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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Adoptive parents of missing boy Adam Herrman to go to trial in theft case

BY TIM POTTER
The Wichita Eagle

A subplot in the Adam Herrman mystery — the story of an 11-year-old boy who disappeared in 1999 — is about to reach a climax.

On June 21, Adam's adoptive parents, Valerie and Doug Herrman, will go on trial in Butler County District Court in El Dorado. Each faces a felony theft charge alleging that they collected an adoption subsidy for Adam's care during some of the years after he disappeared.

Even though the trial will draw news coverage, it is Adam's disappearance that has drawn the national attention.

It is his disappearance that has the new sheriff saying he is still determined to find the boy's remains and hold someone accountable.

There has been no trace of Adam since 1999, when he vanished at age 11 from a Towanda mobile home park where he lived with his adoptive family. Relatives said Valerie Herrman told them that Adam, who was being home-schooled, had been returned to state custody.

Authorities didn't learn of his disappearance until late 2008, only after his adoptive sister came forward, expressing concerns about him. The discovery that he had been missing prompted investigators to dig for his remains in the mobile home park and to probe along the nearby Whitewater River in early 2009.

After the case became public, close relatives of Valerie Herrman accused her of abusing the boy. She denied their allegations.

She told The Eagle that Adam ran away after she spanked him and that she and her husband didn't report him missing because they feared losing custody of their other children.

In 2009, the prosecutor at the time, Jan Satterfield, said the Herrmans were suspects in his disappearance. Satterfield, who has since been elected to a judgeship, also had said the investigation was being treated as a potential murder case. Since then, no such charges have been filed.

In a recent interview about the case, Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet said, "It's still near and dear to my heart, and I want to continue to keep working the case, and I want to get it resolved."

Herzet had been the lead investigator in the case before recently being appointed sheriff, replacing Craig Murphy.

"I want to get people convicted, and I want to find Adam's remains," Herzet said. "I think we owe that to the family ... and to Adam."

Darrin Devinney, who was appointed county attorney earlier this year to succeed Satterfield, said the disappearance remains an "active missing person's investigation."

Although the disappearance has loomed over the theft case, the trial on the theft charges will not deal with Adam's fate, said Devinney, who will prosecute the theft charges.

The trial, scheduled for three days beginning June 21, will focus on the question of whether the Herrmans engaged in a scheme to continue to receive adoption subsidies for Adam.

Amended charges filed by Satterfield allege that the Herrmans accepted $15,488 from November 2003 until July 8, 2005.

The original felony theft charges accused the couple of collecting $52,800 between May 1, 1999, and July 8, 2005.

The Herrmans, now in their mid-50s, have moved to Oklahoma, according to court documents.

They have pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Asked why the charges were amended — involving a shorter time frame and less money — Devinney said the decision was based on the strongest evidence available.

The Herrmans waived their right to a preliminary hearing, so there has been no public preview of the state's evidence.

Devinney said he has spoken about the disappearance investigation with Murphy, the former sheriff, and Herzet and has spent weeks reviewing the investigation.

A thick set of the case files remains on his desk, he said.

"The case looms on my credenza every day that I walk into my office."

Although Satterfield had said that she was considering an effort to take the disappearance evidence to a grand jury, Devinney said he would not be ready to present the case to a grand jury because of unanswered questions in the investigation.

He wouldn't elaborate.

"If it was ready to be filed, we'd file it," he said.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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