Detective Brian Cummer shows a photo of Reeves K. Johnson in Cummer’s office at the Kittery Police Department. Johnson hasn’t been seen since February 1983. An obscured photo of the man who picked up Johnson’s mail from his P.O. box after he disappeared is in the bottom right corner. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Reeves K. Johnson III lived a simple life in Kittery.

He rented a small cabin, played guitar and worked as a welder. He was somewhat of a philosopher and a bit of a loner, but he talked to his family in Philadelphia every Sunday.

Then one Sunday in 1983, he didn’t answer his phone. Another Sunday came and went without contact. An officer who checked on him at the family’s request found an empty cabin.

Johnson was gone and 40 years later his family is still waiting for answers.

He was 31 when he disappeared. An initial police investigation – started 12 days after he left work for the last time – turned up few clues about what could have happened to him. No body has ever been found.

With no solid leads, his case soon went cold.


But Kittery Detective Brian Cummer doesn’t want to leave it at that. It’s one of three cold cases in Kittery and the only unsolved missing person case.

For the past few years, Cummer has been reviewing the limited information in Johnson’s file, painstakingly piecing together a detailed timeline of when Johnson was last seen, where he went and the efforts to track him down. He spoke to podcaster Kristen Seavey for an episode of “Murder, She Told,” unveiling many investigative details.

Detective Brian Cummer took on the investigation into the 40-year-old cold case of Reeves K. Johnson’s disappearance and has been pushing for more information. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

And for the first time, Cummer is now releasing new information he uncovered about Johnson’s life in Maine.


The detective recently found a letter Johnson wrote to his father in 1978 – five years before his disappearance – that referenced a woman named Cheryl, who appeared to be his girlfriend.

On the surface, it’s not much and Cummer recognizes it’s unlikely that she knows anything about Johnson’s disappearance, but he hopes to find Cheryl and ask her about who Johnson knew and what he did during his time in Kittery.


“We’re really desperate to find someone named Cheryl who was around in 1978 and dating Reeves Johnson,” he said. “Everything is a long shot in this case.”

A letter from Reeves K. Johnson to his father in 1978 that mentions a woman named “Cheryl,” in Detective Brian Cummer’s case file on Johnson. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Cummer and Seavey, who now assists with the investigation, used grant money to publish ads in the Portsmouth Herald earlier this year to try to find people who knew Johnson in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

A photo of a possible suspect that his family took weeks after Johnson disappeared was finally, decades later, given to police, but it has not led to the person’s identity.

Cummer still doesn’t have all the answers, but he is certain of one thing: Johnson did not leave on his own.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I can’t imagine that he just wandered away. I don’t think anyone who read this case file thinks he just wandered away. Something happened.”



Johnson grew up in Philadelphia, the second of Reeves “Kemp” and Barbara Johnson’s three children. He attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, but left before finishing his degree as he struggled with hypoglycemia. He went on to become a welder, a job his family says he loved.

Johnson moved to Kittery in 1977 and rented a small cabin on Jewett Court. He worked at Donnelly Manufacturing in Exeter, New Hampshire, shopped for food at a market near his cabin and rode his bicycle in the area. He sometimes gave a coworker rides to work and stayed in regular contact with his parents in Philadelphia, and his siblings, Sally and Hugh, who lived in Georgia and Vermont.

Johnson talked to someone from his family just about every Sunday afternoon. But when his sister called on Sunday, Feb. 6, 1983, he didn’t answer. He didn’t answer her call the following Sunday.

Mike Bold points out the area that housed three small cabins, one of which Reeves K. Johnson lived in back in the 1970s and 1980s, in the parking lot of the family business Kittery Storage & Parcel Center. Bold’s father was Johnson’s landlord at the time he was last seen. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When his parents returned from a trip shortly after and couldn’t get hold of him, the family knew something wasn’t right. On Feb. 15, his father called Kittery police to report his son was missing and asked for a wellness check.

“I knew he would never go off. He would not do that to my parents,” his sister Sally Swartz told Seavey in the podcast episode.

When an officer went to Johnson’s one-room cabin, the door was open, the pipes were frozen and the snow that had fallen more than a week earlier was undisturbed. Inside, the officer found only Johnson’s contact lenses, the cardboard box he kept to move his record player and amp, and a pack of guitar strings that Johnson bought on the day he was last seen.


Everything else, including his clothes, was gone.


There wasn’t a lot of information to go on and the initial police investigation was limited.

