Mystery of missing Raymond boy still lingers 28 years later

Louk Phiangdae vanished on Feb. 6, 1996, at the age of 11


RAYMOND — Spring in the Riverdale neighborhood of Raymond, Washington, hasn’t changed much since 1996. Locals scurry in and out of the lone convenience store, the youth baseball park bustles with activity and an 11-year-old boy who seemingly vanished into thin air is still missing.

Louk Phiangdae, a Laotian immigrant and the fifth oldest out of seven children, jumped out of his first-floor bedroom window the night of Feb. 6, 1996, and was never seen again by his family.

A massive search by land, air and water took place over the next week, without a single piece of physical evidence found — only a possible brief sighting about a half mile from his house.

Rumors swirled around the coastal logging town of around 3,000 people, but nothing solid ever surfaced. As the years ticked by with no answers, the small boy who loved video games and was a playground dodgeball star faded from the town’s memory. 

Arriving in America

The Phiangdae family first arrived in the U.S. in 1988 after escaping war-torn Laos. In 1965, during the Vietnam War, Boualong signed up to aid the U.S. military, and would soon join the CIA’s Special Guerilla Units.

He was captured by Communist Laos forces in 1975 and became a prisoner of war for the next 13 years. All but one of his seven children were born in a prison camp. The family was discharged from the camp in 1987, and in less than a year, the U.S. military expedited their immigration and granted them citizenship.

They moved to South Bend, Washington, in 1989 and Boualong and Thongbay soon found work at local seafood companies.

The Phiangdaes were part of an immigration wave, where the foreign-born population of Raymond increased by 28.2% in the ‘90s, according to a 2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article.

In 1990, they bought their house at 1137 Crescent St. in Raymond.

Retracing that day

Osa Gilstrap remembers the last time she saw her little brother. Gilstrap, the third-oldest sibling who was 15 at the time, was on the family computer in the living room as Louk and their younger brother Robert, 6, were roughhousing.

Their mother and father, Thongbay and Boualong, had just arrived home from working at the Eastpoint oyster cannery in nearby South Bend. After Louk and Robert ignored repeated pleas to calm down, their father yelled at Louk to take a shower and get ready for bed.

“When I looked at Louk, I could tell he was pretty hurt,” she said. “I've never seen him like that before. That was the first time my dad came down on him hard (verbally).”

She had a direct view of the bedroom door where Louk, Robert and their older brother Taolook shared a room as she watched Louk walk into the bedroom alone — and out of their lives.

Taolook, who was at a high school basketball game, was the only family member not in the home at the time.

It was about 15 minutes later when their father realized he didn’t hear the shower running. He found the bedroom door locked and eventually pried it open, discovering Louk was gone and the window was open.

Louk, who never went out alone at night, had never run away before.

It was 7 p.m. on a stormy Tuesday night, and it would storm the rest of the week —  hampering search efforts. It was 52 degrees at the time, and about 90 minutes before low tide.

Boualong sent Thongbay and the oldest daughters to search house to house on foot around the neighborhood, while he used the family van to search on his own.

“(They) went out to almost every Asian family in Raymond and South Bend looking for him,” Gilstrap said. “They didn’t get home until 3 a.m. Nobody saw anything. It was so strange. Somebody took him.”

Police join the search

After the search came up empty, Thongbay called 911 at 9:42 p.m. to report him missing.

Bill Wilson was one of two officers on duty that night and immediately began driving around the area. He requested the family call back if Louk hadn’t returned by 11 p.m. They called back at that time and Wilson met them at their house.

“The room wasn't messed up,” Wilson said. “There was a bed by the window. No sign of a fight or anything. There was nothing that shouldn't have been there.”

Outside, the window screen was sitting next to the house. Taolook said he thinks he had taken the screen off himself long before so he could sneak out at night.

