A Riverfront Times Special Report.
March 25, 2009
The 911 call came in half an hour after sunrise, at 6:09 a.m. on Wednesday, June 11, 2003. From a pay phone at the southeast corner of Page Boulevard and Skinker Parkway, just inside the St. Louis city limits, Dawan Ferguson informed the dispatcher that his SUV had been stolen and his handicapped son kidnapped.
When St. Louis police officers arrived at the scene, a nondescript strip mall, Ferguson “began crying while stating, ‘My son is gone, my son is gone’ repeatedly,” the officers would note in an incident report.
Ferguson said that Christian had been vomiting throughout the night and that he was rushing the boy to St. Louis Children’s Hospital. According to the incident report, he told police he decided to stop at the pay phone and call ahead to the ER. “While talking on the phone he noticed his vehicle drive away east on Page and out of sight,” reads the incident report. “Ferguson advised he never saw who entered his vehicle and could offer no information on the suspect.”
Police combed the area but found nothing: no vehicle, no witnesses and no Christian.
News of the kidnapping was quick to reach the local media — so quick that Theda Thomas’ family learned of Christian’s disappearance on the morning news. Thomas was at work, doing data entry for Midwest Library Service in Bridgeton, when her husband rushed in with the grim news.
“I started laughing,” Thomas recalls. “I said, What do you mean, Christian is missing? What are you talking about? I didn’t really get it. And then the tears just came jumping out of my eyes.”
The boy, age nine and a half, was profoundly disabled and had a rare genetic disorder, citrullinemia, which can cause toxic levels of ammonia to accumulate in the bloodstream, potentially leading to coma, brain damage and death. If he wasn’t found — and medicated — within two or three days, he would almost certainly die.
According to a police investigative report obtained by Riverfront Times, “Dawan F. told responding officers he was taking his ill son, Christian F., age 9, to the hospital and stopped to call ahead to the emergency room when an unknown person entered his vehicle and drove away with Christian….”
Law enforcement officials knowledgeable about the case confirm that the document, authored by detectives Harry Howell and Jerome Dyson, is authentic. They say the report, which is undated, was filed in 2004. An update was filed in 2007 but did not change substantially, the sources say.
According to the report, police brought Dawan from the pay phone to a precinct office on Union Boulevard to await any developments. The first one came shortly before 8 a.m.: A resident of Ronbar Lane, located in a working-class residential neighborhood off Airport Road in Ferguson, alerted police to an abandoned SUV on the cul-de-sac.
On inspection, the maroon Ford Expedition contained “numerous valuables,” including a computer, a camera and personal papers, according to the police report. The car was unlocked. Keys dangled in the ignition.
Police with search dogs scoured the neighborhood and an adjacent wooded area but found no trace of the missing child.
At the suggestion of guardian ad litem Nathan Cohen, Christian’s younger brother, Connor Ferguson, was placed in the temporary custody of his grandparents, Dawana and John Steffen, who were living in a three-story home in the Shaw neighborhood on Flad Avenue. John Steffen’s Pyramid Construction Inc. was emerging as a major player in the burgeoning renaissance of downtown St. Louis. The company’s ambitious plans to transform numerous dilapidated buildings into spiffy new housing stock were earning Steffen and his associates an ear at city hall and earning their projects various tax breaks. Steffen’s growing fortune would eventually allow him to move his family to an imposing mansion on the private street Kingsbury Place, west of Union Boulevard.
A permanent custody hearing for Connor was set for December. In the meantime St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley, who had overseen the Fergusons’ lengthy divorce and custody battle, denied Theda Thomas’ request to have Cohen removed from the case and a new guardian appointed, and he sealed the court file to the public.
Once again, Thomas mobilized friends and family for protests at the courthouse.
The demonstrations irked her attorney, Kimberly Hutson. “I didn’t necessarily want her to contact all the newspapers and have them come to a court hearing, especially if the judge said, ‘No media,'” Hutson says today. “I think her opinion was, the more people who had sympathy, and the more attention she could get against all the people she blamed for her child being missing, it would help her in court. But I think it did just the opposite.”
Thomas and Hutson parted ways, and Thomas hired lawyer number five. To this day she complains of a legal “conspiracy” that was mounting against her. “There were so many lawyers who showed us right to the door when they heard we were up against the Steffens,” Thomas says.
Cohen recalls the months leading up to the custody hearing as being fraught with conflict. He says Thomas repeatedly told Connor that “when she gets custody she’s going to take [him] and leave St. Louis, and the grandparents and father will never see the child again.”
