20 years ago this week, a 10-year-old boy got on his bike and rode away from his Prince George's County home never to return.
His name was George Burdynski. He was known to all as "Junior."
For weeks his disappearance captivated the Washington area when police announced a ring of pedophiles may have been involved. There was even evidence -- since discounted; the 10-year-old was dead.
On May 24, 1993, the day Junior disappeared, Virginia Burdynski was five years old living with her parents in their Brentwood bungalow. You might not expect it from someone that young, but the night's events left a lasting impression.
"Well I remember he was supposed to come home," said Junior's sister, Virginia Burdynski, in a recent interview. "We were all supposed to come in before it was dark and it was dark and he hadn't come home yet. And I remember my dad actually driving around looking for him at nighttime and that's when I knew something was wrong."
When Junior didn't turn up, their mother called the police.
"Something like that of course is going to be traumatic," said Virginia. "That was my brother, that was my best friend, and it's like at that age, you really don't know what's going on, but you just sit back and you listen and you watch everything occur."
For the next several weeks, Prince George's County police turned Brentwood and its adjacent neighborhoods upside down investigating hundreds of leads.
"I think initially we did a tight knit neighborhood search door to door that expanded dramatically over the course of time," said Prince George's County Cold Case Detective Richard Fulginiti. "Helicopters were up with infrared at night looking for anybody who might have been a survivor in a wooded area or anything of that nature. There was information he might have been in local waterways, so our dive teams went out."
But there was no sign of Junior. Even his bike was gone.
"And it was scary because you just always had to have someone with you," said Virginia. "Would you be snatched off the street? Or you couldn't even leave the front yard because you couldn't trust anyone at that time."
What investigators did find in Brentwood in May of 1993 was a group of men with interest in young boys.
Three of them, James Kowalski, Steve Leake and Joseph Lynch were convicted of having sex with boys, but none have faced charges in connection with Junior's disappearance.
But that didn't stop police from calling Kowalski a suspect.
"Well, certainly in my heart of hearts, I believe Junior is gone," said Sgt. Fulginiti. "I believe he is not with us. But exactly what happened, we just don't know. There was a lot of pedophilia going on in that neighborhood and we have uncovered all of that and people have gone to jail over it and we brought in friends and found out what was going on. But as far as Junior's whereabouts, we still do not know that."
Police did find videotapes, apparently shot by Kowalski, in which Junior appears with other boys, but never in a sexual manner.
Kowalski and Leake are still locked up. Lynch has been released and is on Maryland's sex offender registry.
Investigators call plausible a theory someone from just outside the ring snatched Junior.
"I certainly know that people who work in rings share their information. Whatever videos one takes, they share with others via the internet, and so it's very, very likely," said Fulginiti.
In 2002, Prince George's County Police Detectives Mike Butler and Chris Brophy went to the Burdynskis with new information. The two told the couple they had evidence Junior was dead.
"I'm really hopeful in what they were telling me, very hopeful," said Junior's mother, Barbara, in 2002.
But new investigators have since ruled that lead out and say there is no tangible evidence leading to murder. It is simply a theory.
It is one of several inside a box of folders and binders kept by police. Just some of the interviews, facts and photos gathered by investigators in the 20 years Junior Burdynski has been gone.
"There is still hope today," said Virginia. "No one has ever proven to me my brother is dead, someone murdered him or did anything to him, so until that is proven, then I'm going to have hope."
Four years ago, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released a computer enhanced photo of what Junior would look like at the age of 26.
As the years went by -- Junior's absence was palpable --especially during family dinners, birthdays and holidays.
"It's always an empty feeling," said Virginia. "It's like a puzzle and you have that one piece that is gone. It's like you sit at the dinner table and everyone has a plate and that plate is sitting their empty. It's a constant reminder that vibe is always there. It's a void that he is gone."
With no grave to visit and in need of a touchstone, Virginia put Junior's name on her arm.
"This tattoo represents Junior," she said. "He had on a blue shirt and green shorts the day that he went missing. And I have no way to memorialize him. I have no place to go, so I put him on me."
It is a heart wrenching mystery with no end.
A little over a week ago, Junior's parents, George and Barbara Burdynski, gave a sample of their DNA to police who will have it entered into the National Missing Persons databank. The hope would be to find a match with DNA from unidentified remains now or in the future.
On Friday, the anniversary of Junior's disappearance, the Burdynski family is asking everyone to leave their porch light on for a 10-year-old who never came home.
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