In Sugar Bush Township, Minnesota, a 3-year-old boy named Kevin Jay Ayotte and his dog went missing almost 40 years ago. Just the dog would come back. A family member said that the last time they saw him, he was playing upstairs with his older brother in their summer home, which was an old family hunting cabin. When their mother went outside for a moment to hang up some laundry, Kevin was gone when she came back. Still in the house was his brother. Kevin is developmentally disabled and has trouble hearing. Because of this, he didn’t have a lot of speech skills when he went missing.
What happened to Kevin?
It is a question that has plagued the Beltrami County town of Sugar Bush for decades.
As part of the cold-case series “The Vault” by Forum News Service, the Bemidji Pioneer recently reviewed the unresolved case in its archives. The search for Kevin was one of the biggest topics at the time in Bemidji, and it dominated the news for over a week.
On the last day of September
The last time anyone saw Kevin was on the penultimate day of September in 1982, a bright autumn afternoon.
Kevin Ayotte and his older brother, Terry, were upstairs in their remote Sugar Bush Township family home, which was surrounded by dense forests and bog. At 4:45 p.m., Kevin was playing with some toys in his mother’s bedroom while Terry was making his bed.
Joann, the mother of the boys, went outdoors for a moment. When she returned, Terry was still in the house, but Kevin had vanished.
Flash, the 6-month-old springer spaniel puppy belonging to the family, was also missing. Another older brother had ridden his bicycle to a friend’s house.
Kevin “probably went off” with his dog from the family home at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, and his mother, Joann, reported him missing just after 7:00 p.m.
‘A large many, many acres for one small boy to be lost’
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Kevin stood 4 feet tall and weighed 50 pounds at the time of his disappearance. His hair was blonde, his eyes are blue, and he had a scar on the right side of his chin. Additionally, he was non-verbal and hard of hearing.
Kevin, who was born on May 12, 1979, resided in Sugar Bush Township with his mother and two older siblings around 18 miles east of Bemidji and 10 miles north of U.S. Highway 2 According to data from the 1980 U.S. Census, Sugar Bush had 121 residents in 1980.
The township encompasses 31.5 square miles and is almost entirely surrounded by the Chippewa National Forest or the Buena Vista State Forest, which are home to portions of at least nine lakes.
The top-right corner of the Friday, October 1, 1982 edition of the Pioneer read, “Searchers scour the woods for a missing youngster.” Brad Swenson, the then-politics editor of the Pioneer, penned the first article about the case.
Swenson cited former Beltrami County Sheriff Tom Tolman, who described the preliminary hunt for Kevin, in the story.
“The hunt for a lost boy, who had been missing for seven hours from his rural Sugar Bush Township home, continued fast before midnight. Sheriff Tolman confirmed late Thursday night that approximately 30 law enforcement personnel and volunteers remained searching for 3-year-old Kevin Ayotte, who was reported missing by his mother, Joann Ayotte.
That nighttime, rescuers were confronted with dense woods, bogs, and a creek, and they were using flashlights to locate the youngster before the temperature dropped below 30 degrees.
Sheriff Tolman, who was coordinating search efforts from the Law Enforcement Center, told the Pioneer, “It does not have to be below freezing for a 3-year-old to die.” He stated that a “minimum force” would continue the search throughout the night, but that a portion of the large force of “township people, neighbors, and volunteers” would be withdrawn for the night in order to balance manpower for a morning search.
“I’ll stay up as late as I dare all night,” Tolman added, adding that nine county cops were present at the event, which took place approximately 20 miles east of the Bemidji Town and Country Club on County Road 20.
Tolman characterized the region as a huge, open field on the Ayotte land that slopes to the north branch of the Turtle River. At the river are “floating bogs and a large, extremely wide, and icy brook,” he explained. Five to six square miles of thicket are located approximately 200 feet north of the residence.
Sheriff: “It’s a wide, enormous expanse for a young boy to go lost.” “The odds are not favourable for a young child. At this time, though, some of our staff will be there throughout the night.”
At the time, Tolman indicated that no leads had developed. No sign of the dog or the youngster had been found, and no tracks of either had been discovered.
The sheriff’s department pleaded for flashlight-wielding volunteers, but eventually stated that they had enough because extra volunteers would hinder the search.
Thursday around 11 p.m., Tolman stated, “All we can do is await further developments.” “We’re having a prolonged celebration tonight. There are an enormous number of acres there.”
