Birthed in fire, the twenty-four year investigation into Mark Himebaugh’s disappearance appears to be heating up.
It was a conflagration that started it all; on November 25th, 1991 a marsh fire blazed in Del Haven, a quiet rural community on the shores of Delaware Bay in Middle Township, New Jersey.
As firefighters and onlookers descended on the scene
the inhabitants of the tidy colonial at 214 Sun Ray Beach Road enjoyed their last moments of normalcy—soon their world, like the adjoining scrubland, would be reduced to ash.
Prior to the kindling it had been the most routine of Mondays.
Maureen Himebaugh had fixed her sons Matthew and Mark breakfast and ushered the boys off to school;
she then ran errands, and when Mrs. Himebaugh arrived home at 2:30pm Mark,
freshly returned from Cape May County Special Services Alternative School,
was lolling on the sofa watching TV.
The Himebaughs had dubbed the eleven-year old “Curious George” due to his inquisitive nature,
and at 3pm Mark—lured by the siren song of the approaching firetrucks—requested and was granted permission to join the crowd of spectators assembling near the blaze.
Twenty minutes later, at 3:20pm,
Mrs. Himebaugh spotted Mark near the family driveway as she departed to chauffeur a neighbor to a nearby auto body shop. “Be right back,” she called out.
“Okay, Mom,” Mark replied, a banal exchange forever seared into Maureen Himebaugh’s memory.
Mark was subsequently sighted in the neighborhood by several area residents,
and at 3:45pm a ranger who was acquainted with Mark saw him entering a nearby park with a blonde girl
wearing a blue parka—Mark’s companion, who appeared ten or eleven years old in 1991,
has never been identified.
The nameless little girl and flame-haired boy
strolled through the entrance of Cape May County Park South and into the waiting arms of oblivion.
The fire. Natural in cause yet unnatural in consequence,
the fire aided and abetted Mark’s abduction as deftly as any flesh and blood accomplice.
Had the marsh gas failed to ignite on that fateful afternoon Mark may well have spent the remainder of the day
propped before the TV in the safety of the Himebaugh living room.
Mrs. Himebaugh’s quick jaunt to the auto body shop, normally a ten minute excursion,
instead took nearly an hour in the gridlock caused by the blaze;
traffic was diverted,
shepherding random vehicles into the neighborhood and heightening the probability of stranger danger.
Even if Mark was abducted by a familiar face
the fire furnished an effective distraction—-all eyes were drawn to the inferno,
the crackling of flames and caterwaul of sirens able to camouflage all but the most blood-curdling of screams.
Marsh fires are not uncommon in Del Haven,
but this particular combustion set in motion a series of events that made the improbable—a daylight abduction in a middle-class community—entirely possible.
When Mrs. Himebaugh arrived home at 4:15pm and discovered Mark had not yet returned she was unperturbed;
but as the sun set and his dinner grew cold she began to feel stirrings of panic.
As she later described the scene to a journalist from The Star Ledger:
“I remember standing there, holding his camouflage sweatshirt, and I had this awful feeling,” she said.
“I just knew that something was terribly wrong.”
The family had big plans that evening—Mark was smitten with his teacher’s daughter
and the Himebaughs were scheduled to visit the educator’s residence after supper.
Although his parents’ separation the previous winter had been a trying time
and Mark had some slight emotional difficulties—he’d been prescribed Prozac to control his obsessive compulsive disorder—there was no way he would’ve missed the much-anticipated outing.
At 6pm Mrs. Himebaugh launched the opening salvo in a campaign that would span decades:
she contacted the Middle Township Police Department and reported Mark as a missing person.
Law enforcement spared no expense during the search for the missing boy—by air, land and sea officers and volunteers scoured Del Haven from scrubland to shoreline and back again.
State police helicopters equipped with heat-seeking radar flew overhead,
boats dredged the bay,
and searchers sifted through the fire’s still-smoking ashes desperate for evidence of Mark’s fate.
Bloodhounds canvassed the area but,
hampered by soot and smoke,
the dogs were unable to isolate Mark’s scent.
Finally, at 8pm a clue emerged: a searcher stumbled upon an LA Gear sneaker abandoned on the beach approximately seventy-five yards from the Himebaugh home.
Like a breadcrumb dropped by Hansel and Gretel, the red and white athletic shoe, gently worn, marked the final imprint of Mark Joseph Himebaugh in the universe.
Although it was the first and only clue in the investigation,
the significance of the abandoned sneaker at the water’s edge is not entirely clear.
Though it’s possible the shoe was lost during a struggle with an abductor
Maureen Himebaugh believes her son may have discarded his sneaker for innocuous reasons—Mark had recently broken his foot and often complained that footwear pinched his newly-healed tarsal bone.
