LEOMINSTER — Nine-year-old blonde and blue-eyed Taj Narbonne has been missing without a trace from 15 Naples Street for 42 years.
But people have never stopped looking for him. He still has family and friends who miss him, a retired police detective who can’t stop looking and many others who care.
On Monday, March 31 1981, Taj was reported missing after his mother Annette Long discovered that he hadn’t slept in his bed the previous night. He’d been living with family friends as a foster child since December 1980 due to not getting along with his stepfather, Clarence Dean, who married his mother when Taj was seven.
Taj’s foster father dropped him off at his family home so they could work on the issues that caused him to be in foster care, but he didn’t want to be there. He told his mother in a lengthy conversation before bed that he was afraid and asked his grandmother Eunice Narbonne to pick him up. Both women assured Taj everything would be okay.
It was not; Taj hasn’t been seen since.
Retired Leominster Police Det. Patrick Aubuchon said relatives, classmates from Fallbrook School, fellow church members, and others who knew Taj “remember a caring and kind child vanished, and rightfully so want answers.”
Aubuchon took over the case in 2003 and continues to try to find resolution. He recently released additional details about the cold case on his Facebook page, Aubuchon Investigations.
Many new witnesses have been found over the years, providing new information. As in any missing person case, there is more info that hasn’t been released to the public. Aubuchon remains hopeful that someone will eventually come forward knowing withheld details.
“On the investigation side, [this] case has always been about properly analyzing old information, gathering new, and separating fact from fiction,” Aubuchon said. “We needed to bring ourselves back to the beginning, which included Taj’s life before his disappearance. That was and still is the reason he disappeared.”
In the early 1980s, there wasn’t the robust response to a missing child that there is now. It took over 12 hours for police to start looking for him and a week for the public to become aware that Taj had disappeared.
He was originally treated as a runaway for many years, because of a note he allegedly wrote saying he was leaving (although the date written is unknown and he threatened to run away many times before) — despite being terrified of the dark and not being dressed for a bitterly cold March night, in pajamas with no coat or proper shoes. Many clues were likely lost or discarded.
The original missing poster said he’d had a verbal dispute with Dean before leaving the house, but this was false. Dean was at work that evening and didn’t return home until after Taj was asleep, having a drink with his wife before they went to bed, although at one point in the night, Long said Dean wasn’t there.
Before returning to Naples Street on that fateful night, Narbonne sat at his grandparents’ kitchen table in Fitchburg, as stated in 2011 to the Sentinel & Enterprise.
“I told him he was going home,” said grandfather Louis Narbonne. “He said, ‘With Dean there? No way.'”
“The thing is, it was rough. It still is, and I’ll never forgive [Dean], or myself, for letting him go back there,” said Eunice Narbonne, who is now deceased.
Although the evidence is circumstantial, and there is no longer any physical evidence available to test with modern forensic methods, Long, Taj’s grandparents, (and many others) think he was involved in Taj’s disappearance.
“I have, of course, so much guilt and regret that I didn’t stand up to him, but of course I knew what he was capable of,” Long said in 2011. She planned to leave Dean with her kids before Taj vanished.
Taj’s school best friend, Derek Drury, told the Leominster Champion in 2011 that Taj said he was being abused at home by Dean and spoke about running away just about every day.
Dean is currently incarcerated with severe mental illness at Bridgewater State Hospital for other violent crimes. Aubuchon has tried to interview him in the past, but he’s unreliable and often incoherent.
At this point, it’s less about who’s responsible for Taj’s disappearance than it is about finding Taj, Aubuchon said.
Long, who had a close, loving relationship with Taj, said in 2011. “Part of me still clings to the hope that he did run away to escape his stepfather and is living happily somewhere.”
Over the years, the woods, new housing, and other public and private property on and near Naples Street have all been searched with cadaver dogs for Taj’s body, but nothing has ever been found.
“Through the years I established professional relationships with experts in the private sector who assist with the case in different ways,” Aubuchon said. “There is a lot of time, effort and resources involved in properly searching.”
Diane Beaudoin, who wrote a series of articles for the Leominster Champion about Taj before her retirement, became intimately involved in the case’s investigation. She even physically searched the area with Taj’s relatives over the decade she covered the story.
Beaudoin also doesn’t believe Taj ran away, opining that he was either taken from his home or if he did go outside, was abducted by someone in the area.
“My firm belief is that someone knows what happened to him so many years ago. Whether they know who took him, or where he is, or has any memory of that night of something unusual they may have seen or heard, they need to come forward to put this case to rest,” Beaudoin said. “Someone may have seen or heard something they don’t feel is important, but it sure could be… a memory could make the difference.”
“Taj and his family deserve nothing less,” she added.
At their first meeting in 2002, Eunice asked Aubuchon never to give up looking for her grandson. He promised that he never would; he intends to fulfill that promise. Aubuchon believes that modern science and technology can help, including social media.
He said social media is a powerful new tool to engage many people for open discussion, support, tips, and who can share the mystery to keep it in public view.
Any person with information can contact Aubuchon or the Leominster Police Department, who consider Taj an active cold case.