Young. "What bothers me is how easy it is for a kid to be lost in the shuffle."

The autopsy performed the day after Christmas revealed little. Because the boy's body had been frozen, the blood tests were inconclusive. The pathologist fixed the date of death as Dec. 23, but he could not pinpoint the cause. He was able to rule out stabbing, shooting, beating, strangulation and poisoning. Although there was some minor congestion in the lungs, the boy did not appear to have died of natural causes. Yet there was no conclusive proof of an unnatural death. The autopsy did find a slightly elevated, though nonfatal, level of carbon monoxide in the boy's blood. One theory suggests that the child was suffocated until he lost consciousness, and that he then was abandoned to freeze to death. One thing was certain: The child—whoever he was—had in other ways been well cared for. He was not malnourished, and his fingernails, ears, elbows and neck were clean.

The case is baffling but not unique. Over the past year James Scutt, an ex-policeman now serving as technical adviser to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has examined between 15 and 20 other unidentified children who have been found dead around the country. (He asks anyone with information to call toll free 1-800-843-5678.) At this point, despite any positive proof, County Attorney Dan Werner is still treating the case as a homicide. "If I believed the boy died of natural causes, and the parents merely left him," he says, "I would not be pursuing this."

As weeks passed and the case remained unsolved, a climate of gloom and dread settled over Thayer County. Not surprisingly it was the children who were most affected. Shirley Koss's 6-year-old grandson refused to go to the bathroom alone for fear that he would be abducted. Eleven-year-old Matt Wassom asked to sleep in his parents' room. "How would you feel, Mom?" he asked. "That boy was about my age." Even Bradley Hacker, 7, an undertaker's son accustomed to the presence of death, was plagued by nightmares. "I never cry because I'm not afraid of death," he says. "But it was the way they found him that makes me have nightmares. I was dreaming one night that Santa Claus came by and saw him."

The mystery obsesses the older children too. Thoughts of the boy appeared frequently in journals kept by English students at the Chester-Hubbell-Byron High School. "Nobody knew this boy, yet everyone was bawling," says Coleen Kasl, 15. "For the first time in my life I felt there might be someone bad around here." The students identify closely with the nameless boy, says high school principal Glenn Davenport. "We've come to think of him as our own," he says. "They left him with us. It's like someone leaving a basket on your doorstep—he comes to belong to you."

Indeed, the people of Thayer County embraced the boy. Slowly, spontaneously, the idea spread that the boy ought to be given a Christian funeral and a decent burial. "You just couldn't leave that little child in a refrigerator," says Kathy Kleveland, wife of the man who found him. "We wanted to give him back to God." Groups in Chester and Hebron collected money to pay for the services. A casket company in Omaha donated a cloth-covered coffin. A monument company in South Dakota donated a granite headstone decorated with a broken rose. Susan Witt of Fairbury, Nebr. gave one of her son's size-8 suits for the boy to be buried in. And Mary Higby, a 62-year-old widow, donated one of her family burial plots. "The poor little thing needs a resting place," she said.

Finally, on Friday, Mar. 21, the unknown boy—he was unofficially named Matthew, which means "gift of God"—was laid to rest. The Rev. Samuelson conducted the funeral service in the stately, red-carpeted United Methodist Church. Samuelson's sermon was the most difficult she had ever written. To her fell the unenviable task of finding some meaning, some sense in the mysterious death of an unknown child. "We all know the names of little ones who have died, but this one has no name," she told the congregation of 300. "He haunted us. He haunted me personally. I asked in prayer, 'Lord, why do you keep speaking to me about this child? Why should I feel guilt?' The answer: 'He has been in your life in other forms, and you have not heard him or seen him because you were too busy trying to prove yourself worthy.' "

That, she said, was the young boy's message: "If God speaks to one person here, helping them to reach outside of himself or herself to one of God's children, then the death of this little boy will have been used for God's good and not for evil."

After the service a procession of cars followed the gray hearse to the Chester cemetery and to the grave, which lies only half a mile from the spot where the boy was found. Before he was lowered into the earth on a warm spring day, the Rev. Samuelson whispered a short prayer: "May God take him into His loving arms and keep him always safe." Tears flowed, but many of those among the mourners felt glad the ordeal was finally over. "It's like the line from the hymn Amazing Grace," said Kathy Kleveland. " 'I once was lost but now am found.' This little boy is not lost anymore."

Most of the townspeople would probably agree with Kleveland, but County Attorney Dan Werner is not one of them. "A lot of people are satisfied to give this child a good Christian burial, but not me," he says. "Funerals are for the living, and this one makes the people in this area feel better because they have a personal relationship with him; they have kind of adopted him. But his death still tugs at me. I want to solve it."

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