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25 years later, Junior Burdynski is still missing

For any journalist, some cases feel personal. The disappearance of 10 year-old Junior Burdynski still haunts me.

BRENTWOOD, Md. -- On the afternoon of May 24, 1993, George “Junior” Burdynski came home from Thomas Stone Elementary School and asked his mother for permission to help mow a neighbor’s lawn. The 10 year-old hopped on his red bicycle, pedaled away...and vanished.

That was more than 25 years ago. I covered the case nearly every day for WUSA9 in the spring and summer of 1993. Followed up on all the anniversaries. And Junior is still missing. Gone, without a trace.

"It’s not the same without him," Junior's father, George Burdynski, told me back in 1993. We sat on the front porch of his modest Brentwood home. As stoic as he was throughout the ordeal, even when he was vetted as a potential suspect, I couldn't help but notice tears welled up in his eyes every time we talked about his son.

"I ride down the road and just hear a kid holler, 'Daddy,' and I’m almost wrecking my truck to stop to see who’s hollering Daddy," he told us.

It was a terrifying time for Brentwood, Maryland and the surrounding communities. As one sobbing mother told me in 1993 outside the elementary school, "It’s scary. This has never happened in Brentwood before. Never ever. It just petrifies me."

When Junior vanished, Brentwood lost its innocence. Parents no longer let their children walk alone or play outside without supervision, even in broad daylight.

Days turned into decades. And 25 years later, I found myself walking toward the home of Junior’s little sister, Virginia. She was just six years old when her big brother disappeared. I hadn’t seen her since the late 1990s. My heart raced. I didn't know what to expect.

Virginia opened the door, with a huge smile on her face. We immediately hugged.

I blurted out, "Oh my God. You’ve grown up!"

"Yes," she laughed.

I’m unnerved just seeing Virginia’s face. She looks just like her brother.

"He was my world," Virginia told me. "That was my big brother. He was my world. He was just awesome in my eyes. He still is awesome in my eyes."

She still lives in the neighborhood where Junior disappeared, just a few blocks from their parents’ home, where yellow ribbons--signs of hope--still adorn the chain link fence.

"It’s unreal. It’s unreal," she said. "It’s great to see you again. It’s great to touch bases on the case and have a personal bond."

I can't fathom what it was like for her, growing up with this kind of household trauma.

"Days went on and I just seen my parents crying," she recalled. "And I asked my Mom when is he coming home? When are they gonna find him? And she said I don’t know. We’re looking."

The Burdynski family's pain was relentless then, as it is now.

Junior's disappearance led to the most extensive search in Prince George’s County history. While it never located the missing 10 year-old, the investigation -did- uncover a child sex abuse ring that stunned the community. Police learned that six young boys were molested in a Hyattsville house, just two miles from the Burdynski home.

That shocking discovery sent homeowner James Kowalski and his renter and co-worker Steven Leake to prison. Kowalski is still behind bars. Police say the two men befriended young boys, gave them gifts and invited them into their home. Then, they sexually abused them, often videotaping the criminal acts.

The two men were never charged in connection to Junior’s disappearance. Kowalski told police he didn’t even know Junior was missing. But in a chilling discovery, investigators found videotapes in the home—recordings of local news coverage of the search for the missing child. The only proof that Junior ever visited Kowalski’s home: he had logged onto a computer there to play a video game.

Six weeks before Junior’s disappearance, Kowalski moved from Hyattsville, Maryland to Winchester, Virginia, where investigators discovered sexually explicit diaries.

At the time, in 1993, a police spokeswoman told the media, "One piece of information that we don’t mind sharing that we’ve obtained from the floppy disks is some detailed accounts of his visits to Costa Rica and the little boys he encountered there and what he did with them."

We asked what he did with them.

"Um, paid them for sex," she responded. "Numbers of them."

I asked, "What kind of numbers are we talking about?"

"Some indications that on some days there might have been four or five young boys that he would have sex with on a day," she said.

Over the years, investigators checked out hundreds of leads. Among them, the discovery of what appeared to be a shallow grave in a Cottage City neighborhood park, about a mile from the Burdynski home.

At the time, Junior's mother, Barbara Burdynski, described her emotions.

"My heart just fell. I felt like I couldn’t even swallow," she told us.

It was yet another lead that didn’t pan out.

In the years that followed, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children produced age progression images of Junior, showing the distinctive scar on the right side of his face. Investigators hoped they would help solve his mysterious disappearance. They never did.

Like other journalists who covered the case extensively, I have my theories. But I don’t know where Junior is. What I do know is that 25 years is way too long for any family to endure this raw anguish without answers.

"It’s just surreal that 25 years later, that I’m sitting in my parents seat talking to you about this," said Virginia. "Every year it’s a constant reminder that I don’t have him. Someone took him from me. That’s a huge piece of my heart that’s gone. I just so badly want him back. I just so badly want him back."

The Burdynskis deserve to know what happened to their son and brother. Someone, somewhere has this information. It’s time to come forward.

If you have information on Junior's disappearance, you can call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) or the Prince George's County Police Crimesolvers at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477)

The Burdynski family finds some comfort in the fact that Junior’s disappearance led the FBI to launch a major national program called Innocent Images. The undercover operation targets child predators who are online. Since 2007, it’s led to 44,000 cases and 8,000 convictions.

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