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Kevin Jay Ayotte: Vanished Without Trace

Kevin Vanished From The Home

SUGARBUSH TOWNSHIP, #Minnesota – He was a face on a milk carton. If you were a schoolchild sipping milk during the 1980s, you likely saw the face of 3-year-old Kevin Jay Ayotte who disappeared in 1982 from his home in Sugar Bush Township.

Almost 40 years since the disappearance of the toddler in north-central Minnesota, his case still leaves law enforcement scratching their heads.

What happened to Kevin?

It is a question that has tormented the small community of Sugar Bush in Beltrami County for decades.

As part of Forum News Service’s cold-case series, “The Vault,” the Bemidji Pioneer recently revisited the unsolved case through its archives. The search for Kevin was one of the hugest stories in Bemidji at the time, and it would dominate headlines for more than a week.

On the last day of September

The final time anyone saw Kevin was a crisp fall afternoon, the final day of September in 1982.

Kevin Ayotte and his older brother, Terry, were upstairs in their family house in rural Sugar Bush Township, which was isolated and encircled by thick woods and bog. Kevin was playing with some toys in his mum’s bedroom at 4:45 p.m., as Terry was making his bed.

The boys’ mum, Joann, went outside briefly and when she came back, Terry was still inside the home, but Kevin had disappeared.

The family dog, a 6-month-old springer spaniel puppy named Flash, was gone too. Another older brother had biked up the road to a friend’s home to play.

Law enforcement said that Kevin had “apparently wandered off” with his puppy from the family house about 5 p.m., and the mum, Joann, reported the missing boy soon after 7 p.m. on Thursday.

‘A large many, many acres for one small boy to be lost’

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, at the time of his disappearance, Kevin was 4-feet-tall and weighed 50 pounds. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a scar on the right side of his chin. He was also non-verbal and hearing-impaired.

Kevin, who was born on May 12, 1979, lived with his mum and two older brothers about 18 miles east of Bemidji and 10 miles north of U.S. Highway 2 in Sugar Bush Township. According to 1980 U.S. Census data, Sugar Bush had a community of 121 people in 1980.

The township has an area of 31.5 square miles and is encircled on almost all sides by the Chippewa National Forest or the Buena Vista State Forest, home to parts of at least nine lakes.

The headline that stretched the top-right corner of the Friday, Oct. 1, 1982, edition of the Pioneer read, “Searchers comb woods for a lost boy.” The first story in the Pioneer regarding the case was written by then-politics editor Brad Swenson.

In the article, Swenson quoted then-Beltrami County Sheriff Tom Tolman who provided details on the preliminary search for Kevin.

“A search continued quickly before midnight for a lost boy, missing seven hours from his rural Sugar Bush Township house. About 30 law enforcement officers and volunteers continued search actions for Kevin Ayotte, 3, who was reported missing by his mum, Joann Ayotte, Sheriff Tolman said late Thursday night.”

That evening, searchers were faced with thick woods, bogs, and a creek, and were using flashlights to attempt to find the boy before the temperature dipped into the 30s.

Not Dead

Pic: Have You Seen Us?

“It doesn’t have to be freezing for a 3-year-old to perish,” Sheriff Tolman, who was coordinating search actions from the Law Enforcement Center, told the Pioneer. He said a “minimum force” would proceed the search all night but said some of the big force of “township people, neighbors, and volunteers” would have to be pulled off for the night to balance manpower for a daylight search.

“I’ll go as long as I dare all night,” Tolman said, adding that nine-county officers were at the spectacle, some 20 miles east of the Bemidji Town and Country Club on County Road 20.

Tolman described the region as a vast open field on the Ayotte property that slopes to the north branch of the Turtle River. At the river are “floating bogs and a big, very wide and cold creek,” he said. About 200 feet north of the home is about five to six square miles of “woods that are thicket.”

“It’s a vast, many, many acres for one small boy to be lost,” the sheriff said. “The odds for a little kid are not so good. But, at this point, some of our people will be there all night.”

Tolman suggested at the time that no leads had developed. No evidence had been noticed of the dog or the boy and no one had viewed any tracks of either.

The sheriff’s department begged for volunteers with flashlights and later indicated they had all the required as more help would distract the search.

“All we can do is wait for developments,” Tolman said just after 11 p.m. Thursday. “We’re making an extended blast tonight. There’s a terrible lot of acres there.”

The search continues

On Sunday, Oct. 3, the Pioneer was filled to the brim with numerous stories about the case, with headlines reading “Where is Kevin?” “Efforts to discover lost boy ‘frustrating’” and “Search melds science, a myth.”

