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True Stories: The Missing Birthday Boy

It was supposed to be a fun family getaway. A weekend out of town to help celebrate little Demetrius’s birthday. They turned away for only a few seconds, and suddenly, he was gone.

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True Stories: The Missing Birthday Boy

(Photos: Anne Mullens)

Sunday morning, July 12, 2009: A tiny boy wearing a diaper and a green pyjama top floats silently down the Peace River in northeastern British Columbia. He is precariously balanced on his overturned toy truck, clutching its thin metal axle between the wheels. The slightest shift in his weight and he will be tossed into the cold waters of the wide, fast-moving river. He is whimpering. A logjam looms ahead.

The boy’s name is Demetrius, but his family calls him Peanut. His birthday party is set for later today. He will be three years old. His mother, father, younger brother, Dante, and grandparents are at a riverside campground about five kilometres away. Only now do they realize Peanut is gone.

Steep banks rise from the river. Dense boreal forest is all around. Bald eagles, mule deer, black bears, foxes, coyotes and moose are the only eyes watching.

The Jones family arrived on Friday at Peace Island Park, in Taylor, B.C., about 50 kilometres north of Dawson Creek. More than 20 friends and family members, including a great-grandmother, had come camping for the weekend, in part to celebrate Peanut’s birthday.

The family lives in nearby Fort St. John, the oil and gas capital of British Columbia. Big trucks are everywhere. Peanut is the kind of go-go child who makes truck-engine noises when he plays. Every steering wheel must be held, every tire poked.

Driving trucks is part of the family business. Peanut’s grandmother Anita Neudorf, 44, owns a delivery company with her husband, Monty, and drives a one-ton “pilot” truck all over northern B.C. Monty, 44, is a foreman for an oil exploration company, and he also drives a one-ton truck. Peanut’s parents, Heather, 22, and Joseph Jones, 25, work for Anita – Joseph’s mother – in the courier arm of the family business.

Peanut’s favourite truck, however, is his electric one, a bright-red miniature pickup his grandmother found at a garage sale. It runs on a battery –  it can go for hours on one charge – and has seats big enough for two toddlers to ride. (Still, Peanut’s four-month-old brother, Dante, was too young to ride with him.)

Peace Island Park is on the Taylor Flats, a large plain beside the Peace River. The river flows from the Rockies through Alberta, where it joins the Slave River. The Alaska Highway runs alongside the park, and a highway bridge crosses the river.

The large, 60-site campground where Demetrius and his family were staying is the size of at least five football fields, with willow, aspen and thickets of bush throughout. Black bears are sometimes seen. There is a children’s playground with slides and swings, a playing field and a group picnic area. A gravel road leads past the campsites to the boat launch.

For the weekend, Monty brought his jet-propelled riverboat. The boat draws very little water, enabling it to explore shallow streams, yet is still powerful enough to churn through strong currents. Riverboating on the Peace is popular.

About 200 people were at their campground that weekend, and Peanut’s family knew many of the other campers.

Next: How a short nap turned into a mother’s
worst nightmare.

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(Photos: Anne Mullens)

On Saturday morning, Anita and Monty took Peanut for a ride in the boat, backing up their big truck and trailer down the boat launch. Wearing a life jacket, Peanut sat at the front of the boat. His grandfather even let him hold the steering wheel for a bit.

After returning to the campsite and eating lunch, Peanut got into his electric truck to explore. He drove it to the far end of the campground, Anita keeping pace, and visited family friends who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. Peanut didn’t take the truck near the river.

When it came time to leave, the battery was so low that Anita was sure the truck wouldn’t make it back to their camp trailer. Joseph put the truck into his pickup, and they all drove back to their campsite.

Anita decided not to recharge her grandson’s truck. It would be easier to keep an eye on him at his birthday party tomorrow, she thought, if the truck was out of commission.

That night, the family gathered around the campfire. Summer twilight lasted late into the evening. “I’ll look after the boys,” Anita told Heather and Joseph. “You two go and have fun.”

Peanut and Dante slept in their grandparents’ trailer. “I don’t like little kids in tents when bears are around,” says Anita. She put the boys to bed at about 9 p.m., then rejoined the gathering at the campfire. When she turned in at around midnight, others were still up. But she knew her grandsons would be up at dawn.

Sure enough, before 6 a.m. that Sunday morning, the boys started to wake up. Anita changed Dante’s diaper, gave him a bottle and let him cuddle with his grandfather in the big double bed. She fixed a snack for Peanut and put on his favourite movie, Cars.

