Thoughts & Views: Still seeking answers, 4 decades later

Steven Soden

Steven Soden

It sounds like something from a “CSI” episode, but it’s not fiction. And though the story has no (apparent) link to the area The Observer covers, you never know. Over the course of 40+ years, people can move aound a lot. Old memories can resurface. Maybe someone knows something; something they didn’t even realize was important.

In any case, the story is a fascinating, what-are-the-odds saga, and it has brought some amount of closure to a Washington State woman who once lived in a New Jersey orphanage.

In April 1972, that woman, then a young girl, and her 16-year-old brother, Steven Soden, were among 18 children from a Paterson orphanage who, along with four adults, were on a weeklong camping trip in Bass River State Forest, on the eastern edge of the Pine Barrens.

On the night of April 3, ‘72, Steven and another boy, Donald Caldwell, 12, disappeared from the campsite without a trace. In the words of law enforcement, “never to be seen or heard from again.”

Nearly 30 years later, in 2000 — and, coincidentally in April — an off-duty N.J. state trooper hiking in the park found a piece of a sneaker and several bones. These were sent to the State Police Forensic Lab, but could not be identified.

Meanwhile, detectives from the Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Office have been continuing efforts to ID victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was executed in 1994 for the murders of (at least) 33 young men and boys. His rampage apparently began in 1972.

Last October, Steven’s sister, on the off-chance that her missing brother was among the Gacy victims, submitted a DNA sample to the investigators, but there was no genetic link found.

However, the forensics experts at University of North Texas Center for Human Identification put the sample in their database, found an apparent match and contacted the N.J. State Police lab and the Burlington County Medical Examiner’s Office to confirm the identity.

Steven Soden had been found.

But exactly what happened to him is still a mystery. As is the fate of young Donald Caldwell.

Is Caldwell still alive somewhere or did both boys die? Were they the victims of foul play? Of an accident or an animal attack? Or did they just get lost and die of hunger or exposure?

Bass River State Forest covers 23,563 acres, and it’s not likely two boys from urban Paterson had the wilderness skills to survive in that vastness. We don’t know if they even had a compass. And early-April weather can be unforgiving if you’re not equipped to deal with it.

Last week, New Jersey authorities announced that the State Police and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children “are continuing the investigation in an attempt to locate additional evidence” in the 40-year-old cold case.

State Police detectives “are asking the public’s assistance with any information about Donald Caldwell, Steve Soden, and the Paterson Orphanage group.”

Anyone with any information is asked to call 1-800-THE-LOST.

Yes, the odds against solving this are enormous. But so were the odds against finding and matching those bones and identifying Steven.

The ending to this story may not have been written yet.

– Karen Zautyk

The Observer Staff