Yet even if the sneaker had been cast aside in a moment of youthful abandon
police believe Mark subsequently tumbled into the clutches of a predator—the possibility the vanished youth had drowned in the Bay or plunged into quicksand
was thoroughly investigated but ultimately discarded.
Regardless of how or why
Mark’s shoe came to rest in its sandy berth the midday marsh fire had heralded the presence of evil in the community.
Like moths to a flame, psychics were drawn to the media hubbub surrounding Mark’s disappearance,
their meddling producing naught but anguish for the grieving family and spurious leads for investigators.
Although Mark’s father Jody Himebaugh told The Philadelphia Inquirer the psychics never directly asked for money
their motivations weren’t altruistic—they were seeking publicity and a type of “spiritual validation,” he believed.
Even New Jersey’s most famous clairvoyant, Dorothy Allison,
took a crack at solving the crime;
trailed by a Japanese film crew during her Del Mar perambulations,
Allison’s much-vaunted psychic prowess apparently failed her—she unearthed nothing of note and gave the Himebaughs no useful information.
Yet despite this resounding failure Jody Himebaugh told The Inquirer he remains open to the use of psychics
for reasons more practical than paranormal:
“I’ll never turn a psychic away,” he declared. “I’m grateful for the extra set of eyes out there looking for my son.”
The initial search for Mark was called off in early December 1991, and to commemorate the one year anniversary of his abduction
the New Jersey State Police released a composite sketch
of a man seen with the missing boy
shortly before his disappearance—the circumstances of this sighting
and the identity of the eyewitness who saw the pair together, however, has never been revealed.
Though a mere twenty-six residences line Sun Ray Beach Road a year and a half after Mark’s disappearance
another crime occurred on the sparsely-populated thoroughfare:
authorities arrested Joanna Cortez, fifty-two, and her live-in companion, Harry Conrad, age forty-nine,
on charges of child endangerment and criminal restraint for habitually imprisoning a little girl in a closet.
The abused child, eleven years old, was Cortez’s granddaughter—Mark and the victim had been playmates,
but investigators were ultimately unable to develop any connection
between Mark’s abduction and the abusive couple.
Cortez and Conrad were both sentenced
to a term of five years’ probation for their crimes, and the search for Mark Himebaugh ground on.
In February of 1993 a male sex worker contacted law enforcement with the most intriguing lead in the case to date:
a john named “Tommy” had screened a pornographic video during their assignation,
the tipster claimed—the film featured the rape of a red-haired juvenile, gagged and shackled and obviously in terror.
Due to the high-profile nature of his disappearance
the sex worker immediately recognized the boy in the film
as none other than missing child Mark Himebaugh.
An interview with the sex worker can be found here.
When asked, “Tommy” confirmed Mark was indeed the boy featured in the video;
he then confessed to kidnapping Mark,
alleging he’d placed the LA Gear sneaker on the beach to misdirect the investigation.
“Tommy” further claimed he’d abducted and murdered several children,
often driving far afield to procure his victims.
He then asked the rentboy to join him in his murderous pursuit,
but the tipster,
being a sex worker and not a maniac, declined the offer and contacted law enforcement.
a self-employed computer consultant
who dwelt in Haverford,
a town approximately an hour’s drive from Del Haven.
Haverford Township Police executed two separate raids of Butcavage’s apartment
but investigators never found the video described by the tipster;
detectives did, however, discover a bounty of adult pornography,
drug and bondage paraphernalia
and the ball gag Mark was allegedly wearing in the film.
Through his lawyer, Butcavage declined to speak to law enforcement.
Although authorities lacked sufficient evidence to issue an indictment for Mark’s abduction
Butcavage was arrested on drug charges pursuant to the items discovered during the searches. Five months later, in June of 1993, authorities released a second composite of an individual seen with Mark shortly before his disappearance—the man in the sketch is the spitting image of Thomas Butcavage.
The New Jersey State Police have never revealed the circumstances
under which this individual was observed with Mark
or explained the rationale for waiting until Butcavage was a person of interest before releasing the sketch.
Furthermore, it’s unclear what relationship the second composite
bears to the drawing of the pony-tailed man released on the one-year anniversary of Mark’s abduction.
Although Butcavage may have skirted charges related to Mark’s abduction his time outside prison walls would be brief;
on September 9th, 1998 he was arrested on multiple charges of deviate sexual intercourse,
sexual abuse of children, indecent assault and corruption of minors.
The two victims in the case were nine years old when the abuse began in 1996;
unlike Mark, however, these victims were procured
not by abduction but by seduction—Butcavage groomed the boys with attention, expensive gifts and alcohol.
