EL DORADO — When Doug and Valerie Herrman pleaded guilty Friday to felony theft — for continuing to accept a state subsidy to help them care for their adoptive son after he vanished — it resolved part of the case surrounding the missing boy.
Unresolved is the question of what happened to Adam Herrman, the 11-year-old who disappeared without a trace from the Herrmans' Towanda mobile home in May 1999.
Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet said Friday, after the Herrmans pleaded guilty to the theft charge, that he has concluded one thing about the disappearance: "Did he (Adam) walk away? No, he didn't walk away. Something happened to that boy in that trailer in Towanda, Kansas, and Doug and Valerie Herrman know."
Herzet, who was the lead investigator on the disappearance case before becoming sheriff earlier this year, said, "I'm still focused on working this case as a homicide. The Herrmans still are, in my eyes, suspects, and we're going to continue to work the case as the leads come in, and I hope we can resolve the case in the very near future and arrests are made."
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The way he views it, Herzet said, is "any homicide case is life-touching," and more so when it involves a child.
"In your heart, you know something's happened to this boy," he said.
It has now been more than two years since Butler County sheriff's detectives learned of Adam's disappearance and began investigating it. They've searched for his remains along riverbanks, dug up the Herrmans' former mobile home lot, interviewed person after person, chased leads, amassed boxes of documents, and still found no trace of Adam.
The Herrmans have not been charged with harming Adam, and Valerie Herrman has denied allegations from some of her close relatives that she abused the boy.
Mike Brown, Doug Herrman's attorney in the theft case, said when told of the sheriff's comments, "I'm not in position to comment." Chris Pate, Valerie Herrman's attorney in the theft case, declined to comment.
In Butler County District Court on Friday, Doug Herrman, 56, and Valerie Herrman, 54, each pleaded guilty to a felony charge that they collected an adoption subsidy for their son's care after he vanished.
The couple had been scheduled to face a three-day trial on the theft charge next week.
The charge alleged a scheme by which they continued to collect a monthly adoption subsidy for Adam, who the county attorney has said is the subject of an open missing person's investigation.
Authorities didn't learn that he was missing until late 2008, when his older, adoptive sister came forward to share concerns about him.
Under a plea agreement, the Herrmans pleaded guilty to the same amended charge they had been facing.
The agreement recommends 12 months of probation, but it will be up to the judge to determine the sentence.
Judge David Ricke said that depending on the extent of any criminal history the Herrmans might have, they could face from five to 17 months in prison and a fine of up to $100,000 when they are sentenced on Aug. 1.
The agreement also calls for the Herrmans to pay $15,488 in restitution, the amount they pleaded guilty to wrongly accepting.
Also under the agreement, they would each pay a $2,500 fine.
The charge alleged that the Herrmans accepted the subsidy from November 2003 until July 8, 2005, a month after Adam would have turned 18.
When Ricke asked Doug Herrman what he did to be guilty of the charge, Herrman responded: "I kept money that I was not entitled to."
Herrman said he and his wife adopted Adam in 1993 and that he lived with them until May 1999, when he disappeared. He had been in home school.
The Herrmans have previously said that Adam ran away from their Towanda home after Valerie Herrman spanked him and that they didn't report him missing because they feared it would cause them to lose custody of him and their other children.
Doug Herrman told the judge that the adoption subsidy from the state was to help him and his wife care for Adam. He described the boy as a "special needs" child who had "mental problems."
Doug Herrman admitted that the couple was receiving the subsidy although Adam was no longer living with them or in their care. Herrman also admitted that the couple didn't report to the state that Adam was missing.
When Ricke asked Doug Herrman where Adam could have been in the years after he disappeared, Herrman said he didn't know.
The couple initially received a $304 monthly subsidy for Adam, which grew to $704 monthly by the period from 2003 to 2005 for which the couple were charged, Doug Herrman said.
Under the original theft charges, the couple had been accused of wrongly collecting $52,800 between May 1, 1999, and July 8, 2005. But the charges were amended to accuse them of taking $15,488 from November 2003 until July 8, 2005, when the couple was living in Rose Hill. The evidence for the smaller amount and the shorter time frame was stronger than the evidence for the higher amount and the longer time frame, said the prosecutor, Butler County Attorney Darrin Devinney.
The Herrmans told Ricke they are living in Grove, Okla., and working for a Tyson chicken plant. Doug Herrman said he works in production; Valerie Herrman said she works as a wing packer.
After the hearing, the Herrmans and their attorneys offered no comment. The couple held hands as they walked to their car, followed by news crews.
Outside the courthouse, Devinney told reporters that he couldn't comment much on Adam's disappearance but said he considers the Herrmans to be suspects in their son's disappearance. Devinney was appointed county attorney and sworn in earlier this year after his predecessor, Jan Satterfield, was elected to a judgeship. Satterfield also has said she considered the couple suspects in the missing person's case.
Devinney said he considers the disappearance case to be a priority as much as Satterfield did, "if not more."