The search continues
The Sunday, October 3 issue of the Pioneer was crammed to the brim with articles regarding the case, with the title “Where is Kevin?” “Efforts to locate the missing youngster are ‘frustrating,'” and “The search combines science and legend.”
The hope of finding the missing 3-year-old diminished the night before, since searchers had no leads and had found no evidence of the child since 5:00 p.m. Thursday.
Toman stated late Saturday afternoon, “His chances are really slim.” “I simply experience feelings of frustration. I anticipate a clear path to emerge and will attempt to enlist the assistance of everybody.”
After forty-eight hours of searching, it was speculated that the child may not be in the woods but may have been abducted or killed in an accident and the body removed.
The majority of searchers who were familiar with the terrain on Friday and Saturday appeared to concur that the youngster may not be in the region as the search advanced.
The Last Time
Swenson interviewed Kevin’s older brother, 9-year-old Terry, who was the last person to see him, for one of three stories about Kevin published in the Pioneer on Sunday.
“The last time I saw him was at 5:00 p.m., when I was making my bed,” Terry told the Pioneer on Friday, October 1, while waiting for news in the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Department communications van.
Terry, a young child with brilliant eyes and dark, curly hair, stated, “We arrived home from school around 4:30.” “Joann, my mother, was downstairs. She planned to clean the kitchen windows. My infant brother was with me upstairs helping me prepare my bed. I then went to my mother’s room to see whether he was there with his toys.
Terry walked downstairs to inquire of his mother if she had seen Kevin, and together they searched the house and yard.
Terry stated, “My mother called my cousin Mike Steele, and then they looked.” Eventually, the sheriff’s department was summoned.
“We travelled on both sides of the road,” he elaborated. “We returned to the forest, where I showed the police where Kevin could hide.”
Terry stated that Kevin had previously walked away from the residence and had frequently reached a bridge about a mile east of the small red log cabin along County Road 20.
Terry added, “He used to walk down to the bridge, but he no longer does so.” Because his mother used to give him licks.
Saturday, young Terry assisted searchers by piling firewood beside the road to create a small fire to warm the volunteers. More than 500 people participated in the search for Kevin.
Tolman was unable to adequately express his admiration for the massive volunteer effort. With so many individuals and so much assistance, this is an outstanding community effort.
As the search approached its third day, though, many began to voice displeasure.
“I feel like a logger with a 6-mile log jam in the St. Croix River who cannot free it,” Tolman said Saturday (October 2) as the third day of an intensive search for Ayotte began. “We require a piece of evidence. It annoys us beyond measure.”
On Sunday, October 3, 1982, Swenson wrote in the Pioneer, “The search has not been without a variety of leads and strategies, but all proved unsuccessful by late Saturday night, when the search was suspended until today.”
Undersheriff Howie Schultz stated, “We will continue an aggressive search until we determine that a portion of the search must be discontinued. We are doing our best with the available evidence.”
Trying a little bit of everything
As the investigation progressed, the investigators studied all possible leads, including those suggested by psychics.
Swenson stated in his Oct. 3 essay, “The search has involved the blending of modern science and ancient mysticism.”
In an effort to locate Kevin and his 6-month-old springer spaniel, a heat-sensing device was deployed in the search (from above). Swenson said that the Ayotte family has gotten the unasked-for assistance of psychics on the ground.
“About six psychics have contacted us, and I wish they had all stated the same thing,” said Sheriff Tolman. “I am slightly sceptical, but am willing to accept assistance from any source. Nothing has been productive.”
Joann Ayotte’s grandmother told a clairvoyant, according to a representative close to the Ayotte family, that Kevin would be found in an old structure or barn wrapped in burlap and escorted by an elderly guy. The psychic also reportedly stated that the youngster was safe and that he will be reunited with his missing dog.
Although search officials preferred not to rely too much on the psychic notion, Swenson wrote that federal agents left with (Joann) Ayotte at noon on Saturday, October 2 to check various structures that matched the psychic’s description. There was no discovery.
To discover Kevin, though, new-for-the-time technology was brought to Beltrami County.
Dennis Bohn, of Grand Forks, flew a plane equipped with a Thermo-Scan equipment over the region on Friday, October 1st, in order to collect data.
Saturday’s damp ground and mid-40s degree temperature, according to Bohn, would make any warmth obvious.
After landing between searches, Bohn remarked, “Today’s rainy and chilly conditions make it an ideal day for any discovery.” “Everything out there stands out.”
