The child who simply 'vanished'

The Baltimore Sun

The only current photo of the boy is not even of him. It's an age-progressed digital image of what Garnell Moore might look like now.

Garnell hasn't been seen in at least four years, since he was about 7. In the eyes of the Baltimore police detectives who investigated 298 missing-persons cases last year, he is the one person who has "completely vanished."

Even when relatives knew where he was, Garnell was barely under anyone's care. His parents fell out of his life early. The aunt who became his default guardian never enrolled him in school, and he never came to the attention of any child welfare agency.

Garnell appeared to hardly register on anyone's radar until he didn't register at all. His aunt, Belinda Cash, later told police that in the summer of 2005 she could not care for him anymore and left him on the steps of a social services building in West Baltimore. Some in Garnell's family don't believe that story. Last year, they called police.

What's clear is that the adult world failed Garnell.

"How can we have a society that doesn't know where a kid is for four years?" asks Susan Leviton, who has worked on children's issues for 30 years and runs the University of Maryland Children's Law Clinic.

"To think that a kid could spend all those years with no one knowing he's not going to school - it's just so sad. It's like a kid with no one."

In his youngest years, from when he was born in May 1995 to August 2001, Garnell lived in a two-story red-brick rowhouse with his father's relatives in the 3700 block of Harlem Ave., just south of Gwynns Falls Park on the city's west side.

Latonya Williams never lived with her little brother. They share a mother but have different fathers, and Williams and her two younger sisters were raised by their maternal aunt, Trina Morton.

Young Garnell used to visit Morton's home in Northeast Baltimore. Williams, 26, and Morton, 37, remember him as a playful, hyper little boy who carried around a toy car or figurine. He struggled to pronounce Morton's first name, she says, calling her "Aunt Frina."

Garnell's mother, who is in prison and has a collection of drug-related convictions that dates to the mid-1980s, had almost no contact with the boy. His father was nomadic, police say, using Harlem Avenue as a home base while moving from place to place.

Frequently, Garnell was left in the care of his paternal aunt, Cash, police say.

Now 49 and living in the Essex area, police say, Cash could not be found for this article. She has used several last names in the past decade. Police say they know her as Belinda Cash, adding that she recently divorced, remarried and may now use a different last name.

Cash had no children, but took in Garnell in 2001, when he was about 6 years old - an informal arrangement between family members that was never made legal, police say.

Morton remembers vividly the last time she saw Garnell. She was nine months pregnant in August 2001, and she was picking up two of Garnell's sisters on Harlem Avenue. Garnell, who had turned 6 that May, was playing outside.

Morton says she intended to let Garnell stay at her house the next weekend, but she went into labor. About a week later, Morton says, she spoke to Cash about rescheduling the visit. Morton says Cash told her she was in the process of moving, and it wasn't a convenient time for a visit.

Then, Morton and Williams say, Garnell's paternal relatives began slipping out of reach.

The phone number the women had for Cash was disconnected. The address she had given them, near the Harlem Avenue home she and Garnell had supposedly left, was fictitious, Morton says.

Garnell's father, Harold Moore, and the woman he was dating at the time later told police they saw Cash and Garnell around Easter about four years ago, meaning either 2002 or 2003. Garnell would have been 6 or 7 years old. The family had gathered at a house in the 1000 block of Ellicott Drive, just across Gwynns Falls from the Harlem Avenue house.

Moore rarely had a steady telephone number or mailing address, but he would occasionally visit his two young daughters at Morton's house. Morton says he would tell her that he knew Garnell was with Cash, though he said he had no way of contacting them.

Moore could not be reached for this article.

Cash told police that from 2001 to 2005 she moved between Harlem Avenue and her husband's small public housing development in the 4000 block of Old Frederick Road. The two homes are about a mile apart, less than a five-minute drive through West Baltimore.

Neighbors in the Old Frederick Road development recalled seeing Garnell occasionally just after 2001, and they told police Cash called him her son.

Morton and Williams say that in 2005 Moore gave them the phone number of another of Cash's relatives. That relative said she had not seen Garnell with Cash in years, Morton says.

"It struck me," Morton says. "Where could he be?"

Ever since she last saw Garnell in 2001, Morton says, she has been looking for her nephew. "He's a human being. He's a child," she says. "Where is Garnell now?"

She says she went door to door in the Harlem Avenue neighborhood, asking whether anyone had seen Cash and Garnell. She says she called the city Department of Social Services for guidance, but they told her there was nothing they could do since he had not been deemed a child in need of assistance.

Leviton, the child advocate, says similar scenarios frustrate relatives across Baltimore.

"It's like, if you're not part of the system, you can't get to be part of the system," she says. "People don't know what to do."

When Morton and Williams talked to Cash's relative in 2005, they learned of the Old Frederick Road address. They went there and asked to see Garnell.

Cash told the women that Garnell was on a school trip to King's Dominion in Virginia, Morton says. It was a weekend in June, and Morton says she found the story implausible.

Come Monday, Morton and William contacted social services again, this time asking whether anyone could check to see whether Garnell was safe at the Old Frederick Road address. But the women say they reached another roadblock. "We can't just go into people's homes," Morton says the employees told her.

