In hindsight, Adam Herrman's adoptive brother-in-law says, he feels guilty for not calling police about an incident he says he witnessed a year or so before the boy disappeared.
Back then, the brother-in-law said, he was upset and confused -- but did not call authorities -- over an incident at a Derby house where Adam lived with his adoptive parents before moving to Towanda.
Adam, who was 10 or 11 at the time, grasped his arm and asked for help, the brother-in-law said. His first name is Steven; he asked that his last name not be used to protect his children's privacy.
Late last year, Steven learned that Adam has been missing since 1999. The discovery that he has been missing for a decade has triggered an investigation in which the Butler County prosecutor has said that Adam's adoptive parents, Doug and Valerie Herrman, are suspects and that murder charges are possible, based on an underlying crime of a child abuse.
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Doug and Valerie Herrman and their lawyers say they are innocent.
'Steven, help me'
Steven, now 40, said the incident occurred at a duplex in the 300 block of South Willow. He said he was visiting his in-laws' duplex and went to use a basement bathroom. But the light wouldn't turn on because the bulb had been removed.
As he was closing the bathroom door, from inside the bathroom, a small hand grasped his arm, he said.
"Steven, help me," the person said, in a flat tone, he said.
Steven said he realized it was Adam.
He said he had Adam move over to a lighted area in the basement and told him to sit in a recliner.
Steven said he saw a yellowish bruise around Adam's eye and scratches of more than an inch long on the boy's face. The scratches appeared to be healing.
He didn't visit the house very often and didn't remember seeing injuries on Adam before, he said.
Describing his feelings at the time, Steven said, "I just didn't understand. Why's he asking for help? Why's he in the bathroom" -- in the dark?
"Maybe I should have sat down and talked to him a little longer," he said.
Steven said he told Adam to stay there and went outside to talk to Doug Herrman, who was working by the garage.
Steven said he was upset. He said he told Doug Herrman something like, "You need to fix this, or I'm calling the police."
Days later, Steven said, Doug Herrman told him that he, Valerie and Adam were attending counseling sessions and that everything was OK.
Steven said that at the time he felt assured that the situation was resolved.
Later, when he saw Adam, "He looked fine."
'She's very caring'
Some of Valerie Herrman's close relatives have accused her of abusing Adam over the years.
She told The Eagle that she sometimes kept Adam in a bathroom, on the advice of a psychiatrist, after he threatened the family.
Her attorney, Warner Eisenbise, declined to comment on Steven's account of his visit to the Derby duplex.
Eisenbise defended Valerie Herrman, saying, "I've gotten to know Valerie very well. She's very emotional. She's very caring." He said he expects there could be character witnesses who would say that "she baby sat their children, and she was wonderful. She's not the evil person" that some of her relatives have described, he said.
Dan Monnat, whose law firm is representing Doug Herrman, also declined to comment on Steven's account but defended his client. "Doug Herrman is innocent of causing any harm to Adam Herrman," Monnat said.
At the storm shelter
Months after the incident at the duplex, Steven said that he and his wife, Crystal, who is the Herrmans' oldest biological child, moved to a Towanda mobile home park. The Herrmans had moved there from Derby, and Valerie Herrman managed the park.
Steven and his wife lived a few lots from the Herrmans.
Steven said he remembers tornado sirens sounding twice while they lived there. The first time, he saw Adam with others gathered in the park's storm shelter. The shelter sat next to the lot where the Herrmans' manufactured home sat.
Weeks later, when the tornado siren sounded again, Steven said he didn't see Adam at the shelter. He said someone asked Valerie Herrman where Adam was. She said Adam was at home because he was "being bad," Steven said.
Steven said it angered him because he thought Adam would have been at risk if a tornado hit.
In an Eagle interview, Valerie Herrman said Adam ran away in the first week of May 1999 after she spanked him with a belt. Adam was 11 at the time. The Herrmans have said they searched for Adam but couldn't find him. Valerie Herrman said they didn't report Adam missing because they feared the spanking would have caused authorities to take him and his younger siblings into state custody.
Relatives have said that the Herrmans explained Adam's absence by saying that he had gone back to state custody.
In late 2008, Steven's wife, Crystal, took her concerns about Adam's welfare to authorities in Sedgwick County. She had searched the Internet but had not been able to locate Adam. After authorities checked, they determined that Adam has been missing since 1999.
Steven said that after his wife brought her concerns to authorities, he told investigators about the incident at the Derby house.