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The legacy of Nebraska's Little Boy Blue

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CHESTER, Neb. (AP) - Chuck Kleveland needed a haircut.

So he left his family's home in Chester on Christmas Eve morning 25 years ago to drive the 12 or so miles to the barber in Hebron.

But when he rushed into the house a little while later, his hair looked the same. His expression did not.

"He went straight back to David's bedroom," Kathy Kleveland said, referring to their youngest son. "I thought, 'Why is he walking so fast?'"

His wife didn't have to wonder for long.

"He told me, 'I just found a little dead boy.'"

Assured his own boy was OK, Kleveland told his wife the story.

He was on a dirt road about a mile east and a little north of Chester when a bit of color caught his attention. He stopped his pickup, got out in the frigid air and approached a grassy ditch along a harvested cornfield.

He saw the frozen body, partially covered by snow.

The boy was thin, maybe 55 pounds, about 5 feet tall. He had blond hair.

And he wore blue pajamas.

So, among the 350 residents of Chester, he became known as Little Boy Blue.

In ensuing years, they would learn his identity and discover the tale of the former Amish farmer who was his father. The intrigue and mystery of the abandoned boy would fill a true crime novel.

The facts of the case were indeed remarkable.

But not as remarkable as what Little Boy Blue brought out of a small Nebraska community.

"Nebraska is the best part of this story," said Gregg Olsen, a Washington author who wrote in "Abandoned Prayers," a true-crime paperback about the case.

In the days that followed Kleveland's heartbreaking discovery, investigators focused on determining the cause of the boy's death and his identity.

Thayer County Sheriff Gary Young was the first law enforcement officer to take a close look at the body. He immediately saw something that pointed to foul play.

"I just knew he had been strangled," Young said this week. "There were marks on his neck."

But the pathologist who conducted the autopsy held a different opinion: Low temperatures caused the marks. The pathologist found signs of respiratory illness, but officially declared the cause of death as inconclusive.

But who would abandon a dead child in a ditch? Two years passed before the sheriff got an answer.

The break came in 1987, when Reader's Digest published an article about Little Boy Blue. A woman in northern Ohio, a member of an Amish community, read the story and wondered whether the mystery boy was a relative who had not been seen for several years. She contacted authorities, who, in the days before forensic DNA testing, used a fingerprint to confirm the identification.

Little Boy Blue was Danny Stutzman, a 9-year-old from Dalton, Ohio. The sheriff and Nebraska State Patrol investigator Jack Wyant furiously searched for the boy's father, Eli Stutzman. They found him in Azle, Texas, almost two years from the date of Danny's discovery in Nebraska.

Eli Stutzman was an Amish dairy farmer.. In 1977, his pregnant wife, Ida, died from smoke inhalation after a fire broke out in their milking barn. Many believed Stutzman set the fire, although the circumstances were never investigated.

Olsen, who spent two years researching the case for his book, said Stutzman wanted out of his marriage and the Amish community to live openly as a homosexual. He and Danny left Ohio in 1982 and for the next three years, they lived mostly in Colorado and Texas.

In summer 1985, Stutzman left his son with a Wyoming family in an informal foster care arrangement. He went back to get the boy on Dec. 14, telling the foster family he was taking Danny back to Ohio for Christmas.

During an interrogation by Nebraska authorities, Stutzman said his son was on antibiotics for a bad chest cold when he arrived in Wyoming to pick him up. The boy slept in the back seat of Stutzman's AMC Gremlin as they drove across Nebraska.

During a driving break, the father said, he discovered his son was dead. Stutzman said he tried to resuscitate Danny before dumping him in the ditch "to let God take care of him." Then he gassed up at Kleveland's truck stop in Chester before driving south to Salina, Kan., to hook up with a boyfriend.

Investigators didn't believe him. But without evidence, or even an autopsy, pointing to a crime, the prosecutor decided to charge him with felony child abuse. That charge was eventually reduced to abandoning a body and concealing a death.

"I've always thought that he killed Danny," said Young, who retired as sheriff years ago. "But proving it was something else."

Stutzman was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and he served about a year.

He walked out of a Nebraska but soon into Texas custody. He was wanted there for the 1985 death of Glen Pritchett, a 24-year-old former roommate of Stutzman's. Pritchett was shot through his left eye. His body found in May 1985. In a ditch.

Stutzman was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He served 13.

After his release, he lived in the Fort Worth area. He never mentioned Danny to any of his lovers or friends, Olsen said.

In 2007, HIV-positive and 56 years old, he killed himself by cutting his left arm.

Stutzman never changed his story, nor did he confess in a suicide note.

What truly set the story apart, author Olsen said, was not the mystery, but the compassion demonstrated by the people of Chester.

They made the mystery child, no one's child, everyone's child.

One resident donated a cemetery plot. The mortuary donated its services, and residents pitched in to buy a casket and headstone.

An estimated 400 people - more than all of Chester - attended the funeral at the United Methodist Church. They gave him a name: Matthew, which means "gift of God."

Visitors still leave flowers, toys and coins at his grave. As time passed, the ordeal softened hearts and made people more appreciative of each other.

"The last two Christmases have been a little different around here," Joyce Easton of Chester said in a 1987 story in The Lincoln Star. "You can see that people are more caring than ever."

The little blond-haired boy in blue pajamas taught an important lesson to Kathy Kleveland, whose husband found the boy's body.

She became a nurse, a dream she had bypassed for a path others wanted her to take.

She tried not to take the little things for granted after Christmas Eve 1985.

"Looking back 25 years, it just makes me appreciate the beauty in life," she said, "and how quickly it can be taken away.

"That's what Danny taught me."


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