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A Hannibal mystery 48 years in the making

Joey, Billy, and the Hoag kids had many hobbies while growing up in Hannibal.

"We went up to the rock quarry on riverside, and we would bring black snakes home, and you know, our playground was Lovers Leap," DeDe Hoag said, one of 11 Hoag children.

In 1967, work was underway on what is now Route 79; the site was the perfect playground for young explorers Joey, 13, and Billy, 11.

One night, the boys came home covered in mud after several hours of exploring a cave.

The Hoag parents scolded the boys, and the next day, punished them by not allowing them to leave the yard.

If only they had listened.

May 10, 1967 was the last time anybody saw Joey and Billy Hoag.

The Hoag family spread out looking for the boys; they must have run off to do more exploring, they thought.

DeDe said neighbors reported seeing the boys go into Murphy's Cave, near where Stowell Elementary School sits today.

"They mapped that whole thing out completely, they mapped it out so thoroughly, they searched so many caverns," DeDe said.

At the time, a third boy, Craig Dowell, also had gone missing; but to this day, it's unclear whether Dowell joined the Hoag boys or not.

Week after week, the search continued.

Local restaurants donated food and housing to the many volunteer cavers who came from around the country to help find the boys.

It was a search that began to take its toll on DeDe's family.

I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep," she said. "I felt that they would be cold and they would be hungry and you know, I just couldn't let myself do anything, I was so stressed out, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about my brothers and where in the world are they."

DeDe said all she wants now is closure, and that closure comes when the boys are found - but after 48 years, will there ever be another search?

"That case remains open, and will remain open," Hannibal Police Department Lieutenant John Zerbonia said.

Zerbonia said the department will follow up on any credible leads it receives, but as for another search, that won't happen.

He also has advice for any young explorers who go caving.

"Stay out of them, don't go in any caves you're unfamiliar with and even if you are familiar with them don't go in them, there's always a chance that you can get hurt or lost or worse,â?? he said.

A memorial has since been placed on top of Lovers Leap to honor the three missing boys.

DeDe Hoag still has hope.

With today's technology, she said it's just a matter of time before the remains of Craig Dowell and her brothers Joey and Billy are found.

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