A woman accused, along with her boyfriend, of isolating their five children from the world and raising them in squalor in part of a dilapidated York City building was a missing person for years, police said.
Louann E. Bowers was 16 years old and living with her family in York County when she ran away from home, state police Trooper Bradley Dunham said. She was reported missing June 8, 1993.
Police believe she ran away with her uncle by marriage, Sinhue A. Johnson, Dunham said. Johnson - her co-defendant - was 28 at the time.
"I think she was very susceptible to the influences of anybody who was a strong figure, who could 'save' her," said defense attorney Ron Gross, who represents Bowers. "That would have been the only semblance of control she had in her life.
She was listed as a missing runaway with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which several times had age-progression renderings done of what Bowers might look like as an adult, Dunham said.
"Those were posted all over the place," he said.
"There were various leads that were followed up on throughout the years," Dunham said, including one in 2006 that Bowers was a state prison inmate in Lawrence County using another name. Although that inmate looked like Bowers, it wasn't her, the trooper said.
"It was always our belief that she was in York somewhere, and was most likely with Sinhue Johnson," Dunham said.
The case remained active for 16 years, with no sightings of Bowers.
Flagged down: That changed on June 6, 2009, when a tipster flagged down a York City police officer to report that a missing person was at the Turkey Hill Minit Market at the corner of West Market and West streets, Dunham said.
It was Bowers. A trooper responded and interviewed her, after which she drifted back into anonymity - for a short time.
"She indicated she was not in danger or distress, and said she just wanted to be left alone," said Dunham, who took over the case in 2003.
But less than three months later, on Aug. 28, 2009, York City Police Detective First Class Dana Ward and a York County Children and Youth Services caseworker tracked down Bowers and her five children in an East York motel room.
The child-welfare agency, acting on an anonymous tip, had been searching for the children of Bowers and Johnson since 2003. In 2009, caseworkers notified city police, who joined the search.
"No one knew they existed," Ward said.
Squalor: The children range in age from 2 to 13 years old. They have no birth certificates, were never enrolled in school, never received medical care or vaccinations and had no documentation to prove they existed, police allege. For years, they lived in squalor at 734 S. Duke St. with no heat, no electric service, no water, no functioning toilet and a leaky roof, court documents allege.
Ward said they lived in one filth-covered room of the house, which is now condemned, and apparently used plastic sheets to gather - and use - rainwater leaking through the ceiling.
The children are now in foster care, enrolled in school and receiving medical attention, Ward said.
Bowers, 33, and Johnson, 45, remain in York County Prison awaiting trial, each charged with five counts of child endangerment.
Didn't know: Bowers loves her children and never thought she was doing anything to hurt them, according to Gross, her defense attorney.
"She just thought it was their circumstance as a family," he said. "She actually thought she was acting in a way that was best for her family, but she now understands there were many, many shortcomings. ... She understands the consequences of her actions and the basis for these charges."
Gross said he thinks Bowers' own history factors into her "inaction" with respect to her children. He confirmed Bowers has been with Johnson since she was 16 and considers him her husband.
"The issue we have is that when you're ... with somebody, you tend to become what they want you to become, and that's really where she's at," Gross said. "She has a very adolescent, immature view of love and loyalty."
'Long process': But Bowers understands she must put her children first - before Johnson, Gross said.
"Right now she's working on her GED and taking parenting classes in York County Prison," Gross said. "Upon her release she's going to be seeking to work with the (Children and Youth) team assigned to her case, and moving toward being reunited with her children.
"It's going to be a long process," he said.
Gross said he hopes to resolve Bowers' criminal case without a trial.
Johnson maintains he did nothing to hurt his children. His defense attorney, James Rader, declined comment.
- Reach Elizabeth Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org, 505-5429 or twitter.com/ydcrimetime.