Updated: Jan 7
I love Halloween — it’s my favorite holiday. But every year around that time, you always hear real life Halloween horror stories, ones that made the day tragic rather than fun for those involved. Let’s talk about one of those cases, a case that’s gone unsolved for over 60 years. This is the disappearance of Steven Damman.
Steven Craig Damman was born on December 15, 1952 in Iowa to father Jerry and mother Marilyn. When Steven was still very young, his family moved to the small town of East Meadow, New York, because his father, who was in the Air Force, was stationed there. Jerry Damman worked at the Mitchel Air Force base in nearby Uniondale; I don’t think it’s still there anymore.
On the afternoon of October 31, 1955, Marilyn Damman took 2 1/2-year-old Steven and his 7-month-old sister, Pamela, to Food Fair market, about a block and a half away from their house. There’s conflicting information out there about whether Marilyn took her kids to a “bakery” or a “supermarket.” Some sources said she was buying a loaf of bread, which can be bought at either of these places. Food Fair’s official website doesn’t specify which one it is, but it appears to be more of a grocery store. So I’m not 100 % sure, but I think you get the idea.
The Dammons arrived at Food Fair just before 2:30 pm. Marilyn Damman left the kids outside the store and told Steven to look after his baby sister. Steven stood by his sister’s carriage, holding a bag of jelly beans. His mother was inside the store for ten minutes. When she came out, both her kids were gone.
I know it seems unusual to leave to small children outside a store, at least to a lot of us in modern times. It was apparently common practice at the time, but we will talk more about it later.
When Marilyn didn’t see her children outside the store, she went back home, thinking Steven might have pushed Pamela’s carriage back there. But she didn’t see them. At some point, Pamela’s carriage was found by a family friend about 300 feet away from the store. Pamela was inside, unharmed — but there was no sign of Steven.
I’m not 100 % sure when Pamela was found — specifically, if it happened before or after Marilyn contacted the police. But she did call them pretty quickly, and the search for Steven began. More than 5,000 people, both police officers and citizens, turned up to look for Steven.
At first, police believed Steven may have been kidnapped by a mother whose child had died and who was looking to replace that child. They looked at lists of children who had recently died, as well as “sex deviates” in the area, but neither of these avenues lead anywhere. At 6:30 pm on November 1st, 28 hours after the search began, police called it off and pronounced Steven’s disappearance as a kidnapping.
About a month later, a college student wrote a ransom note to the Damman family, demanding money in exchange for Steven. They initially asked for $3,000, then wrote two more letters asking for $10,000 and $14,000, respectively. Jerry Damman thought it was a hoax from the start; the family had received several letters since Steven’s disappearance (letters that I assume were similar in nature). They’d been turned over to police and investigated, but all lead to dead ends.
Around this time, the Dammans made a public plea to Steven’s kidnappers, asking that they make sure to give Steven his vitamins and medicine since he suffered from anemia.
After Steven’s disappearance, the family moved back to Iowa. Marilyn and Jerry divorced in 1957. Jerry reportedly blamed his ex wife for their son’s disappearance, though he later said the disappearance had nothing to do with the divorce, that they’d been having problems for awhile and that his wife had a “temperament.” Marilyn was granted divorce on the grounds of “cruelty,” and she got custody of Pamela.
Over the years, there have been a few reported sightings of Steven, or at least boys who looked like him. None of these sightings have lead anywhere.
In February 1957, a couple of years after Steven’s disappearance, the body of a young boy was found in Philadelphia. He remains unidentified to this day in one of the city’s oldest cold cases; you might know him as The Boy in the Box.
warning: somewhat graphic image
There has been speculation that the Boy in the Box was Steven Damman. He was about the same age, height and weight, and there was evidence that he was malnourished and might have been abused. Had someone kidnapped Steven, abused him and then killed him and left his body in Philadelphia — less than a three hour drive from East Meadow?
But there were other details that didn’t add up. Steven had a fracture on his arm at one point that later healed, and the Boy in the Box had no signs of this fracture. Their footprints didn’t match either. A match was officially ruled out via DNA in 2003.
