At first, Wanda Cotton searched the water.

She crossed the railroad tracks and scrambled down the banks of the Licking River, calling out the identify of her teenage son, Randy, who went to the county honest one night time and by no means got here dwelling.

Mrs. Cotton, two inches shy of 5 toes tall and unable to swim, would return coated in mud and scratches. It acquired so when the neighbors noticed her coming, they went inside.

Randy Sellers was lacking for weeks, then years, then many years. For Mrs. Cotton, the steep slopes of the river working previous her dwelling in Kenton County, Ky., had been changed by much more treacherous terrain: unresolved grief, and unanswered questions on two cops who had been with Randy that night time.

He vanished in 1980, the 12 months earlier than the disappearance of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in Florida would change the way in which America checked out lacking kids. Adam’s father, John Walsh, grew to become a family identify and a beacon for folks like Mrs. Cotton, who felt alone and ignored by the authorities.

Mrs. Cotton met Mr. Walsh and joined an rising motion of households whose advocacy led to the primary databases of lacking kids, the looks of misplaced kids’s pictures on milk cartons and mailers, and a federal legislation requiring the F.B.I. to step in if dad and mom requested.

“Since my son’s disappearance I’ve made lacking kids my life,” Mrs. Cotton instructed a congressional subcommittee in 1985. “I really feel the phrase ‘lacking’ is a part of my identify.” Mrs. Cotton gave consolation and recommendation to different households coping with lacking kids. However the one query she might by no means reply was her personal: What occurred to Randy?

From the morning his dad and mom reported Randy lacking, the police appeared to be two steps behind. But, the final folks identified to have seen him alive had been two officers who had been presupposed to take Randy dwelling after he acquired drunk on the honest.

Within the years that adopted, the investigation would take vertiginous twists and turns. There was a neighbor who turned out to be a toddler molester and a drifter who professed to be a serial killer, a psychic nurse who stated she knew the place Randy’s physique was buried and a Naval officer who claimed he might detect magnetic currents surrounding corpses. About as soon as a decade, a brand new detective has reopened the file to pursue a brand new lead.

But, no hint of Randy has ever been discovered, and nobody has ever managed to quiet the suspicions Mrs. Cotton has in regards to the officers who had been with Randy that night time.

Now 77, she lives in an assisted residing facility. Her youthful son, Tyran, died many years in the past. Her husband, John, died of most cancers in February 2023.

“God left me right here for a cause,” she stated. “To seek out Randy — or to let whoever did one thing to him know that, no, I’m not going to let it’s forgotten.”

On the Saturday night time he disappeared, Randy Sellers was able to get together. He wore a Led Zeppelin T-shirt and his hair fell in a cascade that ladies discovered alluring. Assembly up with associates on the honest, he flashed a $50 invoice he had simply been paid for a roofing job, and proceeded to share a pint of whiskey, smoke pot and wash some quaaludes down with Coca-Cola, a good friend later recounted in an affidavit. Ultimately, witnesses stated, he couldn’t get up.

The police took Randy to their on-site trailer, the place they decided that he was 17 — a minor — and appeared for somebody who might take him dwelling.

Safety on the honest was offered by volunteer officers from the Kenton County Police Reserve. Ultimately, the reserve officer in cost that night time, Sgt. Robert Wehner, determined to drive Randy dwelling himself.

Randy was identified to the county police as a hell raiser. He had been to juvenile detention and, extra lately, been hospitalized for drug use, in keeping with deposition transcripts. Sergeant Wehner was instructed by a supervisor that if Randy precipitated any issues, he ought to be taken to jail, in keeping with a transcript of the police radio communications that night time.

Family and friends later stated Randy knew that coming dwelling to his mom and stepfather wasted was going to get him in bother at a hopeful time, when he had earned his G.E.D. and was planning to develop into an ironworker like his stepfather.

Because the patrol automobile neared the nation highway the place Randy’s household lived, he out of the blue “came to visit the seat,” Sergeant Wehner later wrote in his report, putting the officer within the brow and grabbing him across the neck.

Sergeant Wehner known as for backup, and Randy was transferred to the patrol automobile of Jay Seifried, a full-fledged officer who had been on the power for eight years. However Randy refused to level out his home, the officers stated.

Lastly, the 2 patrol vehicles pulled over close to a railway overpass within the tiny city of Visalia and let him out, the officers stated of their experiences. He was a couple of half mile from his household’s home.

On Sunday morning, after listening to from neighbors who had been on the honest, the Cottons known as the police, who stated that Randy was not in custody. They known as hospitals, associates and family. Nobody had seen him.

It was an period earlier than dashboard cameras, physique cameras or cellphones might have offered clues. All of the Cottons had was a handwritten notice from Randy saying he had gone to the honest.

That Monday, the police instructed the household that officers had dropped Randy off with out taking him dwelling.

“The younger man was to show 18 in two weeks, it was not but 10 p.m., and I felt there was completely no hazard in releasing him in a well-known neighborhood,” Officer Seifried wrote in a abstract of the episode for his supervisors.

A search was launched on Monday, however the Cottons felt that it lacked urgency. That afternoon, a county police official requested assist from a water rescue staff from neighboring Boone County, in keeping with a name log. After being instructed there could be a cost, the Kenton official replied, “If there’s a payment, simply overlook it,” in keeping with the decision log. When the Cottons discovered, they protested and the water rescue staff was introduced within the subsequent day to look the Licking River.

