It was early August 1995, and 9-year-old Jack Phillips was out playing at the Aspen Glen picnic areain Big Bear Lake, California. Jack, or JD as he was known, lived with his mother Michele, his mother's boyfriend Rod and the couple's 2-and-a-half year old son. The home they shared was just a short distance away from the picnic area.
JD's father was incarcerated at the time, and Michele and Rod had been together for a number of years. That day, however, JD told a friend that his mother and Rod hadn't been getting along, and that he was fed up of all the arguing at home. Between 5:00 and 5:30 pm, JD was seen leaving Aspen Glen and heading off in the direction of his house. Sadly, the little boy would never make it home.
Michele raised the alarm when JD didn't turn up that day. Teams of searchers on foot, horseback, off-road vehicles and helicopters scoured the area for JD, but after a week the search was called off. They hadn't turned up so much as a footprint. Several days later, JD's aunt said that she had thought she heard his voice when she picked up a collect call, but the source of the phone call was never verified by police.
With no other clues to work from, investigators began talking to some of the registered sex offenders living in the local area. One of them was a man named James Lee Crummel, who lived only a few blocks away from Aspen Glen, the picnic area where Jack was last seen by his family.
Crummel had been convicted of a string of rapes dating back to the 1960s. All of his victims, mostly boys, had been aged between 9 and 14. He had also been convicted of the murder of a 9-year-old boy in 1983, but after a judge ruled that his defence was ineffective, Crummel was granted a new trial. He plead guilty to kidnapping as part of a plea bargain and was released after just 5 years in prison.
In 1990 Crummel got in touch with police after 'finding' the skull of a young boy while hiking in the Santa Ana Mountains. After 6 long years, one year after JD Phillips vanished, the skull was finally identified as that of Jamie Trotter, who had disappeared in 1979 at the age of 13. Knowing his extensive criminal history, police were immediately suspicious of Crummel's involvement, though it would take several years before they finally had enough evidence to charge him for the crime.
It was 2004 when Crummel went to trial for the murder of Jamie Trotter. By that time, he was off the streets of California, already 5 years into a life sentence for molesting an Orange County Teenager. In May that year, the jury convicted Crummel of first-degree murder with a special circumstance and called for the death penalty to be handed to him. At this point, Crummel told investigators that he would confess to the murder of JD Phillips if the death penalty was taken off the table.
Instead, the county district attorney attempted to have Crummel prosecuted for JDs murder based on circumstantial evidence and a supposed confession to a cellmate, but ultimately decided against prosecution. For the murder of Jamie Trotter, Crummel was sentenced to death.
As well as Crummel's known victims, and JD Phillips, he is suspected of having molested and killed boys from Anaheim Hills and Pima County, Arizona. At the sentencing hearing, Jamie Trotter's brother Jeffrey begged with Crummel to release information on his other victims, so that he and others might finally get some closure. Crummel, however, said nothing.
In 2012, while on death row, James Lee Crummel hanged himself with an electrical cord, taking his sordid secrets with him to the grave. Just one month later, JDs mother Michele died following a battle with cancer, never knowing what had happened to her beloved son.
Speaking after the news of Crummels suicide broke, JDs father Jack said:
“I'm glad he's gone. There can never be any closure. Nothing would've brought my son back.”