Adds the guardian ad litem: “It was like she couldn’t get out of her own way.”
Cohen says Dawan Ferguson did not attend any of the custody hearings. “I remember the judge saying, ‘He better show up and tell us what the hell happened [with Christian’s disappearance].'”
But Frawley’s December 31 ruling makes no mention of Christian’s abduction. The judge awarded custody to the Steffens, who required no child-support payments, employed a full-time nanny, and had already enrolled the boy in Messiah Lutheran School and paid his tuition.
Frawley also rebuked Theda Thomas for her incessant public protests, for alleging a conspiracy on the part of court, medical and police personnel and for the fact that she had biased Connor against his father by taking him with her on numerous occasions when she filed complaints about Dawan. The judge noted that the Missouri Department of Social Services (MDSS) had substantiated none of Theda’s abuse or neglect claims.
Cohen says Frawley did not have access to records of the ongoing police investigation and that the judge mainly relied on evidence of Thomas’ parenting dating from 1998 and 1999. “Had there been somebody from Theda’s family who was capable, willing and able to care for the child, that would have been preferable. But there wasn’t,” Cohen says. “And when you looked at all the things that had gone on with Theda — the protesting, the media attention — and compared that to a set of grandparents who are upstanding citizens with a roof over their heads [and] two children about Connor’s age….”
Years later, Theda Thomas’ attorney from that period remains troubled by the way the matter played out. “This case has stayed with me,” says Gay Harris. “A lot of caretakers — [MDSS], nurses, doctors, the grandparents even — dropped the ball. And if the caretakers had dropped the ball, why shouldn’t Connor at least have been with his mom?”
Connor Ferguson, now fourteen, says he couldn’t believe the perks that came with living under the Steffens’ care. At the Steffens’, “It was food galore. Food galore! I could have whatever I wanted. There were toys and video games and music.”
But the teen’s tone toughens when he describes the emotional toll of trading families overnight. “I had so many contradicting messages coming my way: From my mom and her family, from John and Dawana,” he says. “I remember in the course of that first year, I was sat down in the living room and told what happened by John and Dawana: the carjacking story. I believed them. When I started visiting my mom, she would ask what they had told me. She wanted me to not be so gullible and to think for myself. Then every time I came back [to the Steffens’] from a visit with her, it was like: ‘What happened? What did she tell you? What did she do?'”
In the Steffens’ custody, Connor enjoyed private school and sleep-away summer camps. He sang in a choir and got to take drama classes at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA). But visits with his mother were sporadic and caused friction between Thomas and Connor’s caretakers, occasionally resulting in formal complaints lodged by one party or the other.
Nathan Cohen says that by early 2007 Connor was becoming “defiant,” and his relationship with the Steffens’ two children had frayed. Cohen says the Steffens felt faced with a dilemma: their children or their grandson. “They decided to relinquish their custody, really, for the purpose of protecting themselves from Theda,” Cohen says.
On March 9, 2007, Thomas and the Steffens agreed to three pages of terms stipulating Thomas would reclaim custody of Connor if she would not disparage the Steffens, would not enroll Connor in any of the extracurricular activities he had pursued with the Steffens’ children and would not permit Connor to speak to the media about his brother’s disappearance. (Thomas allowed Connor to speak with RFT because, she says, “The entire case against me was illegal from the beginning,” adding, “It was just a bunch of papers to me. Still is.”)
Judge Frawley had misgivings about the arrangement, says Cohen. “I sanctioned it because I thought it was the only way to stop the damage Theda was doing. I preferred her over a foster parent. I knew she’d never harm him. I knew she loved him intensely.”
On March 12, 2007, just before relinquishing Connor to Thomas, Dawana Steffen accompanied her grandson for an interview with Dawan Ferguson’s defense attorney, John Rogers. Rogers says he asked to question Connor because he “was confident that once he got back into Theda’s custody, she would manipulate him to try to offer testimony that was untrue and that would assist the prosecutors in prosecuting my client.”
Connor says his grandmother gave him a piece of advice before the interview, which was conducted under oath. “She said answer his questions truthfully, and don’t be talking bad about your dad.”
The police report indicates that investigators considered Dawan Ferguson to be a suspect almost from the start — beginning with the discovery of his maroon SUV on Ronbar Lane less than two hours after his 911 call:
“Due to the suspicious nature of this incident, Dawan F. was requested, and voluntarily agreed, to accompany detectives to the headquarters building” downtown, where police requested he submit to a polygraph “to further substantiate the events he reported. Dawan F. declined, adding that he did not wish to make any further statements and wished only to speak with an attorney.”
