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Kidnapping mystery haunts family nearly 100 years later

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2004

KINSTON, N.C. When Bobby Dunbar vanished into the coffee-colored Louisiana swamps nine decades ago, the search was unrelenting.

Hundreds of volunteers slogged through the murky waters around Swayze Lake looking for some trace of the barefoot, blue-eyed 4-year-old. Searchers sliced open the bellies of alligators and dynamited the lake, thinking the blasts might dislodge the child's corpse.

Then, eight months later, police announced they had found little Bobby in the company of a wayward tinker from North Carolina. The man protested no, he said, this was his brother's illegitimate child.

A jury convicted him of kidnapping. The little boy grew to manhood, fathered four children and, when he died, was buried as a Dunbar.

But was he really Bobby Dunbar?

Four years ago, the boy's granddaughter began a search for the answer. Margaret Cutright believes modern-day science may help solve a mystery that has haunted three families for 92 years.

But she is unsure whether to take her search to its logical conclusion.

Bobby Dunbar was lost once. Does she have the right to take him away again?

The Louisiana papers dubbed it the crime of the young 20th century.

On a sultry August morning in 1912, a group set out for a fishing contest along Swayze's muddy shores. When the participants returned to the cabins for lunch, Bobby Dunbar wandered off unnoticed.

No straw hat nor any other trace could be found of Percy and Lessie Dunbar's older son. But when searchers found a solitary set of bare footprints leading toward a rickety railroad trestle out of the swamps, and talk surfaced of a stranger wandering those parts, the Dunbars decided Bobby must have been taken.

The citizens of Opelousas pledged a $1,000 reward for Bobby's return, ''no questions asked.'' Percy Dunbar, a well-respected real estate and insurance man, had a detective agency print up postcards with a picture and description of Bobby, and mail them to town and county officials from east Texas to Florida.

''Large round blue eyes, hair light, but turning dark, complexion very fair with rosy cheeks, well developed, stout but not very fat,'' it read. ''Big toe on left foot badly scarred from burn when a baby.''

In April 1913, a wire arrived from the little town of Hub, Miss. A drifter named William Cantwell Walters had been taken into custody there. He had a boy with him who matched Bobby's description.

The Dunbars rushed to Mississippi, but they were not immediately sure this was their boy.

The youth had a scar on his left foot. He had a mole on his neck where Bobby had one. But he refused to answer to the name Bobby, and when the mother tried to hold him, he would have nothing to do with her.

Mrs. Dunbar asked to see the boy again the next day. After stripping and bathing him, her uncertainty left her.

''Thank God, it is my boy,'' she shouted. Then she fainted.

Kidnapping was a capital offense in Louisiana, and Walters knew his life hung in the balance. In a letter to the Dunbars from his jail cell in Columbia, Miss., Walters insisted the boy was actually Bruce Anderson, the son of his brother and a woman who had cared for his aged parents back home in Barnesville, N.C. He begged them to send for her.

''I know by now you have Decided,'' he wrote in scrawling, unpunctuated script. ''you are wrong it is vary likely I will Loose my Life on account of that and if I do the Great God will hold you accountable''

A New Orleans newspaper made arrangements to bring Julia Anderson to Mississippi to make her own identification. But the people of Opelousas already had made up their minds.

Nearly 91 years later, Aline Castille Perrault can still picture the joyous scene she experienced as a 10-year-old.

It was April 25, 1913, and the whole of St. Landry Parish had been invited to the party on the courthouse square to welcome little Bobby home.

Suddenly, someone shouted, ''Here he comes, here he comes.'' Bobby, by then nearly 5 years old, rode into the square on a flower-bedecked fire engine, gliding triumphantly past the Spanish-revival courthouse and the Roman arches of the Old Town Market. Aline and the others thronged around.

''It was a jolly affair,'' said the now-100-year-old woman recently, ''and everybody was happy for the little boy.''

Julia Anderson arrived in Opelousas on May 1. It had been more than 15 months since she had given Walters permission to take Bruce.

She, like Mrs. Dunbar, had trouble identifying him as her son, and the boy who suddenly found himself in a nice home with a pony and a bicycle wanted nothing to do with her.

After her initial wavering, Anderson declared that ''her mother's heart'' told her the boy found with the tinker was indeed her son. But her uncertainty was not easily forgiven.

''Animals don't forget, but this big, coarse country woman, several times a mother she forgot,'' one newspaper reported. ''Children were only regrettable incidents in her life. ... She hopes her son isn't dead just as she hopes that the cotton crop will be good this year. Of true mother love, she has none.''

