I had never heard of the case of the missing twelve year old, Jaliek Rainwalker, until the ever-excellent Trace Evidence podcast covered it a while back. Since then, I’ve been delving into it as much as possible. It’s not a huge topic in true crime discussion circles, but it was picked up by the local media in the region of New York state where it happened.
Before I dive into Jaliek’s background and the circumstances that led up to his disappearance, I want to touch on his name. His first name was given to him at birth, but his surname of “Rainwalker” seems to have come from the adopted family he had lived with for five years before he went missing. His adoptive parents were named Stephen Kerr and Jocelyn MacDonald, but evidently they chose to use “Rainwalker.” I have never discovered what Jaliek’s legal surname was before his adoption, so this is how he will be referred to throughout.
Jaliek had a difficult life from day one. He was born on August 2nd, 1995, in Albany, to a drug-addicted mother. Various sources have referred to him having half-brothers who remained living in Albany, but it has never been clear that he had any contact with them. He was given up for adoption when he was two days old, and spent the next four years moving between different foster care homes. Because Jaliek had some serious behavioral problems, his caregivers were all trained in what is termed “therapeutic foster care.” Jaliek was eventually diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, a complicated set of emotional and behavioral issues that effect a child’s ability to form bonds with others. It is not certain if this condition was attributed to Jaliek’s pre-natal exposure to alcohol and hard drugs, his lack of permanent parental figures in early childhood, or both. I do know that the upshot of it all was that he had a tendency to fly into violent tantrums that could last as long as an hour, and that this posed a challenge for those that cared for him. Nevertheless, at the age of four, he found a more stable situation in the home of Larry and Jody Schoen. For a time, the couple hoped to fully adopt him, and even though it never came to pass, they still have fond memories of their foster son and remain dedicated to finding him. They describe him as a bright, affectionate little boy who loved reading, sports, and dinosaurs. He had a mild speech impediment, which meant he had difficulty pronouncing his full name, so they often called him “J.”
When Jaliek was seven years old, he had a tantrum so severe that he physically attacked the Schoen’s young daughter. It was at this point that Larry and Jody came to believe that they could no longer provide what Jaliek needed as he got older, and made the difficult decision to stop the adoption process and find another placement for him. That placement turned out to be Stephen Kerr and Jocelyn MacDonald. Among the many things I am uncertain of in this case is the legal marital status of Kerr and MacDonald, but I do know they did not share a last name and that all of their children went by the last name of “Rainwalker.” The family consisted of Jaliek, the couple’s three biological sons, and another adopted daughter. Jaliek first went to live them in July of 2002, and was legally adopted by them in May of 2004. He would live with them until his disappearance at the age of twelve. At this time, the ages of the children living in the cabin ranged from eight to fourteen.
Reports of Jaliek’s life in the Kerr/MacDonald house are few and sketchy. It was far from a conventional household. Kerr and MacDonald attempted to live a very “low impact” lifestyle, owning a two-room cabin with no running water, powered only by a generator that ran for a few hours each day. Everyone used an outhouse, and the entire family reportedly slept in one room to keep down the heat costs. The kids all attended a local homeschool group rather than going to school. Still, there did not seem to be many signs of serious problems for the next five years. Jaliek became very close to his adopted maternal grandmother, Barbara Reely, and loved to spend time at her house, playing computer games (an experience he called “Grandma Camp”). However, after Jaliek’s 2007 disappearance, Reely made some uneasy statements about the living situation. She said that her daughter and Stephen initially wanted the best for their children, but later “learned to work the system.” She clarified this statement by explaining that the couple may have been more interested in the state financial compensation they would receive than in the actual well being of their adopted children. Reely also expressed concern that Jaliek and his adopted sister were not treated as well as the couple’s biological children. Both Kerr and MacDonald have denied these statements.
More ominously, she said that Kerr had serious anger management issues, and there had been an incident in which Kerr had dragged Jaliek from the home and dunked him in a nearby creek. MacDonald intervened before Jaliek was seriously injured, and she “punished” Stephen by making him do Jaliek’s chores for the next month and write his adopted son a letter of apology. Reely also said that MacDonald had made Stephen take anger management classes in the past, and that on two occasions she had tried to get him to move out of the home for the kids’ safety.
