ROSEBORO — Somewhere, investigators believe, Tristen “Buddy” Myers is out there.
It’s what they’ve got to believe.
To do otherwise, they say, would be to give up on finding the little boy with tousled blond hair and vivid blue eyes who wandered away from his Roseboro home on Oct. 5, 2000.
Buddy was 4 years old when he vanished. The person investigators are looking for now is 20 — old enough to drive, old enough to join the Army, old enough to come home to the soybean patches and tobacco fields of central Sampson County.
It’s been nearly 17 years since Buddy slipped out of his great-uncle’s home on Microwave Tower Road just west of Roseboro on a chilly October afternoon. He gathered two of the family dogs … and vanished.
“In a way, that’s what gives us the certainty that he’s still out there,” said Chris Godwin, a detective with the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office.
For 10 years, Buddy’s case has been his case, fielding calls and emails from across the country, some as recently as last month.
“If, and I’m saying if, he were dead, a trace would have turned up by now,” Godwin said. “So, unless something turns up, we’ll keep searching.”
Tristen Myers — his great-uncle gave him the nickname “Buddy” less than two months before his disappearance — was born in July 1996 to 15-year-old Raven Myers in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, near Biloxi. The infant was given to his nearby grandparents Robert and Sally Myers to raise.
In late 1999, Robert Myers backed a car he was working on and accidentally struck Tristen. The boy had a broken leg, burns and a deep laceration on his head.
The next year, Sally Myers became seriously ill with liver disease. Unable to care for his wife and Tristen at the same time, Robert Myers turned to his brother, John Myers, to care for the boy. John talked it over with his wife, Donna, then drove to Louisiana from Sampson County to pick up Tristen. On the way home, he gave the boy a nickname, “Buddy.”
Soon after arriving at his new home, Buddy began exhibiting emotional problems. A battery of tests in Clinton and Fayetteville revealed that he exhibited signs of being emotionally and physically underdeveloped.
In late September of that year, Buddy walked away from home. According to reports, he walked away at least twice, prompting the Myers family to place a buzzer on the back door that would sound if he left.
There was no alarm on the front door, however. And on the afternoon of Oct. 5, as a Barney tape played on the TV, Buddy slipped out the front door and vanished.
After searching the house and yard, Donna Myers called 911. By late afternoon, volunteer searchers were combing the thick woods along Microwave Tower Road, looking for Buddy and the two dogs — a three-legged chihuahua named Buck and a Doberman puppy named Sasha — that belonged to the family.
The search area grew over the next week, fanning out in circles through thick underbrush and small farm ponds. Buddy couldn’t swim, and there was a fear he might have fallen in a pond and drowned. After search dogs followed a trail to one pond, officials drained it. Nothing.
Five days after Buddy vanished, Buck trotted out of the woods to the home. More than a week later, Sasha returned as well, a bit thin but in good shape. Neither appeared to be dirty or neglected. Officials checked their stomach contents but found nothing unusual.
There have been no clues since then.
Divers checked more ponds, cadaver dogs swept the area, and there was even an exploration of a nearby auto salvage yard.
Armies of volunteers, psychics and charlatans with tarot cards and Ouija boards have worked on the case.
Tens of millions of fliers were released nationally. Donna Myers appeared on the “Jenny Jones Show.” And more than 1,000 tips sent to investigators and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children turned up empty.
There was a brief spike of hope in spring 2003 when a boy about Buddy’s size with a matching scar was discovered in a Chicago hospital. DNA testing ruled him out.
Since then, Buddy’s mother, Raven Myers, has died. She fell from a pickup onto Hope Mills Road. His grandparents and great-uncle are also dead. No other family members could be contacted for this story, and the house on Microwave Tower Road has prominent no trespassing signs.
The search — and the carrier of hope — is detective Chris Godwin, a tall fellow with short dark hair and a firm grasp on the story that bulges from a large white box of evidence.
The first thing he wants people to know is that Buddy is not a “cold case.”
“Not by any stretch of the imagination,” Godwin said. “It’s an active investigation.”
An investigation with a heck of a road map. Over the past few years, credible reports have been passed to investigators, primarily through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center has hundreds of active cases across the country, several older than Buddy’s.
“We don’t give up,” Godwin said. “We go where the information leads us.”
Investigators don’t drop everything and take off with every tip. There simply isn’t time or a budget, even all these years later. Usually a call to the local authorities is enough to clear a tip.
A few, however, have been promising enough to warrant a trip.
Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton recalled one such trip into the heart of a Florida swamp in the summer of 2011.
“I never knew there was a place that off-the-map,” Thornton said. “And we always talk with law enforcement in the area before we follow up. We’re not just barging in on people.
“After we talk with them, and they realize how important this case is to us in Sampson County, they understand.”
“The information we had was very specific,” Godwin added. “A boy who’d match Tristen’s age now, the fourth trailer in the camp … we waded through a lot of camps before we got there.”
Again, it wasn’t Buddy.
Another tip, in 2015, sent investigators to Virginia, where a woman said her son’s best friend looked just like Buddy. Before investigators could get there, however, the family moved to Arkansas and the search began again.
“The mother in Virginia sent us a picture of the boy,” Godwin said. “I had bells go off. He really looked like Tristen.”
Again, it was a dead end.
“When we hear from someone, no matter who, we’ll listen,” Godwin said. “Make me a believer in what you have to say. A lot of times, we’ll invite them to come down and chat. They never do.”
In 2015, a retired investigator from New York visited, spending a week with Godwin as they pored over old leads. Godwin asked if it would be worthwhile to recheck the land around Roseboro.
“He said no,” Godwin said. “If the land was going to give us a clue, it would have already.”
So, what happened? Microwave Tower Road is hardly the sort of place a child abductor would cruise on the remote chance a youngster was outside playing. He’d have to know when Buddy would slip away from his family’s gaze. And if he did, why let the dogs go days later?
If Buddy drowned, wouldn’t the dogs have come home immediately, and certainly muddy? And by now, the pond would have yielded clues.
“We talk about it, quite often,” Godwin said. “Sometimes people want to know if we’re still looking or if we’ve given up.
“I want people to know: We have never stopped looking for Tristen, and we won’t stop until there’s no reason to look any more. We’re waiting on that one good lead … someone who remembers something or has seen something.
“That’s the day our search will end.”
Staff writer Chick Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3515.