GARY | An 8-year-old Calumet Township boy disappears and is found tortured and strangled, leaving police with a suspect they cannot arrest and an unsolved case that frustrated them for decades.
The investigation into Kenneth Conrick's bizarre murder is the crux of "Death of Innocence," a television program to air at 8 p.m. Sunday as part of the Investigation Discovery Channel's "Unusual Suspects" series.
It chronicles how Gary Police and the Lake County Sheriff's Department finally caught his killer, David B. Bowen, who is now serving a 50-year prison term at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.
Conrick didn't return home from the former Melton Elementary School on Oct. 15, 1979.
A search party found his body 13 days later in a wooded area near a Salvation Army center in a residential area near 48th and Harrison Street in a section of Calumet Township, just outside Gary's Glen Park section.
Even in a city where drug-related homicides are counted in the dozens, the crime's brutality and victim's youth sent shock waves through the community.
"When the murder occurred, I lived in Glen Park and remembered how the neighborhood was horrified," said former Lake Sheriff Roy Dominguez, who authorized the cold case investigation 30 years later.
"Kenny Conrick lived three doors away from where my sister used to live, and I remember her crying because the little boy used to come by her house and she used to give him cookies."
Case-hardened county detectives Thomas DeCanter Sr. and Ed Swike, now retired, recalled the scene vividly.
Police said the only clothing found on his body were his socks. His clothing was found nearby. One foot was bound to a tree. Shoe strings were tied to his wrist and a navy blue cord was around his neck.
A bloody tree limb apparently used to puncture his right lung was found nearby. Police said they boy died of strangulation and loss of blood from being sexually mutilated.
Officers wanted to find the killer so badly they worked off hours.
"They worked 16-hour days for a month," DeCanter said of investigators James Fedorchak and Daryl Longfellow.
"I took the little boy's picture," Swike said. "I'd gone around asking if anyone had seen him him the day he disappeared. By chance I asked a school crossing guard at 46th and Harrison and she said, 'Yeah I did. He was with the paper boy.'"
She identified David B. Bowen, 16, a Lew Wallace High School student, as the neighborhood paper carrier.
"At first, I had been looking for an adult male like everybody else," Swike said. "But we got an FBI profile that told us who we were looking for, a younger adult with a domineering mother.
Daryl and I went to their house at 5 p.m. that day. The father opened the door, let us in. His wife was in the kitchen making dinner. She came out asked us what we wanted; we said we wanted to speak to her son. She immediately told us where to sit down, and Daryl and I immediately knew what this was everything we were looking for."
They later learned Bowen had assaulted a 9-year-old more than a year before Conrick's homicide, but was never prosecuted because that victim's mother agreed not to press charges after Bowen underwent psychiatric treatment.
Bowen claimed he hadn't seen Kenneth on the day of his disappearance.
"Daryl and I ran him on a polygraph examination and he flunked it, and then he ran out of the office. We had to chase him down, brought him back, but his mother and father got an attorney and after that we couldn't talk to him anymore."
With no confession or evidence linking Bowen to the case, Swike said they had to back off, but they kept tabs on Bowen after he left the area and moved from Colorado and then the East Coast doing odd jobs.
Swike said police were left to chase false leads, including a Satanic cult.
"Cult members would meet at a brick house on the northeast corner of 45th and Grant. They just sacrificed animals, not young kids, but you've got to check all this out," Swike said.
A potential break happened in 1992 when a woman, who was initially anonymous but later identified as Bowen's sister Donna Oprish called Gary police and said she suspected her brother had killed the boy.
"My son (Thomas DeCanter Jr.) was on the desk," DeCanter said. "He heard about the call and knew I had worked the case so he called her back."
Although no action was immediately taken, DeCanter Jr. preserved his notes from the conversation and years later police collected Bowen family DNA from her in the hope of a match.
Dominguez, who served as sheriff from from 2003 to 2010, said Swike and former Gary Police Department Sgt. John Lashenik kept asking him to reopen Conrick's file.
Detective Shaw Spurlock began pulling together the investigation, including a sample of semen found by police technicians on a cord around the victim's body, which was linked to the Bowen family DNA sample.
It was enough to win a search warrant in 2007 to collect DNA directly from Bowen, who was then living in Maine. Police had their match, arrested Bowen, and he confessed, pleading guilty to forcing Conrick to perform sex acts before stabbing and cutting him with a piece of glass.
Bowen didn't offer any explanation for the crime.
"I don't know what was wrong with me when I was 16," he said at his sentencing. "Being a father now, I can't imagine someone doing something like that to my daughter. ... I killed him. I'm sorry."
He is serving a 50-year sentence in prison.
"I'm very happy we solved the case for his mom and family, and the killer isn't walking free among us anymore," Dominguez said.
"We got closure," Swike said.