EAST MEADOW, N.Y. - More than 50 years ago, a mother left her stroller outside a Long Island bakery and returned minutes later to find her 2-year-son had vanished.
Police and residents searched ditches and homes for the blond toddler. Investigators chased down leads around the country. But the sensational case soon went cold. No one knew what happened to little Stephen Damman.
Now a Michigan man has come forward to say he is the boy, and federal officials are awaiting DNA test results to determine if he is right.
The revelation stunned Long Island residents old enough to remember the futile search, and it renewed hope among Damman's relatives, including Stephen's 78-year-old father.
"Just like a death gives you closure, you know sometimes, it will give you closure to know what happened," Jerry Damman said yesterday from his corn and soybean farm in Iowa.
It was unclear why the man believes he is the Damman toddler. He approached Nassau County police and federal authorities in the last few months. His current name was not released.
Lt. Kevin Smith said the case was referred to the FBI in Detroit. A spokeswoman there declined to comment.
An official familiar with the investigation said the Michigan man believes he never fit in with the family in which he grew up and began researching missing-persons cases around the nation.
Jerry Damman said "it's very possible" that the man could be his son.
"To a certain extent, this would probably close it," said Damman, who lives on a farm near Newton, about 30 miles east of Des Moines.
Jerry Damman and his wife, Charlotte - who is not Stephen Damman's mother - said they believed the Michigan man might have stopped by their farm last fall.
The missing child's sister got a visit from the same man, they said. "She looked at this guy, and he looked like Jerry," Charlotte Damman said.
Smith said investigators learned that the Michigan man reached out to the woman he believed to be his sister, and that the two conducted a private DNA test that found they could be related.
The FBI is conducting its own tests, Smith said.
Damman said he had tried to call the man twice since a report of his claim was published yesterday in the New York Daily News. Jerry and the missing child's mother divorced a few years after their son's kidnapping. His ex-wife could not located for comment.
Jerry Damman worked at Mitchell Air Force Base on Long Island when his son disappeared. His wife, Marilyn, left her son and 7-month-old daughter, Pamela, waiting outside a bakery while she went inside to shop on Oct. 31, 1955, according to Smith and news accounts from 1955.
"Back in that time, it was probably not that uncommon to do something like that," Smith said.
After 10 minutes, Marilyn came out of the bakery but could not find the stroller or her children, authorities said. The stroller, with only her daughter inside, was found around the corner from the market a short time later, authorities said.
More than 2,000 people searched for 28 hours without finding Stephen. The county's assistant chief inspector, Leslie W. Pearsall, called off the search, saying that the boy's disappearance had become "a case for detectives only," according to 1955 story in the New York Times.
Newsday reported that the discovery of the "Boy in the Box" in Northeast Philadelphia in February 1957 prompted police to investigate whether the body found in the cardboard box was Stephen's. Investigators concluded it was not, and in 2003, the sister, Pamela, supplied DNA to Philadelphia police, confirming that it was not Stephen Damman.