SNOHOMISH — Whenever an unfamiliar car parks across from her Snohomish home, Yvonne Wright’s mind sprints down a familiar path.
She thinks of her grandson — the boy she had watched from the window every morning as he climbed onto a school bus and whose vibrant drawings remain proudly hung on the walls in her tidy house.
Wright can’t help herself, even after all these years. She wonders if her grandson is in the car, watching his childhood home, debating whether to knock on the door.
Shelby Wright vanished in 2004. He was 14.
His family and Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives fear the worst. They suspect Shelby was a victim of foul play or of an accident that someone covered up.
“You never give up hope, but we know he would not hide from his family all this time,” Yvonne Wright said Friday, sitting in her living room.
The boy’s grandparents, and mom Lisa Wright, never believed Shelby set off on his own without leaving word. He would have called, telling them he was OK. If he had been mad or upset about something, they would have heard all about it. He wasn’t the kind of kid to run off.
Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Kelly Willoth doesn’t believe Shelby ran away, either.
She and her partner, detective Brad Walvatne, recently renewed efforts to find out what happened to the boy.
Last week, they returned to the Machias property where Shelby was last seen in 2004. They brought with them a backhoe, ground-penetrating radar and specially trained dogs.
Their two-day search didn’t turn up any clues, Willoth said. They aren’t finished looking or asking questions, though.
“His family wants to know what happened to him,” she said. “We’re hoping anyone with information will step forward.”
The summer Shelby disappeared, he was staying with his uncle in Machias, near the Centennial Trail. He was helping his great-grandma, who was in the early stages of dementia. He also was going to summer school.
Dennis and Yvonne Wright had gone to Wisconsin to visit relatives in late July.
They spoke with Shelby on the phone, last talking to him a couple of days before returning home. Once back in Snohomish, Yvonne Wright’s brother told them Shelby didn’t want to help with his great-grandmother anymore. His grandparents assumed the boy was staying with his best friend down the road, figuring out how to tell them that he’d quit his job.
Then the girlfriend of a family friend rode her bike from Machias to the couple’s Seattle Hill-area home. She wanted to know if they had heard from Shelby. She obviously was concerned.
Her visit sparked the first wave of fear. The Wrights didn’t understand why she would ride all that way to ask about their grandson. It just didn’t add up.
They began searching for Shelby, calling his friends and driving out to Machias to talk to his uncle. They called police.
Days began piling up.
“Those early days we mostly did a lot of looking — any place a boy might wander,” Yvonne Wright said.
Meanwhile, sheriff’s detectives began piecing together who had last seen the boy and talked to him. A sheriff’s deputy had given Shelby a ride to his mother’s house in the early morning of July 27. The next day his mother saw him working on his scooter.
The deputies also learned that he’d been seen at a house in the 900 block of 135th Avenue NE. His mother’s friends lived there. The man and his girlfriend sometimes took Shelby with them when they swept local grocery store parking lots. The house is about a mile from where Shelby was staying with his great-grandma.
Shelby’s scooter was discovered on the property. His laptop was missing.
The couple told detectives that the boy came to their house in late July. He was on his laptop and later told them he was going back to his great-grandma’s house.
They also said a friend left a message, saying he’d seen Shelby outside their house in the late afternoon of July 27. Police spoke with the man, who gave them a description of a “suspicious-looking” man standing on the road, near the couple’s property, according to a search warrant.
In 2008, homicide detectives dug up the yard around his great-grandmother’s house. They also searched the couple’s property, where Shelby was last seen. Nothing came of the search.
Willoth and Walvatne went back last week, saying that the property was less cluttered with derelict vehicles than in 2008. The man and his girlfriend have since died. The detectives believe someone knows something that could help bring Shelby back to his mom and grandparents.
Over the years, Yvonne and Dennis Wright did their own searching.
They spoke with neighbors, grilled Shelby’s friends, poked around the Machias property and even did a stakeout. They posted fliers around Snohomish County. They also searched Shelby’s email accounts, none of which showed any activity since his disappearance.
Every time Yvonne Wright mailed a bill, she carefully tucked a flier in the envelope, asking that it be posted.
“At first you hope and pray he’ll knock on the door and say, ‘Hi Grandma and Grandpa,’” Dennis Wright said. “At this point, we’re only left to think he’s probably gone.”
He and his wife try not to speculate about what happened — there is too much darkness in theories.
“I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent shoving some thoughts out of my mind,” Dennis Wright said.
So they hold on to what they do have of their grandson — memories of a bright boy, who wrote newspapers with his best buddy and lugged home old computers and other electronics from yard sales so he could tear them apart and see how they worked.
They exchange smiles, recalling how they sat in class with the boy one day after learning he was being disruptive. They remember how after struggling with reading early on, something clicked around the second grade and Shelby became a voracious reader.
Pokemon cards and Legos will forever remind them of the boy they called “Shelbs.”
They still search the face of any young man with short hair and glasses, looking for their grandson. His 23rd birthday was Sunday.
“We talk about him often. He’s always in our hearts,” Yvonne Wright said. “He is loved.”
And she can’t bring herself to throw out the teen’s old crayon-shaped bank that sits in the hallway. She dusts around it, thinking maybe someday she’ll let go — just not today.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Help the family
The family of Shelby Wright is asking anyone with information about the teen’s disappearance in 2004 to call the sheriff’s tip line at 425-388-3845 or Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound at 800-222-8477.
If you think you have seen any missing child, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children 24 hours a day at 800-843-5678.
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