(Update: The Boy in the Box was later identified as 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/boy-box-identified-4-year-old-rcna60630)
So now let’s talk about John Robert Barnes. Barnes was born on August 18, 1955 in Pensacola, Florida — or so he was told. Growing up, he always felt like the black sheep of the family and never thought he looked like any of them. Relatives would tell him he looked like other family members, but never showed him pictures to compare. As his mother lay on her deathbed, she confessed something to him. He’s never specified exactly what, but this was apparently what made him think she wasn’t his biological mother. This deathbed confession began his search to see who his real parents might be. He searched archives of missing children and, when he found photographs of the Damman family in 2009, he noticed a resemblance.
Barnes, who lived in Michigan, contacted Steven’s sister, Pamela. The family was hopeful that Barnes really was Steven, and Pamela agreed to a DNA test. A private test gave a “possibility” of a match. After this, a “more definitive” test was ordered, I assume by law enforcement, who Barnes had been in contact with about the situation earlier that year.
Barnes’s claim was made public in June 2009, and members of the Damman family even agreed they looked alike. Barnes had a scar along the right side of his face, and Steven had a scar under his chin. Barnes also reportedly had a mole on the back of his right calf, just like Steven. (Though Steven’s “mole” was actually a birthmark that looked like a mole.)
Barnes was “99 % convinced” that he was really Steven Damman, and that the family’s search had come to an end. However, on June 18, 2009, the test results were announced, and it was confirmed that John Barnes was not Steven Damman.
There has been some speculation about Barnes after all this. Some people think he’s not necessarily a kidnapped or missing child, but the product of an affair — his mom really was his mom, but his “dad” wasn’t really his dad and might have even thought John was his son. (His father has been publically adamant that he doesn’t believe his son’s claims and says he is his biological father.) Whatever happened with John Barnes and his family, I hope he finds some answers and some peace, if he hasn’t already.
But what happened to Steven Damman? Where did he go in those ten minutes while his mom was in the store, and where is he now? Let’s talk about theories.
The first theory is that he wandered off. Some people think he might have pushed Pamela’s carriage somewhere, then got distracted and wandered off. However, I don’t think he could have pushed it 300 feet, and it was found 300 feet away from the store.
But he easily could have wandered off and accidentally been hurt or killed. Since he was so young, there are plenty of ways this could have happened — falling in a manhole, wandering into traffic, or maybe ending up in a pond or well. But if he did wander off, where is his body and why has it never been found?
The next theory is that the police were right and Steven was kidnapped. In fact, his disappearance is still classified as a non family abduction. It is a little strange that someone would take Steven and leave his sister, but maybe someone couldn’t physically handle both children or, for whatever reason, only wanted one. There has been speculation that he was sold into an illegal adoption ring. If this is true, he could still be out there and not know who he is or even suspect that he’s a missing person.
The next theory is going to address the elephant in the room. The theory I thought about when I first heard this case, the one that’s often true in these circumstances, but the one people don’t like bringing up. Did Steven’s mother have something to do with his disappearance?
Marilyn Damman has been criticized quite a bit online for leaving both her children outside the store. It was pretty commonplace back then, from everything I could find. Joan Bookbinder lives in East Meadow and was also a young mother at the time Steven disappeared. She claims at that time, mothers left children outside stores while they shopped all the time, and there would always be carriages lined up outside stories. Nobody ever thought about it since child abduction was so rare — though this changed drastically after Steven’s disappearance. Marilyn Damman later said there were a few other carriages outside the store along with Pamela’s on the day Steven disappeared. She’d done this many times before and called it “as common to a housewife as cooking eggs for breakfast.”
If there are no concerns of kidnapping, it’s not too much of a stretch to understanding leaving a baby carriage outside a shop. But what about an almost three-year-old? People who are critical of Marilyn Damman have noted it’s still unsafe to leave a toddler outside like this since there are so many ways they could put themselves in danger. Reddit user gomps stated: “…times have changed but 2 year olds haven't. You turn your back on them for a second and they are eating pennies or sticking their fingers in light sockets.”