On October 23rd, 2007, a crisis erupted in the household. The inciting incident appeared to have been a major outburst that Jaliek had while attending his homeschool group. I am not certain exactly where this happened, as none of my sources have specified if it was at Kerr and MacDonald’s home or the home of another child enrolled in the homeschool program. Apparently, Jaliek became upset about something, and during the outburst he threatened to sexually assault another child in the group. Now, obviously this is a disturbing thing for a twelve-year old boy to say, and adults are obligated to respond in some fashion, but I want to stress that no one involved in the situation–including the child’s own parents–reacted as strongly as Kerr and MacDonald did. Kerr called a crisis line, saying that he and MacDonald could not longer handle Jaliek, that his behavior had gotten worse, and that he had made suicidal and homicidal statements. However, if this was in fact the case, there is no medical documentation of it. Kerr wanted to reverse the adoption, but the crisis worker suggested respite care before the lengthy and convoluted process of reversing the adoption. In fact, it is not clear if Kerr was even left with the impression that the adoption could be reversed.
Respite care is designed to prevent escalation in conflict between adoptees and their families. The child will spend some time with specially trained caregivers for a period of time, giving everyone a chance to get some distance from the situation. Jaliek had been through this process before, and even worked with this particular pair of caregivers, Thomas and Elaine Person in Albany. He would stay for six days, then move into another respite care home.
Jaliek stayed with the Persons’ for a little over a week. According to the couple, he did well with them, and spent most of the time working on homework, including one assignment that will become crucial later on. Stephen Kerr picked him up on the afternoon of November 1st and took him to a Red Robin in Latham to get dinner. The most commonly reported time for Jaliek’s last known location was when the two of them left the restaurant at around 8:00 pm, although I am not certain exactly how this was verified (Security footage? Credit card receipts?).
At that point, according to Kerr, he took Jaliek back to Greenwich but did not return to the cabin with MacDonald and Jaliek’s adopted siblings. Instead, they went to the home of Kerr’s parents, who were out of town at the time, and spent the rest of the night there. Why this was has never been specified, to the best of my knowledge. Jaliek was scheduled to go to another respite home the following day, so it has been speculated that Kerr took him to his parents’ home to avoid disruption for Jaliek and the family, and also that MacDonald simply did not want Jaliek in the house.
According to Kerr, the atmosphere between himself and his adopted son was chilly on the car ride back. Kerr spoke to Jaliek about his need to apologize to the other students in his home school group. Jaliek did not speak to him the whole time, and went to bed without a word when they reached the house in Greenwich.
In the morning, Kerr awoke around 7:30 am and found one–some sources say two–notes which he claimed were written by Jaliek. One simply said “Albany”, which is where Jaliek’s half-brothers lived. However, he had not had any recent contact with them. The other was apparently apologizing for the incident in the home school group and announcing his intention to run away. It read: Dear Everybody: I’m sorry for everything. I won’t be a bother anymore. Goodbye. Jaliek. Kerr also claimed that the bedclothes had been arranged so that it appeared that Jaliek was sleeping under them. He looked for Jaliek in the house and the surrounding neighborhood, and alerted authorities at 8:57 am. One report has Kerr showering and returning videos to the store before alerting authorities, but I am not certain if or how this was ever determined. When law enforcement arrived, Kerr said that his son must have left the home wearing a yellow fleece pullover, and that his duffel bag and favorite stuffed animal were also missing. However, these last two items were later found in the garage.
I will always wonder exactly what was the first official impression of this case for law enforcement. Based on the statements provided by Kerr, it could easily have been dismissed as an adolescent with known behavioral problems running away from home in a fit of spite, but something seemed to make law enforcement take it seriously from the start. It could have been Kerr’s previous claims of Jaliek being “suicidal and homicidal,” or it might have been the concern that Jaliek would have sought some heavily wooded areas near by, and be exposed to the cold November night. Or, possibly, someone thought there was something not quite right with Kerr’s story as soon as they heard it.
The ensuing search was extensive. It took place largely in wooded and flooded areas near Greenwich, and both the cabin and Kerr’s parents house were treated as possible crime scenes. After only a few days, officials stated that they believed Jaliek had met with foul play, although they did not specify further. Rural areas where the family been known to hunt and camp were also searched. When the Persons’ were questioned, they said they believed the note that had been found was not a runaway note, but rather a note that Stephen Kerr had assigned him to write and bring to his homeschool group, apologizing for his outburst.