When she was questioned soon after Christian’s disappearance, Dawan’s wife, Monica Ferguson, told police Dawan had worked late into the night, and that they’d spoken at about 11 p.m. and not again until 6 a.m., when her husband called to say someone had made off with Christian.
According to the police report, Monica Ferguson described Christian as a “vegetable.” She told Howell and Dyson, who would later become the lead detectives on the case, that she “knew of nothing wrong with Christian F. the night before, however, she admitted that she seldom provides care for Christian F. because his medications are complicated and difficult to administer.”
Howell and Dyson also interviewed Monica Ferguson’s eldest daughter, a teenager at the time. She said she’d awakened at about 4 a.m. and heard the Expedition start up and drive off. Connor Ferguson also reported hearing the SUV leave and told Howell and Dyson he saw his father enter the bedroom he shared with Christian, wrap his brother in a blanket and carry him out before driving away.
“Connor F. did not know what time this was, but recalled that it was very dark outside,” the police report reads. “Please note that Connor’s bed is closest to the window, which faces west toward the street.
“Please note the St. Louis area sunrise time on June 11, 2003 was at 5:36 a.m. and the beginning twilight time was 5:04 a.m. (Source: U.S. Naval Observatory).”
Examining Christian’s “neatly made” bed, the detectives noted that the room stank of urine.
When asked whether the family knew anyone who lived in the city of Ferguson, where the missing Expedition turned up, Monica Ferguson named Lakisha Mayes, a “mutual friend.”
Homicide detectives were dispatched to question Mayes, who told them that she often spent the night at the Fergusons’. Noticing that Mayes’ car wasn’t parked at the house, the detectives asked where it was. Mayes told them the Fergusons had keys. “She believed either Dawan F. or Monica F. stopped by to use her car to search for Christian F.,” reads the report.
Police found Mayes’ gold Chevrolet Malibu later that afternoon, parked near Page and Hodiamont avenues. “Please note where Mayes [sic] vehicle was recovered is a distance of less than 100 yards from the public telephone Dawan F. used to call police that morning,” the report reads.
When police questioned a bounty hunter named Ozell Scott on the day of the kidnapping, Scott said he and Ferguson had worked together the previous night and into the wee hours, until about 1:30 a.m. He said they’d used Ferguson’s Expedition and that the SUV had contained several trash bags filled with clothes, which Ferguson had said belonged to “Kisha,” whom Scott knew to be Ferguson’s “girlfriend,” according to the report. (Scott could not be reached to comment for this story.)
Investigators questioned Lakisha Mayes again the following day, and she “admitted she was not forthright” about her relationship with the Fergusons, according to the police report.
“Mayes stated both she and Monica were bisexual, and both of them had a sexual relationship with each other, as well as with Dawan F., often engaging in three way sex acts…,” the report reads. “Mayes added that although she maintains a home [in Ferguson], from the beginning of May until Sunday, June 8, 2003 she and her daughter had been living in Monica F.’s and Dawan F.’s home….”
Mayes told the investigators she’d accepted an offer Ferguson had made earlier in the year: He would keep up the payments on her home if she’d move in with him and Monica. The threesome had deteriorated, Mayes told police, to the point where she and her daughter had moved out on June 8, leaving behind several bags of clothes.
When the detectives found Mayes’ Malibu on the afternoon of the kidnapping, three bags of her clothes were inside.
Mayes could not be reached to comment for this article.
Perhaps seeking to learn how the bags might have moved from Dawan Ferguson’s Expedition to Mayes’ Malibu, investigators subpoenaed June 11 news footage from local television outlets. The report notes that in a segment of video from KTVI-TV (Channel 2), time-stamped 7:48 a.m., a gold Malibu is parked in the precise location where Mayes’ car was later recovered.
Two days after Christian’s disappearance, detectives Howell and Dyson went back to the pay phone Ferguson had used, hoping to find witnesses who passed through the area on a regular basis. They interviewed a man who walked home every morning from the Wellston MetroLink station via Page.
“[The witness] was walking east in the 6100 block of Page Avenue at or near the time of 6:00 a.m. [on June 11] when he noticed an adult black male subject walking west on Page Avenue from the intersection of Hodiamont Avenue,” the police report reads. “This subject stopped to use the public telephone at 6104 Page Avenue. [The witness] did not see any vehicle the subject was occupying, nor did he see a red or maroon SUV in the area.”
Shown a photo lineup and asked to identify the man he’d seen, the witness pointed to a photo of Dawan Ferguson.
