Steven Kraft went outside to play with his two dogs on the evening of Thursday, February 15, 2001. The 12-year-old, known as Stevie to his family and friends, left his Benton Heights, Michigan home around 6:30 pm; his mother was cooking dinner at the time and Stevie told her he would be back soon. He never returned.

When Stevie failed to come home for dinner, his parents weren’t initially concerned. His older sister, Jodi, lived around the corner with her husband and young son; Stevie would often take his dogs to play with his nephew and eat dinner while he was there. Around 9:00 pm, his mother, Chyrille, called Jodi to see if Stevie was still there and was startled to learn that Jodi hadn’t seen her brother at all that day.

Stevie’s father, Steven, immediately set out to look for his son. He learned that a neighbor had seen Stevie and his two dogs around 6:45 pm, shortly after he had left his Holly Drive home. He was headed in the direction of a nearby field with both of his dogs, a German shepherd/Chow mix and a German shepherd puppy. Stevie was frequently seen around the neighborhood with his pets, and the neighbor hadn’t noticed anything unusual on that particular evening.

Steven was desperate to find his son; although the temperature had been chilly when Stevie went out to play, it grew increasingly colder with each passing hour. Realizing that the situation was serious, Steven and Chyrille decided to call the Benton Heights Police Department and report Stevie missing.

An officer soon arrived to assist Steven in his search for the missing boy. They found paw prints and what they believed were tracks from Stevie’s boots; they were able to follow the tracks for a short distance, but they faded away near the Harbor Haven Ministries building located at 2372 Irving Street, just two blocks away from Stevie’s home.

Steven worried that his son might have taken his dogs into the woods behind Harbor Haven Ministries; although Stevie was very familiar with the wooded area, the ground was covered with ice and snow. It was possible that Stevie might have fallen and injured himself, making it impossible for him to make the short walk home. Yet if that had been the case, Steven believed that Stevie would have unleashed at least one of the dogs so it could make its way back home and alert the family that something was wrong.

The search for Stevie continued throughout the night without success. Volunteers helped Steven and the police comb through the area, but they were unable to find any sign of the missing boy or either of his dogs.

Although Steven was adamant that his son was not the type of child who would run away from home, police weren’t so sure. They learned that Stevie, a sixth-grade student at Hull Elementary School, had recently been suspended from school for five days for fighting. He was scheduled to return to school the following day; police initially believed that Stevie might have been hiding out somewhere so he didn’t have to go back to school.

By morning, there was still no sign of Stevie. Detectives were sent to Hull Elementary School to interview his classmates and teachers; after doing so, they determined that it was unlikely Stevie was a runaway. The principal of the school, Leo Cloman, told investigators that although Stevie had been suspended the previous week for fighting, the other student had started the fight and Stevie had merely defended himself. Unfortunately, school policy dictated that both parties involved in a fight had to be suspended, so the principal had little choice.

Stevie’s teachers agreed with the principal and told detectives that Stevie was an intelligent and well-behaved child who had never been in trouble before. He was a somewhat quiet boy who loved to draw and never caused any problems in class. He had no history of running away from home and they didn’t believe that his minor scuffle with a classmate had anything to do with his disappearance.

Stevie’s older sister agreed. Jodi and Stevie had a close relationship and he was a frequent visitor at her house. She knew that if anything had been bothering him, he would have talked to her about it. He had never mentioned anything about wanting to run away from home and none of his belongings were missing from his bedroom. He hadn’t even been wearing a hat or gloves when he went outside with the dogs, indicating that he didn’t intend to stay outside long.

Steven had grown up in Benton Heights and knew all the places where his son would normally go. He spent all day Friday combing through wooded areas, ditches, barns, and gullies; by the end of the day, he and a small army of volunteers had spread out to cover an 8-mile radius around the Kraft home. They found no clues to Stevie’s whereabouts.

