KENNEBUNK, Maine — It would be hard to imagine a cold case that is colder than the one of Robert “Bobby” Desmond, the 11-year-old Hovey Street resident who disappeared without a trace in the summer of 1964.
A local detective is determined to finally bring the mystery to a close.
Detective Steven Borst sat at the long conference table at the Kennebunk Police Department earlier this week and looked through a file with old newspaper clippings, photos and other documents. It’s an important stack, for to date it is pretty much all he has.
The reason? Nobody seems to remember Desmond. According to Borst, nobody seems to recall his disappearance almost 60 years ago.
Not anyone in law enforcement. Not the reporter who once covered an aspect of the case. Not any classmates or anyone else who was around in town since the 1960s.
“Surprisingly, nobody remembers this,” Borst said.
The state attorney general’s office once had an open case on Desmond, Borst said, but when he inquired about it, he learned it had been “closed, archived and destroyed.”
“I’ll never forget those words,” Borst said. “I thought, ‘That would never happen today.’ I don’t know why it happened. I don’t know how it could happen.”
And anyone else who might have information about Desmond’s disappearance — including his mother, Alice, and stepfather, Chet — has died, Borst added.
Yet Borst remains determined.
“This was a little boy who was a real person — who had siblings and who really existed,” Borst said. “He should not be forgotten.”
Borst took on the case in 2018. At the time, a resident had stumbled upon a headline about Desmond when she looked at an old newspaper article about her father’s sports days, according to Borst. The bit about Desmond appeared on the flip side of the clipping. The woman brought the old clip to Police Chief Robert McKenzie’s attention, prompting him to assign the case to Borst.
As far as Borst can tell, the case had not been pursued since the summer of 1976, when investigators tore up the basement floor of the former Desmond home on Hovey Street after receiving a tip that they might find evidence there.
Even the start of the case, back in 1964, was troubled. According to Borst, Desmond’s parents never reported him missing. It took the start of the new school year, roughly one month after the boy’s disappearance, for anyone to ask about his whereabouts when he failed to report to class.
Once asked, Desmond’s parents had an explanation for their son’s disappearance, according to Borst. He ran away, they said.
That’s what Alice told Desmond’s siblings, including his much younger sister, Dawn Marden.
Marden, who has since changed her name, recounted her half-brother’s disappearance during the Sept. 5 episode of “Dark Downeast,” a podcast hosted by Kylie Low that focuses on unsolved cases in Maine and New England.
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The day Bobby Desmond went missing
That’s the word Marden used to describe to Low the household in which she grew up on Hovey Street in Kennebunk in the 1960s. Her father, Chet, would drink, she said, and he would break furniture and beat people when he drank too much. Police often had to pay their home a visit.
“That was pretty common stuff throughout my childhood,” Marden told Low.
According to Marden, matters got quite chaotic on the night of Aug. 1, 1964, when Chet — a man who wanted things done his way — became enraged that the children’s beds in the home had not been properly made. That night, Marden’s older sister hid her in a bedroom closet and instructed her only to come out once the screaming had stopped and she heard nothing but silence.
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Marden said she fell asleep in the closet and, once she woke up, noticed the house had finally become silent. She emerged from the closet and noticed that a sheet had been tied to the bed and extended out the nearby window. She said she looked out the window and, in the moonlit yard below, saw dark footprints in the grass, leading away from the house. Her sister had fled their home, Marden said.
Marden then told Low she then went to another bedroom and found her brother, Bobby Desmond, lying on the floor, dressed only in his underwear.
“He was not moving,” Marden said.
She tried to drag Bobby to the closet, so that she could hide him, just like their older sister had done for her. Bobby was heavy, Marden said, and she only made it to the entrance of the bedroom.
And that’s when Marden looked downstairs and saw her mother, Alice. She was angry.
Marden dropped Bobby’s foot and dived underneath the nearby bed. Her mother, screaming, came up the stairs, entered the bedroom, and began reaching under the bed, trying to grab hold of Marden.
Marden tried to avoid her mother’s grasp, but could not. Her mother caught her, dragged her by her foot down the stairs, through the kitchen, and down into the basement.
Marden said her mother locked her in a wooden crate — the kind used to transport hunting dogs — and kept her there overnight.
“I fought,” Marden told Low. “I screamed, I cried. I tried to smash the box. I listened. I have very strong memories of that night in the box.”
In the morning, though, Marden said, she woke up in her own bed. She thought the whole night had been nothing but a bad dream.