Meanwhile, Kerr and MacDonald were behaving in ways that many found bizarre. MacDonald’s mother, Barbara Reely, said that her daughter simply laughed when a family friend volunteered to help search for Jaliek, and she claimed to have seen Kerr rubbing his eyes to make it look as though he had been crying whenever there were news cameras on him. The statements made by the couple also struck some people as inappropriate. For instance, they said that Jaliek “might have joined a gang,” or that he might have sought out an African-American family (Jaliek was of mixed African-American and Caucasian descent). Here is part of an interview, which I have also included in the references below. It’s….strange. I’ll let you watch it and judge for yourself. Ultimately, MacDonald generally cooperated with authorities. She took and passed a polygraph, but Kerr refused. He also refused to communicate with authorities other than through his lawyer, and refused to provide a DNA sample. Later, when the vehicle he had been driving that night came under scrutiny, he refused to let law enforcement conduct a more extensive search of it.
Authorities were able to obtain Kerr’s cell phone records, and right away an inconsistency jumped out. Kerr had actually provided a detailed account of the route he took when he was driving Jaliek from the Persons’ to Greenwich. However, at 8:15 pm, an unnamed acquaintance had happened to call him. This person did not say what they spoke about, but did mention that Kerr sounded “agitated.” When asked about this call, Kerr said that he had received it when he was passing Henry’s Garage in Melrose. However, the cell phone tower that received the signal was not the one near Melrose, but one much closer to a town called South Troy. We’ll get more into my interpretation of the various travel times below, but first I want to finish summarizing the case in its entirety.
Another oddity was uncovered: surveillance cameras at a bank very close to Kerr’s parents house caught what appeared to be his van passing by at 12:16 am, well after Kerr and Jaliek should have returned to the home and been sleeping. It could not be conclusively proven to be his–which I have taken to mean that the license plate number was not visible–but, if it’s not the same vehicle, it is a near-identical one that just happens to be driving near the house where Kerr was staying. The sheer fact that authorities were looking at this security footage is somewhat telling.
In January of 2008, when Jaliek had been missing for two months, there was a strange twist in the case. A cryptic letter postmarked from Westchester was received, although sources disagree as to who actually received it. It has been reported that it arrived at Kerr and MacDonald’s house, but I have also read that it was sent to seven local news outlets. The letter read as follows:
Jaliek is still alive. Needed a foot soldier for this war on drugs. Picked him up on Route 40/Post 30. He’s ok, no fake. He asks his mama and papa who are the Marconi family? My cat named Diamond. Why does Franti yell “Fire?” Don’t try to look. We are not there.
Apparently, Jaliek really did have a cat named Diamond, and the reference to “Franti yelling fire” was from a contemporary rap song, although what connection this has to Jaliek is uncertain. Route 40 is a road that runs near Greenwich, so the letter as a whole could be interpreted as an attempt to bolster the theory that Jaliek ran away on his own.
The location from which it had been mailed was never determined, since there are multiple places with the name Westchester, but authorities were not exactly coy about their suspicions as to the identity of the author. They searched the printer and computer at the house where Kerr and Jaliek had allegedly spent the night, but could neither prove or disprove that the letter had originated there. (Random fact: apparently some printers have a chip where printouts are stored even after they have been deleted from the computer). Kerr and MacDonald protested this as a wrongful search and filed a lawsuit against the department. The following month, in February of 2008, law enforcement officially named Stephen Kerr a person of interest in Jaliek’s case.
Four months after Jaliek vanished, Stephen Kerr and the rest of his family left the area and moved to a town 20 miles east of Greenwich and just across the Vermont border, although they retained ownership of the cabin. At one point after the family had left, Barbara Reely entered the deserted cabin and found a yellow fleece pullover—the same one, she claims, that Jaliek was supposed to have been wearing when he ran away. One source implied that this discovery prompted a new search of a rural part of South Troy and the nearby Hudson River, although the connection between the two events is not clear to me. There was already cell phone evidence that Kerr was lying about his drive back to Greenwich and had actually been in the South Troy area, so I’m not sure why the discovery of the fleece would draw increased scrutiny to that fact, but I’m preserving it for the record.
As the years passed, the case seemed to be at a standstill, but that is not to say that it ever dropped entirely off the radar. In November of 2012, an investigator publicly stated that the case was being treated as a homicide. This is a fairly blunt choice of words–officials did not simply state that they believed Jaliek to be deceased, but went so far as to declare his manner of death. It’s rare for a disappearance to be formally declared a homicide when no body has been found, so this is significant to me. In February of 2016, a hiker found a skull near the Hudson River in an area south of South Troy, but forensic analysis showed that it belonged to an adult male and was too old to belong to Jaliek.