As detectives continued to canvass the neighborhood looking for anyone who might have seen the child, they found a teenager who thought he had seen Stevie on Thursday night. The child had been collecting bottles and cans outside of the Red Arrow Tap on Red Arrow Highway, just two blocks away from Stevie’s home on Holly Drive. The teenager reported that the child had gotten into a red four-wheel-drive Toyota; he had not gotten a good look at the driver.

When Steven heard about the potential sighting, he was skeptical. The teenager hadn’t seen any dogs with the child and Steven knew his son would never willingly let his pets out of his sight. He also didn’t believe that Stevie would have gotten into a car with a stranger, especially not when he was only a couple of blocks from his house. He was correct; detectives were able to verify that the child seen getting into the red Toyota had not been Stevie.

Another witness reported seeing a boy matching Stevie’s description climbing into a storm drain pipe. Although some of the children in the area were known to play in the drain pipes, Stevie was not one of them. Still, investigators followed up on the lead by sending a search team into the sewer system, where they methodically went through more than a mile of pipes. They found nothing to indicate that Stevie had ever been down there.

Steven found it hard to believe that someone would have been able to abduct a 12-year-old boy and two dogs without someone seeing something, but investigators were unable to find anyone who had witnessed anything unusual on the night that Stevie disappeared. Steven feared that his son was lying on the ground somewhere close to home, too injured to get up. If that were the case, they were running out of time to find him. A bitter cold front had moved into the area on Friday; overnight temperatures dipped below zero, making hypothermia a very real concern.

The search for the missing boy intensified on Saturday. The Michigan State Police brought in bloodhounds to see if they could pick up Stevie’s scent; although they initially seemed to identify a trail, they lost it at the end of Holly Drive. The dogs were taken into a wooded area near where they lost the scent trail but they were unable to pick it up again. Since they were unable to track either Stevie or his dogs, detectives didn’t believe that the boy had entered the woods.

Although no one had seen Stevie enter Harbor Haven Ministries, it was clear he had been near the building on the night he disappeared and his trail ended there. His footprints — and his dogs’ pawprints — could be seen heading in that direction but there were no discernable footprints showing which direction they had gone next.

Bloodhounds seemed to track Stevie’s scent heading in the direction of a frozen pond behind Harbor Haven Ministries but lost it after a few feet. The pond was covered with a thick layer of ice; investigators examined the ice carefully but found no signs of any fractures or holes and determined that Stevie could not have fallen into the water.

On Saturday night, a helicopter crew flew over the area with an infrared device, hoping to pick up Stevie’s heat signature. The radar failed to find any evidence of the missing boy or his dogs. The crew also flew over the Blue Creek area in case Stevie had wandered off in that direction, but they found no sign of him.

More than 100 volunteers joined the search for Stevie on Sunday. Members of the Benton Township Fire Department, the Benton Township Police Department, and the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force also participated. Members of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Posse brought horses to aid in the search, and some of the civilian volunteers used ATVs to cover more ground. Local stores donated flashlights for the search parties, while the Benton Township Pizza Hut provided food for them.

Despite the massive search effort, no trace of Stevie or his dogs could be found. Later Sunday night, however, the German shepherd/Chow mix returned home on her own. She seemed to appear out of nowhere; no one had witnessed which direction she had come from, but it was obvious that she had been outside for a lengthy period of time. Although she was freezing and hungry, she had no visible injuries. Her paw pads weren’t cut or bleeding and she wasn’t limping.

Steven told reporters that while the dog appeared to be physically fine, she was showing signs of anxiety and fear. Loud noises or quick movements made her cower low to the ground, something she had never done before. The family hoped that she might be able to lead them to Stevie; once she was fed and warm, they let her out to see if she would head in any specific direction. She repeatedly returned to the area near Harbor Haven Ministries. Searchers combed through that area once more but found nothing to indicate Stevie was there.

By Monday, search parties had covered an area of more than six square miles. They had trudged through woods and fields, waded through streams, and checked the ice cover on several ponds. All of Benton Heights had been thoroughly searched several times. No trace of Stevie was found.

