CENTRALIA (AP) - Nearly 17 years after teenager Josh Mahaffey disappeared, a hypnotized woman carefully walked the rutted trails of the Devil's Playground searching for his grave.
The woman was then 35-year-old Tonya L. Collins. She has the unusual distinction of passing a police administered polygraph in 1996 about the case when it was reopened five years after he turned up missing and flunking another lie detector test about the case when it was revived a second time in 2008. She is not a suspect in Josh's disappearance.
Police involved in both investigations today say it may never be known if Collins' story of witnessing the Satanic torture of Josh and his burial in the Devil's Playground can ever be proved or disproved.
During the Devil's Playground search in 2007 when she was under hypnosis, Collins was accompanied by a hypnotist hired by a prominent local couple who also trailed along, hoping to solve what is arguably the most baffling mystery in Clinton and Marion counties - what happened to 15-year-old Josh Mahaffey.
For hours on that day, they scoured woods and brush near the outskirts of Centralia where decades of teenagers have partied, ridden motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles and are thought to have dabbled in Satanism. They found nothing.
Collins said that at one point during another trip to the Devil's Playground when she wasn't hypnotized, she came to a tree that brought back troubling memories.
``I remember being under the tree on the hill and looking down at the fire,'' Collins said. The fire, she said, was started in a large, abandoned oil tank where an unconscious Josh, wearing only his underwear, had moments earlier been laid out on a concrete slab. She claimed that a man she said shot and beat Josh earlier that day performed a Satanic ritual of some sort. She remembered that the youth was moaning and, after a few minutes, was moved to a nearby spot for burial and the oil tank was set afire with gasoline.
Could the teenage boy have been buried alive, Collins was asked recently.
``I think so,'' she said.
The Clinton County Sheriff's Department heard about the search. On Feb. 27, 2008, investigators watched as a backhoe excavated a large hole at the spot in the Devil's Playground where Collins, during yet another search, told police she had seen Terry Martin and others bury Josh in 1991.
Again, nothing was found.
The investigation is very much alive, said Clinton County Sheriff Mike Kreke and Marion County Sheriff Jerry Devore. Both counties are involved because Josh is believed to have been last seen at a shopping center in Clinton County but lived in Marion County.
Kreke and Devore believe Josh is probably deceased, and both consider Martin a suspect. But Kreke said if Josh was murdered, Martin should not be considered the only suspect.
``I'm definitely open to other suspects,'' he said. ``One thing we know for sure, we don't know what happened to Josh Mahaffey.''
Martin, 36, is a registered sex offender sentenced in Madison County Circuit Court in 1999 to 22 years in prison for raping a 6-year-old girl and giving her a sexually transmitted disease. He was paroled this year and arrested recently for failing to register a change of address. His release on personal recognizance bond has heightened interest in Josh's disappearance.
As for Martin, he said he has no idea what happened to Josh.
Josh's divorced parents, Robert and Tanya Mahaffey, could not be reached for comment.
Martin also has been convicted of beating a man in 1993 with an aluminum baseball bat and leaving him for dead. In addition, he has been convicted of burglary.
It was the burglary of a small grocery - which netted only soda and bags of chips - that police said linked Martin to Josh's disappearance.
Josh implicated Martin in the snack heist, said Ernie Clifton, a former Marion County sheriff's deputy who investigated the youth's disappearance in 1996 when the case was first reopened. His investigating partner was now retired deputy Norman Rose.
Josh was last seen sometime in October 1991 after he had argued with his mother and then is believed to have snuck out his bedroom window with another boy. He was reported missing Nov. 12, 1991.
Besides getting even with a crime partner who ratted him out, another factor may have figured into a motive for Martin to want to seek revenge against Josh. According to a 42-page, 2008 official investigative report by the Clinton County Sheriff's Department obtained by the News-Democrat, Josh, without Martin's knowledge, had been sleeping with Martin's girlfriend.
Martin said that isn't true. While he said he and his girlfriend used to hang out with Collins, Josh and another teenage boy to drink and party, torture or any crime in the Devil's Playground never happened.
The last time he saw Josh was the day after they committed the burglary when both were arrested, Martin said.
