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A Half-Century Since They Disappeared, The ‘Lost Boys Of Hannibal’ Still Prompt Questions

Fifty-four years ago this month, three boys went missing in Hannibal, Missouri, and were never seen again.

Brothers Billy and Joey Hoag, ages 11 and 13, along with their friend Craig Dowell, 14, were last observed carrying shovels and flashlights around 5 p.m. May 10, 1967. They said they were going to explore Murphy’s Cave — a local spot near a road construction site.

Via Shift Films
Via Shift Films
A small crowd gathers in 1967 outside Murphy's Cave in Hannibal, Missouri, during a search-and-rescue operation for three boys.

The Hoag boys had been punished for exploring it the day prior. But a parental edict to stay in the yard the afternoon they disappeared wasn’t enough to deter the young adventurers.

In the days that followed, cavers near and far joined an extensive search-and-rescue mission. Because the road construction work going on at the time had resulted in a cave-in at Murphy’s Cave on the day the three boys went missing, the most prominent theory of their demise is that they became stuck in the cave after some kind of blasting occurred.

But Dowell’s and the Hoags’ bodies have never been found. And the cold case, situated as it is in the boyhood home of Mark Twain and his cave-loving characters like Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, has been the subject of attention and speculation in the decades since.

“[These boys] were the all-American child, and boy, in 1967 Hannibal, Missouri. … These kids lived up to everything [in Twain’s books], from caves and from river travels [to] hiking and exploring,” St. Charles-based filmmaker Franki Cambeletta, who has spent the last couple of years seeking answers about it all, said Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air.

Via Shift Films
Brothers Joey Hoag (left) and Billy Hoag (center), along with their friend Craig Dowell, were last seen late one Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1967.

“Joey [Hoag] was even a really big astronomer — labeled himself as an amateur astronomer, if you look through his writings. So they were just really exploratory kids … outside enjoying nature.”

Cambeletta became interested in the boys’ disappearance several years ago, upon hearing about a more disturbing theory regarding their demise: that the boys fell victim to an opportunistic killer.

That prompted the beginnings of his and his co-host Chris Koetters’ podcast, "Lost Boys of Hannibal,” in 2019. The show is now into its third season, and Cambeletta has also begun working on a documentary film about the case.

Franki Cambeletta Talks About Hannibal's Unsolved Mystery From 1967
Listen as the St. Charles-based filmmaker and podcaster discusses his interest in the cold case with host Sarah Fenske.

“It’s not only horrific to think of how these boys ended, but also the idea that somebody would hunt these local kids that everybody loved. … It is a possibility that [serial killer John Wayne Gacy] was traveling through and from Hannibal,” Cambeletta said.

A third theory he and Koetters have explored — one that the Hoag boys’ mother ascribed to, according to Cambeletta — is that some kind of cover-up was involved.

Cambeletta told host Sarah Fenske that since first starting the podcast, he and his co-host have been able to connect with members of the Hoag family and collaborate with entities including the Ralls County Sheriff’s Office and the Missouri Department of Transportation. The podcasters have plans to soon explore some cave openings in new ways.

“This season will maybe mark the end of the search,” Cambeletta said. “It is very possible that we could become closer than any other individual has, in league with the Hoag family, to find out what happened to these boys. And unfortunately, it’s leaning right now toward more of a true crime opportunistic killer than it is a caving.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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