That afternoon, one of the search parties found a German shepherd puppy near Blue Creek. Steven was called to the scene and quickly verified that the puppy was Chopper, Stevie’s dog. Like the older dog, Chopper appeared to be cold and hungry but was very happy to see Steven. By the time the puppy arrived at the Kraft house, he was wagging his tail as if nothing had happened.

Several search parties focused on the area surrounding where Chopper had been found but were unable to find any sign of Stevie. Detectives were frustrated by the lack of physical evidence; although both dogs had been successfully rescued, they were no closer to finding Stevie.

A week after Stevie went missing, detectives received a tip that he had been spotted in the Milwaukee area. Although his family remained adamant that Stevie was not a runaway, he did have family in the Milwaukee area. FBI agents followed up on the possible lead but found nothing to substantiate the claim that Stevie was in Milwaukee.

Investigators continued to receive a steady stream of tips over the next couple of weeks, but none of them led any closer to Stevie. Although detectives admitted that they had been unable to rule out any possibility, they noted that Stevie’s parents had been completely cooperative in the investigation and were not considered suspects in their son’s disappearance.

By the end of the month, investigators and volunteers had combed through approximately 10 square miles of land without finding any clues leading to Stevie’s whereabouts. Detectives were forced to confront the fact that Stevie likely hadn’t left the area on his own and the FBI classified the case as a kidnapping.

Tips began to slow down over the next month, and by April detectives admitted that they had no idea what had happened to Stevie. They continued to be frustrated by the lack of physical evidence in the case and indicated that they believed there were people in the community who knew more about the disappearance than they were admitting.

Stevie’s family offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the location of the missing boy; although a few more tips were called in, all of them led to d*ead ends. Despite the best efforts of local and state police, the FBI, and the volunteer searchers, the events leading up to Stevie’s disappearance remained a mystery.

In June, the Michigan State Police brought cadaver dogs to search several of the areas where they thought Stevie might be located. Nothing was found. Although officials admitted that it was possible Stevie’s body was hidden in a location they had yet to find, it was unlikely. They couldn’t rule out that he had met with an accident somewhere deep in the woods, but it seemed more likely that he had been taken away from the area against his will.

“America’s Most Wanted” aired a short clip about Stevie’s case at the end of July. Detectives hoped that the national exposure might bring in some new leads, but none of the calls they received panned out.

Although the detectives desperately wanted to find Stevie and bring him home to his family, it soon became clear that the investigation was starting to grow cold. Over the next few years, they would continue to conduct sporadic searches in the area but were never able to find any evidence as to what had happened to Stevie.

By 2005, most of the buildings in Benton Heights — including Stevie’s former home — had been torn down as the Southwest Michigan Regional Airport expanded. At one point, construction workers who were clearing land for a runway expansion project called the Benton Township police when they discovered what they believed might be a shallow grave. Investigators found a small homemade cross but little else; they eventually determined that someone had likely buried a pet there years earlier.

At a 2014 news conference, Benton Township Police Chief Vince Fetke noted that a single anonymous tip could be enough to finally break the case. Along with members of Stevie’s family, he pleaded with the public for help in determining what had happened to Stevie and stated that he believed there were people still living in the area who had information about the case but had not yet come forward.

Stevie’s case, though cold, is still considered active and investigators continue to follow up on all leads. Stevie’s family has held a candlelight vigil each year on the anniversary of his disappearance; they also celebrate his birthday each year with a chocolate cake. They have never lost hope that Stevie will one day be home to blow out the candles on his cake.

Unfortunately, Stevie’s father died in February 2021 at the age of 58 without ever learning what had happened to his son two decades earlier.

Steven Earl Kraft, Jr. was 12 years old when he went missing in 2001. He has green eyes and light brown hair, and at the time of his disappearance, he was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed approximately 100 pounds. He was last seen wearing tan parachute pants, a white, tan, and brown striped shirt, a purple and aqua Charlotte Hornets jacket, and a pair of black Lugz boots. If you have any information about Steven, please contact the Benton Township Police Department at 616–926–8221.

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