``I don't know what happened to him,'' Martin said. ``He always talked about taking off somewhere. He said he wanted to be with his dad in Kentucky.''
Collins' alleged role in the case is still considered crucial.
Clifton, the retired deputy, said Collins ``knows something'' but her story of torture and burial is not what she told him and his partner Rose. He said that 14 years ago Collins gave this account: She saw Martin and his girlfriend in a blue Ford Maverick leave a shopping center with Josh and another teenage boy. When they returned hours later, the Maverick was mud-spattered and Josh wasn't with them.
At this time Collins was 23. She was a teenager when Josh disappeared.
``She passed a polygraph back then. There's no doubt about that,'' Clifton said about the 1996 investigation.
``Everything keeps coming back to him,'' Clifton said concerning Martin. ``If we could ever find a body, we could solve this.''
And the former deputy said another factor in the case has always haunted him. He said that a few years after Josh's disappearance, while Martin was held on the charge of using a ball bat to beat a man, a cellmate agreed to wear a wire for police. Clifton said the cellmate recorded Martin saying he had killed someone.
``There was a recording. It was FBI-enhanced,'' Clifton said.
However, the recording mentioned no one by name and was not specific. Investigators were told by Martin that he simply lied to his cellmate to impress him, Clifton said.
As for Tonya Collins, he said, ``What story is the truth? The first one or the one that's going around now?
``She told us she wasn't there. All these details she's saying now, she didn't say that back then. ... In my 21 years as a deputy, this was my most frustrating case.''
But Collins, during a recent interview, said she did try to tell Clifton and Rose that she had been at the scene in the Devil's Playground, where she said Josh was tortured and buried.
``They thought I was crazy. They wouldn't listen,'' she said.
Collins was asked by reporters whether she had a criminal record. She stated that she had one misdemeanor conviction for trespassing. However, Clinton County Circuit Court records state that she was charged with a felony, abuse at a care facility for the handicapped, which was reduced to misdemeanor battery. She was given probation.
Collins appeared before a grand jury investigating the Josh Mahaffey case in 1996, but said she was asked only a few questions and that none of these were about her claims of witnessing torture and burial. The grand jury did not indict anyone in connection with Josh's disappearance.
Martin's girlfriend also appeared before the grand jury and was later charged with obstruction when she claimed she didn't know Martin, court records show. The case was not prosecuted.
Collins told a Clinton County investigator in 2008 that what she now insists is the truth was the very same thing she would have told Clifton and Rose had they been willing to listen.
According to the 42-page sheriff's department report, Collins said she was intoxicated and may have been slipped LSD when she agreed to a trip to the Devil's Playground in the blue Maverick. She gave police this account of what happened on arrival at a particular spot near railroad tracks:
An enraged Martin ordered Josh out of the car and then chased him while firing shots from a small handgun. Josh tumbled over an embankment but was still alive. Martin's girlfriend yelled, ``I told you to shoot him in the (expletive) head!'' The girlfriend than returned to the Maverick and took out two aluminum baseball bats. Martin and a teenage boy used the bats to beat Josh, who was dragged back to the car and put in the trunk.
The Maverick was then driven to an apartment on Kell Street in Centralia where Josh was laid out in the basement. Collins said she remembers lying on the basement floor next to the youth and hearing him beg for his life.
She then said she recalled that Martin used a screwdriver to poke at Josh's stomach, perhaps trying to remove a bullet. During this time, she said she was so intoxicated she could barely stand.
Josh was then placed back into the Maverick's trunk and returned to the Devil's Playground, where he was stripped to his shorts, temporarily laid out in the empty oil tank and finally buried in a shallow grave.
Somehow, and the report isn't clear, Collins' Chevrolet had been brought to the scene. She claims she used her car to drive back to Kell Street where she awoke at 5:30 a.m., only to be told that Josh had been placed on a train to Kentucky so he could visit his father.
Rose, the former deputy, said that despite the contradictory accounts Collins may have given, the key to the case still lies with her.
``I think she knows. I think she has knowledge,'' Rose said, ``Then again, so many mistruths have been told, how do you know what's the truth?''