After six years, tough answers

Closure: With the discovery of their son's remains and the arrest of two murder suspects, an Arundel family finally starts to grieve.

January 13, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

If Joseph Aaron Demarest were still alive, he would be 23, and his family believes he would still be painting rural landscapes - his specialty - and sharing laughs with his younger sister.

Instead, he is locked in time as the 17-year-old who, on Sept. 3, 1996, cheerily waved goodbye to his dad as he headed out to a friend's house after having dinner at home in Gambrills.

His family never saw him again.

Anne Arundel County police believe Demarest hopped into a red pickup truck with Stefan Tyson Bell and Christopher Allen Bolen, two teen-age friends from the neighborhood.

The pair were arrested Tuesday after being indicted on charges that include first-degree murder and armed robbery. The next day, county detectives located Demarest's remains in a shallow grave about 12 miles from his family's home on Red Fall Lane.

For Demarest's family, last week brought an end to the mystery of his disappearance and a sense of relief that two suspects had been apprehended. But relatives are just now beginning the grieving process they had been denied for six years and four months.

"We all have mixed feelings," Sharon Demarest, the victim's mother, said softly. "I'm glad that there's finality ... but it's not easy knowing."

Planning a life

Home-schooled since the seventh grade, Demarest was family-oriented. His closest friends were his sister, Rachel, and a cousin, Jon Rotter, who lives in Newport News, Va., relatives said. The Demarests lived in Newport News until they moved to Gambrills in 1990.

"He was my best friend," Mike Demarest said of his son. The two played baseball together - the younger Demarest was a third baseman in a youth league, and the elder Demarest coached. "We would talk about anything."

The brown-haired, green-eyed teen also showed a talent for art, especially drawing and painting. Sketches of puppies he gave to his grandmother on her 55th birthday show an eye for detail. He was 9 when he made them.

"He really did not know the extent of his talent," said Nancy Peach, a painter who gave Demarest private lessons. "He could have become a professional painter."

Demarest had toured Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and was considering enrolling after high school, Sharon Demarest said.

He won first place in an Annapolis art contest for Hot Chocolate, a snow-scene oil painting that hangs on the living room wall of the family's two-story home.

Like other 11th-graders, Demarest was just starting to map out his future in the late summer of 1996. And then he vanished.

Disappearance

The day after Labor Day, Demarest spent the morning working at a fireplace installation company with his father. He came home, did some schoolwork and then ate dinner with his family.

Mike Demarest was taking out the trash about 6 p.m. when his son waved goodbye and told him he was walking over to a friend's house.

Soon after, police believe, Bell and Bolen offered to give him a lift to another friend's house.

Rotter, now 28, said his cousin had befriended Bell and Bolen because "you've got to try to find somebody in your neighborhood to hang out with."

"I can remember him keeping locked inside his room because he knew the kind of people in that area," Rotter said. "But you can't stay locked up in your room forever."

Early the next morning, Rose Demarest, who was living with the family at the time, noticed that her grandson's bed hadn't been slept in. Staying out all night was extremely out of character for a boy who never broke his 11 p.m. curfew.

His father said he "absolutely" suspected foul play from the beginning; his mother said, "Joe wouldn't just leave like that." After a worried day of checking with friends and relatives and canvassing the neighborhood, the family called police.

Family struggles on

Detective Chris Powell, who handles the county's missing- persons cases, said missing teen-agers "very rarely" turn out to be crime victims. Of the more than 500 teen-agers reported missing in the county in the past six months, none has turned up dead or was taken against his or her will, he said.

But weeks turned into months, and months became years. Relatives tried as best they could to balance the loss of Joe, the family clown, with their daily lives.

It would be about three years before Mike Demarest could bring himself to have his son's 1985 Dodge Aries towed from the front of the house.

And it was just last summer that the father was able to sort through Demarest's clothes and finish cleaning out the bedroom.

Weddings have been especially tough.

In February 2000, Rotter stood at the altar with his bride, Nicki.

"It was hard for Mike and Rachel and Sharon," Rotter said. "I resemble him a lot, so when they looked up there ... ."

The wedding on April 6 of Joseph Demarest's sister, Rachel, now 21, was more emotional. The family lighted a candle in his memory.

"It was a happy day, but we were very aware that he wasn't there," Sharon Demarest said.

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