“No outside fingerprints at all,” Wilson said. “Outside, the ground didn't look like it had been disturbed; like someone fell on the grass and took off. No footprints outside the window or nothing. The grass was a little bit taller than normal. None of it was bent down. I looked really good for tracks and there was none whatsoever.”

Raymond Police searched until about 5 a.m., Wilson said.

Bouavone Phimmasone remembers being woken up in the middle of the night by police. Phimmasone and Chhanya Mao were Louk’s two best friends, and the pair were at Louk’s playing video games a couple hours before he disappeared. Phimmasone said nothing seemed out of the ordinary while he was there.

“The cops came and were all like, ‘Where’s Louk?’” Phimmasone said. “They thought I was hiding him. They searched my whole house, even the attic.”

When daylight hit, Raymond Police Chief Tom Wilson, Bill’s older brother, organized a search that stretched one mile from the North Fork Willapa River Bridge on Highway 101 to Milepost 1 on State Route 105 towards Tokeland.

One of the day shift officers found the parents both at work and had them return home to file a missing person’s report.

The parents, using their oldest daughter, Jane Douangphrachanh, as a translator told police they believed Louk ran away by either cutting or tearing the screen and jumping out the window.

Four tracking dogs, including a cadaver dog, more than 30 search and rescue members, a bevy of civilian volunteers, a Coast Guard helicopter and a Raymond Fire Department boat scoured the area the rest of the week.

Search dogs were able to pick up a scent Wednesday, Feb. 7, but it faded out after a short time, Tom Wilson said in a newspaper interview at the time.

A fort Louk had built with friends in a wooded hillside behind an apartment building a couple blocks from his house yielded no clues, nor did searching the river banks 1,500 feet south of his home near the Timberland RV Park.

On Thursday, Feb. 8, police were alerted to a 10-year-old girl who said she saw Louk in the woods in Bay Center, 20 miles south of Raymond. Police ruled it out as a false sighting after searching the area and giving her a lie detector test.

Then the first and only break came. 

A woman, Debbie Boone, said on Feb. 8 that she and her son, Chase, 12, saw Louk the night he disappeared. Debbie and Chase were driving north on the bridge around 7 p.m. when they saw Louk running south on the bridge toward Raymond. When they returned less than 10 minutes later, he was gone.

“America’s Most Wanted” arrived on Feb. 10 and featured Louk in episode 21 of season 9, on March 2, 1996. That brought in tips that led nowhere.

On Feb. 11, search teams were able to scour areas previously inaccessible due to the flooding. At the end of that day, Tom Wilson suspended the ground search and focused on getting Louk into local and national TV news reports.

Louk’s fifth-grade class made missing posters and hung them in downtown Raymond. His teacher, Cindy Jouper, said the class made green ribbons to wear because green was his favorite color.

“After he disappeared, it was pretty hard on our class, because you suddenly have a kid who is missing,” Jouper said. “There were several months left in the school year … We were just sort of in chaos.”

FBI and national spotlight

Retired FBI Special Agent David Moriguchi, who was based out of the Vancouver, Washington, field office, was the lead investigator on three missing persons cases during his 23-year career with the FBI.

Less than a year before Louk disappeared, Moriguchi found the body of a missing 11-year-old boy, Joshua Nelson, who had been murdered by his teenage neighbor in Vancouver. 

Moriguchi arrived in Raymond just over a week after Louk’s disappearance, on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. He spent the next two days interviewing dozens of people.

Moriguchi and Tom Wilson went to the bridge around 7 p.m., the same time Louk would have been crossing, and began stopping every vehicle, hoping someone who passed by at the same time every night may have seen something. No luck.

 “With Louk’s case, there was absolutely nothing,” Moriguchi said. “I talked to a bunch of people … It was a big puzzle. Nothing to go on, basically.”

The family also enlisted the help of Sylvia Browne, a popular TV psychic in the ‘90s. She told them Louk would be back in two years, Wilson said.

Leads came in scattered but grew less and less as time went on. A potential sighting at a store in Chehalis and another at a party at Bruceport Park both came up empty.