Morton chokes up when she talks about how many agencies told them nothing could be done.

She says she called schools throughout the area to check whether Garnell was enrolled. Employees told them privacy laws prevented the disclosure of any information. Employees at the Juvenile Services Center also said they were at a loss, since neither Morton nor Williams had legal guardianship of Garnell.

"We were shoved from one agency to another," Morton says.

In March of last year, the Police Department's missing persons unit got involved.

Lt. Thomas J. Uzarowski, who oversees the unit, says the women at first "had no suspicion of harm. But they just felt something was wrong."

Detectives went in April to search the Harlem Avenue address on the chance that Garnell had been left behind. The abandoned house was in bad shape, with plaster dust leaking from the ceiling and moving boxes stacked high, Uzarowski says. The detectives, along with cadaver-detecting dogs, picked through what they could. The detectives and the dogs went back again last fall when the home's owner cleared out the property.

"Nothing," Uzarowski says.

Several times, as recently as late last month, detectives have talked to Cash.

Uzarowski chooses his words carefully as he describes Cash, a woman he says has no significant criminal record and no history of harming or neglecting children. After a pause, he says, "She's hard to pinpoint."

Cash told detectives Garnell had been living with her but that she had never enrolled him in school, Uzarowski says.

She told detectives that in the summer of 2005 she became financially unable to care for the boy. She says she took him to the social services office on at 500 N. Hilton St., near Edmondson Avenue, and left him on the building's steps. She says she never saw him again.

Cash agreed to take a lie-detector test for detectives. The test, which senses deception by analyzing voice stress, showed that she was being truthful in answering all but one question, Uzarowski says. And the answer that showed possible deception, Uzarowski says, "wasn't something that would pin her to a criminal act."

With the police, Uzarowski says, Cash has consistently said she left Garnell on Hilton Street. But he says she has told other family members different stories.

"Therein, lies part of the problem," Uzarowski says.

Prosecutors have been working with police throughout their investigation.

Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake, head of the felony family violence unit, says the search has focused on "trying to find the little boy, not necessarily trying to find a wrongdoer."

But now, she said Friday afternoon, "we've done about as much as we can. At this point, our investigation is complete.

"I'm frustrated and scared about the fact that we still don't know where the little boy is or what happened to him," she says.

The case will be entirely turned over to social services and juvenile court, Drake says. She would not say how those agencies will proceed.

No social services agency in Maryland has any record of Garnell, Uzarowski says. He says employees at the Hilton Street social services building did not remember ever seeing a boy on their steps. Nor did a house-to-house check around the building turn up any leads, he says.

If Cash's story is true, Uzarowski says he thinks it's possible that a stranger saw the boy on Hilton Avenue and invited him home, perhaps even taking him in as an unofficially adopted child.

But could a child just disappear into another family's home?

"The mores of Baltimore are sometimes unique," Uzarowski says, citing 32 years of experience as a city police officer. Leviton says city residents do not trust social services and will often take great pains to circumvent the agency.

Jerry Nance, forensic supervisor for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, believes it can be solved - happily even.

"I do not believe this child is deceased," says Nance, who has been working with Baltimore police on Garnell's case.

A caseworker for eight years, Nance says his optimism about Garnell comes from a "gut feeling."

Similarly, Uzarowski says his detectives are not presuming that Garnell is dead. "If you get set on one theory of what happened, you may miss something. If you go into it with one mindset, you'll never get the truth."

The detectives who have spent almost a year looking for Garnell know almost nothing about him. Not many people, it seems to them, even knew the boy existed.

All the detectives can do is stare at the computer image generated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and guess. Would Garnell really be 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds, as the center's age-progression artist projected?

"He just seems to have completely vanished," Uzarowski says. The missing-persons detectives either have located or have a solid idea of what happened to every other missing person they investigated last year, he says.

One recent wet morning, for the third time in four months, Detectives Carolyn Rowell and Tim Gardner grab a stack of white fliers and drive to the last known residence of Garnell, the Monastery Gardens development in the 4000 block of Old Frederick Road. The single-story red-brick townhouse where Cash and Garnell once lived overlooks rolling hills of tombstones at New Cathedral Cemetery.

"I'll take evens; you take odds," Rowell calls out to Gardner as they begin knocking on doors at the development.

"Baltimore Police Department," Gardner tells a resident inside a home across from where Garnell had lived.

The detective gives a short speech about Garnell. The resident says he has never seen the boy. Gardner asks him to keep the flier.

"Show it to relatives," Gardner says. "If anyone recognizes the young boy, please give us a call."

The exchange is similar at each residence. One woman reads the flier and says in disbelief, "He's been missing since '03?"

The woman slowly shakes her head as Rowell explains that the family just reported him missing a year ago. The woman takes the flier.

On it is the age-progressed image of how Garnell may appear now, as an 11-year-old. It looks like a school portrait of a happy, healthy brown-eyed child, dressed in a blue shirt with the collar buttoned down. Next to that image is a blurry but real photograph of Garnell.

It's a family snapshot where everyone but the boy has been cropped out. He's about 5 years old. His ears stick out a little, his chin is tucked down, but he is smiling for the camera.

It's one of the only photos of Garnell that anyone seems to have.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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