Anita knew from experience looking after the boys that Peanut would sit happily for two hours watching his movie. She lay down nearby and dozed off. When the movie was over, she thought, Peanut would wake her, just as he and the other grandkids always did back at home when they wanted to go outside: Peanut knew he wasn’t allowed out without an adult.

But sometime before the movie ended, probably around 7:30 a.m., Peanut slid open a door latch high over his head and, taught not to slam the trailer door, left without a sound.

Around 8:30 a.m., in her close-by tent, Heather got up and went into the trailer to use the washroom. She saw the DVD playing, Dante asleep in bed and Anita dozing nearby. Neither Peanut nor Monty were there. Heather assumed her little boy must have been out with his grandfather on a morning walk, but when she exited the trailer, she saw Monty walking alone.

“Hi, Monty,” she said. “Where’s Peanut?”

“I thought you had him,” he replied. “Isn’t he with you?”

The first lump of fear hit Heather’s belly. She looked around the trailer, then checked inside.

Monty, too, ran inside. He shook Anita awake. “Peanut is missing,” he said.

The boy’s pyjama bottoms were on the trailer floor. His little rubber boots were gone. So was his red truck.

Anita threw on clothes and grabbed the closest shoes, her husband’s big plastic clogs.

Next: Adults don’t always survive in that river,
and Peanut can hardly swim.

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(Photos: Anne Mullens)

The campsite was quiet. No one was up. The only sounds were birds and highway traffic.

Heather, Monty and Anita awoke Joseph. With one of the aunts watching Dante, they fanned out to look for Peanut.

Heather and Joseph jumped into their truck and searched the campground roads. Monty ran down to the boat launch. But there was no sign of Peanut.

Anita thought he must have returned to one of the places they had gone the day before. She drove to the playground: It was empty. She frantically retraced all their routes through the sleeping campground.

She saw a couple sitting in lawn chairs, drinking coffee. “Hi,” Anita gasped. “How long have you been up?”

“Since about 6:30,” was the response.

“Did you see a little blond boy driving a red battery-operated truck?”

“The little guy who was all over here yesterday?”

“Yes, yes, that’s the one!”

“No, sorry, we haven’t seen a thing. We would have seen him if he’d have come by.”

Anita could hardly breathe. Peanut must have gone to the river, she thought.

If he’s fallen in, she thought, there’s no way he could survive. The waters are so cold, so fast – and he’s so tiny. Adults don’t always survive in that river, and Peanut can hardly swim. He’s wearing only a diaper and a pyjama top.

He is dead, Anita thought.

She started to weep and hyperventilate. I’m going to bury my grandson on the day of his birthday party, she thought, and it’s my fault.

The pain almost incapacitated her. But a voice in her head told her, “Get a grip. Falling apart is not helping.” She saw the others. They had the same panicked looks.

“We need help,” she said. They all started banging on trailer doors, waking friends and family. Soon it seemed as if every person in the campground were looking.

Next: Peanut is finally located. But is the young
boy still alive?

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(Photos: Anne Mullens)

Twenty minutes after they realized Peanut was gone, Anita called 9-1-1.

At 8:55 a.m., RCMP Const. Greg Nardi was among the officers to respond. In most missing-children cases, the child will have been found by the time the police arrive. But when Nardi and his team arrived at the park, he learned that it likely had been two hours since the child had gone missing.

The whole campground was searching. Kids on bikes roared down gravel roads, some adults looked in bushes and ditches. Others combed the riverside. Nardi called in three more officers, including a dog handler and a search dog.

Had the boy been abducted? Had he climbed into someone’s car and fallen asleep? Either way, the Alaska Highway passed nearby, and anyone driving a car could quickly be long gone. Nardi set up an officer at the campground exit to search all cars as they left.

It was also possible that Peanut had ridden his little battery-powered truck onto the highway. Joseph drove south down the Alaska, and Anita drove north across the bridge.

Monty put his boat in the water and, with Anita’s brother, began searching downriver. The two men scanned the riverbanks and eddies. Then, wanting to be there to help the RCMP in whatever way they could, they headed back to shore.

No one said it, but everyone assumed they were searching for a child’s body.

Peanut’s parents were in shock: Heather was paralyzed with despair, keening and rocking on her knees, clutching a crying Dante tight to her body. Joseph felt a hole in his chest, as if he had been shot. Anita was blaming herself. No one was talking.

Also camping in the park that weekend was Don Loewen, owner of a construction company. Except for Monty’s, Loewen’s was the only riverboat at the campground that morning. So while others searched on land, Loewen and four of his friends took to the water. Just after 9 a.m., they set off downstream.

