September 30, 2012

How did 'Baby Dwight' vanish?

While missing children's cases often spiral into national news, with breathless updates and live video footage, the strange story of Dwight Stalling's disappearance has largely stayed off that grid.

Inside a four-bedroom Elk Grove home, two brightly wrapped gifts sit atop a large stereo speaker in a corner of the living room.

Barbara Edwards bought the presents last Christmas, a set of blocks and another toy, then wrapped them in holiday paper and wrote in black marker, "Little Man, Dwight. Love, Granny."

As another holiday season looms, no one seems able – or willing – to say whether Dwight Stallings will ever open his gifts. The child's disappearance remains a mystery that has vexed detectives, family members, social workers and lawyers, who say there has been no credible sighting of him since April 2011, when he was 11 months old.

The questions are many: Is "Baby Dwight" dead? Is he alive? Was he given away or taken? Did he wander off during one of his mother's drug-addled binges? And why won't she say?

Beneath those questions lies an equally unsettling puzzle: How do you lose a baby?

"The obvious answer is, children don't just disappear," said Robert Lowery of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"I think all the possibilities have to remain on the table for this child. Someone out there, in our experience, knows what happened."

While missing children's cases often spiral into national news, with breathless updates and live video footage, the strange story of Dwight Stalling's disappearance has largely stayed off that grid.

In the past six months, authorities have grilled Tanisha Edwards, Dwight's 36-year-old mother. They have criss-crossed the region, contacting family members, friends and neighbors. They have viewed hours of surveillance tapes from a south Sacramento liquor store and searched a Florin Road neighborhood with cadaver dogs.

They have convened hearings in both criminal and juvenile courts, and chased a dead-end series of clues involving motel parking lots, veiled women, barroom confessions and a good Samaritan taking the child.

Throughout the search, they have relied on an old, grainy photo of a chubby-cheeked baby looking curiously into the camera. Back then, he charmed his grandmother by crawling with his hands and feet, not his knees. He was a "happy baby," she recalled, who loved Cheerios and hamburger meat and playing with toilet tissue rolls.

If alive, he would be 2 years, 4 months, a toddler who undoubtedly would be padding about on little feet now, his face thinner and his body perhaps three to four inches taller.

Lowery said his center would like to model an age-progressed photo of how Dwight Stallings might look today.

Still, it will not be easy. The lack of cooperation by the mother, the delay in reporting Dwight missing – both have conspired to make matters "much more difficult," said Lowery, a retired law enforcement officer who heads the organization's missing children's division.

"With a lot of our kids – even our most critically missing kids – we have an idea what happened," he said. "In this case, we just don't."

Tanisha Edwards has repeatedly denied Bee requests for an interview. She recently began serving a three-year prison term for probation violations but has not been criminally charged in connection with her baby's disappearance.

Nearly 18 months after he was last seen alive, the only hints to what is happening in the case come from monthly dependency court hearings before Juvenile Court Judge Jerilyn L. Borack.

Borack has allowed The Bee access to confidential hearings and documents in the case, she said, because "the needs of the community and the protection of the child outweigh the policy considerations favoring confidentiality of juvenile case files."

Those documents, along with numerous interviews with family members, law enforcement and others, paint a portrait of a troubled mother – and the chaotic world from which a baby disappeared.

A troubled start

The odds were stacked against Dwight Stallings from the day he was born, May 19, 2010.

At the hospital, Tanisha Marie Edwards, a high school dropout collecting $800 a month in disability payments, tested positive for methamphetamine use. Sacramento County's Child Protective Services agency stepped in.

While Dwight came onto CPS' watch in his first hours of life, the agency's contact with the family appears to have been sporadic. Records indicate the agency's role was largely confined to drug testing for Edwards, and she frequently failed it.

There were other ominous signs. Edwards already had two older children she had handed off to her parents to raise, and a long and troubled history in school, the courts and on the streets.

The notion that she could care for a newborn seemed a stretch even to her own mother.

"Tanisha's not a good mom," Barbara Edwards, 64, said in an interview at her home, where toys and game consoles fill the living room for her grandchildren, including Tanisha's other children, now 8 and 15.

"She liked to hang out in the streets. She liked to hang out with the wrong crowd."

Tanisha Edwards bounced in and out of jail on various charges starting in 2002, and in between stints in custody reconnected with an old flame: Hasuan Raheem Stallings.

Stallings, 41, whose arrest history runs eight pages and includes charges involving drugs, firearms and domestic violence, soon would father a child with Tanisha.

They named him Dwight, the same as Stallings' father and his older brother, a basketball coach in Oakland.

Stallings, who told The Bee he has six other children, lived off and on with Tanisha Edwards and their baby – until his arrest in the spring of 2011 on a probation violation.

