PEKIN — Over the past six months, Pekin and area police have interviewed 100-plus people, entered homes, combed through fields and woods.
A tight-knit group who call themselves Bonzai’s Bunch have spent weekends and money on their own relentless searches. They’ve passed out 10,000 fliers in parking lots and stores across the state and contacted TV news and talk shows, seeking the nation’s help.
Yet Robert Bee Jr., 13, remains any family’s worst fear, any community’s sad concern and what he officially became on Nov. 18, a missing child.
“If he were one of ours — how hard would we work to work to find him — that’s how hard we do,” said Sgt. Seth Ranney, who leads the city Police Department team of detectives on the case.
“I want to know where my brother’s at,” said Stephanie Clauser, 43, of Creve Coeur, Robert’s half-sister. In March she promised the dying father the two shared that she would never stop searching.
“We want to bring the little man home,” said Bobette Spillman, who has bonded with Clauser as a close friend and organizer of the efforts that Bonzai’s Bunch, after Robert’s middle name, make to keep him in the public’s mind.
The group hopes for a large turnout at a vigil they’ll hold at Riverfront Park 6 p.m. Wednesday, six months to the day since Robert apparently left his home for the last time.
Abiding by guidelines from the police, the 16 volunteers have covered “almost every inch of Pekin,” she said. They carry “search bags” holding rain ponchos, whistles to alert others if they find anything and tape to mark their finds, said Spillman.
They wear red T-shirts bearing Robert’s photo and lyrics from “Lost Boy” by artist Lisa B. Alluding to the tale of Peter Pan, Clauser said the song touches the sadness surrounding her young brother’s difficult life and uncertain fate.
“Neverland is home to lost boys like me/ And lost boys like me are free.”
Robert’s mother, Lisa Bee, is not expected to attend the vigil.
“That’s my angel,” Bee, 38, said of her son a week after he disappeared. “I have to have faith” that he’ll be found.
Within several weeks, she changed her phone number, moved downstate and was formally evicted from the tiny, refuse-strewn home on one of the city’s poorer streets, where Clauser said Robert slept on a mattress without sheets so visitors could stay in his bedroom.
After six months of intense police investigations and her group’s own efforts, she’s realistic about their results.
While the police probably know more than what they’ve revealed as their investigation continues, “We don’t know what happened. We don’t have a clue.
“I pray every day” that Robert’s still alive, “but my heart leads to a different conclusion,” Clauser said. Yet, “I don’t believe that” he was kidnapped off the street.
When Robert disappeared
A history of truancy and at least one repeated class year prompted a District 108 truancy officer and a police officer on Thursday, Nov. 17, to visit Robert’s home at 233 Sapp St., where they found him and his mother.
Told he was going back to his sixth grade class at Wilson School, Robert bolted out the door. He fled without his bike and medications for eplileptic-like seizures and ADHD. Lisa Bee was issued a city ticket for her son’s truancy. She has yet to pay its $386 fine.
When Robert didn’t appear at school the next day, the truancy officer returned to the home. Bee then reported her son missing. The police department reported the same on its social media sites.
Robert, however, may not have vanished until that Friday morning.
After he disappeared, Clauser said the mother of an older friend of Robert’s posted on social media her story that Robert had run from his home to hers several blocks away. He had spent Wednesday night there and Thursday night as well, with Bee’s knowledge, according to that report.
Bee added to the story in a TV news interview shortly after Robert disappeared.
“It was Friday morning. His friend walked him to the (school) bus stop, and he didn’t get on the bus, didn’t go to school,” she said. Clauser said Bee added that Robert reportedly told his friend he was going home to get ready for school. His mother said she was not home at that early hour to confirm Robert had returned.
“We don’t know” if that story is true, Clauser said. “You can’t trust what Lisa says.”
Ranney said he can’t comment on information police have obtained from interviews, likely including Bee, Robert’s friend and his parents, while the investigation continues. His detectives know where Bee currently lives and her phone number, he said.
She’s reportedly undergone treatment for substance abuse and lives in southern Illinois with a man “she met in rehab,” Clauser said.
At the Pekin police station, a separate area is dedicated to the search for Robert, coordinated with Tazewell County and other area, state and federal police agencies.
In Pekin, “We’re working on this case every day,” Ranney said. “The public needs to know this is the highest of our priorities.”
Tips and reported sightings of Robert initially poured from the public. A flood of baseless accusations and suspicions on social media prompted police Chief John Dossey in January to ask the public to curb them, but to keep feeding what legitimate information they may have. A $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest remains available.
The number of tips has dwindled, “but we’re getting something every week,” Ranney said. “We don’t have the luxury to rate” their quality. “We’re obligated to check out every one, to investigate them fully until they’re exhausted.”
On several occasions, police have called in the Tazewell County Search and Rescue Team of trained volunteers and equipment to search open areas “when several pieces of information justified” the effort, Ranney said.
He also wouldn’t comment on whether the searches interviews have produced a specific direction to take their investigation.
“There’s a few things we want to keep tight right now,” he said.
Clauser and Spillman said they trust the police department’s efforts to find Robert.
“I talk to Seth (Ranney) on a daily basis,” Clauser said.
With Spillman and Bonzai’s Bunch, she won’t quit, either, she said, to keep the promise she made to Robert’s father, and to bring her little brother home from Neverland.
Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin