Family makes plea for boy's safe return

Friday, January 12, 2007
Doris and William "Don" Ownby stood with daughter Amanda Ownby on Thursday afternoon in Union, Mo., during a news conference about the disappearance of the couple's son, Ben, 13, who was last seen Monday afternoon. (J.B. Forbes ~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

BEAUFORT, Mo. -- The family of 13-year-old Ben Ownby made a tearful plea Thursday for anyone who might have abducted the boy to return him home unharmed.

"Whoever has him, we just want to get him back safely, no questions asked," said Ben's father, William "Don" Ownby.

"He has his whole life ahead of him. Let him have his family back," Ownby said at a news conference with his wife Doris and daughter Amanda by his side.

The search for Ben passed a grim milestone Thursday afternoon, when a full 72 hours elapsed since the A-student and Boy Scout disappeared.

Ben was last seen Monday afternoon when a school bus dropped him off near his rural home. State and federal authorities are conducting an intensive search for a white pickup they think was involved in the apparent abduction.

Road blocks, ground searches and interviews with several suspects haven't resulted in any major breaks in the case, said Franklin County Sheriff Gary Toelke.

Between 30 and 40 FBI agents are working on the case, along with state and county authorities, Toelke said. He couldn't comment on the strategy officers are using to track the kidnapper down, but said the investigation is moving forward, he said.

"As long as the leads are coming in, we feel like we're making progress," Toelke said.

In spite of the growing stress, family members remained confident authorities would crack the case, said Ben's uncle, Loyd Bailie.

"I really think that we're going to have something here soon," Bailie said. "You've got county, state and federal and other jurisdictions on search teams. Everybody's gathering evidence and checking out leads."

Police confirmed Thursday that at least two people saw the suspicious white pickup truck. A neighbor saw the truck cruising Ownby's secluded rural neighborhood hours before his disappeared Monday, soon after getting off a school bus, Toelke said.

A schoolmate saw the same truck speeding away moments after Ben disappeared from the subdivision near U.S. 50 in Beaufort, an unincorporated town about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Neither witness could provide even a vague description of the driver, Toelke said at a morning news conference.

FBI profilers are drawing up a psychological description of the kind of person who might have abducted Ben. Toelke didn't know then the profile might be finished.

Between 20 and 50 volunteers were scheduled to arrive at the Ownby house Thursday to aid in the search. Friends, neighbors and strangers have been scouring the woods and passing out fliers since Monday.

Toelke said his office has received about 500 tips, many of them about white pickup trucks. Investigators are checking license plates against lists of registered sex offenders and interviewing truck owners about their whereabouts Monday.

The pickup had dents and rust and lacked hubcaps. The camper shell had one continuous window along the sides, with what appeared to be a ladder rack on top.

Ownby's home computer was scoured by authorities, but both Ownby and Toelke said the search saw no evidence of an Internet acquaintance.

Toelke said police haven't searched computers at Ben's school, where he might have accessed the Internet, because they don't think the Internet played a significant role in the case.

Ben "played on the computer, but he wasn't really an Internet buff as far as we could tell," Toelke said.

Ben was last seen by a fellow student after the two boys got off the bus after attending middle school in nearby Union. The boys separated, and Ben's friend told authorities he looked back minutes later to see a white pickup truck with a camper shell in an apparent hurry, backing into a ditch briefly before speeding away.

The truck might have had the word "Nissan" written in black letters on the back, but authorities weren't certain it was a Nissan, Toelke said.

Ben is white, 4-foot-10 and weighs about 100 pounds. He was last seen wearing a hooded St. Louis Rams windbreaker and blue jeans.

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