MEBANE — He must have lain alone for months, hidden in the weeds, shaded by a Howard Johnson’s billboard.
He stood maybe 4-foot-11 and weighed 50 pounds or more – tall and skinny for his age. He had straight, dark-brown hair, and he’d had good dental care, judging by the sealant on his teeth.
At one point in his life, a mother must have held him and given him a name. It’s a safe guess he’d gone to school somewhere and made some friends at recess, maybe tossed a football or climbed the monkey bars. I’m willing to bet he’d opened a present or two some Christmas morning, maybe posed for a picture under a tree.
I hope so. All we know about this 10- or 12-year-old child is that somebody dumped his body on Industrial Drive outside of Mebane, and after 15 years, nobody has come looking for him.
The world has no picture of John Mebane Doe other than an artist’s reconstruction based on his bones – the skeleton found wearing size 3 sneakers and a pair of khaki shorts with $50 in the pocket. So little is known about this boy that the brand name on his shorts seems a vital clue: Fox Polo Club. The label on his shoes seems a detail too important to omit: 2XS Sport.
Everything else has vanished like the cars that whizzed past his body on Interstate 40, close enough that a discarded cigarette might have landed on him.
I learned about “John” last week when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children circulated his story, hoping to pry loose a clue about a child dead since 1998, found by a grass-cutting crew almost exactly 15 years ago to the day. The group’s website offers a page of horror-story statistics: 800,000 children under 18 reported missing, to name one.
But the worst thing about John’s case isn’t the manner of his death, which is sure to have been grisly. The most harrowing fact is that police don’t think anybody ever reported him missing.
That’s an incredible amount of neglect to digest. It’s hard to imagine a world where a child can exist as a ghost, where no parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, cousin, neighbor, friend, classmate, teacher, principal, postal worker or babysitter would notice he’s gone – let alone care enough to mention it. That’s not falling through the cracks. That’s living in a hole.
Orange County sheriff’s investigators found no blood at the site or on the boy’s clothing. Because of the barrier along the interstate, they concluded a car must have exited the freeway and turned down the small, nondescript road. They chased down leads in Massachusetts, Florida and all over the country. Missing-persons agencies combed their databases looking for matches. Detectives went so far as to survey insects at the site.
In 2008, a decade after his death, sheriff’s investigators announced they had exhausted all leads and offered a $5,000 reward for tips.
They’d had a hard road from the beginning. The car that carried John Mebane Doe might have come from anywhere east or west on I-40, or anywhere north or south on I-85. Consider that in 1990, another body turned up only 11 miles away down I-40, just off New Hope Church Road exit. Jane Hope Doe was maybe 18, 5-foot-4 and 115 pounds, found in a pink sweatshirt with three bunnies on the front, an appendectomy scar on her abdomen.
We drive past these grim and unsolved puzzles every day. They persist by the highway’s edge, next to churches and gas stations, where people sometimes disappear and we promise to keep looking.
jshaffer@newsobserver. com or (919) 829-4818