The Riddle of the Boy in Blue
02/22/1988 at 01:00 AM EST
It was just before last Thanksgiving, and in little Lyman, Wyo. (pop. 2,300), that a young mother came across a haunting story in the latest issue of Reader's Digest. On Christmas Eve 1985, the frozen body of a 9-year-old boy had been found by the roadside in Thayer County, Nebr. The child had been dressed in a blue pajama sleeper and had one hand placed tranquilly over his heart. After an autopsy and three months of investigation by Thayer County authorities, the woman read, the identity of "Little Boy Blue"—as well as the cause of his death—remained a mystery. Nevertheless the people of Chester and nearby Hebron (total pop. 1,500) in Thayer County had embraced him as if he were one of their own. They named him Matthew, meaning "gift of God," and on March 21, 1986, after a well-attended funeral service, they laid him to rest among their kin folk in the Chester cemetery. Yet the episode had left a pall of unease over the two farming communities; they had been visited, they felt, by something evil and unexplained. Nobody in Thayer County knew who the boy was. Nobody knew where he had come from. Nobody knew how he had died.
As the Wyoming woman sadly finished reading the article, she had an intuition that she knew who the child was, but she dismissed it as "too bizarre." On Thanksgiving morning she received a phone call from someone else who had read the magazine and shared her fear. He too suspected that the abandoned boy was Danny Stutzman.
"Since both of us had the same feeling, I decided to send Danny's picture to the sheriff," says the woman, who asks not to be named, "but I hoped the identification would not match."
The woman and her husband, friends of Danny's father, Eli, 37, had cared for the child for six months in the spring and fall of 1985. She had hugged him goodbye when Eli Stutzman took him away, just 10 days before the body was found. Hoping to hear her hunch about Danny was wrong, she sat at her computer and composed a letter...
On Dec. 1, Thayer County Sheriff Gary Young, 49, 'received a call at his Hebron office telling him that the Chester post office was holding a misaddressed envelope for him. The stocky lawman, seven years in office, hopped into his squad car and drove the 12 miles to the post office, thinking all the while about "Matthew." He had never believed, as others had tried to, that the boy had died of natural causes and been left by the roadside by parents who couldn't afford to bury him. Young sensed that something more sinister had been at work that December, and he had never stopped pursuing the case as a homicide.
A few minutes later, sitting behind the wheel of his car, Young ripped open the envelope with the Wyoming postmark. Even before reading the letter, he saw the enclosed snapshot, a photograph of a grinning, tousle-haired blond boy with a missing front tooth. Over the past two years he had received more than a thousand tips; this one, he knew, was the best. The resemblance between police photos of the dead "Matthew" and the boy whom the woman from Wyoming called Danny was unmistakable. Returning to Hebron, Young contacted the woman and asked for medical and dental records and objects that might have the boy's fingerprints. He also obtained an arrest warrant for the boy's father. On Dec. 14, identification of the body was confirmed through a palm print on Danny Stutzman's third-grade report card from the Urie Elementary School in Lyman.
That same day—exactly two years after he and Danny had left Lyman—Eli Stutzman was arrested in a trailer park outside Azle, Texas, and charged with felony child abuse. Claiming he was anxious to assist with the investigation, Stutzman waived extradition charges and was returned to Thayer County two days later. When he got there, he asked to see Danny's grave. As he stood over the snow-covered site, flanked by sheriff's deputies, tears rolled down his face. "I'm glad it's finally out in the open," he says. "I feel I have caused people pain and grief, and I'm sorry. I will not deny that I have handled the situation with Danny's death the wrong way, and I beg forgiveness. I'm guilty of lies, but I did not abuse or kill my son."
Stutzman claimed Danny had died accidentally, while sleeping in his father's car. Last month, because there was no hard evidence to the contrary, Eli Stutzman was allowed to plead guilty to two misdemeanors: abandoning a body and failing to report a death. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail and was ordered to pay $21 in court costs. Before he was sentenced in Hebron's oak-paneled courtroom, he recounted his version of the death of his son.
Father and son had been traveling from Wyoming to Apple Creek, Ohio, he said, where they planned to spend Christmas with relatives. Danny had a severe throat infection, he told the court, and wasn't feeling well. "We talked about stopping at a motel, but Danny said to keep going. So I rear ranged the luggage in the back of the hatchback and spread out a sleeping bag. I even let him open one of his Christmas gifts, a soccer ball." Danny felt better later that evening, according to Stutzman, and changed into his new pajamas—a gift from Eli—before crawling into the sleeping bag.
Several hours passed, said the father, and he became concerned when Danny seemed unnaturally quiet. "I reached back while driving and got hold of his leg," he said. "I couldn't get a response. So I turned around and tried to wake him up, but his head was by the back window. I pulled the car over and went to open up the window. I got a glimpse of his eyes, and I thought, 'No...No!' " Stutzman, a onetime hospital orderly, says he tried to revive Danny with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage. "I couldn't face the fact that Danny was dead," he said. "I kept thinking I had to be calm and get things together, yet there was this overpowering dark and alone feeling. I drove for a while until I found a peaceful valley. I prayed and prayed, and I decided to leave Danny, and I asked God to take care of him. I never told anybody."
Stutzman showed little emotion as he quietly told his story, and when, at one point, the prosecutor said, "Mr. Stutzman, did you kill your son?" Eli's "No" was nearly inaudible.
Sheriff Gary Young remains unconvinced. "You don't leave a 9-year-old boy in a ditch for the animals to chew on," he says. "That's out of the dark ages. Since Day One I have felt there was something more to this, but I can't put my finger on it."