Following a sensational two-week trial that was the object of newsreels, songs and souvenir postcards, Walters was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison.

Walters spent two years behind bars before being granted a new trial on a technicality. But the town of Opelousas decided that Bobby was where he belonged, and enough had been spent on the case.

The tinker was released and soon faded into obscurity, but Bobby would never know such peace. Whenever there was a sensational kidnapping, such of the 1932 disappearance of the Lindbergh baby, reporters would return to the home of ''that little lost boy.''

Growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., Cutright, 42, heard the stories of her grandfather's disappearance and sensational recovery. She had never had any reason to question them until the family lost another boy.

When her brother Robbie died in a plane crash in 1999, Cutright's father gave her a family scrapbook chronicling the kidnapping case. Leafing through the crumbling, yellowed clippings, she came across an editorial cartoon from 1913.

In the drawing, titled ''Fifty Years From Now?'', a bearded old man sits in a chair, his right hand cupped behind his ear as a boy, kneeling on the floor over a newspaper from the kidnapping trial, looks up and asks: ''Grandpa, do you think we'll ever know for certain what our right name is?''

''That just hit me like a ton of bricks,'' says Cutright, who now lives in Garrison, N.Y. ''The little boy on the floor represented my brother. It was my inspiration to look further.''

Cutright's search has taken her from the cypress swamps of Louisiana to the woods of Mississippi and finally to the hardscrabble Carolina pinelands where Bruce Anderson was born.

Her wanderings eventually led her to the house where Walters' defense attorney once lived. To her shock, the man's granddaughter still lived there and, from a closet, she produced the original 900-page defense file.

Cutright spent months scanning and transcribing the telegrams, letters and depositions. Witnesses had placed Walters and the boy he called Bruce miles away from Opelousas the day Bobby went missing.

When she finished, she says, ''I grieved for two weeks.''

Suddenly, she felt the urgent need to go back to Louisiana. As she stood on the cross ties of that derelict railroad trestle staring into that muddy water, Cutright realized that her notion of who she was had changed forever.

''I felt that it was the first time anyone in my family had gone and acknowledged that a little boy had died there.''

Cutright's findings have given the hope of closure to a family she has only recently discovered.

Julia Anderson settled in Mississippi after the trial, married and raised eight children. Those children grew up believing they had a half brother who had been stolen from them.

Cutright, who is working on a book about the case, has tracked down Bruce's two surviving siblings and shown them her evidence. One of them, 80-year-old Hollis Rawls, has expressed a willingness to submit a DNA sample to help prove whether Cutright's grandfather was really Bruce Anderson.

Establishing a genetic link between Cutright's grandfather and the Andersons would mean reaching back at least two generations and possibly exhumations. A simpler question to answer would be: Was her grandfather Bobby Dunbar?

Because the Y chromosome is passed almost unchanged from father to son, matching the DNA of one of Bobby's three sons with that of his brother Alonzo's male offspring would tell whether Cutright's grandfather was a Dunbar.

But there are those who would rather leave that Pandora's Box closed.

Gerald Dunbar, Bobby's youngest son, says his father had made peace with his story. ''No matter how (a DNA test) turns out, there's going to be a sense of loss,'' says Gerald Dunbar, who lives in Lafayette, La. ''What is to be truly gained?''

For one thing, the test could prove William Walters' innocence, says his great-great-nephew, Michael Walters.

''If he did do it, it's not going to change anything about me,'' says Walters, who lives just a few miles from the old family farm in Robeson County, N.C. ''But I would like to know.''

Despite several family members' objections, one of Alonzo's sons has agreed to submit to the test. So has Cutright's father Bobby Dunbar's namesake.

Robert Dunbar Jr. retired to a little house in Kinston, not 100 miles from the piney woods where Bruce Anderson was born.

On the living room wall hangs a massive family tree whose roots stretch back to a Robert Dunbar who came to North Carolina from Scotland in 1770.

''If I'm not a Dunbar, I would like to meet some of my other family,'' says Cutright's father, a 67-year-old state retiree. ''I would like to clarify where I think I am.''

But in a way, it doesn't matter what the test shows.

He recalled a conversation with his father back in 1954, when he was just a teenager. Another sensational kidnapping had brought a reporter around, and the resulting, ambiguous story prompted him to ask his father:

''Well, how do you know that you're Bobby Dunbar.''

His father, who died in 1966, looked him square in the face and gave him an enigmatic answer, he says:

''I know who I am, and I know who you are. And nothing else makes a difference.''



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