By Michael Romain
On April 16, an Amber Alert went out for one-year-old Bryeon Hunter. The baby’s mother, LaKesha Baker, claimed he was abducted by three Hispanic men in an SUV, but the mother’s story quickly unraveled. Less than a week after Hunter went missing, Baker and her boyfriend, Michael Scott, were charged with first-degree murder. Based on information obtained from the suspects during interrogation, authorities took to searching the Des Plaines River for Hunter’s body. But nearly a month after the child’s disappearance, his body was yet to be found.
To those who have never waded through its murkiness, the Des Plaines River may seem placid enough, nothing more than a liquid pause in a loud concrete landscape–at least until provoked and its background placidity turns intrusive.
On April 18, the Des Plaines flooded. Heavy rains had swollen the river twenty feet above its typical crest, swallowing up the rush and bustle of boulevards and bridges, flooding basements – including that of the home in which Hunter was allegedly beaten by Baker and Scott until he was limp and lifeless. He had reportedly proved difficult to potty-train.
As a result of the torrential rains, the Village’s Public Works Department was called in to pump out the deluged basement of Hunter’s home so that the evidence-gathering could proceed apace. Several massive, coordinated search operations were conducted by the Maywood Police Department, the Illinois Search and Rescue Council and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. By May 10, Maywood Police Chief Tim Curry reported, “Under the conditions of the swelling and the flow of the river, it’s unlikely that we’ll recover anything.”
Four days after the Chief’s prognosis, Robert Larson, owner of K-9 Specialties in Westchester, was out kayaking. “I’m not a kayaker. I bought it for this mission,” he said. His mission was to find Bryeon. He’d been out with his two dogs, a Yellow Labrador and a German Shepherd, for ten to twelve hours a day over the past thirty days, zealously trekking through mud up to his knees, picking through piles of debris, not quite shaking the hunch he’d had all along.
“The very initial breath my dogs took was right at the bridge by McDonald’s,” he said. He believes that Baker and Scott may have thrown the body from the bridge at 1st and Lake while traveling 25-30 mph. “[The body] was going forward, which put it toward the shoreline […] I told them [the authorities] from the start where that body was going to be when I found it.”
But Larson’s brash persistence didn’t go over well with some of the search officials. The day before the torrential rains, the chief commander of the search party suggested on Larson’s Facebook page that he “leave the searching to those trained and certified.” Larson responded, “I did that and nothing is being done.” The commander assured Larson that “trained resources are being used […] when civilians with untrained resources get involved it hampers prosecution and investigation.”
Larson, who specializes in training search and rescue dogs, said that after receiving the post, he stepped down for the day and went to his son’s baseball practice. “When they were done, I continued my search.”
“I’d been on foot everyday except for [the day he found Hunter],” he said. “That day, I left my dogs at home so I could search the river through all those piles of debris that you can’t get to on the river bank.” Hence, his purchase of the plastic kayak. From its banks or from a bridge, the Des Plaines river tricks one into thinking that its a “picnic area,” Larson said. “But up close it looks like a war zone.”
“The water’s extremely murky, it’s flowing fast, mud to my knees out there […] piles of debris all the way down. Every standing tree has a pile of debris pushed up against it. Anything you can think of – garbage, sticks, branches, grills, patio furniture, you name it.”
On May 9, Larson posted on Facebook: “NO CHILD DESERVES THIS…OUR CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE BUT SOCIETY IS CONSTANTLY KILLING THEM.” This insightful attribution of blame is as effusive as the river. It is all-encompassing and true, but impractical, which reveals less the failure of Larson’s analysis than the failure of this society to even take it into account.
The question of who killed Bryeon Hunter is incomplete if we consistently leave out the what (or the whats), which is why the account of Larson’s discovery is more than just symbolically significant. “Where I found the boy was in one of those piles. I didn’t think it would make it through that debris, but sure enough it got caught up in it.”
Larson’s kayak was moving fast with the dirty current when he caught wind of a putrid odor coming from one of the piles. “It was unclothed and decomposing, face up in the water. When I encountered him I was no more than three feet away.” Larson had to double back to verify that what he’d just seen was indeed more than a thing among a wasteland of abandoned things. “I could see his teeth, face, arms, hand,” he said.
Larson’s discovery was the culmination of a month of all-encompassing dedication. He says that he was motivated by what he perceived to be a lack of the professionals to do enough. “I saw a posting on Facebook that morning,” he said of the day he first decided to become involved. He saw the formal investigation and search efforts unfold and was unsatisfied. “I figured this is right around the corner from my house,” he said.
In fairness, Maywood Police Chief Tim Curry said that Larson never contacted him about his voluntary efforts. Curry said he only spoke to Larson when he congratulated him on discovering the body and that, instead of contacting Maywood police after his discovery, Larson contacted Cook County. Moreover, the Maywood Police Department received wide praise from Maywood residents and public officials for its handling of the case.
So far, I’ve received no reports of volunteers being spurned by the Maywood Police after presenting their willingness to assist with the search efforts. Most indications of which I’m aware point to either a lack of volunteers who presented themselves to the police or a disconnect between those leading the massive, inter-agency searches, such as the chief commander who posted on Larson’s Facebook page, and Larson himself, who claims that he led a motley crew of up to 75 intrepid volunteers throughout his 30 days of looking.
If anything, there seems to have been a lack of foresight on the part of the chief commander, who blindly dismissed the training of a man who trains search and rescue dogs for a living (his company’s name, K-9 Specialties, is on Larson’s Facebook page, so it boggles the mind how the chief could have failed to see it). The chief commander could not be reached for comment.
But this is delving in mere intrigue. The larger issue is what happened when Robert Larson got to the river. “When you walk down from that bridge, you can’t accept that being a little boy’s final resting place,” he said. And he didn’t–despite sacrificing his time and risking personal harm. And for that, he’s a hero. But what does it say of us — of everyone — that we’ve turned rivers into virtual war zones? And that the conditions that bred Bryeon’s tragedy in the first place (the impersonal, social conditions, take your pick) remain solidly in place?
Bryeon Hunter and the Des Plaines River are both victims of systemic abuses that won’t get rectified by jailing individual perpetrators or hailing individual heroes. Society itself (which means everyone) has to summon its inner Robert Larson and be willing to walk down from the comfort and safety of our constructed illusions and wade into the water of the real.
The Village of Maywood plans on formally recognizing Mr. Larson at its next board meeting on May 21, 2013. Until then, the residents of Maywood would like to extend our greatest thanks to Mr. Larson’s courageous efforts.