My Analysis of the Timeline
I apologize if some of this information is a bit redundant, but I wanted to dig deeper into the discrepancies between Kerr’s account of his drive back to Greenwich and the cell phone data, and then see if the estimated travel times between the points of interest can tell us anything more about what occurred on the night of November 1st, 2007. I ended up getting really fixated on this part of my research, and I now know more than I will probably ever need to about travel times in eastern upper New York state.
According to our good friend Google Maps, the distance from Latham (the location of the Red Robin) to Greenwich takes a little under an hour. Melrose is about thirty minutes from Latham, and represents an approximate halfway point between the two locations. It would not be impossible for Kerr to pass through Melrose at 8:15 pm–the 8:00 pm departure from Red Robin is an estimate, and he could have left earlier and been speeding the whole time. It’s also entirely possible that he simply made an error in remembering his exact location when he got the call. However, South Troy is an approximate 20 minute drive due east from Latham, and it’s almost 14 miles (22.5 km) south of Melrose. The shorter distance, as well as the cell phone ping, make South Troy a more plausible candidate for Kerr’s location after fifteen minutes of travel.
For argument’s sake, we’ll say that Kerr left the Red Robin and then drove close enough to South Troy that an incoming call bounced off a cell phone tower there, and then returned to Greenwich. I’m going to be generous with the times, given factors such as traffic, deer, lane closures, and general respect for speed limits, and that would still only take about an hour and 20 minutes, meaning that Kerr should have been back in Greenwich by about 9:30. Then there’s that van that looks a lot like Kerr’s driving very close to his parents’ house, at 12:16 pm. So what do we do with the missing two hours and forty-five minutes?
Well, let’s start with the obvious possibility: that the van seen in the security footage was not Kerr’s. If we do consider the van to be Kerr’s–and it seems quite likely–then there are some other possibilities to consider. I do not know how much security footage was actually scrutinized, so it is possible that Kerr did return around 9:30, undetected by surveillance, then left again before returning after midnight. It’s also possible that he made a detour at some point that took approximately two hours and forty-five minutes, and did not return to his parents’ house until after midnight.
Of course, all this fun with maps is circling the big question: where was Jaliek during all of this?
One of the things that maddens me about this case is that, although there is at least one individual who behaved suspiciously, none of the actual evidence is quite the kind that should be used on court to convict someone. We have a look-alike but unconfirmed van, a yellow fleece jacket, and a slightly out of place cell phone ping. If I were a defense lawyer, I would not waste anytime pointing out that none of these things mean any crime was committed. Law enforcement likely understands this as well, and this is probably the reason no one has actually been charged with the homicide that is alleged to have occurred.
Before I move into the more commonly discussed theories about this case, I do want to state that I don’t find it absolutely impossible that Jaliek ran away from the home in frustration and then perished from exposure or met with foul play from a stranger at some point. Certainly, he was aware that his place in the Kerr/MacDonald home had reached a crisis point, and if there is any truth to Barbara Reely’s allegations of abuse, it may not have even represented a situation to which Jaliek wanted to return. He was at an age where kids do often think themselves more capable of managing on their own then they are, so if it hadn’t been for several details, I would not be as dismissive of this idea.
What makes me skeptical is that Jaliek would have had the foresight to leave a note, arrange the blankets to make it look like he was sleeping in order to buy himself escape time, and yet not take the duffle bag full of his possessions with him. Young as he was, it seems like taking his things with him would have been the first thing he thought of. Then there are the reactions of Jaliek’s adopted family. Kerr’s activities on the morning of November 2nd are too nebulous and unconfirmed for me to read to much into them on their own, but the ambiguity over what the note actually meant seems strange. The yellow fleece is suspicious to me, not because it did not line up with Kerr’s description of Jaliek’s clothing, but because no one in the family came forward and said anything to the effect of “Hey, we found the fleece in the house, he must have been wearing something else when he left.” Misremembering someone’s clothing is not exactly unusual, but what is unusual is not bothering to correct the description of a missing child. Likewise, why did Kerr provide law enforcement with a detailed account of his trip home that then turned out be unsupported by actual evidence, when it would be perfectly acceptable simply to say he didn’t remember where he was when he received the 8:15 phone call?
