CLEVELAND (AP) — Clevelanders too young to remember Beverly Potts, even those born years after she disappeared in 1951, grew up knowing her name and her story.
It was a mystery that became almost folklore, a warning told by parents about the sort of thing that could happen, though no one knew what did happen. Only that a 10-year-old girl went to the park one August evening 67 years ago and vanished without a trace.
Meg Roberts, born in 1964, heard the story from her mother almost a generation later, and “it absolutely affected her parenting,” she said. “She was strict, and always wanted to know where we were, who we were with.
“But she very seldom spoke of Beverly other than to tell us she had a sister that disappeared. She would say it was just too painful to talk about. She simply didn’t want to deal with it. It was very emotional for her, as though it happened yesterday.”
Beverly has no closer living relative than Roberts. She lives with her family in Colorado, but came to Cleveland last weekend for a Capitol Theatre screening of Mark Wade Stone’s award-winning documentary “Dusk & Shadow: The Mystery of Beverly Potts,” based on the book “Twilight of Innocence,” by local historian James Jessen Badal.
“I want to make sure that Beverly is never forgotten. I know that she is still in the hearts of Clevelanders,” Roberts said, pleased to see more than a hundred people, most too young to remember 1951, at the matinee benefiting the Cleveland Police Museum.
Among them was retired police detective Bob Wolf, who was assigned to the case in 2000, after a series of anonymous letters to The Plain Dealer promised a 50th anniversary answer to the mystery.
The letters proved to be a hoax, but Wolf remains reluctant to give up on the case. Born in 1958, he grew up in a house whose yard backed onto Beverly’s.
The story he heard then never changed. After supper on Aug. 24, 1951, Beverly and a neighbor girl walked to Halloran Park on West 117th Street, maybe a three-minute walk from her house on Linnet Avenue, to watch the city-sponsored Showagon entertainment troupe. The girlfriend left to be home by 9. Beverly said she’d stay a little longer to see the show end. By 10 p.m., her worried family found the park dark and deserted.
It immediately launched the largest search in Cleveland’s history, becoming the city’s first widely known missing-child case. There were screaming headlines, rising rewards, wild rumors and thousands of tips, but no witnesses, no note, no evidence, no blood, no body, no solid suspect. No “clews,” as the papers put it then.
After a week, the despairing family accepted the conclusion of the lead police investigator and issued a statement: “We have finally come to the realization we will never see our Beverly alive again. We urge whoever did this terrible thing to write or telephone to us, or the police, the location of Beverly’s body so that we can reclaim it and give her a decent Christian burial.”
Roberts’ mother, Anita, 12 years older than Beverly, left town the following year to join the U.S. Foreign Service, went to Ethiopia and returned to Cleveland only once. She died in 2006. Beverly’s mother, Elizabeth, died in 1956. Her father, Robert, died 14 years later.
Roberts said it was “painful but therapeutic” for her mother to talk with Wolf for his investigation and then with Badal for his book and in Stone’s film. “It was as though a weight had been lifted.”
After the film screening, an audience member asked if Beverly might have survived. Roberts said when she heard about the three women freed after a decade of captivity on Seymour Avenue, “I thought, my God, if they’ve been found there’s still hope.” But it was fleeting.
Wolf suspects the answer to the mystery is as close as it ever was, near Halloran Park, because Beverly was shy and would not have gone anywhere with a stranger.
The detective chief in 1951 thought she encountered someone she knew and was taken away in a car.
But it’s at least as likely that someone familiar offered to walk her home in the dark.
Garages in the area then had dirt floors, since paved. Wolf said a house-to-house neighborhood search was planned in 1951 but canceled after word leaked out in the press. Asked if it’s too late to search now, Stone and Badal said cadaver-sniffing dogs have detected remains dating to the Civil War and through concrete.
“We’d love to see it,” Badal said, but the gamble would be costly and face legal hurdles.
“I’d like to see it done except you’d have to have the cooperation of everyone involved,” Wolf said.
“I continue to pray for closure in my lifetime,” Roberts said, while it still would matter and while people know the name and the story. Hardly anyone alive remembers the girl who would be 77 but remains forever 10.