Exiting I-70 onto Airport Road in north St. Louis County, Victor Thomas, Theda’s husband, says taking this route triggers flashbacks. “Over there used to be a school,” Thomas says, pointing west. “We searched that. And see that sewer system right there? We had people go right down under it.”
The stretch of interstate between Dawan Ferguson’s old Pine Lawn house and the site where his SUV was found in 2003 has been dug up and rebuilt since Thomas and dozens of volunteer searchers scoured the area. But little has changed on the route between where the Expedition turned up and the home of Ferguson’s onetime girlfriend Lakisha Mayes.
Retracing that half-mile journey, Thomas starts to feel sick to his stomach. “I think I’m going to have to pull over at the service station,” he says.
A stocky 53-year-old who carries a paunch in the midsection, Thomas has salt-and-pepper hair and the proverbial gift of gab. The retired postal worker met Theda and her sons in the middle of a rainstorm in 1998, when he pulled up to a bus stop and offered them a ride.
“We rode together and talked about how God is good,” Thomas recalls. “And then we started talking on the phone. I’d go by to see her and the boys, and then one day she had problems where she was living, and I took them out of there.”
Theda and Victor married in January 1999. The father of two grown daughters, Thomas was delighted to acquire two sons, courtroom dramas notwithstanding. “I used up all my savings to pay for those lawyers,” he says.
“Our life consisted of fighting to protect the boys, and the next thing I know I get the call from Theda’s father,” Thomas recounts. “He said, did I have the TV on? No. ‘Well, turn the TV on.’ And there I hear this crazy story about a carjacking.”
Thomas accompanied Theda to police headquarters to await news that first day. The next day he mobilized.
The Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Pam and Craig Akers after their son was kidnapped in October 2002 (Shawn was rescued in early 2007, when his abductor, Michael Devlin, was captured), helped Thomas and his wife’s relatives set up a search-and-rescue “command post” at a north-county church. In the first week, hundreds of people came to help, including several who brought trained search dogs.
After the dogs took Christian’s scent from some clothes he’d worn, they scoured the cities of Ferguson and Berkeley, Kinloch and Wellston, crawling into drainage ditches and sifting through trash bins.
“After a while,” Thomas says, “we had to switch from scent-tracking dogs to cadaver dogs.”
On one hot summer day, volunteers saw a white utility van near the Chain of Rocks Bridge. On a hunch they traced the vehicle’s license plates to an address in a dicey area of north St. Louis. When they arrived at the address, the dogs “went crazy,” Thomas says. The team never saw the van again, but to this day he’s certain its driver knew something.
Over time the Hornbeck Foundation retreated, and the search teams dwindled in number. But Victor Thomas and a close friend kept up the hunt. They poked around near the Casino Queen, a gaming riverboat in East St. Louis, and in abandoned buildings near Brooklyn and Cahokia, Illinois.
“For two and a half years my life consisted of living in the woods,” Thomas says. “When there was nobody else with me, I’d go out by myself. The nights I couldn’t sleep, I’d sit out on the porch and think of places to search.”
A month after Christian disappeared, the St. Louis division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation assigned special agent Liza Ludovico to the case. In particular, Ludovico, a former U.S. Army nurse with a no-nonsense reputation, assisted lead detectives Howell and Dyson in reviewing Christian’s medical history. (Citing FBI policy not to comment on open investigations, the agent declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The investigators scrutinized several of Christian’s hospitalizations, beginning with the incident in March 2000 when Dawan Ferguson told hospital staff he’d been unable to refill his son’s prescriptions. According to the police report, “An interview with Mr. Gerald Krausz of the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital pharmacy failed to find any instance the medication was not, or could not be, refilled due to any type of shortage or outage [of the hospital’s stock].”
Regarding Christian’s hospitalization two months later, the police report reads, “Dawan F. was arrested for a traffic violation on the evening of Saturday, May 6, 2000 and was not released until the afternoon of Sunday, May 7, 2000. During this time, Christian F. did not receive his medications. When questioned by hospital social service personnel, Dawan F. claimed that Ruth Todd (whom Dawan F. identified as the nanny for Christian F.) had reportedly failed in her responsibility to pick up Christian F.’s medication from the pharmacy.”
The investigators interviewed Todd, who said she was hired as a nanny but became Ferguson’s live-in girlfriend. Todd said she learned Ferguson was seeing another woman and decided to move out of his home when Christian got sick in May 2000. According to the police report, Todd said she had no idea Ferguson blamed her for Christian’s hospitalization. (Todd could not be reached to comment for this story.)