In case it isn’t obvious, I find Stephen Kerr’s story more than a little suspicious. However, I am not completely convinced that he was the writer of the “My cat Diamond” letter. I don’t think the letter represents a real situation by any means–why would someone who picked up Jaliek after he ran away draw attention to the fact?—but the thing is so rambling and nonsensical that it seems more consistent with a mentally ill person trying to get involved in the case or playing a not-very-funny prank than someone with an actual agenda. The detail about the cat named Diamond could have been passed along by word of mouth or been mentioned in one of the interviews with Barbara Reely or someone else that knew Jaliek. If someone had actually wanted to bolster the runaway theory, it seems like it would have been more straightforward, something more along the lines of “Hey, it’s Jaliek. I found someplace else to stay. I’m fine, stop looking for me.”
So, we have to contend with the possibility that Stephen Kerr-and possibly others–know what happened to Jaliek that night. What we then have to ask is, if this is in fact the case, is it more likely the result of something that Kerr initially intended, or of an unplanned situation that escalated?
Some have suggested the possibility that Kerr never intended to bring his adopted son back to the cabin, even after the second round of respite care. There is the fact that Kerr was allegedly the one that told Jaliek the apology note that may have morphed into the “runaway note” at some point, and this could be read as a sign of some sort of premeditation. However, I think it may be a bit of a stretch to believe that Kerr would let so much ride on what a twelve-year old may or may not write while he was staying with another family. Also, if he had some plan to ensure that Jaliek never returned to live with his family, why not wait until after Jaliek had completed the respite care he was due to attend the following day?
One possibility is that there is no actual significance to the cell phone blip in South Troy, and that Jaliek and Stephen Kerr did return to Greenwich together (at, according to our much-referenced timeline, around 9:30 pm), and that whatever occurred happened in the house itself or after Jaliek and Kerr left again for unknown reasons. According to this scenario, Kerr would have left the house at some point that night and returned after midnight when a vehicle that was most likely his was caught on the bank security cameras. This is certainly possible, although there is nothing that especially supports it either, as there was no actual sign of violence or struggle in the house itself.
Others find it more likely that Jaliek never returned to Greenwich that night, and that whatever happened to him was at some point en route, possibly in the area of the South Troy cell phone tower. One thing that struck me is that, given the amount of time unaccounted for on the night of November 1st, Stephen Kerr’s route might have gone right through and beyond South Troy before he returned to Greenwich. Just because the “South Troy” signal is the first red flag in his account does not mean that he actually stopped there or spent any length of time there, only that he drove near it at the time he received the phone call. After all, if Kerr was in the middle of some kind of violent confrontation with his adopted son, it seems unlikely he would have bothered to answer an incoming call. If his alleged agitation on the phone call does mean anything at all, it seems more likely that he and Jaliek were having a verbal argument at the time while riding in the car together. However, the fact that evidence indicates that he was driving somewhere not on the direct route back to Greenwich and where he claimed not to be one questioned, makes me wonder if he did decide on some kind of detour fairly soon after leaving the restaurant, and if that detour may be connected with Jaliek’s disappearance.
I do sometimes wonder if it is possible that Kerr simply drove Jaliek to a remote area, warned him not to try and return home, and left him there to die of exposure. It even crossed my mind that he might have “given” his adopted son to someone else, leaving him to who-knows-what fate after that point. Of course, Barbara Reely’s description of her son-in-law paints a picture of someone who is not incapable of direct physical violence towards a child, and law enforcements seems oddly confident in declaring the case a homicide (which, technically, neither of the two above scenarios qualifies). Is it possible that a verbal argument escalated to the point where Kerr decided to stop the van, at which point things turned physical?
One official made a very interesting comment in regards to Jaliek’s disappearance: Cold case matters are generally solved on changes in relationships or changes in technology.
Even though it’s been almost twelve years to the day since Jaliek Rainwalker left a Red Robin with his adopted father and then seemed to vanish off the face of the earth, I think I am going to keep an eye out for possible developments in this case. After all, both relationships and technology have been known to change in short periods of time. Although I’m far from certain that it will happen, I do remain curious and cautiously hopeful that there will be some answers in this strange and disturbing case.
Creep It Real (Podcast)
Amber Loves Mystery (Youtube Channel)
Trace Evidence (Podcast)
Danelle Hallan (Youtube Channel)