Two little boys walked out into the snow and were never seen again.
It was bitterly cold when 11-year-old Jon Dabkowski got home from school on Thursday, January 14, 1982. Jon and his five-year-old sister, Melanie, lived with their mother, Jeanine, in a modest home in the small town of Tarentum, PA. The past couple of years had been rough for Jeanine. Melanie had been hit by a car two years earlier, and she had been in a coma for a month. Jeanine and her husband hadn’t had a great marriage before the accident, and things got worse while Melanie was in the hospital. Their daughter would eventually make a full recovery. Their marriage would not. Jeanine remained in the house and had custody of both children. Recently, she had started dating again. Her boyfriend, Bob Richards, was at the house that afternoon. Bob was a Tarentum police officer, and Jon got along well with him. Jon, who was a Boy Scout, enjoyed playing football and baseball, but perhaps his favorite pastime was teasing his younger sister. That afternoon, he was chasing her around the house with Bob’s handcuffs.
Jon and his family had just finished eating dinner when there was a knock at the door. It was Jon’s best friend, Gabriel Minarcin. Gabe and his family had just moved to the neighborhood five months before. Gabe was a year younger than Jon, but as is often the case with children who are far too young to drive, geography was more important than age. Gabe’s house was only a couple of doors down from Jon’s, and the two had quickly become best friends. They went to Jon’s bedroom and listened to music on his stereo for a while. Around 5:30pm, Gabe said he needed to go home for supper, and he invited Jon to come with him. Though the walk was short — under a minute — it was extremely cold outside, so the boys bundled up in heavy coats and hats before leaving. Jeanine reminded Jon that it was a school night, so he needed to be home by 8:00pm. Bob jokingly reminded them that he would be on patrol that night and he didn’t want to catch the boys throwing snowballs at cars. They laughed and walked out the front door.
Gabe lived with his parents and two younger brothers, and his mother was pregnant at the time. They were renting the home, and when they first expressed interest in it the landlord had been reluctant to rent it to them. The Allegheny River was only yards away from the house, and the landlord wasn’t sure it would be safe enough for a family with small children. Larry and Margaret Minarcin promised that their children wouldn’t be allowed to go near the river, and the landlord eventually gave in. They repeatedly warned their sons that the river was completely off-limits. Jon’s mother also had strict rules about the river. Jon was well aware of the dangers associated with the water, especially in winter. A year earlier, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had printed a picture of people walking on top of the frozen river, and Jon had pointed it out to his mother in disbelief. He knew how unsafe the river could be, and he couldn’t understand why anyone would risk trying to walk on it.
After Bob had left for work, Jeanine’s dad called. Since Melanie was the only child home, the house was quiet, and Jeanine lost track of time as she and her father chatted. Suddenly, she realized it was 8:30pm and Jon hadn’t returned home. He was usually quite responsible and would always call her if he was running late for any reason. Jeanine quickly said goodbye to her father and hung up the phone. She assumed Jon had tried to call while she had been talking to her dad. There was no call waiting or voicemail in 1982. If Jon had been trying to call, he would have gotten a busy signal and had no way of leaving a message. She waited a few minutes, but when she didn’t hear from Jon she called Gabe’s house and spoke with Larry. He told her that they boys had never shown up at the house that evening. Gabe’s parents had figured that he had decided to stay at Jon’s instead of coming home for dinner.
At first, Jeanine was annoyed. Jon knew he had an 8:00pm curfew on school nights, and he hadn’t mentioned that the boys would be going anywhere other than Gabe’s house. She called a local roller skating rink where the boys liked to hang out, and the employee who answered the phone told her that the boys had just left. She waited until 9:00pm, but there was still no sign of Jon so she called the skating rink back. Once again, she was told that the boys had just left. By 9:30pm, she was still angry but was also starting to get a little worried. She decided to drive to the roller skating rink. If the boys really had just left, maybe she would pass them on the drive over. When she got there, there was no sign of the boys. After questioning some of the kids there, she realized that Jon and Gabe had never gone there that evening. Apparently, the employee who answered the phone would always tell parents who called that their child had just left. It was easier than actually trying to determine if the person was there or not. Unsure what was going on and trying not to panic, Jeanine went back home and called the police.
Police began going from door-to-door in the neighborhood, trying to find anyone who might have seen the two boys after they left Jon’s house. Most of them hadn’t, it was a cold night and few people had ventured outside. But one neighbor said that when she was driving back from the beauty parlor around 5:45pm, she had seen two small boys playing near the river. Bloodhounds were brought in to see if they could determine the path that the boys had taken. The dogs led their handlers to a vacant houseboat that was moored on the river near Riverview Park. Police determined that there were footprints leading to the river, but couldn’t find any leading away from the river. Along the riverbank, the ice was thick enough to hold a person’s weight, but it got thinner towards the middle of the river. Investigators found a hole in the ice that was approximately 10 feet from where the houseboat was moored and 30 feet away from the riverbank. Based on this evidence, the police were convinced that they boys had fallen through the ice and drowned.
