Psychics were used in search for missing boy in Waterloo
This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
Thirty-five years ago in Waterloo, a large manhunt utilizing airplanes, blood hounds and even psychics was being conducted to find Kevin Sales, a missing 12-year-old boy, who was mentally disabled.
Kevin apparently walked away from the New Hope Living and Learning Center in Waterloo around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16, 1983. He had left unsupervised from the center before March 16 but had always been found shortly thereafter. Foul play was not suspected.
The night he disappeared, Kevin was wearing light blue, short-sleeved pajamas and no shoes. The weather had turned colder. Authorities used every means at their disposal to locate the boy as quickly as possible.
The search ended a few days later when Kevin's body was found at the bottom of a sewage tank at the Waterloo sewage treatment plant. He was buried in Chicago and a memorial service was held in Waterloo to mourn his loss.
Details have faded in the minds of those who remember the search for Kevin. But they all agree on one thing — it was a terrible tragedy.
Kenneth Beals, who was the center's administrator in 1983, said he had no idea why Kevin would have run away. Beals died in March 2008.
"We checked out everything," Beals said in 1983. "He hadn't been in a scrap with any of the kids or the staff. It was just another day for him."
The center was home to about 50 children. Most had profound mental disabilities.
Kevin was described as: "A black male, 4 feet 3 inches tall, weighing 85 pounds, having a slender build, with black hair and brown eyes."
According to information from the center provided to the BND in 1983, Kevin had the mental capabilities of a 2-year-old. Because of his disability, Kevin had difficulty speaking. He was attracted to bright lights and loud noises.
The last time Kevin was seen was 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 16, while the children at the center were having a snack. When the child care workers were putting the children to bed at 8:30 p.m., Kevin was gone.
The Belleville News-Democrat reported more than 400 volunteers scoured the Waterloo area. Authorities from the Waterloo police and fire departments, Monroe County Sheriff's Department, Illinois State Police and military from Scott Air Force Base participated in the hunt.
The Illinois State Police and St. Louis County Police utilized air craft to search from the skies. High school students from Valmeyer and Waterloo also searched alongside Waterloo residents, some on horseback.
Infrared heat-seeking devices were being used and bloodhounds were tracking the child's scent.
Psychics and bloodhounds
More questionable methods, like psychics, were used as well, according to an article by Les Weatherford published in the BND on March 18, 1983.
"Local authorities also were checking out leads provided by supposed psychics who said the search should concentrate on locations near water and caves," wrote Weatherford.
The BND noted that "sinkholes and small lakes are scattered across Monroe County."
In a recent interview, Capt. Jeff Prosise, of the Waterloo Police Department, said utilizing a psychic is not a normal procedure for Waterloo police.
"I’ve been here since 2001," Prosise said. "We’ve never done that."
Unfortunately, no one from the 1983 Waterloo Police Department still works for the city, so it is unclear who authorities consulted. The BND did not record the psychic's name.
Prosise described the usual protocol for locating missing persons now, which is to gather information through cell phones, social media and by questioning friends and family. Technology has significantly evolved since 1983 and that aids the search in missing person cases.
Waterloo police may still use dogs as a locating tool if someone "wandered away," according to Prosise.
"A lot of canines have tracking and drug recognition skills. Not all have that, but some of them do," Prosise said.
But, the dogs used aren't necessarily bloodhounds. "I don’t know where those (bloodhounds in 1983) came from," he said. "It's not like we have a number we can call and get bloodhounds."
Waterloo Police Department's police canine, Ayla, recently retired after almost 10 years serving the community. Prosise said they are looking into acquiring another dog.
He said the Monroe County Sheriff currently has two canines and Columbia police have one as well.
The search ends
After three days of intensive searching with no results, the official rescue mission was ended in 1983.
The Rev. Bill Groennert, who was president of the New Hope Foundation, which supplied funds to the New Hope Living and Learning Center, told the BND that staff would continue to search for Kevin "unofficially."
As for his hopes of finding the boy, Groennert was quoted in 1983, "We'll just have to wait and see."
Beals, the center's administrator, said, "Realistically, we're losing some hope. The weather's so rotten."
Authorities were discouraged as well. Dan Kelley, who was the Monroe County sheriff at that time, said, "The pessimism is there. It depends on where he's at."
Kelley was contacted recently about this event. He remembered the hunt for Kevin, but did not recall any specific details. He served as Monroe County Sheriff for 32 years and retired in 2014.
A tragic discovery
At 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a piece of clothing was found floating in a sewage tank at the Waterloo sewage treatment plant. The sewage plant has moved since 1983, but at that time, it was located south of the New Hope Center.
It took officials 19 hours to drain the tank. When it was empty, Kevin's body was recovered.
An autopsy conducted by Monroe County Coroner Kenneth Bode determined that Kevin's cause of death was asphyxiation by choking. The boy's mouth and throat were filled with sludge from the tank.
The death was ruled an accident by a coroner's jury.
Investigators believed Kevin was drawn to the plant because of the lights and movement of the water.
Tim Birk, Waterloo's current director of public works, described the layout of the Waterloo sewer plant today.
"The existing sewer plant is 13 years old and has a fence around the perimeter of the property. It also has an electric gate that is closed during non-working hours," Birk said in a recent email.
He said the tanks at the new plant are approximately eight feet above the ground and the tanks at the old plant were at ground level.
"I don’t know if the ground level tanks were the cause of the accident, but our new design should make it harder to get to our tanks," Birk said.
The death of saints
The First Baptist Church in Waterloo held a memorial service for Kevin, which almost 70 people attended.
During the memorial service in 1983, Edward Pikey, who was pastor at the church, said, "Kevin never had the privilege of growing up as a young man. I believe Kevin was a saint in that respect because he was under the protective sight of the Lord."
"Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints," Pikey said.
Pikey ended the service with a prayer asking "that Kevin's death might bring the residents of Waterloo closer together."
In a recent interview, Pikey said he remembered officiating Kevin's memorial service but nothing specific. He is 83, retired and resides in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
He is in ill health and said, "I’m waiting for the 'precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints' and I am ready to meet my Lord.”
The center closes
A report issued by the Human Rights Authority of the Illinois Guardianship Advocacy Commission in October 1983 alleged, "Neglect and poor judgment by health care staff likely led to the death of Kevin Sales."
The BND spoke to the Authority Regional Coordinator Gregory Thomas in 1983: "Clearly they knew this individual had a problem that needed extra security and extra precautions to be dealt with," he said.
At the coroner's jury in May 1983, two different workers at the center, described seeing a side door in the center propped open to allow in fresh air. The doors had alarms that sounded when anyone entered or exited the building, but because the door was propped, the alarm didn't sound.
Kenneth Beals, the center's director, disagreed with the authority's report and allegations.
"We do not feel that there was neglect," Beals said in 1983. He believed "parts of the report were inadequate, incomplete and incorrect."
In a recent interview, Bill Groennert, who was president of the New Hope Foundation which partially funded the center, said, "The state mandates for these (centers for special needs children) were that they be the most open and free as possible as long as (the children) would not harm themselves."
"That’s a very fine line for anybody," Groennert said. "They were free to walk around the grounds. It was not a locked type of a facility or anything like that."
Beals resigned from his post in November 1983. A board chairman told the BND Beals' resignation had "absolutely nothing" to do with the authority's investigation.
New Hope Living and Learning Center in Waterloo closed June 30, 1984.