Butler County's chief prosecutor said Friday that the adoptive parents of 11-year-old Adam Herrman are suspects in his 1999 disappearance and that the investigation could result in murder charges.
Referring to Doug and Valerie Herrman, Butler County Attorney Jan Satterfield said, "They are the suspects in this case."
In her first public comments about the case during an interview with The Eagle, Satterfield said that although searches have not found any human remains, there is potential for charges of first-degree felony murder, with the underlying crime being child abuse.
Last week - a few days after Adam's disappearance at age 11 became publicly known - several of Valerie Herrman's close relatives accused her of abusing Adam over the years. She denies the allegations.
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Although investigators have not ruled out the possibility that Adam is alive, detectives have found "no indication that he exists out there," Satterfield said.
No charges have been filed against the Herrmans. Valerie Herrman's attorney , Warner Eisenbise of Wichita, has also said that she denies harming Adam. He declined further comment Friday.
Wichita lawyer Dan Monnat said Friday that his law firm is now representing Doug Herrman. Monnat declined further comment.
Satterfield's comments Friday came during a telephone interview about her attempt to keep the state child-protection agency from releasing to the media any records about Adam. Those records would include any allegations of him being abused.
Satterfield said that public disclosure would reveal witnesses and interfere with the investigation into Adam's disappearance.
On Thursday, a judge in Butler County granted a temporary order prohibiting the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services from releasing records about Adam that "touch upon alleged acts of neglect or child abuse directed towards Adam Herrman." A hearing on whether the prohibition will continue has been set for March 1.
History of the case
Adam, who would be 21 now, came to the Herrmans as a foster son when he was a toddler. They later adopted him.
SRS has confirmed that a few years before Adam disappeared, he spent two days at the Wichita Children's Home, then was returned home. Valerie Herrman said Adam was temporarily removed from his home after she spanked him with a belt and a counselor saw bruises.
Then, late last year, one of the relatives took her concerns about Adam to authorities, leading to the discovery that he had been missing for nearly 10 years.
The Herrmans said in an Eagle interview that he ran away in early May 1999 and didn't return after Valerie Herrman spanked him with a belt - and that they did not report it because they feared the spanking would lead authorities to take Adam and two younger siblings from them. Valerie Herrman, now 52 and living with her 54-year-old husband in Derby, said she loved Adam and misses him.
On Wednesday, investigators excavated part of the Towanda mobile home lot where Adam had lived with the Herrmans around the time he disappeared. They did not find human remains.
On Friday, Satterfield said, "We'd like to confirm his death and identify his body."
Blocking the records
The Eagle has sought SRS records on Adam under an exception in the law that allows the information to be disclosed when a child dies or nearly dies and it is related to abuse or neglect.
SRS spokeswoman Michelle Ponce said the agency had been prepared to release information about Adam based on the Butler County Sheriff's Office treating his disappearance as a homicide investigation.
But Satterfield said: "I think it's prudent for law enforcement and my office to review the records that are proposed to be released and identify potential witnesses and take statements before they're disseminated to the general public because we are looking at potential child abuse charges" and potential felony murder charges. Such charges can come, she said, when there is evidence of a murder committed in the process of an "inherently dangerous felony" such as child abuse.
Blocking the release of SRS records is "not in an effort for the public not to know," Satterfield said.
"We just don't want that investigation compromised in any way."
In another document filed Thursday in Butler County District Court, the Wichita Clinic objected to any release of Adam's SRS file, saying it contains records with "personal health information protected by the physician-patient privilege" and federal law.
The clinic said it has "not received proof, notice, or the suggestion of death of Adam Herrman from law enforcement."
Satterfield said the purpose of the investigation is "to search for Adam and at the same time to determine if Adam is dead, or any facts that might lead us to potential homicide charges."
'An interesting tip'
Also Friday, Butler County Sheriff Craig Murphy said detectives received an interesting tip Thursday, but he wouldn't elaborate.
Murphy described it as "an interesting tip that has created some questions for us that have got to be answered."
He said detectives don't plan any searches for Adam's remains in the near future but are continuing to investigate and seek tips.
Anyone with information about Adam can call investigators at 316-322-8817 or e-mail investigators at firstname.lastname@example.org, Murphy said.