TOWANDA — Based on a tip from out of state, authorities spent several hours Wednesday digging at an empty mobile home lot where 11-year-old Adam Herrman disappeared a decade ago. Workers and investigators -- using a massive excavator and shovels -- dug, probed and sifted soil from under and around a shed that Adam's adoptive father installed around the time Adam was last seen in 1999. The investigators watched closely as the hole grew. They used a "sniffer," a device that can detect gases emitting from a body.
But after nearly six hours of searching in a bitterly cold wind, Butler County Sheriff Craig Murphy said they found no remains of Adam, whose disappearance was only recently discovered.
"We're done here," Murphy said shortly after 1:30 p.m. at the Pine Ridge mobile home park on the south edge of Towanda.
But the investigation is far from over, he said.
Without elaborating, Murphy said investigators found "some things," including trash, in the dig. They removed what looked like a plastic bag or plastic sheeting. He said the material will be analyzed to see if it is connected to Adam.
Murphy wouldn't discuss the tip that led to the search.
Sam Bush -- the brother of Adam's adoptive mother, Valerie Herrman -- said he wonders if he is the source of the tip.
Bush, who recently moved back to the Wichita area from South Dakota, said he told detectives investigating Adam's disappearance that he remembers visiting the Towanda home when Adam's adoptive father, Doug Herrman, had just poured a concrete pad for the shed -- around the time Adam disappeared.
Bush said he remembers that the slab was so thick and stout, he asked Doug Herrman: "You going to drive a semi on that?"
Bush and the Herrmans' biological son, Justin Herrman, said the couple built the shed to store a mower. Valerie Herrman was the park manager. Justin Herrman said he thought his father was responsible for mowing grass at the park.
In an interview with The Eagle last week, Doug and Valerie Herrman said that Adam ran away in early May 1999 after she spanked him with a belt, that they searched for him but he never returned, and that they didn't report him missing because they feared the spanking would lead authorities to take Adam and two younger adopted siblings from them.
For years, relatives of the Herrmans said, the couple told them that Adam had gone back to state custody because he was too difficult to handle. Then, around Thanksgiving, their biological daughter, Crystal, asked the state for information about Adam, leading to the discovery that he was missing.
She asked that her last name not be used to protect the privacy of her children.
Bush, Justin Herrman and his sister, Crystal, have accused Valerie Herrman of abusing Adam for years before he disappeared.
Valerie Herrman, 52, and Doug Herrman, 54, who now live in Derby, have denied the allegations.
After the search Wednesday, the couple's attorney, Warner Eisenbise of Wichita, said, "My clients firmly deny having anything to do regarding harm of any nature to the young man."
The dig begins
Wednesday's search began about 8 a.m. when investigators had the metal shed, which is about the width of a one-car detached garage, unbolted from its concrete pad and lifted out of the way by the excavator.
About 8:15 a.m., the excavator gripped and lifted the slab.
About 9 a.m., Peer Moore-Jansen, chairman of the anthropology department at Wichita State University, arrived, accompanied by several younger people.
On Saturday, Moore-Jansen and his students assisted in a search for the boy along the Whitewater River on the west side of Towanda.
A few minutes after 9, the excavator took some of its first scoops. Twenty minutes later, it stopped, and some of the men started digging and probing with shovels.
At times, Moore-Jansen stepped into the hole and picked up something, holding it close to his face.
About 9:40, two people raked through soil that had been removed from the hole and deposited in the lot, enclosed by a wooden privacy fence, where the Herrmans' mobile home once sat.
By 9:50, a man stood down in the hole and held a device with a yellow handle and flexible snout. Murphy said later that it was the "sniffer."
At 10, investigators brought out what looked like torn pieces of plastic bags or plastic sheeting that had been unearthed from the hole.
At 10:05, Murphy got rubber boots from the trunk of his unmarked car and put them on.
By 10:15, the hole had grown to waist-deep. Thirty minutes later, it was shoulder deep.
Shortly before 11, Murphy walked over to give his first briefing of the day to reporters. "It's obvious to you guys what we're looking for," he said. "Whether we find it or not, I can't tell you."
He said the investigation has generated publicity and tips from across the nation.
Speaking of the excavation, he said, "We have not found anything to tell us it is Adam -- at this point."
Investigators were digging under where the shed sat and several feet to the west of that spot, he said.
"This lot was the last place he was seen," Murphy said of Adam.
In a search at the mobile home park on New Year's Eve, investigators drilled into the shed's concrete pad and did some probing, Murphy said.
By 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, the hole extended to the west of where the shed sat, and investigators stood on a mound of freshly dug earth behind the wooden fence. The excavator kept scooping.
'A long shot'
At 1:35 p.m., Murphy stepped over to reporters and said the search was about to end.
No human remains had been found, he said.
"From here, we're going to be moving on, evaluating the case," he said.
He said he has heard some people say that the investigation has gone "cold."
"It is not cold," he said. "It's very active. It's going to stay active, and it's going to come to a conclusion, sooner or later."
Later, he added: "We would like to find remains, but it's a long shot.... It's been 10 years now."
Asked to clarify that statement, Murphy said that authorities have not ruled out the possibility that Adam is still alive.
Adam would be 21 now. Authorities have released a computer-generated photograph of what he might look like today.
The hole that drew so much attention earlier Wednesday was being filled in by the late afternoon.