The hope of discovering the lost 3-year-old had dwindled the night before as searchers had no guides and no trace of the boy missing since 5 p.m. Thursday.

“His chances are very slim,” Tolman said late Saturday afternoon. “I just have feelings of frustration. I hope for an obvious direction to emerge and will try to persuade the aid of anybody.”

After the search entered its 48th hour, speculation occurred that maybe the youngster may not be in the woods but rather was either kidnaped or involved in an accident and the body removed.

Most of the searchers Friday and Saturday who were aware of the terrain seemed to agree that as the search progressed, the boy may not be in the region.

The Last Time

For one of the three stories about Kevin in the Pioneer on Sunday, Swenson questioned Kevin’s older brother, 9-year-old Terry, who was the last individual to see him.

“The final time I saw him was about a quarter to five when I was making my bed,” Terry told the Pioneer Friday, Oct. 1 while sitting in the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Department communications van awaiting news.

“We got home from school about 4:30,” Terry, a little boy with large bright eyes and dark, curly hair said. “My mum (Joann) was downstairs. She was going to wash the kitchen windows. My baby brother was upstairs with me assisting me to make my bed. The next thing I did, I went to mum’s room to see if he was there with his toys.”

Terry went downstairs to ask his mum if she had noticed Kevin and they searched the home and yard together.

“Mom called my cousin, Mike Steele, and then they looked,” Terry said. Later the sheriff’s department was called in.

“We went down both sides of the road,” he continued. “We went back into the forest and I showed the cops where Kevin could go.”

Terry said that Kevin had wandered off from the home before and many times had made it to a bridge about a mile to the east of the small, red log cabin along County Road 20.

“He used to walk down to the bridge but he doesn’t anymore,” Terry explained. “That’s because mum used to give him licking.”

Saturday

On Saturday, young Terry helped searchers by piling firewood on a small fire near the road to warm the volunteers. More than 500 searchers joined the hunt for Kevin.

“I’m impressed to the point I can’t express it,” Tolman said of the enormous volunteer effort. “With all the people and support, it’s an extraordinary community effort.”

Nonetheless, as the search entered its third day, many started to express frustration.

“I feel like a logger with a 6-mile log jam in the St. Croix River and can’t get it loose,” Tolman said Saturday (Oct. 2) as an intensive search for Ayotte entered the third day. “We need some item of evidence. It just frustrates us to no end.”

“The search hasn’t been without a variety of leads and tactics but all proved fruitless by late Saturday night when the search was called off until today,” wrote Swenson in the Pioneer on Sunday, Oct. 3, 1982.

“We will keep up an intensive search,” Undersheriff Howie Schultz said, “until we believe that part of the search has to discontinue. We’re trying the best we can with the evidence we have.”

Trying a little bit of everything

As the search proceeded, investigators explored leads from all directions — even following suggestions of some psychics.

“The search has seen the melding of modern science with old age mysticism,” Swenson wrote in his Oct. 3 article.

(Up in the sky,) a heat-sensing device was utilized in the search to try to discover Kevin and his 6-month-old springer spaniel. Meanwhile, on the ground, the Ayotte family has received the unsolicited assistance of psychics, Swenson added.

“We’ve had contacts from about six psychics and wished they had all said the similar thing,” said Sheriff Tolman. “I’m somewhat suspicious but I am ready to accept aid from any direction. Nothing of it has been fruitful.”

A spokeswoman near to the Ayotte family said the prevalent theory had been relayed via Joann Ayotte’s grandmother from a psychic that Kevin would be discovered in an old building or barn wrapped in burlap and accompanied by an old man. The psychic also reportedly told the boy was safe and the missing dog would be with him.

Although search officials didn’t like to lean too much on the psychic theory, Swenson wrote, federal investigators drove off with (Joann) Ayotte about noon Saturday, Oct. 2 to check some buildings fitting the psychic’s suggestion. Nothing was discovered.

In contrast, new technology — for the period — was brought to Beltrami County to find Kevin.

A Grand Forks man, Dennis Bohn, flew a plane over the region on Friday, Oct.1, with a Thermo-Scan device to measure differentials in temperatures.

Temperature

Given the wet ground and the cool, mid-40s temperature on Saturday, Bohn explained that anything warm would be noticeable.

“This is an excellent day to discover anything in terms of it being wet and cool,” Bohn said after landing between searches. “Anything out there sticks right out.”

Low temperatures, rain, and the ever-increasing time since Kevin was last noticed are, “making it hard, real hard,” Bohn said. “If the boy has perished, it would take six to eight hours for the corpse heat to drop enough to lose an image, particularly if he’s not insulated by clothes.”

Without a trace

After days of searching, law enforcement and volunteers came up without a trace.