Loewen, a father of three, was at the wheel. The other men each took a corner, two scanning forward, two scanning sideways, hoping to catch a glimpse of the little boy.

The river level was the highest they had seen it all season. Recent rains had turned the water a muddy brown, full of silt. Branches from sweepers – low-hanging trees that grow close to rivers – jutted into the water.

Loewen and his friends came to a logjam and circled it two or three times. Nothing.

At the logjam, the river took a bend to the right. The shoreline had tall grass. Could the little boy have come this far? Should they turn back?

They were now more than ten kilometres downstream. They kept going.

Wayne Hotte, a log-yard supervisor, was at the back of the boat; he had the starboard-stern post. Just before 10 a.m., about 12 kilometres downstream, Hotte spotted something in an eddy, tucked up around a river bend. “Is that a bald eagle on a rock?” he asked.

The men squinted. Loewen brought the boat closer.

No, that “something” wasn’t the white feathers of an eagle’s head. It was the blond hair of a little boy. He was kneeling on his overturned electric truck, clutching the axle and shivering as the water lapped around him.

“Stay there – don’t move!” said Loewen. “I’m coming. Don’t move.” He knew even a tiny wave from the boat’s wake might tip Peanut into the water. They approached at the lowest speed possible, stopping about 20 metres from him.

Doug Marquardt, vice-president of operations at an oil-field fluid-hauling company, took the wheel as Loewen, wearing a Floater jacket, jumped overboard. The frigid water made him gasp. And he found it difficult swimming in the bulky coat, pants and boots.

Peanut’s big eyes remained fixed on Loewen’s face. It was as if the child knew he must not move a muscle.

The river was at least three metres deep at that point, well over Loewen’s head. As he made his way to the bright-red pickup, he knew that if he grabbed hold of Peanut, he would have to try to tread water while holding the boy in his arms. It was clear to him that he wouldn’t be able to do this.

Instead, he steadied the little truck as his friends brought the boat alongside.

Peanut was whimpering, but his eyes never left Loewen. The other men reached down and grabbed the boy, bringing him aboard.

“Where is my truck?” Peanut cried. Those were the only words he uttered.

“We can’t leave without his truck,” one of the men said. It was waterlogged and heavy, but Hotte and Darrin Paynter, who worked with Marquardt, hauled it aboard as Loewen climbed back in. Hotte held the truck over the boat’s stern.

Marquardt and another coworker, Dwayne Paulovich, removed their T-shirts to towel the cold water off a shivering Peanut. They wrapped him in life jackets and hugged him to warm him up. Loewen, back at the wheel, opened the throttle and sped back up the river.

Hotte took out his cellphone and dialled a friend at the campground. “Tell them we found him,” he yelled above the roar of the engine. “He’s safe,” Hotte continued; but somehow, this part of the message never made it through.

Next: The rescue team help Peanut celebrate
his birthday.

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(Photos: Anne Mullens)

Back at the campground, Hotte’s friend passed the message on to an RCMP officer, who put the word out on police radio. “The child has been found,” Constable Nardi heard as he searched the highway.

Peanut’s mother, Heather, saw RCMP cars racing towards the boat launch. “What’s happening?” she asked.

“Your boy’s been found,” the police dog handler told her. “They’re coming back with him.”

“Is he alive?”

“We don’t know,” he said.

Peanut’s dad, Joseph, felt his legs go weak. He crumpled to the ground. Heather screamed and collapsed. Anita knew she had to be waiting at the boat launch when her grandson arrived.

“You don’t want to be there,” said her brother, who tried to block her path.

“Get out of my way!” Anita yelled.

Loewen’s riverboat pulled up to the boat ramp. When it docked, Loewen and his team were standing. Two of the men had their shirts off. Hotte was holding Peanut’s red truck over the back of the boat.

Anita couldn’t see Peanut anywhere. She felt sick.

Then one of the men shifted position slightly.

Was that Peanut’s blond head? Was he in one of the men’s arms?

The little boy looked so cold – his chin was quivering. But Peanut was smiling.

At the hospital, with his parents and grandparents at his bedside, Peanut was warmed and assessed, then released within two hours. His birthday party took place that afternoon at the campground – as planned. Many of the people who had helped search for him were in attendance.

Today, sometimes he still asks, “Trucks go in water, Mommy?”

And Heather answers, “No, Demetrius, they do not!”

Anita Neudorf scans Peace River, where her grandson peanut went missing.