“To be honest, then and even sometimes now, when an adult goes missing like this, some people don’t take it as seriously as they should immediately,” Cummer said. “We were already 11 days behind and I think some people thought he just moved on.”

The first detective on the case confirmed Johnson last showed up for work on Feb. 3. He also uncovered a string of purchases made with Johnson’s checkbook, including $80.06 for groceries at the Shaw’s on Feb. 4 and $66.61 from the same store 15 days later.

There were also bigger purchases: an expensive car radio and speakers and two sets of high-end thermal underwear from Damart, neither in Johnson’s size.


The purchases totaled around $1,800 in modern dollars and overdrew Johnson’s bank account.

Johnson’s car, a bright red Volkswagen Beetle, was found at a local repair shop. An employee told police someone matching Johnson’s description had tried to sell them the car for the cost of repairs.

The detective asked Donnelly Manufacturing to hold Johnson’s last paycheck until he came in to get it so someone could lay eyes on him and confirm he was OK. But after someone identifying themselves as Johnson called looking for it, an employee put the check in the mail.

Johnson’s parents, who had come up from Philadelphia to look for him, decided to stake out his post office box because police did not have the manpower to do it themselves. For days, they took turns posing as tourists in the post office hoping their son would show up for his check.

Finally, on Feb. 24, a man wearing green overalls and a red hat walked in and opened Johnson’s box. He flipped through the mail, throwing everything away except for the paycheck.

As Barbara Johnson snapped a single photo, the man put up his hand to block the camera. She asked him where her son was.


The man, who she later described as having reddish hair and a neat appearance, told her Johnson was at an apartment in Portsmouth and she could follow him there. But as they walked out of the post office, he took off running and was never spotted again.

When she developed the photo, an almost unbelievable image appeared. The man’s hand, thrown up at the last second, perfectly covered his face. There was no way to identify him.

A photo taken by Barbara Johnson at the Kittery Post Office in 1983 shows a man police believe may have been involved in the disappearance of her son Reeves Johnson. Courtesy photo

That was the last clue in the case for nearly four decades.


Even before Cummer became a detective four years ago, he was well aware of the Johnson case. He had seen the case file – marked in red because it was unsolved – as a patrol officer and was drawn to it.

As he started going through the thin file, Cummer was struck by how little information had turned up during the initial investigation and in the 40 years since.


“Reeves is such a mystery. It is such a bizarre case,” Cummer said. “I don’t even know who he was with last. It really puts you into a bind.”

Cummer reached out to Johnson’s siblings to learn more about him and what they thought could have happened. He realized it would have been out of character for Johnson to take off, spend a large amount of money and cut off contact with his family.

A map of places linked to the Reeves K. Johnson case. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Johnson’s family gave Cummer the photo of the man in the post office. It was the first time police had seen it.

As Cummer set out to firm up the timeline of Johnson’s disappearance and find people who knew him, Seavey reached out. She had been researching cases for her podcast and came across a local newspaper article about Cummer’s investigation.

She wondered why she had never come across Johnson’s name on lists of missing person cases.

Her conversation with Cummer led to an unusual strategy for Kittery police. They decided to give her full access to the case file to draw attention to the case. It was the first time the case had been covered in detail and reignited local interest in finding answers.


But it did not result in an influx of clues and Cummer still has not found a single new person in Kittery who remembers Johnson.

Despite that, the detective feels he has a better handle on the case and now believes something happened to Johnson between when he left work on Feb. 3 and failed to show up again on Feb. 4. He does not believe Johnson is alive.


Seavey said a cold missing person case is “a different kind of heartache.”

“It’s been 40 years and they still don’t know what happened to their brother,” she said. “I would love to get answers for them.”

It’s a question Johnson’s family has asked themselves for decades. At times they wondered if he had joined a left-leaning cult or died by suicide, but neither made sense. His parents, who hired private investigators to find their son, died without answers.


“It affects you the rest of your life,” Swartz, Johnson’s sister, said on the podcast. “There’s a hole that never gets filled.”

Cummer believes the family has waited long enough.

At this point, he’s hoping for a deathbed confession or new information from someone who “doesn’t have anything left to lose or somebody who finally figures out they have a conscience.”

Cummer thinks about the case every day on his 20-minute commute to work.

“Has he been found and we just don’t know it yet?” Cummer said. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”

There is a $6,000 reward for information that leads to Reeves Johnson’s whereabouts. Anyone with information that could help solve the case can contact Detective Brian Cummer at 439-1638 or call the Seacoast Crime Stoppers anonymous tip line at 439-1199.

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