In this weekly series, Herald-News senior reporter Brian Stanley looks back at some of the most notorious crimes in the area’s history. This week marked the 36th anniversary of Sarah Avon’s disappearance.
One minute she was playing with some other kids in front of her Joliet Township home. And the next minute she was gone.
Sarah Elizabeth Avon was 6 years old when she vanished on the night of July 21, 1981, outside her house in the 700 block of Richards Street.
Earlier that evening, Sarah and her sister, Marie, 5, had heard someone mention “a tractor pull” and came in to tell their mother, Mary, 26, they wanted to go to one — even though they didn’t know what it was, Mary Avon later told The Herald-News.
Mary Avon never saw her older daughter again. The girls had been preparing to catch fireflies. They’d been playing outside with other kids before Marie went to play on the porch of the house next door and Sarah walked across the street to see a playmate who turned out not to be home.
At about 8:50 p.m., Mary Avon called for the girls to come inside, but only Marie returned and said she didn’t know where her sister was.
Sarah’s mother and some concerned neighbors searched the area for 30 minutes before calling Will County Sheriff’s police. Throughout the night and next day, police and neighbors searched from house to house and looked under bushes throughout the neighborhood. Firefighters dragged a nearby quarry several times.
Mary Avon said Sarah was “quiet and reserved” around people she didn’t know and had been taught not to get in a car with a stranger.
“Bring back my baby. Just let me know she’s all right,” the sleep-deprived woman begged before admitting to the late Herald-News reporter John Whiteside she’d given up “hope [her daughter} would walk around the corner and ask for a popsicle.”
A week after Sarah’s disappearance, police acknowledged they’d learned nothing to add to the initial report.
Sarah Avon was 4 feet tall and weighed 75 pounds. She had brown eyes and blond hair in four pigtails – one on each side and two in the back. She was wearing a blue Joliet Park District Soccer shirt, blue jogging pants with red and white stripes and blue sneakers with a white stripe. As missing persons databases were created in the 1980s and 1990s, her information was entered alongside thousands of other children.
Mary and Marie Avon moved south two years later. Whiteside remained interested in the case for the rest of his life and would include Sarah when writing columns about the search for answers in the area’s unsolved crimes. In 1993, he was contacted by a reader who tried to provide some.
A man had reportedly confessed on his deathbed that he’d been involved in burying Sarah’s body a dozen years earlier. Whiteside shared that information with investigators, who dug up part of a vacant lot on Miller Avenue a few blocks from where Sarah’s family had lived. The property once had a house where Sarah’s baby sitter had lived with a mentally disturbed child who allegedly had done something to the girl.
Nothing was found. Police were frustrated again in 2004 when they cut into the concrete floor of a garage on Noel Avenue that had once been owned by a suspect who was questioned after the deathbed confession. After initial conversations with a detective, the man refused to take a polygraph test or participate in further interviews.
During the second excavation, police found small bone fragments, but were unable to determine whether they were human, according to Herald-News reports. They also found an old pair of socks and several pieces of rotten cloth. None of which answered the mystery of what Whiteside called “every parent’s nightmare.”
But like many other cold cases, technological advancements could mean whoever is responsible for Sarah Avon’s disappearance could be brought to justice one day. Of the thousands of story notes Whiteside took during his long career, the Sarah Avon notes were the only ones he made sure were preserved before his 2005 death.
“A detective is assigned to the case and within the past few years we have aggressively re-examined it,” Will County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer said earlier this week. “In conferring with the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office, they have stated without a body or other physical evidence tied to this case, it would be very difficult to prosecute without those key things.”