By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Police using cadaver dogs and jack hammers have renewed their probe into the fate of a young San Francisco boy who became a national symbol for abducted children three decades ago, and they publicly identified their prime suspect for the first time on Wednesday.
San Francisco police held a news conference to enlist the public's help in learning more about a man investigators had questioned in the disappearance of 10-year-old Kevin Collins just days after he vanished in 1984.
The suspect, Wayne Jackson, who was known to go by four other names, lived across the street from the Catholic grammar school that Kevin attended in the Haight-Ashbury District. He had a history of sex crimes against children and died in 2008, police said.
The American public came to know Kevin after he was among the first missing children to have his picture printed on milk cartons distributed throughout the nation. Newsweek magazine ran his photograph on its cover under the headline "Stolen Children."
"This is a case that haunts the San Francisco Police Department and the city of San Francisco," police Chief Greg Suhr said.
Kevin was last seen at a bus stop following a school basketball practice on February 10, 1984. Normally, Kevin traveled to and from school with his brother, but his sibling was home sick that day.
The last two people known to have seen Kevin alive said the boy with the gap-toothed smile had been talking to a blond, 6-foot-tall man with a large dog.
Jackson, who listed his birth date as between 1947 and 1956, fit the description and had a dog like the one the witnesses described. Police also learned then that he had been arrested in 1981 for kidnapping a 7-year-old boy and attempting a sex act with the child. After skipping bail, Jackson was re-arrested and ended up serving six months in jail, police said.
After Kevin's disappearance, police searched Jackson's home but found nothing. The two witnesses who reported seeing Kevin talking with a tall blond man failed to identify Jackson in a photo lineup, and the lead seemed to die there -- until last month.
A new group of cold-case detectives decided in recent days to try turning up fresh clues with cadaver dogs, and two dogs were brought in for a first-ever search of the basement and garage of Jackson's old home last week.
Both dogs independently responded to the same spot in the garage, and a city crew jack-hammered through the concrete and unearthed fragmentary skeletal remains last Tuesday. So far, however, the bones appear to be from an animal. Additional tests are continuing in a state crime lab.
Meanwhile, investigators recently learned that Jackson had been arrested in 1973 in Canada on charges he kidnapped two 13 year olds but fled Canada before that case could be resolved, police said.
Kevin's disappearance tore up his family. His parents divorced, and his father dedicated himself to finding his son and other missing children by starting the Kevin Collins Foundation for Missing Children.
On the 10th anniversary of Kevin's disappearance, when the boy on the milk carton would have been 20, his parents and his eight brothers and sisters held a private memorial service at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, south of San Francisco.
There they dedicated a bench to him inscribed with his name, a cross and the words, "Forever in our hearts."
(Reporting and writing by Ronnie Cohen; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)