The Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Florida), 25 Ja 1975, page 30
Matthew Allen Alred 1972-1974
Lineage: Matthew, Vernon, Augustus, Andrew, William, William, Moses, Thomas, Solomon born 1680 Lancashire, England
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A 2-year-old boy disappears while playing in the backyard of his home in Clair Mel City, Florida on January 27, 1974. Almost 19 years later, his remains are found hidden just across the street. What happened to Matthew Allen Alred?
While researching old cold cases in South Florida, I came across a newspaper article about this little boy who vanished without a trace in 1974 and was found almost two decades later under very suspicious circumstances. There is little information to be found with a normal Google search, and, while there is a strong suspect in the case, questions remain as to what exactly happened and why.
Matthew Allen Alred was born to Vernon and Virginia Alred in Bradenton, Florida on May 26, 1971. In January 1974, the Alred family lived in a small, tight-knit neighborhood in Clair Mel City, a community located about seven miles east of Tampa, Florida. Vernon was a Korean War vet turned truck driver for a local trucking firm, while Virginia stayed at home to care for their four children: twelve-year-old Cindy, seven-year-old Gregory, four-year-old Terry, and almost-three-year-old Matthew.
Matthew was a bubbly, outgoing child, one who didn’t hesitate to toddle up to a stranger and give them a hug. He loved to play with his older siblings and could often be seen playing outside and riding his favorite toy, a mini dune buggy. The family enjoyed a friendly relationship with their neighbors, particularly Reinaldo and Mary Paiz, an older couple that lived right across the street from their home. Cindy would often take Matthew to the Paiz home to ride their ponies, and he would play with Reinaldo’s tools while the man worked in the backyard.
About one week before Matthew disappeared, Vernon bought him a pair of brown, suede cowboy boots. They were slightly too big for him, but he instantly fell in love. In fact, he loved them so much that he would wear them all day, every day and cry when he had to take them off at night. Virginia would tuck him in and set the boots down at the end of the bed, promising that they would be there waiting for him in the morning.
January 27, 1974 was a cool, breezy Sunday in Clair Mel City. The Alred kids spent much of the day outside, playing with the other neighborhood kids and taking turns on a new swing Vernon had tied to a tree in their backyard, before returning home in the late afternoon to join their parents and paternal aunt for supper.
After dinner, Cindy, Terry, and Gregory went back outside to play. Seeing his siblings run out the door, Matthew began fidgeting and said, “I wanna get down.” Virginia plucked him out of his highchair and watched him run out the door in his cowboy boots. When he reached the front yard, Cindy told him to go play in the backyard while the older kids climbed a tree, and so he turned and scampered towards the swings behind their home. It was about 5:15 PM.
At about 5:30 PM, Virginia finished clearing the table and went outside to wait for Vernon, who had gone out to tow a trailer to the yard. She noticed that Matthew was gone and asked his brothers and sister where he was, but Cindy could only say she remembered seeing him running around the swings. They hadn’t even realized he was missing.
Assuming that he just wandered a little too far away from the backyard, Virginia and her sister-in-law walked around the block, expecting to see him running towards them at any moment. When he didn’t, they became concerned and returned home, where they found that Vernon had just come back from his errand. They drove around searching while Vernon looked through the yard and the cab of his truck, hoping that his son had just tagged along with him without him noticing.
At 6:00 PM, Vernon called the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to report Matthew missing, then left with a neighbor to track down an ice cream truck that had passed through the neighborhood minutes before Matthew disappeared. The children were allowed to buy ice cream from time to time, and it was possible that he heard the familiar jingle during dinner and left to go look for it. They caught up with the driver a few blocks away, who told them that a little boy resembling Matthew had tried to buy some ice cream from him, but that he turned the child away because he had no money.
Word of Matthew’s disappearance spread quickly, and, by nightfall, around 800 friends, neighbors, and police officers were scouring the palmetto thickets and small wooded areas in and around the Alreds’ neighborhood. The ice cream vendor cruised around the neighborhood multiple times, hoping that Matthew would hear the music and follow it home. Of particular concern to the searchers were the canal (located within walking distance of their house) and the small ponds and water-filled sinkholes common to the area, but they could find no evidence that he had drowned — or that anything else had happened, for that matter.
By the evening of January 29, the Sheriff’s Office had combed a three-square-mile area around the home eight times with no results. They had also located the little boy who tried to buy ice cream, who turned out to be another neighborhood kid. That evening, Sheriff Malcolm Beard announced that they would be suspending the official search, saying they were confident Matthew was not in the area and that they no longer believed this was a simple case of a child wandering away from home. FBI agents from Tampa briefly joined the investigation, but they failed to find any proof that a crime had even been committed. Despite detectives’ belief that Matthew had been abducted, there was little to no evidence to work with and the case quickly went cold.
In September 1978, Suncoast Crime Watch Inc. aired a 60-second commercial reenacting Matthew’s disappearance. It stated that investigators believed the child walked along a fence line west of his home, but if the commercial generated any tips, they didn’t lead to Matthew.
“The Alred case is a case with no leads,” said Suncoast Crime Watch coordinator Skip Pask. “Totally dead-end. Shelved, if you will.”
It would stay that way for another 14 years.
