SOUTH KINGSTOWN - If Jason Foreman went missing today, the search for the lost boy might have been different.
South Kingstown retired Captain H. Ronald Hawksley, a lead detective in the case that put Michael Woodmansee, who killed five year old Jason Foreman in 1975 behind bars said police have better resources now in searching for missing children and they would not have made the same mishaps.
“We got the missing person call. We met with Mrs. Foreman and it sounded like the boy had wandered off. He was five years old. Kids do that,” Hawksley said. “We proceeded to check the area and backyards. We never found him.”
Hawksley said police had considered that a cult had taken the young boy. Police even thought that Jason was kidnapped, killed and left in the woods somewhere. They never expected the fate of the Foreman boy to be so horribly gruesome. Hawksley said the case never closed and he continued to work on it, days, months and years after Jason disappeared on his mother’s 25th birthday after playing in the neighborhood with friends.
“We promised the parents we’d do everything we could. We followed every lead possible. We went up and down the East Coast. In the end, we thought we’d find him in the woods dead somewhere,” Hawksley said.
In 1975, Michael Woodmansee kidnapped and killed Jason Foreman after he was walking home along Schaeffer Street after a day of play. The boy was missing for seven years, until 1982, when Woodmansee confessed to killing Foreman, after trying to strangle the local paper boy, Dale Sherman. In 1983, Woodmansee was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to serve 40 years in prison. Yet, due to time-off earned through ‘good behavior’ Woodmansee could be released from jail this August, 12 years early. News of the child killer’s release sparked community outrage in South Kingstown and throughout Rhode Island.
When Jason Foreman went missing, hundreds of people throughout South Kingstown joined in on the search party, scouring the town woods, ponds and bogs. Police checked every young boy they saw, stopping parents at the supermarket. Police searched every home, except for one. The boy’s killer’s father was a police reservist. As police turned every house inside out looking for Jason, Woodmansee’s father was told to search his own house on Schaeffer Street, where the boy’s shellacked bones remained in a metal cabinet in his son’s bedroom.
“It happened because back then we had a lot of special policemen and we relied on them for side details. We had a small department,” Hawksley said. “Woodmansee’s father did a good job too. I don’t think he had any knowledge of this. Seven years later when we went into his house, the father was in the living and he asked me, ‘Hawk, did my son really do that?’”
When police entered Michael Woodmansee’s bedroom, where they found Jason’s skull on his bureau, shellacked bones in a metal cabinet and a small journal detailing how Woodmansee killed, cannibalized and sexually violated Jason, which the convicted killer claimed was fiction, Hawksley said it was a terrible scene.
“The cleanest place was the bones and there was the journal. It took me two days to read it. It told how to kill a child and get away with it,” Hawksley said.
Thirty six years later today, Hawksley believes police would not make that mistake again and would certainly check every single house, no matter who owned it. Hawksley said today police would check every house and every person when searching for a missing child.
“We couldn’t have saved his life, but I wished we could have gone [to the Woodmansee house.] It would have made it a lot easier on the family,” Hawksley said. “It was the biggest search we ever had here.
In 1975 when Jason Foreman went missing, Hawksley said having the AMBER Alert, in which an bulletin in the most serious child-abduction cases is issued, could have made a difference.
“The AMBER Alert would have done a lot of good. The situation [in 1975] people turned their head on. Every one thought it was runaways,” Hawksley said. “AMBER Alert is really necessary. Our kids are the most valuable things we have.”
AMBER Alert program is a voluntary partnership between law-enforcement agencies and broadcasters, in which an urgent bulletin is issued for missing children. The goal of an AMBER Alert is to instantly galvanize the entire community to assist in the search for and the safe recovery of the child.
Rhode Island first set up its AMBER Alert system in April 2003. The program started nationally in 1996 after a Texan girl, Amber Hagerman was kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas. Although the murdered girl was named Amber, the system actually stands for America’s Missing: Emergency Broadcast Response.
“There is strict criteria when we can use it, because we don’t want to issue it every day, because then no one would listen,” State Police Lt. Arnold Buxton, the AMBER Alert coordinator for Rhode Island said.
To issue an AMBER alert, Buxton said there has to be an abduction, belief that the child is in imminent danger, and descriptive information about the suspect, including what he or she was wearing or what car he or she was driving. The child also has to be 17 years old or younger.
Buxton said when an AMBER alert is issued, a phone base is set up at the state Emergency Management Agency.
“It will continue getting calls, until we feel its not worth it anymore. At some point, we stop the AMBER Alert, but we pursue other investigative means to locate the child,” Buxton said.
Buxton said AMBER Alert has a high success rate in Rhode Island. He said Rhode Island has issued three alerts since 2003 and all three resulted in successful recoveries of the children. Buxton also said the time lapse between when the alert is issued and when the child is found is quick. When a child went missing in 2005 in Westerly, the incident was reported at 5 p.m., and the child was recovered at 7:21 p.m. In October 2005, a child went missing at 10:15 a.m. and was recovered at 11:30 a.m., after the alert was issued. Last year on Feb. 18 Massachusetts State Police issued an AMBER Alert, where a child went missing from an industrial gas station at 3:40 p.m. Police found the child in a park in Connecticut at 4:30 p.m.
“In any abduction of any child, the first two hours are very critical. After two hours, the kidnapper generally kills the child,” Buxton said. “We try to get it fired up as quickly as we can. The faster we get it out to the media, the better the chances are.”
Buxton said the police tries to reach as many people as possible, using the radio, TV, billboards and now Facebook.
“With technology, getting the way it is, it’s getting easier to reach out to people than years ago,” Buxton said.
In 1975 when Jason Foreman went missing, there was no such thing as the AMBER Alert system, but Hawksley said they used all they had at the time.
Even if the AMBER Alert system did exist 36 years ago, Buxton said Foreman might not have met the criteria.
“If he simply went missing and wasn’t seen, the AMBER Alert wouldn’t have been able to be issued anyway. If a neighbor had seen him taken away, it could have been issued,” Buxton said.
Across the nation, 8,000 children are reported missing each year, but Buxton said not all cases meet the criteria for an AMBER Alert.
“It has to be an abduction, but it doesn’t mean we don’t do all that we can with other resources,” Buxton said.
Other resources for finding a missing child includes the Reverse 911 system, in which calls are made to each residence and going onto the local TV news.
Hawksley said its hard to say whether an AMBER Alert would have made a difference for Jason.
“We went seven days looking for him. I don’t know if we would have ever found him or not if it wasn’t for the Sherman boy. He was a brave kid,” Hawksley said.
Hawksley said the Foreman case would have been different if it occurred today. With DNA testing and the state Crime Lab at the University of Rhode Island, Hawksley said law enforcement has changed.
“There’s a lot more to work on. We didn’t have that back then. We used what we had,” Hawksley said. “We would do it a lot different today. We’d have a lot more tools today.”
When Hawksley found out the killer of the missing child case he worked on for years would be released early, he said it made him sick.
“That man should not be released. He tried it twice. He did it once. I don’t want to take any chances. The chief of police doesn’t want him in this area. The people don’t want him in this area and I don’t want him in this area,” Hawksley said. “I don’t want to wait until something like this happens again. It would kill me.”
Hawksley said he couldn’t believe that Woodmansee could be released on good behavior.
“The police’s job is to protect the people and we’re not protecting the people when we let him go,” Hawksley said.