Eventually, the leads trickled down to nothing.

The eyewitnesses

The biggest clue was Debbie and Chase saying they saw Louk running across the bridge a half-mile from his house. It’s the only route from Riverdale into the main part of Raymond. 

Though far off the beaten path, Raymond is a crossroads for highways, leading anywhere from Aberdeen to Westport, Centralia or Astoria, Oregon.

Louk’s friends and family say there are three locations he likely would have been headed: to his brother at the high school basketball game; to the Willapa Hotel downtown, which was an apartment building and home to about 85 Laotian and Cambodian immigrants; or to his friend Mao’s house. All three locations are around a half-mile from the bridge.

Debbie said she is 100% certain she saw Louk. Not only did she live just four blocks from the Phiangdaes, but her son, Chase, who was 12, was friends with one of Louk’s sisters and had been to their house. Though it was dark at the time, the bridge did have streetlights, the Washington State Department of Transportation confirmed.

“We were coming back to Riverdale and it was pouring down rain,” Debbie said. “And he was on the Riverdale side of the bridge and he was running towards town. I would have never even noticed because I’m so unobservant, except for the fact that it was raining and he didn’t have on a coat.”

Debbie and her son came back across the bridge less than 10 minutes later.

“We were watching for him then, so we assumed he must have gone on the road into downtown instead of straight, because we went straight through and didn’t see him,” Debbie said.

The following week, a member of law enforcement visited her at work and asked if she had seen someone riding a bike across the bridge in the opposite direction at the same time she saw Louk. The person on the bike was never identified.

“We didn’t see anybody like that, so I don’t know if somebody else saw that,” Debbie said.

Theory 1: Abduction

One aspect that gives the theory of abduction some credence is a suspicious vehicle officer Bill Wilson saw on his way to Louk’s house.

Wilson was patrolling near Raymond High School when he received the call about a runaway child. His route to Riverdale took him around 8th Street Park, where he noticed a small, yellow car out of the corner of his eye, backed into a gravel parking lot with its lights off.

After an all-night search and a reported runaway turned into a missing child, Wilson remembered the yellow car early the next morning.

Wilson recalled Louk’s parents telling him that Louk’s path to the basketball game would have taken him near the park.

“Never saw that car again,” Wilson said. “First and only time. It was kind of in a peculiar place. I looked all over for it but it was gone. Every place I thought it could be and it was gone.”

Louk went missing just eight months before President Bill Clinton signed the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act Law into law in October 1996, creating the AMBER Alert system and the national sex offender registry.

Only one other child went missing in Washington in 1996 that has still not been found: Jeffrey Klungness, 14, who was last seen in Sumner on March 2, 1996. Two from 1995 are still missing: Bryce Herda in Neah Bay and Lenoria Jones in Tacoma. And one from 1997: Katya Lynne in Federal Way.

“I don't think my brother got murdered,” Gilstrap said. “My mom didn't feel like he died either.”

Theory 2: Parents’ involvement theory

One of the first and only persons of interest was their father, Boualong, and it didn’t take long for the Phiangdae family to realize police were zeroing in on him.

“I don't think my parents trusted (the police),” Gilstrap said. “When police would come by, they wouldn’t give them anything.”

Boualong was given a lie detector test with one of the children used again as a translator and “passed it with flying colors,” Tom Wilson said. “Then I found out he worked with those things in the military, too.” He decided not to give Thongbay the lie detector test because she was too distraught, he said.

Still, Wilson isn’t convinced either had any involvement, especially as time passed by and he got to know both of them at the local American Legion.

“They just didn't seem like the people to do that, to me,” Tom said. “But anybody can be wrong.”

Ron Davis, one of the lead detectives, had other suspicions.

Davis, who worked for Raymond Police from 1990–2007, doggedly investigated the case. He would be the handler for two bloodhound search dogs, both named Louk in honor of the missing boy.