Young is not alone in his doubts. Serious questions remain about Eli Stutzman. Friends in Colorado and Wyoming describe him as a quiet man, withdrawn but easygoing, who had a loving relationship with Danny, his only child. But in Apple Creek, Ohio, the Amish community where Eli was raised, there are those who consider him a man who bears watching. He was brought up in a strict Amish household—his father was a bishop in the sect—but he rebelled against the community and finally left it. He was secretive, conniving and moody, say those who mistrust him, and he had a reputation as a habitual liar. Furthermore, they point out, more than one person who had been close to Eli Stutzman had died a mysterious death.
In 1977, when Danny was 10 months old, the barn on Stutzman's 83-acre Apple Creek farm was struck by lightning and set on fire. According to Eli, his wife, Ida, 26 and five months pregnant at the time, collapsed and died while attempting to save some milking equipment from the blaze. But Dr. Elton Lehman, who had assisted Ida during Danny's birth, terms her death "unusual." She had never shown any sign of a weak heart before, says the doctor, despite what her husband had told the coroner. And why, wonders Lehman, would a woman risk her pregnancy over milk pails? "But by the time I rechecked my medical records and told my concerns to the coroner," says the doctor, "it was too late. Ida was buried, and out of respect for the Amish, we didn't pressure the family to exhume the body for an autopsy."
Not long after Ida's death, Eli, the fourth of 13 children, suffered a breakdown. Neighbors heard howls from his farmhouse and found him hurling furniture down the stairs. He was hospitalized and treated for depression. Then, soon after he returned to his farm, Stutzman shocked the tradition-bound Amish community again. He shaved his beard, modernized his house with electricity, discarded his Amish clothing and switched from farming to raising horses. "I began reading more about the Scriptures," he says, "trying to understand why we lived the way we did. Finally I decided I could still follow the Christian faith by moving outside the Amish life." Apple Creek promptly ostracized him, and in October 1982 he sold his farm and moved to a ranch near Ignacio, Colo.
After two years Stutzman decided it was time to move on again. He took Danny out of school and moved to Austin, Texas. There he worked as a carpenter and befriended a young man named Glen Pritchett, who eventually moved in with him and his son. On May 12, 1985, Pritchett's body, with a bullet hole in the head, was found dumped in a culvert. Eli was the prime suspect, but before the investigation was completed, he and Danny were on the road to Wyoming. Stutzman left, he says, because authorities "asked Danny whether Pritchett and I had a sexual relationship. It really upset him, so I decided to have him stay with friends until things were squared away."
When Stutzman handed Danny over to his friends in Lyman, he explained that he was suspected of murder in Texas and wanted to clear his name. Claiming he was looking for work, Eli roamed around Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado before returning for Danny six months later.
On Dec. 14, 1985, Danny Stutzman stood by the front window of a split-level home in Lyman, whistling his favorite song, "Buffalo Gals," and eagerly awaiting his father. Stutzman had phoned, saying the two of them would be driving to Apple Creek for the holidays. Danny's small suitcase was packed, and several boxes filled with toy cars, robots, books and Christmas presents stood ready to go. Although he was disappointed about leaving his new friends and missing the school Christmas party, he was thrilled to be reunited with his father. A polite and affectionate child, always ready to climb into a lap and cuddle, he never quite understood why Eli had left him for so long. Often, not even his computer games or his newfound love of soccer could lift him out of his melancholy. "His father was his idol," says a family friend. "That's all he ever talked and bragged about. He felt his father was the most important person in the world."
When Eli arrived, he and Danny packed the 1975 Gremlin and, after getting haircuts in town, set out for Ohio on Interstate 80. But when the car arrived in Apple Creek, Eli was alone. He told friends that Danny had stayed in Wyoming to go skiing. "He never seemed nervous or upset," says an acquaintance, "so there was no reason to doubt him." After four weeks Eli left Apple Creek once again.
In July, Amish relatives received a letter from Eli saying that Danny had been killed in a car accident and was buried in Wyoming. But when Danny's uncle, Andy Gingrich, and grandfather, Amos, took a bus to Lyman, they couldn't find the grave. They called the couple Danny had lived with and learned that Eli had told them Danny was enrolled in school in Ohio. The couple in Wyoming remembered Eli's fear that his in-laws or others in the Amish community might try to take Danny away from him and concluded that he must have fabricated Danny's death to throw the family off his track. The Gingriches, for their part, left Wyoming deeply disturbed. "We were concerned about the boy and what happened to him," says Andy.
Not until two months ago did they learn Danny's fate, and they may never know the cause of his death. Strangulation, beating and poisoning have been ruled out by pathologists, and while carbon monoxide levels in his body were elevated, they were nowhere near a lethal concentration. The defense submitted a letter from one pathologist saying that he "favored the idea" that Danny died a natural death. But Sheriff Young believes the boy was suffocated somehow and, with Thayer County Attorney Dan Werner, is continuing investigation of the case. Meanwhile, Eli Stutzman, who may still face a murder charge in Texas for the death of his former roommate, says he plans to get on with his life and put the past behind him. Others—family, friends and the multitude of strangers so deeply touched by the death of his son—are less willing to let that past be forgotten. "Stutzman is going to go free next year," says Chuck Kleveland, the truck-stop owner who found Danny's body. "But every Christmas for the rest of our lives, we are going to remember what happened." Adds his wife, Kathy: "We want this to be over...but it never will be."
—Written by Margot Dougherty, reported by Civia Tamarkin