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Freddie “Tookie” Holmes

April 29, 2012

 In 1955, six years before I was born, not far from my childhood home in a very rural corner of the Sullivan County Catskills, Freddie Holmes, just 22 months old, disappeared without a trace. By the time I was old enough to hear his story Freddie’s disappearance had become a legend. To scare us into staying close to home, my father would drive my brothers and me by the house, unoccupied by this time, and retell the story of the missing boy. While it did frighten us at the moment, it did little to stop us from wandering around the neighborhood.

As soon as I was old enough, I began my searches for Freddie. Like most children, I never connected the fact that if a “little boy” could go missing, I could, too. I felt some sort of childish moral obligation to look for Freddie. Being a child, I had no idea the complexities involved in searching for missing people. Neither could I begin to comprehend the myriad of reasons a two year old might go missing in the first place. I did a lot of childish searching, looking for the lost boy. I always dreamed of finding him; a bone under a bush or in a pile of old leaves. Even as a child, I understood the possibilities of finding him alive were nil.

My child’s mind told me that people just do not disappear. Of course, as I grew older, I learned people disappear every day and some leave behind no clues as to what happened to them. Though it has been a long time since I started to look for Freddie Holmes, I still find it hard to believe that people can just disappear without a trace. Of course, when Freddie went missing, there wasn’t the forensic science, laws and search procedures available to help in the search and rescue of a missing child. Though it has been over forty years since I started to look for Freddie, I still believe that people do not just disappear. I still believe that there are clues and witnesses that can help us solve these most frustrating and puzzling of mysteries.

Forty years later, when I returned to my search for Freddie, I believed that his disappearance would be a rare and singular occurrence. I believed I would be writing a single article about an unusual circumstance. I could not have been more wrong. The more I looked into the plight of the missing, the more I realized that this country is facing with a silent epidemic. Everywhere, every day, people disappear. The more I researched the plight of the missing the more overwhelmed I became. Believing that it was only logical that all missing Americans were monitored by a single police or governmental agency, I started to search for that agency. What I found was shocking. There is no centralized police agency or governmental organization which helps search for the missing, raises public awareness or raises funds to assist in the search of the missing and relief for their families. Searching for the missing is “hit or miss”. While there are many excellent agencies, both public and private, none of them are centralized, and if centralized, they are far from comprehensive. There is no law or standard that requires all law enforcement agencies to share information to assist in the search for missing. For example, a family in New York may never know that their loved one is in an unmarked grave in California because law enforcement agencies are not required to exchange information. So, my search changed from a quest to tell the story of one missing boy into the desire to help the missing everywhere

The search for Freddie has changed my life. If it wasn’t for a series of events I never would have started to look for Freddie again. These events, in hindsight, seem small and insignificant. But put together, they started me on a path that would bind me to the search for Freddie for the rest of my life.

The first event, small as it was, is that I signed up to receive an alumni newsletter from my high school. After receiving it for a few months, I decided that I did not want to receive the newsletter and was removed from the list. Somehow, call it fate or serendipity, alumni newsletter arrived in my in-box months after I have been removed from the list. I almost did not open it. When I did open it, I found it was the year 1955 in review. It was the year that my father started teaching at Tri-Valley Central School. It was also the year Freddie Holmes went missing. For most of my life, I had been looking for information on Freddie. Up until this time my search was “hit or miss”. I decided that I wanted to pursue my interest in the mystery of Freddie Holmes in earnest.  My search took me to library archives, digging through old clippings, microfilm and dusty boxes. It ended with me finally meeting and talking with the family of Freddie. I consider Freddie’s sister, Dorothy a good friend. Her perseverance has inspired me.

So, here is the story of Freddie Holmes:

In 1955, life was simpler and slower than it is today. Most country people took their lives in stride. They tended little gardens, made all their food from scratch and lived the best they could on very little. High up in the Catskills, there was little or no TV reception, families read, did work around the house and children played outside for hours on end. The Holmes were no different. The farm house they rented was located high up on Denman Mountain Road in the little hamlet of Grahamsville. The road past their house was a one lane dirt road. They had no neighbors. Times were tough, sometimes it seemed that there wasn’t enough to spread out at the table with eight children, but there was always enough love. Roderick went to work with the highway department each day, the children went to school and Gertrude tended to the house and garden.

