The light green house with burgundy shutters should have been empty. Sitting on a tree-lined property just south of Lake Erie in a residential section of Port Clinton, Ohio, the summer home had been vacant and locked up for months.
But when authorities entered the residence Monday afternoon, they came across an unusual sight: a maroon puffer jacket and a pair of eyeglasses lay discarded on the second floor of the house near a brick chimney. The items weren’t left by the home’s previous occupants, Port Clinton Police Chief Robert Hickman said at a news conference Tuesday. They belonged to Harley Dilly, a 14-year-old who vanished almost a month ago. The missing boy, investigators would soon learn, was close by.
On Tuesday, Hickman announced that the weekslong search for Harley, who was last seen on the morning of Dec. 20, had come to a tragic end. A body believed to be Harley’s was found roughly several hundred feet from his own home — inside the chimney of the unoccupied house across the street, Hickman said.
“I promised myself not to break down today,” Hickman told reporters. “It’s not the outcome we wanted.”
Investigators believe Harley climbed an antenna tower to the roof of the house and entered the chimney where he somehow became trapped. The Ottawa County Coroner’s Office determined Harley died from “compressive asphyxia,” adding the teen’s “manner of death appears to be accidental at this time.” Hickman declined to say how long Harley may have been inside the chimney, saying the investigation remains ongoing.
The discovery of the body, which occurred Monday during another search of the neighborhood, marked a grim breakthrough in a case that has captivated the small city east of Toledo and made national headlines.
“You talk about people coming together in a time of need, that’s exactly what we saw throughout the community and beyond,” Hickman said Tuesday.
The tragedy began unfolding five days before Christmas. Harley donned gray sweatpants, black sneakers and his maroon jacket, and left his house around 6 a.m. Surveillance footage appeared to capture the teen walking his normal route to school, only police said he never arrived.
A missing persons report was filed. Fliers with photos of Harley popped up all over Port Clinton. A hefty reward for information was offered. Meanwhile, massive search parties involving helicopters and K-9 teams scoured the city and nearby areas for any clues to Harley’s whereabouts.
Christmas passed. Then New Year’s. But there was still no sign of Harley.
As rumors about what may have befallen the teen started circulating online, authorities repeatedly stressed that the Dilly family was “fully cooperating” with the investigation, adding, “we have no reason to believe they are involved.” Police squelched speculation that Harley had been abducted, saying it was possible he ran away after a disagreement with his parents over his electronics getting taken away, The Associated Press reported. Harley’s mother, however, pushed back against that theory, according to the Sandusky Register.
“He is not a runaway,” Heather Dilly said in a recent Facebook video that has since been taken down. “That’s not like him. He does not do this stuff. He’s a mama’s boy. He has a routine.”
Despite assurances they were “working tirelessly” to find Harley, authorities soon appeared to hit a dead end. Official updates on social media about the case regularly stated there was no new information to report.
The Dilly family’s public pleas for Harley to come home also went unanswered.
“He’s out there somewhere,” Heather Dilly told reporters on Jan. 3. “It’s two weeks, and I have to get up every day and look in that room and he’s not there.”
On Saturday, roughly three weeks after Harley went missing, Dilly’s message to her son was more urgent.
“We miss you. We are still waiting to have Christmas with you,” Dilly said outside her home, which remained decorated with red tinsel and twinkle lights. “Your community is looking for you. Everybody just wants you to come home.”
Dilly went on to thank members of the community who had aided in the search or donated funds for the reward. By Saturday, police said nearly $20,000 had been raised in reward money and the case was also featured in a recent segment of A&E’s “Live PD,” a documentary series on policing in America.
“He just needs to know how much he is loved and wanted,” Dilly said. “He just needs to come home.”
Little did Dilly know, her son probably never left the neighborhood.
Before Monday, Hickman said authorities had searched around the vacant house “multiple times,” noting there was no evidence of forced entry.
“We had no reason to believe anybody was in the house,” Hickman said during Tuesday’s news conference. “It was dead bolted and locked. We had to get two keys to actually enter the house from the homeowner.”
It remains unclear exactly why investigators elected to check inside the house Monday afternoon, but the decision proved critical to solving the mystery of Harley’s disappearance.
Once the teen’s jacket and glasses were spotted, it didn’t take long for police to examine the chimney.
“We were then able to discover what we believe to be Harley, who was caught in the chimney,” said Hickman, describing the space as 9 by 13 inches.
He later added: “This is a tragic outcome to the case and a tough loss to the community.”
The news was met with an outpouring of grief from state officials and the city’s residents.
“We are heartbroken over the outcome but know every effort was made to find Harley,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a statement. “No case is tougher than when a kid goes missing.”
One person described the situation as “gut wrenching,” WJW reported. Dana Deer, who arranged the first vigil for Harley, imagined the teen was trapped in the chimney for days “probably crying for his mom.”
“That’s what’s bringing me to tears,” Deer told WJW.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Hickman struggled to keep his composure when he was asked about Harley’s family.
“What would your state of mind be if you lost your 14-year-old?” he said. “I can’t put words into that.”