COOS COUNTY — When Jeremy Bright promised to meet his sister at the Ferris wheel, it was the last time she would ever see him.
Bright was 14 years old in 1986 when he and his family visited Myrtle Point, a year after having moved to Grants Pass. They returned for the Coos County Fair and stayed with family.
No one knew such a simple trip would become one of the state's most compelling unsolved mysteries.
“You have to understand, at the time people didn't think that sort of thing could happen in small-town America,” said Coos County Sheriff Craig Zanni. “When his mother reported him missing that morning, the first problem came when the Myrtle Point Police Department said to her not to worry, it's the fair, he'll turn up. That was August 14 almost 30 years ago now.”
Bright's mother knew something was wrong when he never met up with his sister at the Ferris wheel. What would have now been treated as a serious matter now was shrugged away back then. Zanni described not just police mentality, but the mentality of the time, which was that the boy had run off with his friends and would turn up when the fair was over.
However, after several weeks of inaction, enough people complained to the sheriff at the time who had the authority to take over the case, which is what was done.
“The thing is, once the sheriff's department took it over, they had to backtrack because they were three weeks behind where they should have been,” Zanni said.
He explained that when investigating crimes or missing person cases, officers must take notes and identify who provided information, they must do research into the background of the victim and suspects. What the sheriff's office ran into after it took control of the Bright case was none of that was done well, if it was done at all.
“The whole thing was poorly handled. It got poo-pooed off and officers never wrote anything down, no one took information or recorded anything. There was a lot of confusion about names because some of the names written down were people with different first names or middle names, or mistakes were made and names were switched around. There were some names with first, second or third at the end, which can become rather confusing.”
Zanni pointed out that officers at the time when Bright first went missing were either distracted, on top of not believing anything was wrong, or not really listening to any of the information being provided.
“They weren't curious enough to be concerned,” he said. “Bright was never a runaway or tardy, he was usually where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there, so part of this was lack of curiosity on the officer's part.”
Zanni cares a great deal about the county’s cold cases and ensures that each one is regularly reviewed. If ever a deputy is not working on an investigation, their duty then is to look over the cold cases with fresh eyes to see if there is something no one ever saw before.
“It’s never been let go of,” Zanni said.
Zanni has even gone so far as to travel to neighboring states to investigate leads.
“I personally have been involved in going all the way to the Idaho State Prison and even into Nevada to do interviews with people who’ve claimed to know information,” Zanni said.
The Bright case has both enraged and mystified so many people that it was featured on Unsolved Mysteries in 1989. It continues brings the department more information, though it may not always be credible.
“Some of the calls are reasonable, some of them bizarre,” Zanni said. “We've had psychics call and tell us to look under the bridge on Highway 307 and Tremont Street, which matches no roads here. You get people calling and saying they remember so and so saying something, which we do track down, but often times rumors get in the way.”
Zanni said that most rumors can all be traced back to the two or three original rumors that circulated when Bright went missing, none of which he believes to be true.
Adding mystery to the case is that many of the people involved in Bright’s case have since died. Terry Steinhoff, who was a person of interest, died of a heroin overdose in prison in 2007.
Steinhoff was serving jail time for stabbing a woman multiple times in the throat and leaving her for dead near a bar in Coos Bay three years after
“He (Steinhoff) was a person of interest and I don’t know if that was ever resolved,” Zanni said.
Not only has Bright's case drawn national attention, but as a result of its mishandling a Major Crimes Team was formed.
Major Crime Team
Prior to 1987, each department in Coos County would handle their own cases. According to Coos County Sheriff's Captain Kelley Andrews, the departments would talk to each other a bit, but mostly focused on the cases alone.
“Then Bright came around and the district attorney's office was contacted by Detective Sergeant Steve Dalton, who was with the Sheriff's Department, who suggested that we start an interagency group to pool each other resources,” Andrews said. “That's when they started discussions and came to an agreement in 1987.”
Now coined the Major Crime Team, the agreement required each county agency to send one investigator to join the team for a minimum of seven days to cover all homicides or missing persons cases.
“Keep in mind, when this formed we had a detective sergeant and six detectives,” Andrews said. “We don't have any detectives now because in 2007 the county commissioners forced us to make layoffs and they eliminated all of our detective positions. Coos Bay, North Bend, Oregon State Police all have detectives, but not the Sheriff's Department, so we send a deputy to the Major Crime Team when needed.”
The Amber Alert program is another aid to finding missing children these days.
As for the ongoing investigation for Jeremy Bright, Zanni has taken it to heart.
“You can't help but take this personally,” he said. “Bright is probably dead, I have no doubt in my mind that he is, but you can't say that for certain because we haven't recovered his body. But his family suffers with never knowing. You know every time they walk through a crowd, they are looking at faces wondering if he is going to show up. In their mind, I know they know he is deceased but there is no closure without a body. You just don't know. For them, he's just gone.”