Twenty years after the town of Chester rallied behind “Little Boy Blue,” residents reflect on the child’s death.
By GWEN TIETGEN / Lincoln Journal Star
CHESTER — The generation that would have been Danny Stutzman’s has grown up without him. Case still a mystery
He didn’t graduate from high school, go to college, marry or have a family. Danny’s 9-year-old body was found in a ditch near Chester on Christmas Eve 1985.
No one knew him or his name until two years later.
But this community came to love him anyway, and in turn, he defined them.
A community that wept at his funeral, that buried him under the name Matthew, a name that means “gift of God,” and referred to him as “Little Boy Blue,” because of the blue pajamas he was wearing when found.
“The church was completely packed and nobody had any idea who this child was,” said Thayer County Attorney Daniel Werner.
The town still cares for his gravesite in its roadside cemetery. People still lay toys, cars and coins on his grave. The community built a roadside memorial for him, then rebuilt it after a tornado.
And it bears the logo, “A small town with a big heart.”
Twenty years later, author Gregg Olsen has written a book, “Abandoned Prayers,” about the boy. National and local media have printed the story time and again.
Although much of the media attention has fizzled and talk has waned, the memories haven’t.
“We have people stop in all the time wanting to know where he’s buried,” said Gail Wendover, a waitress at Foote Cafe in Chester.
A roadside memorial is located just up the road, to the left of Foote’s Cafe. The cemetery is on the right side of U.S. 81.
“I always recommend the book. It’s graphic, but it’s the truth,” Wendover said.
Wendover moved to Chester in June 1985 and remembers the community’s shock.
“It was sad. But everybody pulled together and named him because they didn’t know who he was,” she said.
The case remains open. The autopsy revealed no medical finding about his death, Werner said.
“Do I wonder? Ya, obviously. I’m the kind of guy that’s suspicious that more happened than we will ever know,” he said. “But being suspicious and being able to prove it in a criminal court beyond a reasonable doubt are two different things.”
“I never really believed that Danny died naturally, but I’ve never been able to prove he died otherwise.”
Charles Kleveland, the gas station owner who found Danny’s body that night, said people haven’t forgotten. He repeats what he has said for years, “The only person who knows what really happened is Eli.”
Said Werner: “It’s the kind of thing that never goes away. The child was found, abandoned in that kind of condition. It tugs on your heartstrings.”
Former Thayer County Sheriff Gary Young said pleas for information yielded tons of tips, from across the United States, Alaska and overseas, but nothing solid. Young, who lives in Hot Springs Village, Ark., retired in September 2001.
After a tip identified Stutzman, authorities discovered Danny was raised Amish. A Reader’s Digest article two years later lead authorities to the boy’s father, Eli Stutzman.
Young said he remembered the panic the community felt, wondering if some sick killer would hurt one of their children.
“The case never really got solved. I won’t put any blame on anybody. It’s just one of those things. We didn’t get a good, conclusive autopsy,” he said. “I really think there was more to it than what we know.”
Said Young: “I just have it in my gut that there’s something we didn’t get.”
In statements then, Eli Stutzman said he was scared after he found his son dead in the back of his vehicle. Danny had reportedly developed a respiratory problem.
“Back then, I said, we didn’t get him, but maybe God will,” Young said.
Eli Stutzman was released from prison in March 2002 after serving time for killing a roommate in 1985 in Travis County, Texas, months before Danny’s death. He was convicted in 1989.
Reached at his Fort Worth, Texas, home, Eli Stutzman said he had no comment.
Reach Gwen Tietgen at 473-7242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Christmas Eve 1985, the body of a 9-year-old boy was found in a ditch near Chester. The boy, in his death, captured the community’s heart.
They buried him in Chester before they knew his name and called him “Little Boy Blue,” because of the blue pajamas he was wearing. They buried him as Matthew, which means “gift of God.”
Two years later, the boy was identified as Danny Stutzman, from Ohio’s Amish country, after a Reader’s Digest article yielded a tip.
Eli Stutzman, the boy’s father, served 18 months in prison for abandoning his son’s body and concealing his death. Stutzman, now 55, would later testify he dumped the boy’s body there after he had developed a respiratory problem and died. Stutzman then served time in Texas for killing a roommate months before Danny’s death. He was released on parole in Texas on March 31, 2002.