Also questioned were five of the in-home nurses who had cared for Christian between 2001 and 2003. According to the police report, the nurses in separate interviews said Ferguson appeared to be the sole caregiver for his son, that Monica Ferguson wanted little to do with the child and instructed them to keep Christian out of the rooms she occupied.
Registered nurse Margaret Binion told Ludovico she tried to have a “woman to woman” talk with Ferguson and that “during their conversation, Christian came up to Monica and she pushed him away, saying ‘Leave me alone, You get on my last nerve.'”
The nurses also spoke of neglect on the part of the Fergusons. The report notes that a nurse named Sandra Speights “frequently found Christian at the beginning of her shift wearing the same diaper she placed on him at the end of her shift on the previous day. Speights would find Christian would [sic] two diapers on him, soaked. Speights said she knew Dawan and/or Monica F. would double diaper Christian so they would not have to change his diapers as often.”
Another nurse told investigators that she’d often brought along food for Christian because the family didn’t adequately stock the pantry.
Attorney Douglas Roller, who over the years has represented Monica Ferguson, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. Monica Ferguson could not be reached.
Several of the nurses cited issues with Christian’s medications. A nurse named Trdell Day “noticed that the medications and formula were lasting longer than it should have been. Day began to notice the formula supplement was not being used and the contents of the blender would still be in the refrigerator [sic] the following morning.”
More than one nurse reported that after he’d been informed that Christian’s medicine was running low, Dawan Ferguson failed to replenish the supply. Two said they began purchasing Christian’s medications themselves. “If I didn’t do it, it didn’t get done,” nurse Kimberly Nero observed.
In February 2003, Nero called Christian’s geneticist, Dr. Dorothy Grange, to request refills of his prescriptions. Grange’s office indicated the doctor hadn’t seen Christian in more than a year and stipulated a checkup. According to the police report, Nero alerted Dawan Ferguson “but he did not offer to accompany her with Christian. Dawan F. explained Christian was scared of the doctor’s office and since Christian was doing so well, he did not need to see the doctor. Dawan F. told [the nurse] that the clinic ‘let him slide.'”
Nero took Christian for the checkup anyway, on March 6, 2003. Dr. Grange later told investigators “this was the second consecutive visit that Dawan F. failed to accompany his son. According to Dr. Grange, Dawan F. was becoming more ambivalent with the care and treatment of his son.” Grange’s staff noted that Christian had dropped from the 25th percentile in height and weight to the 3rd percentile, according to medical records.
The detectives considered the timing of these events significant, according to the report, which notes that one week later, on March 13, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services canceled nursing services in the Ferguson household.
“The following week after in home nursing services were terminated,” the report reads, “Christian and Connor came to the Heritage House facility for the scheduled visitation period with their mother on March 22, 2003. Thomas said that both her sons appeared unkempt [sic] and dirty. …[Thomas] could see an obvious loss of weight [sic]. …[She] took [Christian] to Children’s Hospital for treatment. …This was the last time Theda Thomas has seen her son.”
Best he can recall, it was a morning late in the spring of 2004 when Victor Thomas opened the front door and found a manila envelope on the stoop.
No leads had turned up in months, and the investigation into Christian’s disappearance was obviously stalled. But clearly, whoever left the envelope on the Thomases’ porch wanted them to know what police had uncovered.
Inside was a copy of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s confidential 33-page investigative report.
Says Thomas: “I sat down, I started reading, and I thought, Oh, my God.”
Thomas saw a timeline police had pieced together, outlining Dawan Ferguson’s activities preceding his call to 911.
He saw the nurses’ statements about caring for Christian in the Ferguson household.
He saw that by subpoenaing pharmacy records, police determined that Christian’s medications were last requested on April 22, 2003, and that the last batch had never been picked up.
“The more I read,” says Thomas, “the more I cried.”
The report also described how the Fergusons had apparently moved out of their rented house within roughly two weeks of Christian’s disappearance and how investigators for Dawan’s attorney, John Rogers, had hauled numerous items out of the dwelling.
According to the report, two days after detectives Howell and Dyson retrieved the items (mainly medical supplies) via subpoena, Ferguson phoned his former landlord and ordered her not to let police search the house.
The report recounts in detail a subsequent search of the property on August 13, 2003. Having procured a warrant, police and FBI agents bagged urine-stained clothes, sheets and blankets and boxed up half-full cases of formula. They used light-sensitive equipment to find material that could be tested for DNA. They took note of a large stain from a liquid that had apparently leaked through Christian’s mattress and onto the floor.