On June 4, 1990, Raymond Reinaldo Paiz, the family’s longtime friend and neighbor, passed away at the age of 73. The one-story home he had once shared with his wife and three children sat vacant until late 1992, when his daughter began making arrangements to sell the property. As part of routine preparation for the sale, her real estate agent hired a local company to clean out the septic tank in the backyard.
On the morning of December 31, 1992, 19-year-old Timothy Scanlon went to the former Paiz home to begin cleaning the 900-gallon septic tank — the first time in at least 20 years. When he cracked the concrete seal of the other inlet and removed the lid, he could see a small, round object partially submerged in the muck. Thinking it was just a coconut, Timothy got to work and began pumping the septic tank.
Minutes later, his hose clogged up. Timothy paused to remove the obstruction, only to discover a small jawbone, ribs, and pelvic and leg bones. It was at that point that he realized the “coconut” he saw earlier was actually a human skull. He frantically called his father, the owner of the company, who rushed to the Paiz home and began hosing down some of the items Timothy had recovered. One of them was a tiny, pointed cowboy boot.
Police sifted through hundreds of gallons of waste by hand and recovered more bones, a flashlight, another boot, and tags from children’s clothing. They immediately knew that the remains probably belonged to Matthew Alred, the little boy who lived just across the street, and they were certain the location was no accident. The tank was buried underground and both inlets had been covered with a lid and sealed with concrete, making it impossible for a small child to accidentally fall in. They found that someone had broken the concrete seal of the second inlet and subsequently covered it with dirt and glass, but they could not say for sure when it was broken or whether the perpetrator had placed Matthew’s body through that opening.
Although authorities were unable to test the bones for DNA, any doubts as to the identity of the skeleton evaporated the instant Vernon laid eyes on the child-sized boots.
“I never seen them since then until today,” Vernon said. “It’s a positive ID as far as I’m concerned, because them’s the same boots I bought him just before he came up missing.”
On January 13, 1993, Matthew’s death was ruled a homicide by undetermined means. Robert Pfalzgraf of the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office explained that the ruling was not based on any injuries to the bones, (none were found), but the fact that someone had clearly tried to conceal his death.
“The kid could not have put himself in there,” said Jack Espinosa, then the information director for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. “Somebody put him there. He was killed and then put in there afterward. That’s what we believe.”
Matthew’s family was stunned to learn that he was found so close to home, much less on their friends’ property. In 1974, Reinaldo was a 57-year-old retiree who was born and raised in the Tampa Bay area and lived with his wife, Mary; their adult children were married and presumably living outside the house, and it is unknown if anyone was visiting or staying with them at the time Matthew disappeared. To the Alreds, Reinaldo was a friendly, good-natured family man who was happy to let the neighborhood kids play on his property and doted on Matthew, though he rarely went over without Cindy. In the days after the child disappeared, Mary was always at the Alred home to comfort and support Virginia.
In fact, Vernon even spoke positively about the Paiz family in an interview with The Tampa Times four days after he went missing.
“Matt considered them tops, and Paiz looked on him as a grandson,” he said. “He would let Matt and Cindy ride his ponies anytime.”
And yet, detectives told Vernon, they had found evidence pointing to Reinaldo as the main suspect in Matthew’s death and disposal. It is unknown if Reinaldo was ever considered a suspect before Matthew’s remains were found on his property, and detectives have never publicly revealed what evidence led them to believe he was responsible for Matthew’s death. What motive could Reinaldo have had to kill his neighbors’ three-year-old son? Was it an accident that he knew he’d been on the hook for if anyone found out, or was it a deliberate act of murder? Did Mary also know what happened? If she did, it’s too late to ask her about it; she passed away in 1983.
Finding Matthew brought little comfort to his family. Cindy had long struggled with feelings of guilt. Ralph Samuel, born just eight months after he disappeared, never got to know his big brother. Vernon and Virginia did their best to move on, even moving the family to Connecticut in 1980 to escape the bad memories, but they were plagued by unanswered questions and still clung to hope that he would show up at their door one day as an adult wanting to learn more about his roots.
“I’ve lived with that 24 hours a day,” Vernon said in 1993. “Just picture that you have a child, and all of a sudden he’s gone. It just drives you crazy.”
On January 16, 1993, almost exactly 19 years after Matthew was last seen playing in the backyard of his home in Clair Mel City, his family held a memorial service in his honor. They also planned to have the cowboy boots bronzed, a keepsake from the cheerful, blond little boy who was stolen from them for reasons they may never know.
“I’m glad it’s over,” Cindy said. “We don’t have to wonder where he is anymore. All we can do now is go on. We can’t stop time. We can’t wonder how it could have been.”
University of Florida Digital Collections - Aerial Photography: Florida. This is how the neighborhood looked in 1968. Home located by cross-referencing the locations of Benny Bennets (whose backyard joined the Alreds’) and Reinaldo Paiz’s homes, along with other information contained in newspaper articles. The Alreds moved to Connecticut in 1980, and the home was torn down sometime between then and 1993.
footage.net — I can’t link to it directly, but if you search “Matthew Alred,” you will find a two-minute-long news clip from 1993 about the discovery of his remains. (Note: The clip says that news articles confirm he tried to flag down an ice cream truck, but this is incorrect; the child who tried to get ice cream that day was quickly located and he was NOT Matthew.)