But then Marden’s mother called her downstairs.
Alice showed Marden her purse, telling her, deliberately, that it was open, that there was money missing from it, that the front door was open, and that her brother, Bobby, was gone.
According to Marden, her mother told her, “Bobby must have stolen money from Mommy’s purse and run away. Bobby’s gone.”
Then, Marden added, her mother told her, “Go have your breakfast.”
From there, no one spoke about Bobby for years, Marden said. Pictures of Bobby even started disappearing from their home, she added. Eventually, the family moved to Kittery Point.
“There was a culture in our family that children were to be seen and not heard, and you don’t ask questions about anything you don’t know about,” Marden told Low.
But questions are being asked now, and Borst is now the one asking them.
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Kennebunk police searching for answers
Given the lack of records and recollections regarding Bobby Desmond, Borst had to launch his own investigation as though the boy had disappeared today and not in 1964, as he told Low during his podcast.
Earlier this week, Borst recapped his efforts during the past four years — a process that has included asking around, poring through old newspaper articles, using them to build a family tree for Desmond, and reaching out to three of his siblings, including Marden, who now lives out of state. Borst said he and Marden touch base now on a weekly basis.
Borst said his first stop was the list of missing persons on the Maine State Police’s website. Desmond’s name did not appear there. When Borst ran Desmond’s name through the systems and databases available to him, it never turned up. Then he learned from the state attorney general’s office that the case file on Desmond no longer existed.
Borst said he found all of this hard to believe.
Even harder for him to believe: Nobody could remember Desmond or his disappearance.
Borst had coffee with a former police officer who was with the Kennebunk department in 1964, but the man had no recollection of the matter. Borst reached out to a former Biddeford reporter who covered the excavation of the Hovey Street home in 1976, and he too had no recollection of his assignment all these years later.
“It’s so weird,” Borst said. “I feel like every time we start going down a road to see if this can pan out, the person has passed away, or the person you’re trying to interview doesn’t have a memory of it, or there’s no case file. It’s extremely frustrating.”
Borst said posts on social media have not generated any helpful comments.
“Nobody has said anything,” he said.
2 more Kennebunk, Maine cold cases
Yet two other cold cases in town — unrelated ones involving Mary Olenchuk and Mary Tanner — remain active in people’s minds today, Borst noted.
According to the state’s website, Olenchuk’s body was found in a barn on Wentworth Street in Kennebunk, 10 miles from where she was last seen, on Aug. 22, 1970. Tanner’s body was discovered in an airfield in Lyman on July 9, 1978, two days after she was last seen. A local documentarian is making a film about the Tanner case.
Borst said he has a theory why the Olenchuk and Tanner cases have had higher profiles than the Desmond one. In those cases, the parents were actively doing everything they could to work with law enforcement to find their daughters. In the case of Desmond, however, his parents never reported him missing.
Borst said he has considered the theory that Desmond ran away.
“Could an 11-year-old in the sixties have survived on his own?” Borst asked. “Could somebody have taken him in? Is that a possibility? I guess anything’s possible, right? But we try to think about what’s most likely.”
Desmond is now listed with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Borst said he has worked with NamUs and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – efforts that have resulted in the creation of an age-progression sketch of Desmond, showing what he might look like today, if alive, at the age of 69, and in getting family DNA on record in case possible physical evidence turns up and needs testing.
Borst asks anyone who might have information that could finally help resolve the Desmond case to reach out to him at (207) 604-1319 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As well, the Maine State Police’s major crimes unit can be reached at 1-800-228-0857.
“Somebody must remember something,” Borst insisted. “You know, there are sisters out there. They deserve to know the truth, however painful that might be.”
During an interview on Wednesday, Marden expressed gratitude for all Borst has done with his investigation.
“Steve put Bobby on the map,” she said. “I’m most grateful for his help.”
Marden said she was 17 when she finally started recovering memories from that night in 1964. She said she has spent years in therapy.
“I’ve worked my whole life to remember that night,” she said.
When she was older, Marden asked her mother about Desmond’s disappearance.
“I don’t know what you think you know, but you’re wrong,” is what Alice once replied, according to Marden.
“I spent decades trying to talk to Mom,” Marden said.
Chet never said a word about Desmond, according to Marden.
Marden said she just wants closure.
“If he’s alive, I just want to know he’s okay,” she said. “That would put the biggest nightmare of my life to rest. I could move on.”
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Kennebunk, Maine, 1964 cold case of Robert Desmond, missing boy