EL DORADO — Doug and Valerie Herrman appeared in court Friday to hear theft charges accusing them of fraudulently receiving an adoption subsidy for their son Adam for years after he disappeared.
But still looming over the theft charges is an ongoing investigation into what happened to Adam. In the past, Butler County Attorney Jan Satterfield has described the couple as suspects in their adopted son's disappearance. There has been no trace of him since he vanished at age 11 in 1999, when the Herrmans lived in a Towanda mobile home park.
After the brief hearing Friday, Satterfield said she is treating the investigation as a potential first-degree murder case with an underlying crime of child abuse.
Standing at her side was Kevin O'Connor, recently made special prosecutor in the 19-month-old investigation involving Adam.
"It has to be a thorough investigation, and there's no need to rush... this little boy has been missing for a long time,'' O'Connor said.
The investigation is leaving "no stone unturned," said O'Connor, a former deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County.
Satterfield reiterated her plan to request that a grand jury be convened within the next couple of months so it can hear evidence and consider issuing indictments.
During Friday's hearing, Judge John Sanders scheduled a Sept. 23 preliminary hearing for the Herrmans on the theft charges.
The charges, filed earlier this month, are related to the alleged fraudulent receipt of $52,800 in government assistance for Adam's care.
The couple continued to submit subsidy forms saying the boy lived in their home and continued to claim him as a dependent on income tax returns and in court documents for six years after his disappearance, the charges state.
The Herrmans have been able to remain free after each posted a $50,000 bond on the theft charges.
Their new, court-appointed attorneys declined to comment Friday.
In applying for court-appointed attorneys, the couple filed affidavits saying their income and assets are limited.
Doug Herrman, 56, and Valerie Herrman, 54, said in the affidavits that they live in a mobile home park in Grove, Okla., and that his job pays about $1,440 a month. She said she has been unemployed for 1 1/2 years. She said she has received food stamps in the past six months.
They listed a 21-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son as dependents.
She said their 1970 mobile home is valued at $5,000 and that they owe $15,000 on a 2008 Mitsubishi.
Although Adam disappeared in 1999, authorities didn't learn of his disappearance until late 2008.
The Herrmans adopted Adam when he was about 2. He would be 23 now.
In an interview with The Eagle early last year, Valerie Herrman said that in early May 1999, Adam ran away and didn't return after she spanked him with a belt. She said she didn't report him missing because she feared it would cause her and her husband to lose custody of Adam and their other children.
Relatives said that Valerie Herrman told them that Adam, who was being home-schooled, had been returned to state custody.
His disappearance became known after his older, adoptive sister said she tried to find him partly because she was concerned about the way he had been treated growing up.
After she expressed her concerns about him to authorities, Butler County sheriff's investigators began digging in the Towanda mobile home park, searching for human remains. Using search dogs, they also probed in woods along the Whitewater River.
No remains have been found, authorities said.