SUGAR BUSH TOWNSHIP, Minn. — He was a face on a milk carton.
If you were a schoolchild sipping milk during the 1980s, it's likely you saw the face of 3-year-old Kevin Jay Ayotte who vanished in 1982 from his home in Sugar Bush Township.
Nearly 40 years since the disappearance of the toddler in north-central Minnesota, his case still leaves law enforcement scratching their heads.
What happened to Kevin?
It is a question that has haunted the small community of Sugar Bush in Beltrami County for decades.
As part of Forum News Service's cold-case series, “The Vault,” the Bemidji Pioneer recently revisited the unsolved case through its archives. The search for Kevin was one of the biggest stories in Bemidji at the time, and it would dominate headlines for more than a week.
The last day of September
The last time anyone saw Kevin it was a crisp fall afternoon, the last day of September in 1982.
Kevin Ayotte and his older brother, Terry, were upstairs in their family home in rural Sugar Bush Township, which was isolated and surrounded by thick woods and bog. Kevin was playing with some toys in his mother’s bedroom at 4:45 p.m., as Terry was making his bed.
The boys’ mother, Joann, went outside briefly and when she returned, Terry was still inside the house, but Kevin had vanished.
The family dog, a 6-month-old springer spaniel puppy named Flash, was gone too. Another older brother had biked up the road to a friend’s house to play.
Law enforcement said that Kevin had “apparently wandered off” with his puppy from the family home about 5 p.m., and the mother, Joann, reported the missing boy shortly after 7 p.m. on Thursday.
‘A large many, many acres for one small boy to be lost’
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, at the time of his disappearance, Kevin was 4-feet-tall and weighed 50 pounds. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a scar on the right side of his chin. He was also non-verbal and hearing-impaired.
Kevin, who was born on May 12, 1979, lived with his mother and two older brothers about 18 miles east of Bemidji and 10 miles north of U.S. Highway 2 in Sugar Bush Township. According to 1980 U.S. Census data, Sugar Bush had a population of 121 people in 1980.
The township has an area of 31.5 square miles and is surrounded on nearly all sides by the Chippewa National Forest or the Buena Vista State Forest, home to parts of at least nine lakes.
The headline that spanned the top-right corner of the Friday, Oct. 1, 1982, edition of the Pioneer read, “Searchers comb woods for lost boy.” The first story in the Pioneer regarding the case was written by then-politics editor Brad Swenson.
In the article, Swenson quoted then-Beltrami County Sheriff Tom Tolman who gave details on the initial search for Kevin.
“A search continued shortly before midnight for a lost boy, missing seven hours from his rural Sugar Bush Township home. About 30 law enforcement officers and volunteers continued search efforts for Kevin Ayotte, 3, who was reported missing by his mother, Joann Ayotte, Sheriff Tolman said late Thursday night.”
That evening, searchers were faced with thick woods, bogs and a creek, and were using flashlights to try to locate the boy before the temperature dipped into the 30s.
"It doesn't have to be freezing for a 3-year-old to perish,” Sheriff Tolman, who was coordinating search efforts from the Law Enforcement Center, told the Pioneer. He said a "minimum force” would continue the search all night but said some of the large force of “township people, neighbors and volunteers" would have to be pulled off for the night in order to balance manpower for a daylight search.
"I'll go as long as I dare all night," Tolman said, adding that nine county officers were at the scene, some 20 miles east of the Bemidji Town and Country Club on County Road 20.
Tolman described the area as a large open field on the Ayotte property which slopes to the north branch of the Turtle River. At the river are “floating bogs and a big, very wide and cold creek,” he said. About 200 feet north of the house is about five to six square miles of “woods that are thicket.”
“It’s a large, many, many acres for one small boy to be lost," the sheriff said. “The odds for a little child are not so good. But, at this point, some of our people will be there all night.”
Tolman indicated at the time that no leads had developed. No trace had been seen of the dog or the boy and no one had sighted any tracks of either.
The sheriff's department asked for volunteers with flashlights and later indicated they had all they needed as more help would confuse the search.
“All we can do is wait for developments," Tolman said just after 11 p.m. Thursday. “We're making an extended blast tonight. There's an awful lot of acres there.”
The search continues
On Sunday, Oct. 3, the Pioneer was filled to the brim with multiple stories about the case, with headlines reading “Where is Kevin?” “Efforts to find lost boy ‘frustrating’” and “Search melds science, myth.”
Hope of finding the lost 3-year-old had dwindled the night before as searchers had no leads and no trace of the boy missing since 5 p.m. Thursday.
