One night about four years before Adam Herrman disappeared from his adoptive parents' Towanda home at age 11, Adam's uncle did something that haunts him, he says.
Over the years, Sam Bush said, he repeatedly saw his older sister, Valerie Herrman, scream and curse in Adam's face, slap him, strike him with a belt and throw him down. Sometimes, Bush said, he tried to intervene but backed away because he thought it would bring more abuse to Adam.
Valerie Herrman, now 52 and living in Derby, and her husband, Doug, 54, maintain that she loved Adam and that she is being wrongly and unfairly accused of abuse.
Doug Herrman said that Bush is lying.
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Late one night in 1995, Bush said, he was living with the Herrmans and found their oldest biological daughter, Crystal, sitting on the stairs of the family's Derby home. Crystal was crying.
"I can't take it anymore, what my mom's doing to Adam," he remembers her saying. Crystal was 17 or 18 then.
"I said, 'Crystal, I know what your mom's doing, but if you turn her in, do you realize the problems you're going to cause with you and your mom? Let's hope that it's going to stop, that she'll get better,' " Bush said in an interview Friday with The Eagle.
Bush, now 46, said he partly blames the state for the abuse he says Adam suffered.
"They saw the bruises," but did not permanently remove Adam from his adoptive parents' home, Bush said.
But Bush said he also blames adults in his family -- and "myself because I witnessed so much" and didn't report it.
"We should have done more. I don't blame Crystal" or her younger biological brother, Justin. "At the time, they were kids....
"I was the adult the night I went in there and Crystal was sitting on those stairs, and I talked her out of it."
Crystal, now 31, said Friday that she remembers being upset and having such a conversation with her uncle.
"I waited up to tell him that I was going to turn her in," said Crystal, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her children's privacy.
"Sam's my favorite uncle," she said, adding that she doesn't fault him for persuading her not to report her allegations.
"We kept praying it was going to get better," she said.
Finally, around this past Thanksgiving, Crystal reported her concerns to the state's child protection agency, uncovering Adam's 1999 disappearance and triggering an intense law enforcement investigation into what happened to him.
Doug Herrman said Friday that the account given by Bush and his daughter is wrong. He also said Bush didn't live with them during the period Bush said he did.
"He'd do anything to ruin us," Doug Herrman said.
"Everybody wants to hear dirt, and I'm sick of it," Doug Herrman said.
Deciding to speak out
Bush said he has shared his story with detectives investigating Adam's 1999 disappearance, and decided to speak out about Adam after he read what his sister said in an Eagle interview earlier this week -- that she loved Adam and that the allegations were lies.
Bush said that he lived with his sister and brother-in-law off and on since he was 17.
Doug Herrman wasn't abusive, Bush said.
"I've never seen Doug raise his hands or his voice at the kids," Bush said. "Matter of fact, he tried to stop Valerie.
"But Valerie, I've seen both mental and physical abuse" of Adam. He said he saw her "berating this child, cussing him out... screaming, 2 inches from his face, spit coming out of her mouth while she's doing this.
"You've got to understand: When Valerie did this... she would be like a totally different person. Her looks, her voice, her sound -- everything would change....
"Sometimes she'd use a belt. A lot of times, she'd use her hands. Just beat him, a lot of times for insignificant stuff. It was ridiculous."
One incident stands out, he said. It was the same house in Derby in 1995, when Adam would have been about 7.
Bush described it this way: He had come home from work and saw Adam folding laundry -- six to seven baskets full -- in the living room. Valerie Herrman was in the kitchen. Bush felt sorry for Adam and started to help him fold the laundry.
"Valerie comes in and starts screaming at me" and curses about Adam, Bush said.
"So she wouldn't let me help him."
From an adjacent room, Bush watched television and looked over at Adam, still folding. Adam's younger siblings came in and knocked over the folded stacks. Adam told them to stop it, which prompted Valerie Herrman to scream at Adam, telling him that she was the parent and not to tell his younger brother and sister what to do, Bush said.
"And she turned around, and he had all these stacks of (folded) clothes... and she went over there and knocked them over."
She told Adam to fold them again and cursed at him, Bush said.
Bush said his eyes met Adam's.
"He looked helpless," Bush said. "I felt so terrible, but I knew if I went in there again, I'd make it worse on him.
"Everybody had to walk on eggshells around Valerie. 'Don't get her all upset.' That's how the whole family treated her. 'Don't get Valerie to go off. It will cause a big, huge scene.' "
The Herrmans moved a lot around the Wichita area, from Derby to Towanda to Sedgwick and eventually back to Derby.
Adam was always being abused, Bush said. "There's been so many incidents, to put a date on it is kind of hard."
Valerie Herrman showed affection to Adam's younger siblings, also adopted, Bush said.
And she can be "the sweetest person," and he still loves her, he said.
"She's my sister. But I didn't like what she did."
The other children could eat snacks, but Adam wasn't allowed, Bush said.
"It was like Valerie had radar on that child. He could not move without her screaming at him for something.... So a lot of time he would not do anything but sit in a chair, while the other kids were playing... sit in a chair and watch."
Doug Herrman disputed Bush's description, saying, Adam "played plenty."
Bush said he saw Adam locked in the bathroom at Towanda and having to sleep in the bathtub. Other relatives have said they saw him locked in the bathroom in Derby, as well, before the move to Towanda, around 1998.
Valerie Herrman said Adam was kept in the bathroom on the advice of a psychiatrist after Adam threatened the family. She said she gave him a sleeping bag, blanket, sheet and pillow.
'Why didn't I do more?'
Bush said he last saw Adam around the spring of 1999 -- it was just starting to get warm -- at a Wichita church.
Later, Bush said his sister said Adam had been given back to the state "because we decided we couldn't handle him."
Bush said he felt "very relieved" that Adam was no longer with Valerie Herrman.
He said he thought to himself: "He's going to get over the bruises, but the mental damage she was doing to him was terrible."
Bush only recently learned that Adam disappeared nearly a decade ago, and that his parents now say he ran away after Valerie Herrman spanked him. The Herrmans say they feared that the spanking and Adam's running away would prompt authorities to take their other children away.
Now, Bush said, "I pray that Adam's going to come forward. But I think all the family's prepared that something terrible probably happened to him."
Bush said he had a message to share: "If you see a family member abusing their children, turn them in. Don't sit there and be going through what our family is going through.
"I've sat here, constantly thinking: 'Why didn't I do more? Why didn't I do more?' Because I thought it would go away, it would stop. I love my sister. I can't turn her in."