Born in 1908, Robert Clarence Dunbar, more popularly referred to as Bobby Dunbar was the elder of the two sons of Percy and Lessie Dunbar, residents of Opelousas, Louisiana.
In August 1912, young Bobby and his younger brother, Alonzo, went on a fishing trip with their parents to Swayze Lake in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, around 40 kilometers from their home.
On August 23, 1912, Bobby did not turn up for lunch with his family at the cabin they were staying in, apparently having wandered off by himself. Despite a frantic search by his parents, the four-year-old was not found and the authorities were called in
First, the local police and then the state police embarked upon a massive manhunt for the boy; they even caught and cut open alligators and burst dynamite in the waters of the lake in the hope that the body would be dislodged and float up, however, all their efforts came to naught.
The only possible clues discovered were a set of footprints of bare feet leading out of the swamps heading towards a railroad trestle and some reports of an unidentified man lurking in that area, resulting in an abduction theory.
Eight months later, it was reported that a boy matching the description of Bobby Dunbar had been found in Mississippi in the company of a traveling handyman, William Cantwell Walters, who specialized in the repairing and tuning of pianos and organs
Walters, upon being questioned by the authorities, claimed that the boy was Charles Bruce Anderson, the son of one Julia Anderson, who had granted him custody for a brief period while she looked for employment. According to him, Julia worked for his family as a field hand, and Bruce was his brother’s illegitimate child.
Despite the town’s residents corroborating Walters’ story, he was arrested and the police took custody of the child. The Dunbars were summoned to Mississippi to try and identify the boy.
Media reports on the identification are mixed; according to one version, the Dunbars, especially Alonzo, the younger son, immediately recognized the boy. They made a positive identification after being allowed to keep him overnight and giving him a bath citing the various moles and scars on the child.
The boy returned with the Dunbars to Opelousas, where the entire town celebrated his “homecoming” with much fanfare and a parade.
After a few days, Julia Anderson also arrived at Mississippi to make her case. This development led the authorities to request the Dunbars to return to Mississippi with the boy in question to give an opportunity to Julia to identify her son.
Julia, when given the chance, however, could not identify the boy as being Bruce from the five boys of the same approximate age presented to her and neither did the boy recognize her. Even after being pointedly asked, she failed to make a positive identification, admitting that she was unsure as she had not seen him for as long as 13 months.
The next day, after being allowed to undress him, Julia was more positive that the boy was her indeed her missing son, Bruce. Julia’s failure to identify the boy the first time, her lack of initiative in trying to find her son despite his long absence and that she had given birth out of wedlock to as many as three children, which was not a sign of good character in those times, went against her and the judge held the boy to be Bobby and awarded custody to the Dunbars.
Without the resources to engage into a protracted legal battle for custody, Julia Anderson went back to North Carolina though she returned for the trial of Walters and tried to convince the court again that the boy was indeed her son.
Even though Julia Anderson claimed to have entrusted the boy to Walters only for a couple of days for a trip to meet some relatives of Walters and not for an extended period, she continually defended Walters.
Walters also received a lot of support from the residents of Poplarville, where he and the boy had spent considerable time. Despite many people coming forward to testify that the boy had been seen with Walters even before Bobby Dunbar went missing, Walters was convicted for kidnapping.
After Walters had served two years of his sentence, his attorney made a successful appeal that gave him the right to a fresh trial. Considering how expensive the first trial had been, the prosecution declined the second trial and set him free. According to his family, Walters maintained that he was innocent till his death in the late 1930s.
The boy who was taken home by the Dunbars as their son Bobby grew up as Bobby Dunbar acclimatizing well, playing with his brother, and even showing signs of recollecting things at his home. The process of adjusting well made the Dunbars even more confident that their identification had been right and the child was indeed Bobby, their lost son.
Eventually, Bobby became an adult, married, and had four children before he passed on in 1966. His family members maintained that while he had been told of the traumatic childhood events, he always upheld that he believed he knew his identity and that he was Bobby.
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The Second Investigation
In the early years of the 21st century, Margaret Dunbar Cutright, one of Bobby Dunbar’s granddaughters commenced her own investigation of the case hoping to prove that her grandfather was beyond doubt, a Dunbar.
Her research involving reading the extensive media coverage of the disappearance and the identification, as well as her examination of the evidence and notes presented by Walters’ attorney in defense of his client, along with interviews of Julia Anderson’s children, however, soon made her doubtful that a proper identification had been made.
Subsequent to a reporter of the Associated Press evincing interest in the story and approaching the family, Robert Dunbar Jr., Bobby’s son, consented to have his DNA matched with that of Bobby’s younger brother, Alonzo Dunbar’s son. In a shocking revelation, it was established that the DNA of the two ‘cousins’ did not match and they were not related at all. It was also proven that the boy was Bruce, Julia Anderson’s son.
According to Margaret speaking in a Public Radio International's documentary, ‘The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar’, the new facts of the case, thrilled both the Anderson and the Walters families. The Andersons were happy that their claim had been vindicated and the Walters family were elated that William could be exonerated of the kidnapping charge.
The Dunbar family were, however, clearly unhappy with Margaret for needlessly investigating the matter, bringing it back into public attention, and shaking the foundation of their familial relationships.
Even after more than a century after Bobby Dunbar’s disappearance, nobody knows what happened to him even though there are quite a few theories ranging from alligators having eaten him to his parents being responsible for some horrible event or a kidnapper who was never traced.