“His chances are very slim,” Tolman said late Saturday afternoon. "I only have feelings of frustration. I wish for a clear direction to emerge and will try to enlist the aid of anybody.”
After the search entered its 48th hour, speculation arose that perhaps the youngster may not be in the woods but rather was either abducted or involved in an accident and the body removed.
Most of the searchers Friday and Saturday who were familiar with the terrain seemed to agree that as the search progressed, the boy may not be in the area.
For one of the three stories about Kevin in the Pioneer on Sunday, Swenson interviewed Kevin’s older brother, 9-year-old Terry, who was the last person to see him.
“The last time I saw him was about a quarter to five when I was making my bed," Terry told the Pioneer Friday, Oct. 1 while sitting in the Beltrami County Sheriff's Department communications van awaiting news.
"We got home from school about 4:30,” Terry, a small boy with large bright eyes and dark, curly hair said. "My mom (Joann) was downstairs. She was going to wash the kitchen windows. My baby brother was upstairs with me helping me make my bed. The next thing I did, I went to mom's room to see if he was there with his toys.”
Terry went downstairs to ask his mother if she had seen Kevin and they searched the house and yard together.
"Mom called my cousin, Mike Steele, and then they looked,” Terry said. Later the sheriff's department was called in.
“We went down both sides of the road,” he continued. "We went back into the woods and I showed the cops where Kevin could go.”
Terry said that Kevin had wandered off from the house before and several times had made it to a bridge about a mile to the east of the small, red log cabin along County Road 20.
"He used to walk down to the bridge but he doesn't anymore,” Terry explained. “That's because mom used to give him lickins.”
On Saturday, young Terry helped searchers by piling firewood on a small fire near the road to warm the volunteers. More than 500 searchers joined the hunt for Kevin.
"I'm impressed to the point I can't express it," Tolman said of the massive volunteer effort. “With all the people and support, it's a remarkable community effort.”
However, as the search entered its third day, many began to express frustration.
"I feel like a logger with a 6-mile log jam in the St. Croix River and can't get it loose,” Tolman said Saturday (Oct. 2) as an intensive search for Ayotte entered the third day. "We need some item of information. It just baffles us to no end.”
“The search hasn't been without a variety of leads and tactics but all proved fruitless by late Saturday night when the search was called off until today,” wrote Swenson in the Pioneer on Sunday, Oct. 3, 1982.
“We will keep up an intensive search,” Undersheriff Howie Schultz said, "until we feel that part of the search has to terminate. We're trying the best we can with the evidence we have.”
Trying a little bit of everything
As the search continued, investigators explored leads from all directions -- even following suggestions of some psychics.
“The search has seen the melding of modern science with old age mysticism,” Swenson wrote in his Oct. 3 article.
(Up in the sky,) a heat-sensing device was used in the search to attempt to find Kevin and his 6-month-old springer spaniel. Meanwhile, on the ground, the Ayotte family has received the unsolicited help of psychics, Swenson added.
“We've had contacts from about six psychics and hoped they had all said the same thing," said Sheriff Tolman. "I'm somewhat skeptical but I am willing to accept aid from any direction. Nothing of it has been fruitful."
A spokeswoman close to the Ayotte family said the prevalent theory had been relayed via Joann Ayotte's grandmother from a psychic that Kevin would be found in an old building or barn wrapped in burlap and accompanied by an old man. The psychic also reportedly said the boy was safe and the missing dog would be with him.
Although search officials didn't want to lean too much on the psychic theory, Swenson wrote, federal investigators drove off with (Joann) Ayotte about noon Saturday, Oct. 2 to check some buildings fitting the psychic’s suggestion. Nothing was found.
In contrast, new technology -- for the time period -- was brought to Beltrami County to locate Kevin.
A Grand Forks man, Dennis Bohn, flew a plane over the area on Friday, Oct.1, with a Thermo-Scan device to measure differentials in temperatures.
Given the wet ground and the cool, mid-40s temperature on Saturday, Bohn explained that anything warm would be noticeable.
“This is a perfect day to find anything in terms of it being wet and cool," Bohn said after landing between searches. “Anything out there sticks right out.”
Low temperatures, rain and the ever-increasing time since Kevin was last seen are, “making it tough, real tough,” Bohn said. “If the boy has died, it would take six to eight hours for the body heat to drop enough to lose an image, especially if he's not insulated by clothes.”
Without a trace
After days of searching, law enforcement and volunteers came up without a trace.