Davis and his wife, Tina, grew attached to the little boy they never met and kept his picture in their house for about 15 years. 

“He kind of became like one of our kids,” Tina said. “We talked about him a lot. It’s one of those mysteries you never close the door on.”

There were some facts about the case Ron couldn’t overlook, however. One of Louk’s shoes was found in his bedroom the next morning — and he only had one pair of shoes, Davis said.

Two months after the disappearance, on April 14, 1996, a counselor at the Shoalwater Bay Medical Clinic, 20 miles west of Raymond, told police that one of their patients said her daughter heard Louk’s older brother, Taolook, 17 at the time, say that he knew his dad had killed Louk but wouldn’t tell anyone because he was afraid his dad would kill him. Ron interviewed Taolook, who denied saying it.

Davis said it was difficult trying to get information from any of the family members. He would try every six months or so for years, to no avail. He wasn’t sure if they were hiding something or just mistrustful of police.

“The family, during that time, were very tight-lipped,” Davis said. “I’d go back, catch them by themselves, nothing. Go back, try to talk to the mom, never got anywhere. Talking to the dad was pretty much out of the question because I didn’t have access to (a translator) outside of the family. All I got were snippets.”

One anonymous caller reported a bloody tarp out in the Phiangdae’s yard. That turned out to be pig’s blood. As the years went by, Davis kept at it until he left the department in 2007.

Gilstrap dispelled any rumors of her dad’s involvement.

“Dad didn’t abuse us or anything,” Gilstrap said. “We’d get spankings, but nothing like that. Dad was pretty harsh with his words. Those hurt more than anything.”

Theory 3: Drowning 

One of the first thoughts was that Louk may have fallen or jumped into the river located 1,500 feet from his home. It was one of the first things Moriguchi looked into when he arrived in Raymond a week later.

“Someone told me he liked to go down to the river,” Moriguchi said. “He had a spot downriver from the main bridge. Went there to look around, didn't see anything of note. The river was raging. It was wintertime and the water was fast-moving and muddy. The only thing I could come up with was maybe he went down there to get away from it all and fell in, or jumped in himself.”

The Willapa River, which is tidal where it meets the North Fork Willapa River Bridge, winds its way from Raymond to Willapa Bay and finally to the Pacific Ocean. It was an outgoing tide when Louk left his house around 7 p.m., with low tide at 8:30 p.m. that night.

In addition to a Coast Guard helicopter and boat scanning the river Wednesday, Feb. 8, a dog trained to detect the scent of human bodies underwater failed to find anything during a four-hour search on Saturday, Feb. 10. The dog had previously found the body of a 14-year-old boy who drowned in the Washougal River.

Tom Wilson doesn’t think Louk ever ended up in the water. Not only did Louk not know how to swim, he was scared of the water. Plus, everyone who has drowned in the Willapa River in recent memory has been located.

“The Willapa River always, that I can remember, it always gives them up someplace,” he said. “They always show up, I don’t know why. It gives them back to you, the Willapa does.”

A search by this reporter of all remains discovered on the coast from Vancouver Island to the Oregon-California border yielded no matches for a boy in Louk’s age range.

Theory 4: Runaway 

It was first thought, by both the Phiangdae family and police, that Louk had temporarily run away from home to a friend’s house to hide out for a while. 

“When a kid runs away, they are usually at one of their friend’s houses, but every place was checked out and nothing,” Tom Wilson said.

Even after searching throughout the night with no luck, it was hoped he might show up at school the next day. After Miss Jouper took attendance the next morning, the school secretary came in and asked if Louk had come to school. Jouper told her he hadn’t.

“She said, ‘Well, his parents called and said he was missing so they hoped he had gone to a friend’s house and then just came to school like normal,’” Jouper said. “So that was the first indication he was gone. Then it got more frantic after that, cause none of the kids knew where he was.”

