By Mike Hudson
It remains one of the darkest and most disturbing cold cases in the files of the Niagara Falls Police Dept.
But despite national media exposure that has included television programs such as “Unsolved Mysteries,” The Forensic Files” and “America’s Most Wanted,” and despite herculean efforts by the Niagara County Sheriff’s Dept. and the FBI, the 1982 disappearance of 2-year-old Russell Mort remains an enigma.
By all accounts, May 5, 1982, was a beautiful sunny spring day in Wheatfield. Russell was out in the fenced back yard at the Lynch Park mobile home park with his mother, Ruth Mort, playing with a toy guitar. When he complained that something was wrong with the guitar, his mother took it into the residence, putting Russell into the sandbox his father, Ron Mort, had built for the boy.
It was the last time she would ever see her son. When she came back outside a few minutes later, he was gone. Forever.
By late afternoon, a massive search effort was underway. State police helicopters patrolled the sky and sheriff’s dept. patrol boats cruised the upper Niagara River just in case the 2-year-old climbed the fence, crossed the road, walked 100 yards and fell into the roiling water.
In 2005, a man in Texas contacted authorities and said he believed he was Russell. He was adopted, and said his adoptive parents gave evasive answers when he asked them about his history. Law enforcement officials went so far as to conduct DNA testing, which determined the man was not Russell Mort.
In 2015, former Niagara County Sheriff Jim Votour told reporters that he believed Russell was still alive. He says this cold case has caused frustration for his department and decades of unrest for the families who’ve been affected.
“How do you not do everything you can to fight to bring some type of resolution to this case?” said Voutour.
And FBI Special Agent Brian Boetig said non-family child abductions, while rare, are often remarkably similar.
“For every person that we find, and they tell us about somebody else, it’s a spider web effect. We’re looking for people who lived in those trailers, who visited those trailers, what type of cars they drove, what type of relatives they had that may have come and visited them.”
Several Lynch Park residents reported seeing an unfamiliar man and woman with a boy who may have been Russell in a white 1965 Corvette with a black convertible top, last seen in the vicinity of Hyde Park Boulevard and Packard Road, but the lead never panned out.
Lynch Park resident Bill MacVie, who lived there at the time of Russell’s disappearance, told reporters he never believed the boy just wandered into the Niagara River.
“We just thought someone had to have taken that child,” he said.
He remembers investigators checking under trailers and inside homes.
“It was the beginning of a nightmare that has no end,” Russell’s mother, Ruth Mort told reporters.
Stranger abductions where the intent is to rear the child oneself, or sell the child on the black market, most often involve infants or toddlers; women are almost always the perpetrators, either alone or with a male accomplice.
“There’s never been any evidence whatsoever as to what actually happened to him, so therefore you cling to hope that he is alive someplace, unless you hear something otherwise,” Ruth Mort said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children features information on Russell Mort, including the FBI generated age progression photo, which depicts what he might like today at age 37.
“I think about Russell most every day…we had two other girls after Russ disappeared and we’re busy now with grand babies, and it’s helped an awful lot,” Ruth Mort said.
Russell Mort’s case has an interesting distinction in that in the 1985, his was the first picture of a missing child from upstate New York, to be depicted on a milk carton. It became a common method used to try to locate missing children before the advent of the internet.
In her home, Mrs. Mort keeps two thick scrapbooks of news articles, photos, and other items related to her son’s disappearance, including a flattened, now 28-year-old milk carton with his picture on it.
Russell Mort. Gone but not forgotten, and perhaps living his life somewhere without knowing who he really is.
Another Niagara Falls tragedy.