Then, on the sixth day of searching, Oct. 5, Flash the springer spaniel puppy, returned home. Alone.
The dog’s fur was combed carefully and a veterinarian pumped its stomach, hoping to find clues about Kevin. Aside from swamp grass, Flash hadn't eaten anything for days. Police put a tracking collar on the dog and let it go again, hoping it would lead them to Kevin, but Flash just kept returning home.
The investigation failed to locate Kevin or to determine exactly what led to his disappearance. An extensive nine-day search of the area turned up no signs of Kevin, not even his shoes or his diaper, both of which he apparently had a habit of discarding.
Since that time, the Ayotte family, retired law enforcement officials involved in the investigation, and active members who joined the sheriff's office have been haunted by this case.
There are many questions regarding Kevin’s disappearance, though the public has generally latched on to one of three theories:
An unknown person entered the home and abducted Kevin while his mother was outside.
Kevin wandered away from his home, became lost and died of exposure in the woodsy, boggy area around the house.
Kevin left the home on his own but then was abducted when wandering around.
However, due to the lack of evidence in his case, it was classified as a non-family abduction.
Years went by. Kevin’s parents relocated. The Beltrami County Sheriff's Office received tips that took investigators all over the country.
Kevin's picture was seen nationally on milk cartons when the Missing Children Milk Carton Program was founded in 1984. Before the milk carton campaign, there was no national database of missing children, and once the children left state lines, it was almost impossible to track them. With the creation of Amber Alerts in 1996, the milk carton ads became obsolete.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created several age progression pictures showing how Kevin might have looked as an older boy, teen, young man, and now, as an adult.
The case, while open, stayed relatively quiet and unchanged for decades. Then, in 2011 came a small ray of hope.
As Beltrami County Investigator Scott Hinners ran names through an investigative database, looking for new leads to investigate in the then-29-year-old case, the identity of Kevin Ayotte came up -- as an adult man in Michigan.
“A few weeks ago, Beltrami County Sheriff’s Investigator Scott Hinners reexamined the Kevin Jay Ayotte missing person case from 1982 and began running names from the case file through investigative databases. During this search, the investigator located an individual in Michigan using the same name, date of birth and Social Security number assigned to the missing Kevin Jay Ayotte from Beltrami County,” read a Bemidji Pioneer article from June 22, 2011.
As Hinners continued his investigation, he learned that Kevin’s mother and father also were living in Michigan in a town in the same region as the person using Kevin Ayotte’s name.
“Hinners, accompanied by a special agent from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, traveled to Michigan and began searching for the subject,” the article read. “With the help of local Michigan authorities, Beltrami County investigators located an individual who had stolen and assumed the identity of Kevin Jay Ayotte and used this new identity for financial purposes.”
The suspect was known to local authorities in Michigan, was interviewed by law enforcement authorities and admitted to identity theft.
Beltrami investigators returned to Bemidji after they made contact with Kevin’s parents in Michigan to discuss these developments in the case. Investigators determined it was a coincidence that Kevin’s parents were living in such close proximity to the suspect, and that the man was not involved with Kevin’s disappearance.
In recent years, Kevin’s case has been compared to others that have plagued Bemidji-area law enforcement for years, like the Anita Carlson murder from 1987.
Former Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp was quoted comparing Kevin’s case to the mysterious case of Matthew James Pulis in 2012.
"As time goes on, like in the Anita Carlson case and the Ayotte case, it frustrates not only family and officers in the beginning, but also the generation of officers that come behind that look into and follow up on all the leads that come over the course of the time," Hodapp said in a Pioneer article in August 2013. "The frustration is not being able to solve the riddle and bring a resolution."
In a cruel tease, Ayotte's social security number, tagged in a national database and marked for notification to police anytime it's used, has popped up at least once, Hodapp said. Unsolved cases provide feelings of regret not only to the cops who originally worked them but younger officers as well.
Kevin’s case has also made the rounds in local and national news every few years, most recently mentioned in a 2018 installment of KSTP’s Missing Minnesotans.
With a recent uptick in true crime media, it was only a matter of time before Kevin’s case was reexamined. His case was recently featured on the podcast, “Gone” which can be found on Spotify and is produced by Friends Against Abuse out of International Falls, Minn.
“The goal of the podcast is to give a voice to murdered and missing people in the U.S and Canada. We are asking for their stories from the people who know and love them in the hopes of shining a light on the victims and also calling attention to the case,” the podcast website reads. “We believe that someone, somewhere, knows something.”
Kevin’s case is still open. Anyone with information regarding the case is asked to contact the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Department or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.