Two weeks later, an officer thought he noticed Randy within the again seat of a Mustang however misplaced the automobile in site visitors.

The Cottons, for his or her half, jumped on each lead. They known as the police once they noticed buzzards at a close-by dump. When Mrs. Cotton realized that Wade Gibson, a neighbor who had given Randy a journey to the honest, had pleaded responsible to molesting a stepchild, she instructed the police she was sure Randy was buried on the hill behind the Gibsons’ trailer.

More and more annoyed by the investigation, Mrs. Cotton and her husband even sued the county. They claimed the police had recklessly endangered Randy by failing to take him into custody or hand him over to his dad and mom, and in 1984, the Cottons obtained a $21,000 settlement — and a promise that the police would comply with each lead on Randy and “not shut the file till he’s discovered.”

Within the Nineties, the police pursued a declare by an incarcerated man that Randy was one in all greater than 70 folks he had killed. Officers, forensic anthropologists and cadaver canines repeatedly searched a state park, and federal marshals even transported the person from federal jail to Kentucky in hopes that he would point out the place the physique had been buried.

Far much less vitality was dedicated to analyzing a risk a lot nearer to dwelling: that the police had performed some function within the disappearance.

Early on, the 2 officers who handled Randy that night time handed polygraph exams, although subsequent research, together with by a congressional fee, have concluded that polygraph exams are neither scientifically legitimate nor particularly efficient. From the start, the accounts of the 2 officers current that night time differed on primary information, like what time they dropped him off, which facet of the railroad trestle they had been on and the way intoxicated {the teenager} was.

Within the mid-2000s, Detective Fred Scroggins of the Kentucky State Police started investigating ideas that Randy was buried on property belonging to the daddy of a legislation enforcement officer who had been associates with Officer Seifried. He interviewed Mr. Wehner, then in his 60s and near retirement from a job as a upkeep man.

Each officers had repeatedly stated, together with in depositions, that that they had not hit or harmed Randy. However in his interview with Detective Scroggins, Mr. Wehner modified his story, saying that Officer Seifried had stopped behind a close-by retailer and smacked the teenager within the face.

Mr. Wehner, apparently realizing the importance of what he had simply stated, tried to backpedal, Mr. Scroggins stated in an interview. However Mr. Scroggins, who’s retired from policing, stated that after the disclosure, “His entire temper, mind-set and the whole lot modified. The man was in emotional misery.”

Randy’s age development was created in 2011 by a forensic artist to indicate what he might need appeared like at 49.Credit score…Nationwide Middle for Lacking & Exploited Kids

Mr. Scroggins thought the subsequent step was to interview Mr. Seifried, who lives outdoors Chicago. However he couldn’t get permission to go. He was instructed, he stated, that the journey was too costly. A Kentucky State Police spokesman, Captain Paul Blanton, stated Detective Scroggins’s notes didn’t mirror that he had made a request to journey.

The Cottons, their hopes dashed after the serial killer proved to be a lifeless finish, had been left with their unique suspicions. “I at all times thought the cops did one thing as a result of they denied it. They denied having him,” Mrs. Cotton stated.

Virginia Braden, a non-public investigator who has been analyzing the case professional bono, stated she was struck by how many individuals with some connection to the case had been nonetheless round. “I feel what’s uncommon is the period of time that has handed and the shortage of willingness to take the commonsense subsequent step,” she stated.

In September 2022, the Nationwide Middle for Lacking & Exploited Kids despatched two retired legislation enforcement officers to evaluate the Sellers file. The investigators got here to a lot the identical conclusion as Mr. Scroggins.

“Essentially the most obvious and possible suspect(s) relating to the MP’s disappearance and possible loss of life are two members of legislation enforcement,” the investigators wrote in a 17-page report back to the Kentucky State Police.

They had been particularly crucial of Mr. Seifried, noting that he had a historical past of wrecking cruisers, had been caught flirting with a lady whereas he was presupposed to be on patrol and had stop the 12 months after Randy disappeared.

The investigators wrote that Mr. Seifried’s “vanity,” which they stated was obvious in his statements and disciplinary information, could possibly be exploited in an expert interrogation in a legislation enforcement setting, to stop him from being “too snug and controlling.”

When approached by a reporter outdoors his dwelling in Libertyville, Unwell., Mr. Seifried, 73, declined to remark, saying, “There’s nothing to look into, from my perspective.”

A lady who answered the door on the rural Kentucky dwelling of Mr. Wehner, now 79, declined to talk to a reporter.

Spike Jones, the present chief of the Kenton County Police, stated in a written assertion that the Randy Sellers case stays open. He and the division welcome “any consideration that may be dropped at this case.”

The Kentucky State Police initially instructed The New York Instances that there had been no latest developments within the case. However in a follow-up response final month, Captain Blanton stated that new details about “potential concerned people” had led to further interviews, and that “plans are in course of to re-interview” Mr. Seifried.

Mrs. Cotton way back gave up the concept that Randy had drowned within the Licking River, saying if he had, the physique would have been discovered by now. She at all times knew he had not run away, partly as a result of he had been about to show 18 and inherit sufficient cash to purchase a used automobile.

She and her husband, John, erected a gravestone for Randy earlier than John died. But it surely didn’t really feel full. “If I might discover one bone that belonged to Randy,” she stated, “I might bury him with my household.”

Robert Chiarito contributed reporting from Libertyville, Unwell.

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.

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