Although they were almost certain that the boys were going to be found in the river, police conducted a search of the entire town just in case. Over 100 police officers, firefighters, and civilian volunteers fanned out across Tarentum. They knew that if the boys had somehow become lost outside, their chances of survival were extremely slim. No one would be able to last long in the bitter temperatures and biting wind. It was only 12 degrees outside, and the strong wind made it feel even colder than that.
Numerous searches of the river were made over the course of the next ten days. A team of 35 divers from the U.S. Army Corps were called in to help the state police divers, and volunteer divers also showed up to offer their assistance. Some of the officers felt that the boys would have been carried away by the current of the river. Others believed that the boys would have been dragged under the water by their heavy clothing and may have become snagged along the bottom of the river, which was around 18 feet deep. None of the divers, however, were able to find any evidence of the boys in the water. The water was far too cold for the divers to stay in it for any length of time, as temperatures reached a record-breaking 18 degrees below zero. Not even certified ice divers could work in such extreme cold, as their breathing apparatus would freeze up within 30 minutes. Finally, with no sign of the boys — and no absolute proof they were in the water — the search of the river was called off. The police were unwilling to risk the safety of the divers, especially when they weren’t 100% sure that Jon and Gabe had ended up in the water. The search wasn’t being completely discontinued. A police helicopter would continue to do regular checks of the river from the air, and barge companies operating in the area were asked to keep an eye out for anything unusual in the river. If they reported seeing anything, divers could be sent back into the water to check it out.
Jon and Gabe’s parents had mixed emotions when the searches of the river bottom were called off. On the one hand, they hadn’t wanted the divers to find anything. They wanted to believe that their sons were still alive, but the pain of not knowing if they were alive or dead was heart wrenching. They desperately wanted answers, but unlike the police, they were not convinced that the boys had ended up in the river. They pointed out the fact that an extensive search of the river had failed to yield any evidence of the two boys. Unless police could show them something belonging to either boy, they were not prepared to admit that their sons had drowned. The boys had been wearing jackets, boots, and hats. Surely something would surface if the boys were in the water.
Jon and Gabe both knew they were not supposed to go near the river, and they had never done so in the past. Neither mother could believe that they would have picked such a bitter cold day to defy the rule for the first time. The witness who had seen two boys playing near the river was unable to identify Jon and Gabe as the children she had seen. Even if it had been the two boys, she only saw them near the river. There were no witnesses who had seen them attempting to walk on the frozen water. Gabe’s house was located a mere ten feet from the riverbank. Anyone driving by would have had difficulty discerning whether the boys were playing at the river or were simply in Gabe’s yard.
Both mothers were angry about the fact that the FBI wouldn’t get involved in the case. At the time, FBI police prevented the agency getting involved in missing children cases unless there was proof that an abduction had taken place, there was a demand for a ransom, or there was evidence that the child had been transported across state lines. None of these circumstances were present in this case. The FBI sent pictures of the boys to be entered into the NCIC database, but that was the extent of their involvement. Echoing the words of John Walsh, both mothers decried this policy, claiming that children were given second class status by the FBI. The agency would help track down stolen cars and money, but not missing children.
By February 11th, the boys had been missing for almost a month. Larry and Margaret Minarcin wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying that they were heartsick over what they perceived to be complete apathy on the part of local police who were investigating the case. They felt that the police had been far too quick to write off the boys as drowning victims despite no evidence proving they had fallen into the river. While they were thankful for all the volunteers who had assisted in the search of the river, they felt that the police should be investigating other possibilities as the river search had been fruitless. In their opinion, the police were no longer doing anything to find the boys. Instead, they had adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude, assuming the bodies of the boys would eventually show up in some part of the river. Gabe’s parents believed that the fact that the boys did not come from wealthy families had a lot to do with why the police didn’t seem to care if they found them or not.
Bob Richards was in the unenviable position of being both close to one of the missing boys — he and Jeanine would soon end up getting married, making him Jon’s stepfather — and being a police officer. He could understand why police took the approach they did in investigating the boys’ disappearance. He had seen the tracks leading down to the river, and admitted that he could not see any tracks leading away from it. The logical conclusion was that the boys had somehow ended up falling through the ice. But Bob also knew Jon fairly well, and he couldn’t believe that the boy would have been anywhere near the river that day. That fact alone made him believe it could be possible that something else had happened to the boys. But he bristled at the suggestion of Gabe’s parents that the police didn’t care about the boys because they weren’t wealthy. He knew first hand just how much the officers did care, regardless of the financial status of the families.
