Story of dead toddler near Ashland unravels another mystery

A piece of Cecil Schwalb's personal history slipped into his paper box last week without him even noticing.

The 48-year-old Medford man was in a rush to get to his job in the parts room of Harry and David's maintenance department, so he didn't have time to read the Mail Tribune Wednesday.

But across town, his aunt, Rosie Griffin, immediately recognized details of his life in a front page story. The story described how investigators trying to track down the identity of a toddler found in Keene Creek Reservoir in 1963 had connected with a local foster family who had long wondered what happened to a little boy they cared for decades ago.

"I got chills the more I read," Griffin said.

A team of investigators at the Jackson County Sheriff's Department had an unsolved case from 45 years ago involving a boy of about 2 who was pulled from the mountain reservoir east of Ashland by a fisherman, bound in blankets and wire. Never identified, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Hoping to tap new technology, including DNA testing and facial reconstruction from the skull, and perhaps stir old memories, the investigators exhumed his body and presented the mystery to the public.

Among the first people to contact the team about the rejuvenated case was the family of a woman who had shared an intriguing tip during the original investigation.

Mrs. Cecil Johnson, of Central Point, had gone to police in July 1963 to report that the description of the child found in the reservoir, especially his clothing, matched a foster child who was taken from her home in January of that year. She had sought information about the boy, but authorities had callously dismissed her.

This time investigators, including Detective Sgt. Colin Fagan and Jackson County Deputy Medical Examiner Tim Pike, wanted to know more. The daughters of Cecil and Beulah Johnson shared vivid details about their foster brother, whom the family called PeeWee.

His name was Cecil Roy Rapp. He was born at Fairview Home, a state institution in Salem, to a mentally disabled teen from the Rogue River area and placed with the Johnsons, who lived on a dairy farm on Scenic Avenue, when he was about 10 days old. Then, when he was 2, he was abruptly taken from them.

Those details sent a shiver of recognition through Griffin, whose maiden name was Rapp.

"The words gave me goose pimples," she said. "I said that's Cecil; that's our family."

In 1960, Griffin's older sister Maxine, who was 18 but seemed younger because of a developmental disability, was pregnant when she got appendicitis. After she was treated at Rogue Valley Hospital, a state health and human services worker took the teen to Fairview to have her baby, remembered Griffin, who had just finished eighth grade at the time.

A few weeks after the birth, the Rapps got a letter saying that the baby boy, whom Maxine had named Cecil Roy Rapp after an uncle, had been placed with a family on a farm in Central Point and the Rapps shouldn't try to contact him. Furthermore, the letter said, Maxine would stay at Fairview.

"I remember how devastated my mother was," Griffin said.

Her mother, Thelma Rapp, had planned to raise the child, whose father was a teenager and friend of the family, and she certainly wanted her daughter back home.

The Rapps eventually arranged a dinner outing from Fairview for Maxine and never returned her to the institution.

"Basically, we kidnapped her," said Griffin, who remains Maxine's caretaker and helped raise her two other children born later. Maxine lives independently at the Medford Hotel.

All the Rapps had of the baby boy, though, was an intense longing to meet him and a letter warning them away.

They got their reunion in 1981.

Little Cecil Roy Rapp had lived in several foster homes in Ashland and Talent before settling in at age 5 with Dolores and Kenneth Schwalb on Orchard Home Drive. The Schwalbs adopted him at 13 and he took his adoptive father's middle name, too, becoming Cecil Andrew Schwalb.

When he was 21 and thinking of starting his own family, Schwalb got serious about finding his birth parents.

"I had always wanted to know," he said.

The Schwalbs had his birth mother's name on his adoption papers and he mined other state records for details and attended a workshop for people seeking relatives through adoption records. His search quickly led to Griffin.

Soon a whole new family of aunts, uncles, cousins, half siblings, his mother and grandfather unfolded before him.

"It was a relief," he said of finding them.

It was a thrill for Griffin, too, who remembers breaking down and being unable to talk when she first got his call shortly before Thanksgiving in 1981.

Finding out about his first foster family last week was similarly exciting, Griffin and Schwalb said.

Griffin contacted investigators and called Schwalb at work Wednesday to direct him to the Mail Tribune story online.

"When I was reading, it was my life story again from the beginning," he said. "I about dropped to the ground. I had to take deep breaths."

Pike and Fagan met with Schwalb and Griffin to confirm the details of Schwalb's life, then carried the happy news back to the Johnson family. The tot they had loved and lost had grown up happy and healthy right here in the Rogue Valley.

"We were overjoyed," said Gold Hill resident Christine Winter, the Johnsons' youngest daughter who was placed with the family as an infant, then adopted by them. "I was so happy to know that the baby from the reservoir wasn't Cecil."

Her sister, Joyce Horton, of Central Point, said the family plans to get together with Schwalb at their old dairy on Scenic Avenue later this month. They've found old photos, something Schwalb is especially excited about.

"I don't have any baby pictures or anything," he said.

While the resolution of this mystery has added a new chapter to Schwalb's life and put to rest the Johnson family's nagging concerns, investigators still don't know who the dead child is.

Fagan said a few other leads have surfaced through a sheriff's department tip line. Investigators will track those, as well as pursue DNA testing and a possible facial reconstruction.

"A lot of good has already come of this," Fagan said of reopening the old case.

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