Low temperatures, rain, and the ever-increasing amount of time since Kevin was last seen are “making it really difficult,” according to Bohn. “If the youngster has perished, it would take six to eight hours for the body temperature to drop sufficiently for an image to disappear, assuming he is unclothed.”
Without a trace
After days of searching, law officers and volunteers found no trace of the missing person.
Then, on October 5, after six days of searching, Flash the springer spaniel puppy returned home. Alone.
A veterinarian brushed the dog’s fur and pumped its stomach in an effort to uncover information concerning Kevin. Flash has not consumed anything other than swamp grass in days. The police placed a tracking collar on the dog and released it in the hopes that it would lead them to Kevin, but Flash kept returning home.
The investigation was unable to locate Kevin or determine the precise cause of his abduction. A nine-day search of the region yielded no traces of Kevin, not even his shoes or diaper, which he had a propensity for dumping.
Since since, this case has tormented the Ayotte family, retired law enforcement professionals who participated in the inquiry, and active members who joined the sheriff’s office.
The years passed. Parents of Kevin moved away. The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office got guidance that sent investigators across the country.
When the Missing Children Milk Carton Program was started in 1984, Kevin’s image appeared on milk cartons across the nation. Prior to the milk carton campaign, there was no national database of missing children, and once the children crossed state boundaries, it was practically impossible to locate them. In 1996, when Amber Alerts were introduced, milk carton advertisements became obsolete.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children created multiple images depicting how Kevin may have appeared as an older boy, adolescent, young adult, and today as an adult.
While the case remained open for decades, it remained largely silent and unchanged. Then, in 2011, a glimmer of optimism emerged.
As Beltrami County Investigator Scott Hinners ran names through an investigative database in search of new leads in the then-29-year-old case, the identity of Kevin Ayotte as an adult man in Michigan popped up.
“A few weeks ago, Beltrami County Sheriff’s Investigator Scott Hinners reviewed the 1982 missing person case involving Kevin Jay Ayotte and began running names from the case file against investigative databases. In Michigan, the investigator discovered a person with the same name, date of birth, and Social Security number as the missing Beltrami County resident Kevin Jay Ayotte, according to a June 22, 2011 item in the Bemidji Pioneer.
As Hinners continued his inquiry, he discovered that Kevin’s parents also resided in Michigan, in the same town as the guy using the name Kevin Ayotte.
Hinners, accompanied by a special agent from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, travelled to Michigan and began hunting for the suspect, according to the article. “With the cooperation of local Michigan officials, Beltrami County investigators discovered a person who stole Kevin Jay Ayotte’s identity, assumed it, and used it for financial gain.”
The defendant was known to regional authorities in Michigan, was interrogated by law enforcement, and admitted to identity theft.
After communicating with Kevin’s parents in Michigan, Beltrami investigators returned to Bemidji to discuss these case developments. Investigators felt it was a mere accident that Kevin’s parents lived so close to the suspect and that he had nothing to do with Kevin’s abduction.
Kevin’s case has been linked to others that have troubled law enforcement in the Bemidji area for decades, such as the 1987 murder of Anita Carlson, in recent years.
Phil Hodapp, the former sheriff of Beltrami County, was quoted in 2012 as comparing Kevin’s situation to that of Matthew James Pulis.
“As time goes forward, as in the Anita Carlson case and the Ayotte case, it baffles not just the family and officers at first, but also the generation of officers that follow who investigate and follow up on all the guides that arrive over time,” Hodapp stated in a Pioneer piece from August 2013. “It is frustrating to be unable to answer the enigma and provide a solution.”
According to Hodapp, Ayotte’s social security number, which is stored in a national database and set to alert police whenever it is used, has surfaced at least once. Cases that remain unsolved are a source of regret not only for the officers who initially worked them, but also for the police who followed.
Kevin’s disappearance has also been the subject of regional and national media coverage every few years, most recently in a 2018 episode of KSTP’s Missing Minnesotans.
It was just a matter of time until Kevin’s case was revived, given the recent surge in true crime journalism. His situation was recently highlighted on the Friends Against Abuse of International Falls, Minnesota-produced podcast “Gone,” which can be found on Spotify.
“The purpose of the podcast is to provide a voice to the murdered and missing in the United States and Canada. “In an effort to shed light on the victims and bring attention to the case, we are requesting their tales from those who know and care about them,” the website for the podcast states. We believe that someone, somewhere, is privy to information.
Case of Kevin remains open. Anyone with information is urged to contact the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.