In an enclosed porch at the back of the house, the investigators found a gastric feeding tube.
“This ‘G-tube’ displayed visible debris, likely blood and/or other body fluids, and appeared unsanitary,” the police report reads. “On the protruding end of the tube were probable tools [sic] marks. On the opposite end, which is surgically implanted into the stomach, was the plastic bladder. This portion of the tube indicated that the bladder collapsed. From these indications it is presumed that the ‘G-tube’ was forcibly removed.”
The G-tube is mentioned again on page 31 of the report, which describes a second interview police conducted with Connor Ferguson.
“Connor came home from his last day of school on Monday, which was June 9, 2003, and noticed Christian’s ‘G-button’ missing,” investigators write. “Connor said he saw dried blood around where the ‘G-button’ would go into Christian. He looked for the ‘G-button’ but could not find it.
“…The day before Christian left the house, [Connor] remembered [sic] that Christian became very sick and he was moaning throughout the afternoon. Connor told Monica about Christian’s moaning and his ‘G-button’ missing. Monica told Connor that she already knew about it and to stay out of the bedroom where Christian was. Connor said that Monica went back to ironing clothes and she didn’t do anything for Christian. Connor added that he later checked on Christian. Connor said Christian stopped moaning and was ‘staring at the ceiling.’ When asked to explain, Connor F. leaned onto the sofa in a horizontal position facing up and rolled his eyes above him, to the wall facing his head. Connor said all he could see was the white part of Christian’s eyes.”
Near the conclusion of their report, Howell and Dyson theorize that Dawan Ferguson intentionally allowed Christian’s health to deteriorate between March and June 2003, and that Dawan kept Theda at bay in order to conceal his increasingly fragile condition. Ferguson, they reason, faced a “dilemma” on June 9, 2003, after Judge Frawley ordered him to “immediately resume visitations” between Thomas and the children or face arrest.
“By this time Christian was drastically unnourished [sic] and under medicated,” the report reads. “Connor noticed his older brother as being very thin, saying that ‘you could see Christian’s bones.’ Dawan F. knew of an impending criminal investigation and realized that criminal charges would result in his losing custody of both children and face paying child support as a non-custodial parent. Rather, Dawan F. deliberated and decided to stop giving Christian F. his medications and allow the intrinsic cycle of Christian’s genetic disorder to take his life.”
Howell and Dyson surmised Ferguson cut off his son’s medications entirely on June 9, 2003, and “forcibly and violently removed” the boy’s feeding tube the same day. The report suggests Christian slowly faded away, dying sometime on the night of June 10.
Conclude the investigators:
“As Dawan F. finished work with Ozell Scott in the early morning hours of June 11, he traveled to Lakisha Mayes [sic] residence…. Dawan F. took the white plastic bags of Mayes [sic] clothing from his SUV and placed them in Mayes [sic] car. Dawan F. then went to his residence, arriving sometime near the hour of 4:00 a.m. Dawan F. did not attempt to disrupt anyone in his household and simply picked up the body of his dead son, Christian, wrapping him in the blanket, and placed him in the SUV. Dawan F. then drove away and discarded the body of Christian F. in an undisclosed location.
“Near the hour of 5:00 a.m. Dawan F. drove his SUV to…326 Ronbar, located at the end of a dead end street. He left the vehicle unlocked, with the keys in the ignition and all the property in the vehicle.
“Dawan F. then walked less than a mile to Lakisha Mayes [sic] home, and used a spare set of keys to drive away in Mayes [sic] vehicle…. Dawan F. parked Mayes [sic] vehicle, taking the keys and locking it, on…Hodiamont and walked to the public telephone at 6104 Page Avenue, a distance of less than 100 yards.
“Dawan F. telephoned 911 from this location and reported his vehicle stolen and his ill son, Christian F., still in the vehicle.”
“Dear Chief Mokwa,” Theda Thomas wrote on January 24, 2007.
“Please answer the following: 1. What has your department done since January 6, 2005 to locate Christian? 2. Is the investigation into Christian’s disappearance complete? 3. Has a suspect been named in the Christian Ferguson case?”
Thomas carried on with nine more queries, concluding with, “Why are black or minority missing child cases handled different from white missing child cases?”
Two weeks earlier, the Kirkwood Police Department and FBI had completed what many called the miraculous recovery of two kidnapped white boys, William “Ben” Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck. Their captor, Michael Devlin, had kept Ownby for four days, Hornbeck for four years.
Hearing the news, Thomas felt joy for the boys’ parents but regret that her child, likely a skeleton by this point, had not been brought home.