Police checked calls made from payphones around town, including the two closest to Louk’s house at the Riverdale Grocery, to see if he called someone for a ride. No calls were made.

Moriguchi doesn’t believe he ran away anyway.

“Being an Asian kid, I’m part Asian myself, I would say he's pretty respectful of his parents,” Moriguchi said. “Once he got over it, he would have gone straight back home. Which made me believe he maybe had an accident. Not the type of kid who would be kidnapped for ransom. The only other thing it could be was child sex abuse. There was no evidence of that. He just disappeared.”

Robert, the youngest sibling, thought he spotted Louk at a store in Portland around 2005. He was so convinced he told both his girlfriend at the time, Lindsay Rask, and his best friend, Derrick Pedrazzetti.

“He called me upset,” Rask said. “He said he swore he had seen Louk. He just felt like it was. He didn't approach him or anything.”

Looking back now, Gilstrap and Talook don’t believe he ran away — and if he did, he would have come back, eventually.

He didn’t pack anything with him, leaving with only the clothes he was wearing: a blue shirt, black pants and a black denim jacket. He even left behind his prized coin collection. He was also looking forward to Valentine’s Day the following week and had asked his oldest sister, Jane, to take him shopping for Valentine’s Day cards for his classmates.

“He loved Valentine’s Day,” Gilstrap said. “I would never believe he would drop everything and run away. That was not like him at all. It was so strange. Somebody took him.”

Where Louk’s case stands today

Raymond Police denied a public records request to view the case file. 

“Nothing in the case file is being released due to the investigation being an active case,” police clerk Dana Williams said in an email.

After eight months, Raymond Police released newspaper clippings that were part of the case file. They also fulfilled a records request for all emails containing Louk’s name.

The emails revealed that until May 2019, Pacific County Communications (PacCom) the 911 dispatch service, had the mother, Thongbay, listed as the missing person, not Louk.

PacCom director Ed Heffernan did not respond to a request to comment.

Email records also showed the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has assisted Raymond Police with investigating Louk’s disappearance since at least 2018.

NCMEC conducted a case file review in May 2021, which led to a recommendation of finding “a Laotian-speaking interview/interrogator for re-interviews of the family,” according to a January 2022 email. NCMEC also organized the case file in chronological order.

Chuck Spoor, who was Raymond Police chief at the time of the review, said NCMEC concluded, based on their review of the case file, that Louk’s body was located somewhere in the woods near Raymond.

In September 2023, NCMEC case manager Mike Houlihan “made attempts to contact the three surviving family members to update our database,” he said in an email. At the time, there were actually six surviving family members. This reporter contacted Houlihan and gave him an updated family member list.

What’s next

Both of Louk’s parents and his little brother Robert all died with no resolution. Thongbay died in 2020 at 63 years old, Robert in 2021 at 32 years old, and Boualong in 2023 at 75 years old.

Four police chiefs in the years after Louk’s disappearance say no new tips came in during their time. This reporter put up 150 missing posters around north Pacific County in January. That failed to generate a single tip, Raymond Police Chief Pat Matlock said.

DNA samples from the parents were obtained in 2010 and uploaded into a national database in the event remains are found in the future. There is no unknown DNA or anything of forensic value in the case file, Spoor said. It will likely take someone coming forward who knows what happened.

Tom Wilson still has one memory burned into his brain.

“It's chewed on my mind my whole life,” Tom said. “I can remember the mother standing in the yard and gazing off. Her eyes were in a daze. I can never forget that.”

Louk has five surviving siblings who would like to know where he is. They are Jane Douangphrachanh, Taolook Tayaan, Osa Gilstrap, Lily Kiletto and Thong-On Phiangdae. They said their parents kept their house all these years hoping he would one day return home.

“Come home,” Gilstrap said. “Come back to the family. We all love him and we miss him over the years. It hasn’t been the same without him.”

If you have any information about Louk, contact Raymond Police at 360-942-4100, or the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office at 360-875-9397, extension 2847.