Then, on the sixth day of searching, Oct. 5, Flash the springer spaniel puppy, returned home. Alone.

The dog’s fur was combed carefully and a veterinarian pumped its stomach, hoping to discover clues about Kevin. Aside from swamp grass, Flash hadn’t consumed anything for days. Police put a tracking collar on the dog and let it go again, wishing it would lead them to Kevin, but Flash just kept returning home.

The investigation failed to find Kevin or to assume precisely what led to his disappearance. A comprehensive nine-day search of the region turned up no clues of Kevin, not even his shoes or his diaper, both of which he had a habit of discarding.

Since that time, the Ayotte family, retired law enforcement officials involved in the investigation, and active members who joined the sheriff’s office have been haunted by this case.

There are numerous questions regarding Kevin’s disappearance, though the public has commonly latched on to one of three theories:

  • An anonymous person entered the house and kidnaped Kevin while his mum was outside.
  • Kevin wandered away from his house, became lost, and perished of exposure in the woodsy, boggy region around the house.
  • Kevin left the home on his own but then was kidnapped when wandering around.

Nonetheless, due to the lack of information in his case, it was categorized as a non-family abduction.

Recent developments

Years went by. Kevin’s parents relocated. The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office received advice that took investigators all over the country.

Kevin’s picture was seen nationally on milk cartons when the Missing Children Milk Carton Program was founded in 1984. Before the milk carton campaign, there was no national database of missing kids, and once the kids left state lines, it was nearly impossible to track them. With the creation of Amber Alerts in 1996, the milk carton ads became obsolete.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children established numerous age progression pictures exhibiting how Kevin might have looked like an older boy, teen, young man, and now, as an adult.

The case, while open, stayed fairly quiet and unchanged for decades. Then, in 2011 came a small ray of hope.

As Beltrami County Investigator Scott Hinners ran names through an investigative database, looking for new guides to investigate in the then-29-year-old case, the personality of Kevin Ayotte came up — as an adult man in Michigan.

“A few weeks ago, Beltrami County Sheriff’s Investigator Scott Hinners revisited the Kevin Jay Ayotte missing person case from 1982 and started running names from the case file through investigative databases. During this search, the investigator found an individual in Michigan using the same name, date of birth, and Social Security number assigned to the missing Kevin Jay Ayotte from Beltrami County,” read a Bemidji Pioneer article from June 22, 2011.

As Hinners proceeded his investigation, he realized that Kevin’s mum and dad also were living in Michigan in a town in the same region as the individual using Kevin Ayotte’s name.

“Hinners, accompanied by a special agent from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, traveled to Michigan and started searching for the subject,” the article read. “With the assistance of local Michigan authorities, Beltrami County investigators found an individual who had stolen and assumed the identity of Kevin Jay Ayotte and used this new identity for financial purposes.”

The suspect was known to regional authorities in Michigan, was interviewed by law enforcement authorities, and confessed to identity theft.

Beltrami investigators returned to Bemidji after they made contact with Kevin’s parents in Michigan to talk over these improvements in the case. Investigators assumed it was a coincidence that Kevin’s parents were residing in such proximity to the suspect and that the man was not involved with Kevin’s disappearance.

In recent years, Kevin’s case has been correlated to others that have plagued Bemidji-area law enforcement for years, like the Anita Carlson murder from 1987.

Former Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp was quoted correlating Kevin’s case to the mysterious case of Matthew James Pulis in 2012.

“As time goes on, like in the Anita Carlson case and the Ayotte case, it baffles not only family and officers in the beginning, but also the generation of officers that come behind that look into and follow up on all the guides that come throughout the time,” Hodapp said in a Pioneer article in August 2013. “The frustration is not being able to solve the mystery and bring a resolution.”

In a cruel tease, Ayotte’s social security number, tagged in a national database and marked for notification to police anytime it’s used, has popped up at least once, Hodapp said. Unsolved cases give feelings of regret not just to the cops who originally worked them but younger officers as well.

Kevin’s case has also made the rounds in regional and national news every few years, most recently mentioned in a 2018 installment of KSTP’s Missing Minnesotans.

With a recent uptick in true crime media, it was just a matter of time before Kevin’s case was revisited. His case was recently featured on the podcast, “Gone” which can be discovered on Spotify and is produced by Friends Against Abuse out of International Falls, Minn.

“The objective of the podcast is to give a voice to killed and missing people in the U.S and Canada. We are asking for their stories from the people who know and love them in the wishes of shining a light on the victims and also calling attention to the case,” the podcast website reads. “We think that someone, somewhere, knows something.”

Kevin’s case is still open. Anyone with data regarding the case is begged to contact the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Department or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

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