Man may solve 50-year-old mystery

June 17, 2009 9:47:00 AM PDT
When a mysterious visitor showed up last fall at Jerry Damman's Iowa farm, there wasn't any reason for him to suspect it was the toddler son who long ago vanished from a stroller in front of a New York bakery. After all, five decades of silence have passed, each of them bringing no new leads about the fate of his blond 2-year-old boy, Stephen.

Damman's wife directed the man to a neighboring farm where her husband was working, but the man never showed up to speak with him. The couple dismissed the visit at the time. Damman now wonders if that visitor could have been his son, a grown man from Michigan who recently told the FBI that he was the missing child taken so many years ago.

"It's just one of those things, you know. Nothing's happened all those years," the 78-year-old Damman said Tuesday. "You don't figure it's going to now, but maybe it did."

The man's identity hasn't been released, but an official familiar with the investigation said he believes he never fit in with the family in which he grew up and began researching missing persons cases around the nation. That's how the man learned of the Damman case, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the claim was still under investigation.

Nassau County Police Lt. Kevin Smith said the case was referred to the FBI in Detroit and authorities are awaiting DNA results to determine if the man's claim is true.

"To a certain extent, this would probably close it," said Damman. "Just like a death gives you closure, you know sometimes, it will give you closure to know what happened."

Jerry Damman and his wife, Charlotte -- who is not Stephen Damman's mother -- said they've often thought back to the stranger's visit to their farm and his decision not to identify himself. The missing child's sister also got a visit from the same man, they said. "She looked at this guy, and he looked like Jerry," Charlotte Damman said.

Investigators learned that the Michigan man reached out to the woman he believed to be his sister, Smith said, and that the two conducted a private DNA test that found they could be related. The FBI is conducting its own tests, Smith said.

"He came all the way down from Michigan," Jerry Damman said. "I don't know if he was kind of timid about it. He probably was."

Damman said he has tried to call the man twice since a report of his claim was published Tuesday in the New York Daily News. Jerry and the missing child's mother divorced a few years after their son's kidnapping. His ex-wife could not be located to talk about the case.

Jerry Damman was working at Mitchell Air Force Base on Long Island when his son disappeared. His wife, Marilyn, left Stephen and 7-month-old daughter, Pamela, waiting outside a bakery while she went inside to shop on Oct. 31, 1955, according to Smith and news accounts from 1955.

"Back in that time, it was probably not that uncommon to do something like that," Smith said.

After 10 minutes, Marilyn came out of the bakery but could not find the stroller or her children, authorities said. The stroller, with only her daughter inside, was found around the corner from the market a short time later, authorities said.

More than 2,000 people searched for 28 hours without finding Stephen. The county's assistant chief inspector, Leslie W. Pearsall, called off the search, saying that the boy's disappearance had become "a case for detectives only," according to 1955 story in The New York Times.

The family received a ransom note in mid-November, according to an Associated Press account. Stephen's parents also made a public plea to the kidnappers at the time, saying Stephen suffered from anemia and asking that he receive medicine that included vitamins, aspirin and a tonic, the Times reported.

Today, the spot where Stephen was taken is a Waldbaum's supermarket at a busy strip-mall intersection. The report has stunned residents old enough to remember the futile search for the toddler.

Joan Bookbinder, 81, was a few years older than Damman's mother in 1955. She said it was common at that time to leave babies outside in their carriages while shopping.

"They would all be lined up outside the supermarket," Bookbinder said while standing outside the market. "We never worried. We never thought about it."

Everything changed after the toddler was kidnapped.

"We never left the carriages outside again," she said. "All I remember is the fear amongst the mothers."

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