BEAUFORT — For hours before 13-year-old William “Ben” Ownby was reported missing, neighbors saw a beat-up white pickup cruising his rural neighborhood. A schoolmate saw what was possibly that same truck speeding away about the time Ben disappeared.
On Tuesday, the mysterious pickup was the focal point in the search for Ben, who was last seen Monday afternoon after getting off the school bus near Missouri Highway 50 in Beaufort, an unincorporated town about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis.
An Amber alert was issued Tuesday as the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the FBI were joined by dozens of volunteers in the search.
Ben’s father, William Ownby, said his son was last seen by a fellow student after the two boys got off the bus after attending middle school in nearby Union.
The boys separated and Ben’s friend told authorities he looked back minutes later to see a white pickup truck with a camper shell in an apparent hurry, backing into a ditch briefly before speeding away.
Ownby said neighbor’s had spotted the same truck cruising up and down a county road near his wooded subdivision earlier that day.
“We have a tight-knit community here, and when there’s something out of place, people notice,” Ownby said.
Ownby was at home Tuesday, surrounded by family and friends, as police, firefighters and volunteers searched the woods near his home, looking for Ben or clues that might lead to him.
“The longer this goes on, the more stressful it gets,” Ownby said.
Some volunteers rode on horseback and ATVs, while others searched on foot. Helicopters fanned out over the area.
“Everybody’s willing to help,” Beaufort Fire Chief William Borgmann said. “Everybody wants to do something.”
Ben is white, 4 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs about 100 pounds. He was last seen wearing a hooded St. Louis Rams windbreaker and blue jeans.
Ownby said he usually meets his son at home every afternoon at 3:45 p.m. He called police Monday around 4:10 p.m. when he realized his son was missing.
Police searched Ben’s computer hard drive Monday night and ruled out the possibility that the teen had left with a stranger he met on the Internet, his father said.
Ownby said the abduction came “out of the blue,” and he couldn’t imagine why anyone would be motivated to take his son.
Sheriff Gary Toelke asked that residents in the region keep an eye out for the white pickup. It had the word “Nissan” written in black letters on the back, but authorities weren’t certain it was a Nissan.
Toelke described the pickup as beat-up. It had dents and rust and was missing hubcaps. The camper shell had one continuous window along the sides, with what appeared to be a ladder rack on top.
“The public is going to be very important in solving this because somebody has seen that truck,” Toelke said. “Somebody knows where it is.”
He also said the boy was carrying a black backpack that may have been discarded along a road.
Memories are still fresh in Franklin County of another high-profile kidnapping less than four months ago.
Police say Lonedell resident Shannon Torrez slashed the throat of her neighbor and stole her infant child Abigale Woods, or “Baby Abby” as she became known in the five days she was missing.
Woods was recovered after Torrez’s sister-in-law contacted police. The child is back home with her parents while Torrez is jailed on $1 million bond.