Problems for the family were mounting. Edwards' drug test came back dirty April 6, 2011. Two days later, she left a message for a CPS social worker that she was "relocating to Wichita," according to a probation department report.

Sometime during this turbulent period, Dwight disappeared.

'He wasn't there'

The last place Dwight Stallings was known to live was an apartment on Florin Road, just east of Highway 99.

The child's grandmother says the last time she saw the little boy was early April 2011, when Tanisha asked her to pick him up at the apartment. At the end of two weeks, Tanisha abruptly called her mother and asked for him back.

Barbara Edwards says she heard Dwight's voice one more time, when Tanisha called her on Mother's Day, May 8, 2011. She said she could hear his voice in the background as her daughter tried to coax him into saying "Barbara."

For Dwight's first birthday on May 19, 2011, Barbara Edwards planned a party at her home. Her daughter never showed. When Tanisha called her mother on May 30 to wish her a happy birthday, there was no sign of Dwight.

"It was silent," she said. "He wasn't there."

Barbara Edwards acknowledges regretfully that she did not file a missing persons report on her grandson.

The official "discovery" that the boy was missing came after CPS asked Elk Grove police in March this year to help locate Tanisha Edwards, who had an outstanding warrant from 2011 for failing to produce the child. Several days later, officers arrested her at Barbara Edwards' home and learned for the first time that Dwight was missing.

Elk Grove police notified the Sheriff's Department, which issued a public alert.

The 11-month delay, sheriff's detectives have said, put a critical – possibly lethal – dent in efforts to locate the boy.

Meanwhile, the baby's mother has spun a nonsensical web of stories about what became of her youngest child. Among the claims contained in an array of court documents:

She told Judge Borack in June 2011 that she took a bus to Reno and gave Dwight to two strange women wearing head scarves in the parking lot of a Motel 6.

She told the baby's father she had changed Dwight's name and he could go find the child himself.

She told a fellow bar patron in August 2011 that her child had died six weeks earlier.

As the months passed in 2011, and Tanisha Edwards drifted about town without her son, Barbara Edwards said she asked regularly about the baby.

"I would ask her where Dwight was," she said. "It was, 'He's with somebody, somebody like you who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink.' She said, 'He's OK.' "

At one point, Barbara Edwards said, her daughter said she had no idea where the baby had gone.

It got to the point, the grandmother said, where Tanisha Edwards refused to talk about Dwight at all – and insisted that her older children never mention his name.

Things came to a head last Thanksgiving, when Barbara Edwards asked again as the family gathered.

"I told her this picture would be complete if Dwight was here," she said. "She started crying and she went into the garage and started drinking.

"She didn't talk about Dwight, and she didn't want us to talk about him."

Searches and frustrations

In hearings over the past two months, CPS officials have described their renewed efforts to find the boy. The social worker assigned to the case has scoured south Sacramento, interviewing preschool teachers, rendezvousing with confidential sources and chasing down the whereabouts of one of Edwards' Florin Road neighbors.

"The court recognizes the many efforts of the department to locate the child as being satisfactory," Borack said at the last hearing Sept. 11.

Nevertheless, CPS workers have been stymied by Dwight's parents. Tanisha Edwards has repeatedly refused to appear in dependency court to answer questions about her missing child. After some coaxing, the boy's father agreed to show up for this month's hearing, and told the judge he could offer no clues.

In a hallway interview, Hasuan Stallings told The Bee he didn't expect his former girlfriend to ever cooperate.

"It's going to be like this until they find him, and they can't do nothin' about it," said Stallings, who lives in a Sacramento apartment complex with another woman and several of his other children. "They can't make her talk."

Last month, Tanisha Edwards was sentenced to three years in state prison for violating her probation from a 2008 felony case that involved her illegal purchase of 500 rounds of ammunition. Among her violations: drug use, ducking her juvenile court appearances and failing to notify authorities of address changes. At her Aug. 31 hearing, Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard described Edwards' life as "a train wreck."

Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully's office will no longer discuss the case or whether charges will ever be filed in the boy's disappearance. Edwards' current stretch at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, however, gives them time before having to decide.

Sheriff's officials also have clammed up.

"We've discussed it with the DA and our team, and we don't feel we have anything worth saying at this point on the Stallings case," homicide Detective Brian Meux wrote in an email.

"I hope a resolution will be coming but I don't know how soon. We will obviously have more to say at that point."

Barbara Edwards clings to her theory that her youngest daughter was out partying last year, getting high, and someone took the child.

"I don't think she would hurt him, that much I know," she said.

She doesn't remember now what gift she wrapped for Dwight last year in Scooby-Doo holiday paper, to accompany the set of blocks. But she holds out hope he will be back this year to open them.

"I don't know what to do," she said, as music from a passing ice cream truck drifted through a window in her home. "All I know is, I want him back, but I don't know what to do."

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