FORT JACKSON, S.C. (May 29, 2014) -- What started out as an ordinary spring Sunday on Fort Jackson ended up as a day shrouded in mystery that still occupies hearts and minds 42 years later.
On April 23, 1972, Maj. Joe Woodward, then the staff judge advocate on post, was mowing the grass outside his home in the officers' housing area. His 9-year-old son, Michael, was playing outside nearby. At some point, just before noon, Michael disappeared without a trace. The case of the missing boy attracted widespread media attention, but despite the efforts of local and national law enforcement agencies, Michael was never found and the case went cold.
Forty-two years after Michael's disappearance, the case is open again because of the perseverance of two former investigators and the insistence of Patrick O'Connor, deputy director for emergency services.
O'Connor said he first came across the case after hearing about it from the former case investigator and another former law enforcement officer who is volunteering to review cold cases with the Richland County Sheriff's Department.
"I started reviewing the case file on my own and working with the former investigator and ... the cold case investigator and just started building theories. And we've done a few things along the way," O'Connor said.
After five years of reviewing the file in his spare time, O'Connor received permission from Fort Jackson commanders to reopen the case, which allowed him to enlist the help of Military Police Investigator Carlos Monday. O'Connor was able to get the case listed on the National Crime Information Center database and with the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children, which means that the case is visible to law enforcement agencies across the nation.
Michael's parents are no longer alive, but investigators have been working with other family members who remain hopeful about getting closure.
"Investigator Monday and I went to Greer, South Carolina, where Michael's uncle currently lives, and took a DNA sample from his uncle," O'Connor said. "Then the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children coordinated with the sister, who lives in Texas and did some DNA testing with her. So now there's a DNA profile in the system. So, if we ever find any remains or a person who we think might be Michael, we could test that."
O'Connor said that, to his knowledge, Michael is the only missing person in the history of Fort Jackson. He said he hopes that people who were on or near Fort Jackson at the time still remember the case.
"It was a pretty significant event, even though the amber alert system didn't exist back then," O'Connor said. "But for the installation it was a pretty significant event."
After the boy was reported missing, a massive search was conducted. The search party included more than 400 Soldiers; volunteers on horseback, on motorcycles and in jeeps; and three helicopters from the 498th Medical Unit and the Fort Jackson Aviation Division.
"(The case) stays on my mind. Almost every day I'm thinking about it," O'Connor said. "I still want to get (the information about the case) out there and see who can help us or if there's anybody (with information) -- somebody's mother told a story or somebody's uncle passed the story on or even somebody who's still alive who used to work here or went to school with Michael."
Monday said he hopes the popularity of TV shows about cold cases might revive the public's interest in the case.
"(Because of) TV and modern television shows some of these cold case files are very intriguing. The public has an interest in them that maybe wasn't there 20 years ago," Monday said.
He said he encourages everyone with any information about the case to come forward. Tips may be submitted anonymously.
"Just one phone call could change everything," Monday said. "No matter how insignificant (people) think something might be that they know about it, it's not insignificant to us for solving the case."
Anyone with information about the disappearance of Michael Woodward should call the Fort Jackson Military Police at (803) 751-1418, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) THE-LOST (843-5678) or Midlands Crimestoppers at (888) CRIME-SC (274-6372).