The investigation was technically still open and continued to be handled by the city police department. But it would fall to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch to decide whether anyone would be charged. In early July 2003, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce had transferred the case to McCulloch because Dawan Ferguson had worked as a bounty hunter for her office. His duties: searching for parents wanted by the court in child-support cases.
Thomas had persistently lobbied on several fronts for Ferguson’s arrest. She requested inquiries into the state social-services agency’s dismissal of her many claims of abuse and reached out to television personalities including John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted pleading for a spotlight on Christian’s case. She made little headway.
This time, though, Thomas got a positive response. The St. Louis police department and the FBI in April 2007 formed a five-person task force that included detectives Howell and Dyson and FBI agent Ludovico to review Christian’s case full-time for 30 days.
“I don’t want to say, ‘One last push,’ because cases like these always remain open and new leads can be investigated, but the idea was to take another look and then go to the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office and really put the pressure on for an arrest,” says a police officer with knowledge of the investigation.
Investigators re-interviewed a handful of witnesses and went back out with cadaver dogs. Acting on tips, they combed several cemeteries and had the dogs sniff out the ground around a house built by Pyramid Construction Inc., the company Dawan Ferguson’s stepfather owned, near the time of Christian’s disappearance.
The task force also reviewed records from 2003 that detailed garbage pickups and deliveries from various sites. The team went so far as to request permission to go digging in a landfill. (The request was denied, owing to a lack of evidence.)
They found nothing.
Victor Thomas, who spoke often with investigators, believes police were off base in at least one area. “The police had a theory that Dawan did this on his own,” Thomas says. “We had a theory that he had help.”
Responds one officer knowledgeable about the case: “Victor and his guys forwarded us tons of [tips] they thought were significant. All I can say is we did look into all of them, but nothing turned up.”
When the investigators learned of the March 12, 2007, interview John Rogers had conducted with Connor, they wondered: What had the boy told the attorney?
The county prosecutor’s office subpoenaed Rogers for a transcript of the sworn interview. The defense attorney challenged the request; though he lost in St. Louis County Circuit Court and on appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court in August of last year overruled the lower jurisdictions and declared that Rogers did not have to release the transcript.
Connor Ferguson tells Riverfront Times, “I told Mr. Rogers exactly what Dawana told me to tell him: that [my dad and I] had a great relationship, that he didn’t beat us. I didn’t even tell [Rogers] Christian’s ‘G-tube’ was missing [the day before he was allegedly abducted].”
Connor now says he left out a lot of the details that he’d supplied to police.
“I know I was just messing up myself in the future, because it will be hard,” the boy adds, without finishing his thought.
“I heard that all the time about Theda,” offers one police officer with knowledge of the investigation. “But you can’t call a mother crazy if her child is missing and nobody will help her. She wants information, and you all are not doing anything but sitting back and name-calling her. That woman isn’t crazy at all. She’s a mother who lost her child. She’s grieving.”
“Look, she was probably the better-suited parent for those kids,” says another officer familiar with Theda and Dawan’s long custody battle. “But when she lost them, she went about trying to get them back in all the wrong ways.”
The police investigative report mentions Theda Thomas’ persistence, noting that her “well documented” complaints to various agencies between 1998 and 2003 were ignored. “On several occasions [sic] investigators failed to seek other sources to refute or substantiate the claims made by Thomas,” the report reads. “To complicate matters, Thomas often made repeated complaints on the same incident to several agencies. Thomas was considered as an antagonist by most….”
Victor Thomas says he kept the copy of the report from his wife for six months. “I knew once she read it, it would put more resentment in her,” he says.
Theda Thomas says to this day she has only read excerpts of the document. “I want to know, I don’t want to know,” she wavers. “I know enough to know the father needs to be on death row.”
Thomas says she brought the 33-page report to Riverfront Times because she’s frustrated at the justice system’s failures. “To me this report says they have everything,” Thomas explains. “They just don’t know where his body is.”
In their report detectives Howell and Dyson assert that Dawan Ferguson committed two misdemeanors: making a false police report and a false missing-person report. They allege that Dawan and Monica Ferguson likely committed two felonies: endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree, and abandonment of a corpse.
Finally, the detectives write that Dawan Ferguson committed murder in the first degree, knowingly causing the death of his son “in a wantonly vile, horrible and depraved manner.”
Although a grand jury has never heard investigators’ account of what happened to Christian Ferguson, the boy has not been forgotten by the local African American community, nor by many of the 100-plus members of law enforcement who combed the metro area in vain.