There is something else I noticed that might be an inconsistency. Marilyn Damman said at one point that Steven couldn’t have moved Pamela’s carriage by himself. But right after she came out of the store and noticed her kids were missing, she went back home because she thought Steven may have pushed the carriage back. Maybe she just wasn’t thinking clearly in a moment of panic.
(I’ve also seen a few people say Marilyn waited awhile before reporting Steven missing, but I don’t think that’s accurate. The search for Steven ended after 28 hours at 6:30 pm November 1st, and Steven went missing around 2:30 pm October 31. That means Marilyn would have had to contact police within less than an hour of Steven’s disappearance.)
There’s a video online of an interview with a woman who claims to have been a neighbor of the Dammans before Steven’s disappearance. According to this woman, Steven screamed and cried a lot and was made to wash his own diaper when he soiled it. She also alleged physical abuse. Her husband reported all this to police, but was essentially told to mind his own business. After Steven’s disappearance, this woman was in the Damman house and claimed to smell something strange. She also believes Steven might be buried under a parkway that was built after his disappearance.
I have no way of verifying this woman’s claims, but you can watch the video for yourself here. It is kind of hard to hear, but it helps if you wear headphones.
A few people have even speculated that Steven and Pamela never went into the store and didn’t know of any witness statements that said they saw them there. The woman in the video above says she saw them there, but that can’t be verified. A couple of witnesses said they saw a little boy who looked like Steven, but was it really him?
Someone on a websleuths thread about the case claimed they lived next door to the Dammans at the time and that there were rumors that the case wasn’t a “genuine kidnapping.” I assume they mean one of the parents had something to do with it. There are also interviews with people who lived in East Meadow at the time who say there were rumors Steven had been kidnapped and killed by someone he knew.
I want to make it clear that I am not accusing anyone of anything. This is all speculation, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
The last “theory” isn’t really a theory, but speculation that Steven’s disappearance was related to the case of Peter Weinberger.
Peter was just one month old when he was kidnapped from his home in Westbury, New York, about 5 miles away from East Meadow, on July 4, 1956. His mother put him in a carriage on the front porch and went back inside while he slept. She came back a few minutes later to find him gone and a ransom note in his place.
On August 23, a truck driver named Angelo LaMarca was arrested for the crime. He had kidnapped baby Peter for a ransom in the hopes the money could pay off some of his many debts. He claimed to have panicked after the case started getting media attention and abandoned the baby in bushes just off a highway. Peter’s remains were later found in a similar area.
LaMarca was tried and convicted of kidnapping and murder later that year. He was sentenced to death and executed in 1958.
There are some superficial similarities between this case and Steven Damman’s. They were both young boys who didn’t live too far from each other and disappeared within a year of each other. Interestingly, they also both disappeared on holidays — Peter disappeared on Independence Day and Steven disappeared on Halloween. But in most other aspects, they seem pretty different — or at least there’s not much hard evidence that they were connected.
Steven is a white male who was, at the time of his disappearance, 3 feet 2 inches tall 32 pounds. He was last seen wearing blue overalls, a blue polo shirt, a red sweater with blue and white stripes and brown shoes. He has a scar under his chin and a birthmark resembling a mole on back of his left calf. (note: The poster above says the mole was on his left calf. The Charley Project says it was his right calf. I don't know which one is accurate.) He has a healed fracture on his left arm. At the time of his disappearance, he was undergoing treatment for a growth on his kidney and walked with his toes turned out. He sometimes went by the nickname Stevie. If he were alive today, he would be 67 years old.
This case has been called “the Madeleine McCann case of its day,” so it must have been pretty well known when it first happened. There’s also the parallel of parents coming under fire for letting their children out of their sight. There aren’t as many details out there on this case as I would have liked, but that’s probably because it’s so old. I have no idea what the odds are of this case being solved; it seems hopeless because it happened so long ago, but cold cases are solved all the time.