Police, sister seek answers to boy's disappearance in 1928
By JOHN CANIGLIA The Plain Dealer
ORRVILLE, Ohio (AP) — The fading black-and-white photograph of her mother crying in front of a drooping Christmas tree stands out amid the color photos of Elgie Auten-Forney’s children and family.
The graying picture sits on a dining-room shelf in her Orrville home, offering a daily reminder of the grief Auten-Forney has carried for more than 90 years.
On Dec. 27, 1928, her 4-year-old brother, Melvin Horst, vanished in this small city 90 minutes south of Cleveland. It is the oldest missing-persons case in Ohio and one of the oldest in the country, authorities said.
Auten-Forney is the only living, immediate member of a family that suffered for decades. She was just 2-years-old when her brother disappeared, and she has no recollection of what took place that day. But she has lived through its aftermath.
“I just want to know what happened to him,” she said recently in the living room of her modest ranch, less than a mile from where her brother disappeared. “I want to know why it happened.”
“I really can’t imagine a why.
“I want to know if he lived a life or if something happened soon after (he disappeared). It would be a miracle if I can find something out at my age.”
In recent months, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Washington, D.C., and Orrville police have renewed a push to find answers in the case.
They have submitted family members’ DNA to state and national crime databases for a possible victim’s match, pored over old police records, newspaper clippings and letters, and followed leads from recent years that pointed to an organized crime boss in Northeast Ohio.
They said they realize an arrest is highly unlikely, but they hope to at least give Auten-Forney some peace.
“Anything that involves a missing child has to be worked on, no matter how old,” said Orrville’s police chief, Matthew Birkbeck. “In this case, we’re not looking for justice, but for closure for a family.”
The boy’s disappearance took place at a time when a crime against a child was nearly inconceivable. It happened nearly four years before the highly publicized Lindbergh baby kidnapping in March 1932 and decades before the crimes became so commonplace that children’s faces began appearing on milk cartons.
Some news accounts said that rum runners, who were tired of dealing with Melvin’s uncle, the town marshal, sought to kidnap his son out of revenge. Instead, they grabbed the wrong child, drove him to Cleveland and drowned him in Lake Erie.
Others feared a frightened driver might have struck the boy with his or her car, picked up the child’s body and dumped it out of town following an accident. And still others believed an Akron mobster had the child kidnapped.
“Some people may ask, why review a case that’s nearly a century old, but the family has lived with this, and they deserve answers,” said Thomas Maurer, a retired Wayne County sheriff who works with the missing children’s center. “A missing child can never be forgotten.”
Auten-Forney was the youngest child of Raymond and Zorah Horst. She had two brothers. Her oldest brother, Ralph, was 8 at the time of the disappearance. Melvin, the middle child, was 4. He stood 3-feet tall and weighed 49 pounds when he disappeared.
Two days after Christmas 1928, Melvin went outside to play with his friends near his parents’ home near Vine and Paradise streets in Orrville. He wore a dark brown, homemade coat and blue overalls as he pretended to be a firefighter. He shared and played with his favorite Christmas gift, a bright, red toy firetruck that his parents had given him.
The boys played for hours a few blocks from his family’s home. And just before dusk, the boys’ mothers called their sons in for dinner.
Melvin never returned home. His firetruck was found in a nearby yard.
His uncle, Roy Horst, as town marshal, led the search. The town, which was then made up of about 4,500 residents, began organized attempts to find the boy. Dozens of children, on their holiday break from school, walked through fields and wooded property. Fearing Melvin might have drowned, firefighters drained a pond.
“It was so much different back then,” Birkbeck, the police chief, said. “Can you imagine having elementary school children be a part of the search?”
In the end, Melvin’s uncle concluded, “It was evident that no small boy could have lost himself so thoroughly as to have eluded the search of (that) night.” Roy Horst made the statement to True Detective Mysteries, a national magazine, in 1932.
Later, Auten-Forney’s family received hundreds of cards from across the country. Many were filled with sincere notes of kindness, while others contained a single line expressing thoughts and prayers. Several psychics tried to intervene, seeking to help find the boy with their powers.
Auten-Forney’s parents refused to take down the family Christmas tree, leaving it in the home for months. The most stark photo she has is of her mother crying in front of that sagging tree. In another family photo, young Elgie sits on her mother’s lap. Zorah Horst is shown frowning, her eyes welling with tears.
Her mother’s tears became a pattern.
“When I was about 4 or 5, my mother would just start crying,” Auten-Forney said. “I couldn’t really understand at that point why. My mom wasn’t very warm. She never said, ‘I love you.’ But then, I didn’t know anything different. I thought that’s how all parents were.”
There were few hugs and even fewer bright moments. Her father, who worked as a roofer, drank heavily after his son’s disappearance.
Authorities continued the search for weeks, tracking down drifters and others who might have known what happened to the boy. The town even put up a $1,000 reward, $15,000 in today’s dollars, for the safe return of the boy.
Initially, witnesses pointed to Elias and Arthur Arnold, a pair of local bootleggers who were accused, and later convicted, of child stealing.
They were sentenced to 20 years in prison and spent three months there before authorities realized that the witnesses could not have seen what they said they had, according to the Beacon Journal in Akron and other news reports.
The Arnolds weren’t the only bootleggers whose names came up in the investigation. Authorities said the possibility existed that a longtime Akron mobster named Anthony “Tony Long” LaFatch arranged to have the boy kidnapped.
LaFatch knew that Melvin’s uncle, Roy, was one of the strictest law enforcement officers in the area when it came to upholding Prohibition laws.
Some suspected that as a way of getting back at Roy Horst, LaFatch snatched the boy and may have placed him in a home in Akron for several days, according to published reports and interviews. What possibly happened afterward is unclear.
Years later, investigators learned that a woman admitted that she cared for the boy for several days in an upstairs apartment off Market Street before LaFatch had him moved to another unspecified location. Authorities are seeking to verify the account, though LaFatch died in 1994 at the age of 87.
Police have recently looked into LaFatch’s possible role, and they have made subsequent inquiries about his known associates.
For years, Auten-Forney’s parents refused to speak of their son’s disappearance. As she grew older, her parents also refused to put up a Christmas tree. That changed when she was 15, and she asked her parents for one.
Auten-Forney stayed in Orrville and the surrounding areas for years, raising a family of three girls and a boy. Her first husband, Robert Auten, died in 1996 at the age of 70. She married Richard Forney in 2004.
As her own family grew, one thing remained constant: the questions of what happened to her brother.
“The worst thing in the world is to lose a child,” said Christine Gardner, Auten-Forney’s youngest child. “But what makes it so very hard is if you never know what happened.”
In 1991, her family had a service for Melvin. But Orrville didn’t forget.
“There are people in town who are still disturbed by what happened,” said Mayor Dave Handwerk. “The family should know what happened.”
On June 24, 2017, Cindy Horst, a niece of Melvin and Elgie’s, called Orrville police and spoke with Sgt. Jaime McGreal, telling her that the family was still interested in finding out any information on the case.
“When you get a call like that, how do you not look into it?” McGreal said.
She obtained DNA samples from Auten-Forney and other family members to place in a database at the Ohio Attorney General’s office that compares familial DNA with human remains to find a possible match. She also provided information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
McGreal has looked through old police reports and letters and met with Auten-Forney.
At 92, Auten-Forney said she is thankful for the renewed interest in her brother’s case.
For years, she has held onto the photos of her mother, her brother’s red firetruck, the letters and her memories of growing up. Those will never leave her, but one day, she hopes, the haunting questions will.
Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com