Much of Shelley Denman’s life for the past 14 years fits inside her personal wheeled shopping cart.
Instead of fruits or vegetables, it is stuffed with police reports, FBI blood analyses and framed photos from 40 years ago. There’s pounds of hurt but no feel-good ending.
It’s plenty to push around.
But Denman doesn’t mind the heavy lifting needed while searching for two long-lost children — Sheri Lynn and Michael Johnson, who were 4 years and 10 months old, respectively, when they and their mother disappeared from their Independence home 40 years ago this week.
“There are many families out there facing the same frustrations that I am, not being able to experience closure on what happened to their loved ones,” said Denman, an Overland Park mortgage banker who grew interested in the case after learning of it from her husband, who was an uncle to the children.
The children could be dead, Denman admits.
“There’s also the reality that Sheri Lynn and Michael could still be out there and don’t know who their family really is,” she said.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children recently released a 40-year anniversary flier seeking information about the case. It includes 1974 photographs of the children plus artists’ renderings of what they might look like today.
It could bring new leads for Denman and her sister, Shannon Stevens, who once worked for a Dallas private investigation firm and who agreed to help her sister crack the case.
That was 14 years ago.
‘‘We thought we would have this solved in no time,” Denman said.
Today’s nationwide networks that help authorities find missing children didn’t exist when Sheri Lynn and Michael vanished on or around Nov. 10, 1974.
Technological advances since that time, such as DNA tests that offer the hope of confirming blood relationships, have aided Denman’s sleuthing. She also has accessed national missing children databases and websites like Ancestry.com, where users post digitized family documents. She once received funding from HBO after producers affiliated with the cable channel wondered whether the children’s bodies, if ever located, could be featured in a program showcasing the methods of a celebrity forensic pathologist.
And yet the fates of Sheri Lynn and Michael, as well as their mother, continue to elude Denman. Also still unknown: just what role Henry Lee Harbison, the children’s father and their mother’s husband, played in their disappearance.
He’s been missing for 40 years, too.
“Henry was a total con,” Denman said. “A master manipulator.”
Documents in Denman’s shopping cart detail his troubled early life. An orphan adopted by an Independence family, he began getting into trouble as a teenager in the 1950s. Twice federal judges sentenced him to prison for transporting stolen cars across state lines. He served time in Leavenworth and Alcatraz federal penitentiaries.
By the early 1970s, he was living in Montgomery, Ala., under the alias Michael Johnson.
That’s the name that appears on the 1973 marriage license that he and Freda Denman signed that Christmas Eve.
By the following summer, the Johnsons had moved to Independence. According to a timeline that Shelley Denman and Stevens compiled, Freda Denman Johnson worked at Denny’s restaurant on Noland Road from June to September of that year. Then she switched to another restaurant, where she worked until Nov. 9.
She apparently disappeared the next day — though five months would pass before investigators learned that. The family’s landlord did not notify authorities until March 1975.
“We think the landlord had been intimidated by Henry,” Denman said.
When detectives entered the Johnsons’ home in the 100 block of East Kansas Avenue, near the Independence Square, they found a TV Guide on a couch left open to Sunday, Nov. 10, 1974. Although they found women’s clothes in a closet, they recovered only a few items of men’s and children’s clothing.
They also found blood on a chair, a shirt, a pair of men’s pants and a pair of socks.
They sent at least one item to the FBI, which later reported that blood grouping tests proved inconclusive.
A July 1975 Independence police report noted that Michael Johnson actually was Henry Lee Harbison, wanted for check forgery in Alabama and still being sought by the FBI. However, there was no reason to consider the children missing, the report said, “as there is no indication that foul play has occurred.…”
It was more likely, the report said, that the children’s parents simply had changed their names to avoid arrest, and that the children were with them.
“The case is complete,” the report concluded.
The investigation remained closed until 2004. That’s when Shelley Denman sought help from U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. Members of his staff requested that the FBI list the children and their mother in the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person File.
A Kansas City-based FBI special agent opened a case file.
Several times since then, Denman and her sister have had their hopes rise and then fall.
In 2004, they grew interested in Sharon Marshall, whose kidnapping in the 1970s as a young girl and suspicious death in 1990 had been detailed in a book, “A Beautiful Child.” Marshall had been about Sheri Lynn’s age. But tests using DNA from two siblings of Freda Denman Johnson did not provide a match.
The producer of an HBO documentary series featuring forensic pathologist Michael Baden grew interested in the case and advanced a small amount to Shelley Denman to pay for a researcher who looked into Harbison’s circle of convict acquaintances. The researcher found little that was new.
In 2006, the Independence Police Department issued a press release regarding the family’s disappearance, after Denman received funds toward the case from the family of Carole Sund, a California woman murdered in Yosemite National Park in 1999. Nothing surfaced.
Two years ago, a young woman searching for her mother spotted Denman’s name on the website of the Doe Network, a volunteer organization that seeks to resolve missing persons cases. She contacted Denman to see if Sheri Lynn might be her mother.
The National Center arranged DNA testing. It showed no match.
“The likelihood of finding these children obviously diminishes after 40 years,” said Robert Lowery, vice president of the National Center’s missing children division.
While not wishing to describe the odds, Lowery emphasized that other children who have been missing for 40 years or longer have been located and reunited with family members.
“Usually the younger the children are when they disappear, the greater chance that we will find them,” he said.
Steven Colbert, an Independence police detective, doesn’t know any other missing children cases in his department that go back as far as 1974. The Johnson children’s case presents several unique challenges, including navigating the many handwritten police reports, he said.
The case is older than he is.
But the case remains open, he said, adding, “We would be excited to be able to help the Denman family.”
Denman is realistic about the chances of witnesses coming forward and doing the right thing by offering information.
“We are past the point of appealing to anyone’s sense of morality,” she said.
Still, she believes a long shot could come through. After all, just this year investigators used DNA testing to confirm the true identity of Sharon Marshall, the subject of “A Beautiful Child,” 24 years after her death.
Harbison would be 80 now. Denman believes that if he is still alive, he may be living under another name.
“Since he was a counterfeiter, I think he changed his identify again and was successful in lying low, either for the rest of his life — or still,” she said.
To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone with information regarding Sheri Lynn and Michael Johnson can contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 800-843-5678, the Independence Police investigations unit at (816) 325-7330, or Shelley Denman at email@example.com.