Case of missing Illinois teen Joshua Mahaffey allegedly last seen at Devil's Playground remains unsolved nearly three decades later

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By Andrea Cavallier

Nearly three decades ago, a teenage boy got into an argument with his mother, climbed out of his bedroom window in Centralia, Illinois, and disappeared into the night.

In 1991, Joshua Mahaffey lived with his mother in rural Marion County and was a freshman at Centralia High School.

The 15-year-old and his friends would often hang out at a local shopping center and a place known as Devil’s Playground on the outskirts of Centralia, according to local authorities with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

Authorities told Dateline that in September of 1991, Josh and a friend, Terry Martin, were involved in the burglary of a small grocery store in town at their shopping center hangout, stealing soda and chips. Josh cooperated with police and implicated Martin in the heist.

One month later, Josh disappeared.

Secretary of State Police Investigator Norman A. Rose (Alan) told Dateline that his father, Norman Rose, had been a Marion County sheriff’s deputy at the time and initially investigated Josh’s disappearance. Alan, who then worked as a Centralia police officer, would take over the case several years later.

“From my understanding, he ran off with these kids quite a bit,” Alan Rose told Dateline. “Sometimes it would be for days at a time. It wasn’t out of character for him to run off.”

Rose added that there had been a rift between Josh and some of his friends, including Terry Martin, after the burglary, and said that could have been a catalyst for Josh’s disappearance.

It would be several years before a witness told authorities what she allegedly saw the night Josh climbed out of his bedroom window on October 12, 1991.

Tonya L. Collins, who was also a teenager at the time, told authorities with the Marion County Sheriff's Office that she spotted Josh later that night leaving the shopping center in nearby Clinton County in a blue Ford Maverick with Terry Martin, Martin’s girlfriend, and another teenage boy, who was not identified.

Martin, his girlfriend, and the other boy returned hours later in the vehicle that was now mud splattered, authorities said. Josh was not with them.

Weeks went by and Josh didn’t return. His mother, Tanya Mahaffey, reported him missing on November 12, 1991.

Investigators say it was believed Josh’s mother did not report him missing right away, because he was known to run off for several days at a time. She told authorities she just assumed this was another one of those times. Until a month had passed and Josh still hadn’t returned. Tanya Mahaffey could not be located by Dateline for comment.

Authorities with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office searched for Josh, but there has been no trace of the teenager.

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The case was reopened in 1996 and the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office joined the investigation. Both counties are involved since Josh lived in Marion County, but the shopping center is located in Clinton County.

According to Detective Todd Timmerman with the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, Tonya Collins told an attorney, Harold Pike, that after she saw Josh and his friends at the shopping center, she witnessed Josh being tortured and murdered in a Satanic-type ritual at Devil's Playground.

After being contacted by Dateline for this article, Alan Rose reached out to his father Norman and another retired Marion County deputy sheriff, Ernie Clifton, both of whom originally worked on Josh’s case. They said Tonya never told them the story of the alleged torture and murder of Josh at Devil’s Playground, but Clifton said he does believe Tonya “knows something.”

Alan Rose officially became involved in the case in 2003, 12 years after Josh’s disappearance. Things began to heat up when he received a letter from an inmate at Clinton County Jail.

The inmate claimed another inmate - Terry Martin - talked openly about killing a teen named Josh back in 1991.

“We went in and attempted to conduct an eavesdrop to gain information about a suspect in the case,” Rose said. “But the wiretap was unsuccessful. It was just really frustrating at that point.”

Martin had an extensive criminal record. In 1993, he beat a man with a baseball bat, almost killing him. In 1999, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for the rape of a 6-year-old girl. He was paroled in 2010, but allegedly failed to register as a sex offender and was rearrested. He served more prison time, but as of October 2019, he is a free man, according to authorities.

Detective Sergeant Anthony Decker with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office told Dateline that Terry Martin has always been the top suspect in Josh’s disappearance, but “there has never been enough evidence for us to build a case against him.”

Martin told investigators that he admits to having been friends with Josh in 1991, but says he didn't hurt him and doesn't know what happened to him.

As authorities investigated the case over the years, witness Tonya Collins conducted her own search.

According to the Carmi-Times, a prominent local couple interested in Josh’s case, hired a hypnotist, and together with Tonya, they all scoured the woods in the area of Devil’s Playground in 2007, hoping to solve the mystery.

Authorities say Devil’s Playground, which is on the outskirts of Centralia, is a known hangout where, for decades, teenagers have partied, ridden all-terrain vehicles and believed to have dabbled in Satanism.

The group searched for hours, but found nothing.

According to Clinton County authorities, Tonya passed a polygraph about the case in 1996, but in 2008, she failed a second one. Tonya is not a suspect in Josh’s disappearance.

Detective Timmerman told Dateline that on February 27, 2008, investigators used ground-penetrating radar in the area of Devil's Playground where Tonya told authorities she had seen Terry Martin and others bury Josh in 1991.

But again, nothing was found.

Investigators say it may never be known if Tonya’s story of witnessing Josh’s alleged torture and murder at Devil’s Playground can ever be proven.

“At this point, it’s gone cold,” Det. Sgt. Anthony Decker told Dateline. “But we’d still follow up on any tips or leads we get. Right now, there just aren’t any leads to follow.”

Decker said the investigation is also frustrating without the involvement of Josh’s family.

“Before their son disappeared, they were very private people,” Decker said. “Afterward, I just know that the mother became even more withdrawn. If you do get in touch with her, she doesn’t speak much or look you in the eye. And she’s just totally isolated herself from society.” Authorities say they are not aware of where either of Josh’s parents are now.

Alan Rose told Dateline that he drove past the family house this week, where he said Josh’s mother once kept his room as a shrine -- a place where no one was allowed to go.

“The house was run down and completely overgrown with weeds,” Rose said. “Doesn’t look like anyone even lives there anymore.”

Authorities said they believe Josh is most likely deceased, but said that without a body or leads in the investigation, the case can’t move forward.

“It’s not going away and we’re not going to let it go away,” Rose said. “This case is still very much alive, we just need to fill in the holes and hopefully we’ll get some answers for the family.”

If you have information about Josh’s case, call the Marion County Sheriff’s Office at 618-548-2141 or the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office at 618-594-4555.