After Butcavage’s arrest police found numerous videotapes chronicling the assaults of the 1998 victims
but the tape featuring Mark Himebaugh, if it does in fact exist,
has never been found.
Butcavage was sentenced to thirty-six years in prison for child rape; he will be eligible for parole in 2017.
Provocative though the sex worker’s allegations may be, Butcavage is not the only person of interest on law enforcement radar—over the years
detectives have investigated a bevy of predators with ties to the Tristate area
including suspected serial killer Jack Lee Colin and prolific child slayer Lewis Lent.
Lent, a sex offender straight out of central casting,
abducted and murdered pubescent children
of both sexes in the Northeast in the early 1990s; like Mark, several of his victims have never been found.
Colin lived in Cape May at the time of Mark’s disappearance and passed through Del Haven on his daily commute to work.
Colin is a prime suspect
in the dismemberment murders
of several local women,
but despite circumstantial evidence
detectives have been unable to obtain an indictment for these crimes.
Lewis Lent is serving three consecutive life sentences
for child murder
and Colin is currently imprisoned on child pornography
and weapons charges;
neither killer has been definitively linked to Mark’s abduction.
Finally, since no tale of pedophilia would be complete
without at least one suspect clad in a cassock,
in the early 1990s
investigators examined a possible connection
between Mark’s disappearance and a defrocked Roman Catholic priest named William O’Connell.
O’Connell, then in his early 70s,
had relocated to Cape May after serving time in a Rhode Island prison for child molestation;
at the time of Mark’s abduction
the disgraced cleric lived only two miles away from the Himebaugh residence on Sun Ray Beach Road.
but no evidence was forthcoming. Like Thomas Butcavage,
O’Connell may have evaded charges in Mark’s abduction
but his sojourn as a free man would be brief:
in 1994, three years after Mark’s abduction,
O’Connell was again arrested
for child molestation; the convicted pedophile
had used his position of trust as a Cape May County Herald photographer to exploit pubescent boys,
taking nude photos of his victims
and openly masturbating in their presence.
O’Connell died while serving a ten year sentence in a sex offender treatment facility;
as is the case with Jack Lee Colin and Lewis Lent,
investigators have never been able to develop any concrete evidence linking O’Connell to Mark’s disappearance.
Despite the passage of more than two decades New Jersey detectives have never faltered in their quest to locate Mark Himebaugh;
last month, stirring the embers of a case long since grown cold
authorities released a tip call received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2010.
Excerpts from the call, placed at 3:45am on December 27th from a pay phone in Port Richmond, Pennsylvania,
can be heard here.
Describing himself as the “son of the witness of the crime,”
the young male caller identifies Mark’s abductor as “Gilbert Patrick Marie.”
After the release of the recording
dozens of internet sleuths
began scouring public records for a Gilbert Patrick Marie-Maree-Moray-Murray with ties to the Tristate area.
Although Middletownship Police, recipients of a similar call,
have yet to locate an individual bearing that name
they’d like to identify the caller and remain hopeful the tip will lead to a break in the case:
“It could be real significant,” Middle Township Detective Allan McClure told a journalist from NBC Philadelphia.
“The caller’s voice sounded sincere.”
The release of the Gilbert Patrick Marie phone call reenergized the Himebaugh investigation;
seizing the zeitgeist authorities launched a cold case review of Mark’s abduction;
as Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner told The Press of Atlantic City,
“We felt that now that we have the public’s attention on the case, we would look at it again.”
Last month a police spokesperson announced the formation of a joint task force
comprised of local detectives and investigators from the FBI,
Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children;
if anything can reignite this coldest of cases
it’s the glare of publicity and the heat generated by a renewed investigation.
Regardless of whether the case sizzles with activity or lays silent as a grave Mark’s mother Maureen Himebaugh,
keeper of the flame, waits.
She’s kept the same phone number and still resides in the same house as she did nearly twenty-five years ago
when Mark disappeared:
“I don’t think I can ever leave,” she told a Cape May County Herald reporter during an interview in the Himebaugh residence, decor flush with mementos of her missing son.
“He may find his way home.”
If Mark’s abduction is a tale awash in fire then Mrs. Himebaugh is Prometheus, shackled to the boulder of her grief and uncertainty.
“Life may change, but it may fly not;
Hope may vanish, but can die not;
Truth be veiled, but still it burneth;
Love repulsed—but it returneth.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound
Here’s hoping Mark Himebaugh rises phoenix-like from the ashes and finally finds his way back home.
ADDENDUM: Jack Lee Colin has since been released. Mea culpa!