On the morning of May 25, 1955, with the last of the spring frost finally gone, Gertrude Holmes was putting in her garden. Forecast predicted rain in the coming days and she wanted to make sure everything was in before the rain arrived. Freddie was a beautiful baby; just two months shy of his 2nd birthday. He had golden blonde curly hair. His family affectionately called him “Tookie.” He played out in the garden as his mother worked on her hands and knees. She had him dressed for the cool weather in brown corduroy coveralls and a long sleeve polo search. Freddie toddled down to the shed where the landlord, Baldassare Garizzio was working. Garizzio was a cobbler from Brooklyn and he and his wife often stayed with the Holmes family during their visits to the country. He kept a locked garage on the property. Garizzio once had told Freddie’s mother that Freddie was such a gorgeous child someone would pay a lot of money for him.

Freddie stopped and looked into the doorway where Garizzio was working. According to Garizzio, he spoke to the little boy and then Freddie toddled off. This was the last time anyone has ever seen Freddie. After a short while, his mother stood up and called to the boy. There was no answer. Unconcerned, she started a cursory search. She couldn’t find him. The landlord recounted seeing him, but did not know what way he had headed. His mother’s concern started to grow. Calling loudly, she began to look everywhere, under porches, in the shed, around the yard. Freddie was gone.

Gertrude called neighbors to see if perhaps, as unlikely as it was since the nearest house was a mile away, Freddie had toddled off for a visit. As concern turned to panic, neighbors and friends joined in the search. By the time the police received a call and the first car came to the remote location, night was beginning to fall. Siblings and family had been searching all afternoon but any comprehensive search would take place the following day. One of the largest searches in Sullivan County history was about to commence.

More than 1,000 searchers joined the effort. The community immediately rallied around the Holmes family School was cancelled the following day so teachers and students alike could aid in the search. Police agencies from Sullivan, Delaware and Ulster Counties sent searchers. The Woodbourne Civil Defense organizations and prison guards from the Woodbourne prison joined the search. Volunteer firemen from Grahamsville, Liberty, Hurleyville, Fallsburg, Woodridge, White Sulphur Springs, Woodbourne, Neversink and Monticello left their jobs and farms to assist in the search. Search dogs and their handlers arrived. Even a helicopter from Stewart Air Force Base joined in. Heavy rains began to fall, hampering the search. The dogs picked up a scent, then lost it near the road. Shoulder to shoulder in the pouring rain, searchers worked tirelessly. After three days, not one sign was found of the boy; not a shoe, a button or a footprint. Slowly, friends and neighbors returned to their work and suspicion focused on the family.

Gertrude and Roderick were taken to Albany, almost a 3 hour trip in those days, for a polygraph test. They passed. Each of the six older children were brought into separate rooms, away from their parents and asked questions such as, “Did you parents ever hit you?” They were all scared and confused. Gertrude told investigators that earlier in the morning she had seen a strange car pass by on the dirt road outside their home.

Gertrude’s newly planted garden was dug up and floorboards of the outbuildings were ripped up It was clear, the authorities were looking for a body, though they continued to insist there was no sign of foul play, Search warrants were requested for all neighboring homes, and over the next few months, every searchable inch of the mountain was searched.

To complicate matters, a few days after Freddie went missing; investigators discovered stolen items in Garizzio’s locked garage, such as, tools and chainsaws taken from neighboring farms. They also discovered Communist literature, books and pamphlets, hidden away in the garage. Searchers became so angry they decided on vigilante justice and there was talk about lynching Garizzio. Luckily for Garizzio’s safety, the police arrested him. Even though there was no evidence of Garizzio being involved in Freddie’s disappearance, suspicion immediately fell on him.

After three days of intensive search, the search parties began to dissipate. People returned to the business of their regular lives. The Holmes family tried to carry on. It wasn’t easy. Every so often the police arrived on the door step armed with pictures of dead boys for the family to look at. It was a difficult process. To deal with the pain, Roderick turned to drinking heavily and thirteen years after his son’s disappearance he committed suicide not far from where his son went missing. Gertrude died suddenly at age 61. Her family believed she died of a broken heart. Car accidents and illness took seven of Freddie’s sibling (one born after his death) to early graves, leaving only one sister, Dorothy alive. She continues the search for her baby brother tirelessly.

What happened to Freddie? Did he wander off, fall in a crevice or get taken by a wild animal? If so, why haven’t the remains of his clothing ever been located? Was he kidnapped and sold? If so, how was he taken from the remote area unseen? Did a kidnapper have accomplices hidden in the heavily wooded area? Was Garizzio involved in the boy’s disappearance? Where is Freddie?

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