A Tribute to John's Journey

Karen Hatter

Shortly after Labour Day, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere throughout the United States, it's back to school for millions of children.

So it was, on September 14, 1988, twenty years ago, when John, a 10th grade student, beginning his second year at George Washington Carver Engineering and Science School, eagerly headed to school.

John was a straight 'A' student when he entered high school, an only son and loving brother to his two sisters, who loved animals and respected all living things.

In his room, christened 'the jungle' by the family, he kept a small menagerie of snakes, frogs, spiders, caterpillars, that he nurtured until they emerged from their final stage as moths and a Jack Dempsey fish, that was always leaping out the tank, with John somehow always near by to retrieve him from the floor and put him back in the water.

John was a thoughtful, respectful son, always leaving his mother notes or giving her a call to let her know where he was and what he was doing. But, not that day.

His mother never saw him again until nearly five years later, after Palm Sunday in 1993, when his skeletal remains were recovered from Georges Hill Drive in Fairmount Park in West Philadelphia.

It was determined he was most likely killed by a single gun shot wound to the head. Due to the condition of the remains, forensics could only be performed on his skull and bones. He was identified by dental records.

Through the years that John's mother searched for her son, she often spoke of his gentle nature. He was a bright child, eager to aid others when he saw a need, volunteering his help without being asked.

She laughed as she told me the story of hunting all over Philadelphia for a specific pest control product. John's mother was an apartment manager and she'd told John of her plans to purchase spray for exterminating bugs in the apartments. John immediately assumed the role of advocate for the bugs.

He couldn't bear the thought that his mother wanted to kill the bugs. He thought it more humane to use a special pesticide, which he described to his mother, that rendered the bugs sterile, allowing them to live out their natural lives but preventing them from reproducing. That was John.

When John disappeared, his mother contacted the police with his description: African American male, 15 years old, six feet tall; last seen being pulled into a black Cadillac car down the street from his home.

The police wrote John off as a runaway. His mother was told he wasn't under the age of 10, which would have prompted a "tender age" search nor was he a special needs case. Given his age and height, despite his mother's insistence he was not, John was labeled a runaway.

When John's mother first contacted local newspapers about his story, she was told, since the police considered John a runaway, they would not do a story.

The police did not actively pursue any leads on John's disappearance until three months after he was reported missing, which occurred only after John's mother contacted local elected officials. A year after John's disappearance, his case was finally assigned to the missing persons' unit.

For almost five years, John's mother did all she could to find her child, going through the neighborhood, tracking down leads, turning them into police, often following the leads herself, despite any possible danger to herself.

John's grandfather hit the streets, determined to get to the bottom of John's disappearance. He could be found walking the streets of the neighborhood, standing on the corners, observing the street scene. He did this for almost two years.

The entire family, John's sisters, his aunt, uncle, cousins, all helped John's mom leaflet the neighborhood with flyers, offering a reward for any information on John's whereabouts.

For some time, as John's mom would return to the streets where she had posted flyers, she would find the flyers had been removed. Her first thoughts were they were being torn down and thrown away.

Later she learned, people were taking down the flyers to make copies to pass out among their circle of acquaintances. Eventually, flyers were circulated all over Philadelphia.

John's mother draped a banner in front of John's home, asking in large letters,  "Where is John?". Some time later, the banner changed to read,  "Hang in there, John!".

John's mother made contact and began working with various agencies that were involved in the search for missing and exploited children.

Immersing herself in networking with the families of other missing children, John's mom learned fingerprinting techniques, offering her skills to parents so they had a set of their child's fingerprints to provide to law enforcement in case a parent's worst fear and eventuality occurred.

John's mother says that along the way, she's learned much about herself and her ability to keep moving in the face of emotional difficulty and pain.

When John's remains were discovered in the park, the first reports on the news indicated the remains were of a White male. However, the next day, she received a call from police.

Not wanting to believe the possibility John had come to such an end, she repeated what she'd heard on the news. Then, she was told of the keys.

In the pocket of the remnants of a pair of gray jeans, oddly strewn among the remains, a ring of keys had been found. John's mother was urged to try the keys in her door to see if they fit her door.

John's grandfather had not changed the lock on his door saying,  " .... so John can get in when he comes home." The key unlocked the lock, removing all doubt John had been found.

John's mother told me she still gets calls from time to time since John was found on Palm Sunday in 1993, from some of the police officers with whom she bonded on her journey for information and details about how this came to happen to her only son John, a smart, funny kid, who was learning Chinese in the hope of traveling to China in a special program instituted by the principal of his school.

Approximately every ten years, the U.S. Department of Justice completes a study of missing children, releasing a report, the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART). The latest report was released in October 2003.

The report states of 1,315,600 children reported missing by caretakers, usually under the age of 15 years, 99% were returned home unharmed.

Under the category of Runaway/Thrownaway, numbered at 1,682,900, these children were identified as being between the ages of 15-17 years of age, with episodes of running away from home.

John was not a runaway nor was he thrown away. His was a rich life filled with the warmth and caring of family and friends who loved him dearly.

To date, those responsible for the death of John and the reason why he was murdered remain unknown.

On the 20th anniversary of my nephew John's disappearance, I'll leave you with A Prayer for the Missing, written by John's mom:

May they be strong

May they feel the warmth of those who love them

May they feel missed

May they be guided by the force above them

May they be, one day, safely home