“Sometimes I think that maybe the city [prosecutor] just ought to ask for the case back,” muses one St. Louis police officer, expressing frustration at the fact that the department poured resources into investigating an incident that its officers believe occurred in the county and only fell to the city because the 911 call originated from a few feet inside its border.
But another law-enforcement official familiar with the investigation, who declined to speak on the record because the case is still open, cautions that a prosecution would be risky under the current circumstances.
“Normally in homicide investigations, you have a body and you work backwards from that. Here we’ve got a story that doesn’t really make sense. And yeah, the dad was supposedly tired of the kid being a burden on the family. But he’s never confessed. We poked holes in the guy’s timeline, but poking holes doesn’t make for a murder charge.”
Adds the official: “Say you’re a prosecutor and you put that guy on trial for murder and he gets acquitted. You can’t try him again. But say the body turns up later. What do you do then? You can’t go back, because it’s double jeopardy. You’ve already tried him for homicide, and you lost.”
Neither assistant St. Louis County prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh, who is handling the case for Robert McCulloch’s office, nor McCulloch himself, returned numerous calls seeking comment for this story.
While investigating Christian’s disappearance, FBI agent Liza Ludovico discovered that Dawan and Monica Ferguson committed fraud by falsifying a Social Security number and a signature on a loan application when they obtained their Ford Expedition. In September 2004, the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted the Fergusons on federal charges of bank fraud. Dawan pled guilty; Monica entered a pretrial diversion program and was spared jail time.
In a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Perry prior to Ferguson’s sentencing, Dawana Steffen asked for leniency and spoke of her son’s good nature. “Dawan stopped all his personal pursuits to provide and care for his family,” Steffen wrote. “After Christian experienced a deep coma and lost his mental capacity, I encouraged Dawan to consider a nursing care facility. Dawan refused to consider this because he had worked in these places and stated that there is a lot of abuse….
“Dawan has always gotten along well with others,” the letter continued. “My husband and I often joked with Dawan about his personable ways. He was in Belleville court for a traffic ticket and sat next to what appeared to be some very prejudiced people but before the day was over they were asking him to have dinner with them. The joke was that Dawan was so personable, he could sit with the Klan and they would forget he was Black and invite him to one of their events.”
In March 2005 Perry sentenced Ferguson to eight months in a federal penitentiary. He was released on December 30 of that year.
Scoffs Theda Thomas: “Dawan was untouchable because of his stepfather’s political connections.”
In April 2008 John Steffen closed Pyramid Construction and began liquidating its portfolio. Various creditors are suing the company, Steffen and his wife. A bank took over the couple’s Kingsbury Place mansion last year, and they were forced to move out.
Neither John nor Dawana Steffen could be reached to comment for this story. Attorney Connie Hood, who represented them in family court, did not return several phone calls seeking comment.
Not long after Connor Ferguson was returned to Theda Thomas in 2007, she and Victor Thomas separated. Victor says he regrets that he and Theda never sought counseling after Christian’s disappearance.
Connor Ferguson says he has his ups and downs. He has changed schools several times in the past two years. He says visits with his father made him angry, so he quit them altogether. “Here there’s not as much money, but there’s a lot of love,” he says of his current living arrangement.
Connor looks forward to a weekly drama program and the time he gets to spend on a book he’s trying to write about his and Christian’s lives. “I want to be a lawyer,” the eighth-grader says. “If Christian still isn’t found, I want to do it myself.”
Harry Howell has retired from the police department and is working overseas. He declined to comment for this article, citing the fact that the case remains open. For the same reason, police spokeswoman Erica Van Ross denied RFT’s request to interview the other author of the police report on the Ferguson case, Jerome Dyson.
Van Ross says the department remains committed to investigating any new leads that come its way. “Those who love Christian Ferguson deserve answers, and if a crime was committed against him, he, his loved ones and the community, deserve justice,” Van Ross writes in a prepared statement. “We believe there are individuals who have information regarding this case, but who have so far, been unwilling to disclose it.”
John Rogers declined to make his client available to comment for this story. “There have been a million people dying to speak to Dawan,” Rogers explains. “We made a collective decision to take our hits from the media rather than put his spin on things. It has proven successful. He hasn’t been charged, I think, in part, because he hasn’t been running his mouth and letting out any detail that the prosecutors could twist and turn any way they want to.
“Dawan Ferguson,” Rogers emphasizes, “continues to insist that Christian was abducted.”
Find part one of “Vanishing Act” at , along with police documents from the case and a slide show of locations from the kidnapping.