As months passed without any sign of the boys or any of their belongings, detectives were realistic about the fact that they would most likely never be found alive. The police chief told reporters that he would love to get a phone call from someone saying the boys had been found, but he didn’t believe it would happen. There was no evidence leading police to believe that an abduction had taken place, and no one believed that the two boys would have run away. The boys were not troublemakers, and neither of them had any problems in their personal lives that would have made them want to run away.
Detectives were certain that the boys were dead, but they had no conclusive evidence supporting this theory. Because of that, the boys would remain categorized as missing children in the national database. Occasionally, police received tips that the boys had been spotted somewhere, and they investigated every lead that came in. In September of 1986, a caller from Spokane, Washington told police that Gabe was living in that city and was enrolled in school under the first name Kevin. Another person called from Rock Springs, Wyoming and said that Gabe was seen there using the name Kenny Schramm. In each case, investigators were dispatched to look into the claims, but the leads went nowhere.
On July 9, 1998, a Virginia State Trooper named Philip Stinson pulled over a car that was speeding down Interstate 77. The trooper asked for the man’s license and registration, and the driver handed them over. His license identified him as Jon Michael Dabkowski and listed his address as being in Ladson, South Carolina. The name on the car registration was the same. Although the man was cooperative with the trooper, it was 3:00am and the trooper didn’t get a very good vibe from the man. He ran the man’s license through the NCIC, and sure enough, the computer came back with a hit. But it wasn’t for an outstanding warrant like the trooper expected. Instead, he learned that the license holder was listed as a missing person from Pennsylvania. It was a claim that the driver denied, telling the trooper that the missing person case had been resolved years earlier. The trooper was stunned, but there wasn’t much he could do at that moment. Though only a child when he was reported missing, the man was now an adult, and no crime had been committed. This meant that the trooper wasn’t legally allowed to detain the man while he tried to reach his parents in Pennsylvania. He gave the driver a speeding ticket and let him go. The trooper immediately went back to the police station and placed a call to authorities in PA. For a couple of brief hours, Jeanine was elated. The spark of hope she’d held onto for 16 years ignited. She and Bob Richards, now husband and wife, as well as Jon’s father were ready to drive to Ladson, South Carolina. But before they could leave, authorities in Virginia called back. The man wasn’t Jon Dabkowski at all. A man named Neil Hammons, who had a warrant out for his arrest in South Carolina, had discovered Jon’s picture on a missing children website and decided to assume his identity.
Jon’s parents, as well as law enforcement, were stunned at how easily Neil had been able to assume Jon’s identity. He had simply mailed away for a copy of his birth certificate and then used that to get a copy of Jon’s Social Security card and a driver’s license. Any time a birth certificate was requested, there was a check done to assure that the person was not listed as being deceased. Since Jon was still listed as a missing person, the request for his birth certificate had not been flagged. By law, a copy of a birth certificate is only supposed to be released to the person whose name appears on it. The ease with which Neil was able to obtain Jon’s prompted an examination of the system, and safeguards would eventually be put into place to minimize the chance that something like this could happen again.
The Neil Hammons fiasco brought the case of the missing boys back into the headlines for a while, but it soon faded back into obscurity. Both families have moved on, out of necessity, but will never forget about Jon and Gabe. For the first couple of years after Jon disappeared, Jeanine kept a spare house key hidden under the welcome mat, a spot that Jon would have known to check. Eventually, the reality of the situation sank in and she stopped leaving the key there, but she continued to pray that Jon would someday return. She and Bob had a daughter together, and she has been told about the half-brother that she never had the chance to meet. The family still lives in the same home they were living in when Jon disappeared.
Gabe’s parents no longer live in the house by the river. They stayed there until the year that Gabe would have turned 18, and then they decided it was time to move on. Margaret had been pregnant when Gabe disappeared, but tragically the baby was born too premature to survive. A couple of years later she got pregnant again and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. In the years following Gabe’s disappearance, she forced herself to stay strong for the sake of her remaining children, one of whom had cerebral palsy. With three children depending on them, she and Larry couldn’t let their despair take over their lives and they resigned themselves to the fact that Gabe will most likely never be found. But just like Jon’s parents, they will never stop wondering exactly what happened that afternoon so many years ago.
Jon Dabkowski was 11 years old at the time of his disappearance. He is a white male with brown hair and hazel eyes. He has a cleft in his chin and a small scar underneath his left eye. At age 11, he was 4’10” and weighed about 70 pounds. He was last seen wearing blue jeans, a red sweatshirt, boots, a maroon and tan jacket, and a red & white tasseled hat.
Gabriel Minarcin was 10 years old when he disappeared. He is a white male with brown hair and hazel eyes. He has a mole on his right wrist, and had a chip in his top right front tooth. At age 10, he was 4’0” tall and weighed about 60 pounds. He was last seen wearing jeans, boots, a tasseled hat, and a maroon jacket.
If you have any information regarding Jon or Gabriel, please contact the Tarentum Police Department at 412–224–1515.