After 45 years, mystery surrounding missing boys remains

Sunday, June 3, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

HANNIBAL — Missouri's Route 79 is a beautiful roadway that cuts through the state's eastern hills and tiny, subtle towns.

It slithers and curves through the land just like the mighty Mississippi River. Adjacent to the deep muddy waters, it's the perfect route for the country's Great River Road. You could take it all the way down to New Orleans if you wanted to, and in Missouri it's quite picturesque for travelers making their way between the northeastern portions of the Show-Me State and the Greater St. Louis Metropolitan Area.

Motorists are always making their way along Route 79 at its origin, along the calm banks in Hannibal, and for many it's just a daily routine.

Yet there is a mystery on a portion of this roadway that hasn't been solved– a mystery as cold as a brisk Midwest winter. Some of the drivers may not know it, but a portion of Route 79 in Hannibal could be the final resting place of three missing boys.

Life in Hannibal was as it is today – relaxed. The sun shined brightly in the blue sky, and the temperature was very pleasant. The perfect weather for being outside. For Billy Hoag, 10,  Joey Hoag, 13, it was more than perfect, because they had plans after school to go and do what they did best – exploring.

Hannibal's south side sits at the base of many high hills, and within those hills are a maze of many, many caves. Exploring the caves was something many of the local children did.

"They were so adventurous," said DeDe Hoag, the boys' older sister. "Billy, I'd say was a little bit more mischievous than Joey. Joey was a little more serious. He was into astrology and he was more grounded. Billy was a little stinker. He just had that red hair and those blue eyes and those freckles. He was an instigator, but not in a bad way."

The Hoags were a family of 11 children and were known around town. They owned Hoag's Tavern, a popular restaurant along Hannibal's Historic Main Street.

One Tuesday night, Billy and Joey came home covered in mud. A new Route 79 (the one that's there today)was being constructed , and the deep holes dug into the hillside and had revealed a maze of passageways which led into the caves. The Hoag brothers did some exploring, but were back home when they were expected to be. DeDe Hoag recalls her mother, Helen Hoag, scolding the boys to wash their clothes and stay away from the construction zone. Unexplored caves or not, she didn't want her children being somewhere they shouldn't.

Billy and Joey made plans to go caving and recruited some of their friends at A.D. Stowell Elementary School the next day. Craig Dowell, 14, agreed to go with them. It was Wednesday, May 10, 1967. Greg Henderson was one of the neighborhood boys invited to come along. He and Billy were close friends.

"Went to school, seen Billy, and he said, 'We're going caving tonight'," Henderson said. "I went home and planned on going... I get ready to go, and I don't even get 50 feet from the house. Grandma hollered supper's ready.'"

The cave exploration would have to wait. Henderson, along with Billy and other neighborhood boys, had Royal Ambassadors meetings at church Wednesday nights, and there wasn't enough time to do both.

Meanwhile, DeDe Hoag was at her family's house on Fulton Avenue.

"Mom and Dad left to go over to Buehlers Market to get some meat. Tim (DeDe's younger brother) was getting off the bus. Before Mom left, she hollered at Tim. She said, "Keep an eye on the boys (Billy and Joey) because of what they had done the night before,'" DeDe Hoag said. "Joey and Billy came home from school. They were there in the house, and Joey went through the hallway. He had on a T-shirt and jeans."

DeDe Hoag and Billy crossed paths in the house.

"Where are you going?" DeDe Hoag asked Billy.

"Just outside," Billy said.

"Don't leave the yard," she told him.

When their parents returned home and asked where Billy and Joey were, DeDe Hoag had no idea. Tim Hoagcouldn't account for his younger brothers either, so Helen Hoag sent he and DeDe Hoag out into the neighborhood to find them.

"Tim took off one way, I took off another way," DeDe Hoag said. "We hollered, we yelled."

Billy and Joey were nowhere to be found. Tim Hoag came back after doing a quick cave search of his own. He thought his brothers might be wandering in the unknown areas underground.

"Tim went in there to a certain degree, and once he got in there, there were so many mazes," DeDeHoag said.

Tim Hoag told his mother to call the Mark Twain Emergency Squad, and she did.

Over at the church, the Royal Ambassadors were meeting. Henderson found it odd that Billy wasn't there.

"We had a little bit of a meeting and went outside for some odd reason, and that's when we found out," Henderson said.

The Hoag brothers and Craig were missing.

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