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D.C. police try to unravel mystery of man found dead in car trunk

"It was a very uncomfortable type of situation," Martha Skeen said. "I don't know as I can put into words why that was. Just because of the guilt I had about losing him. And, of course, his natural father was there, and that was an embarrassing situation."

Short said, "Those reunion shows on TV where everyone's happy and emotional - it wasn't really that way at all."

The relationship became a distant one of catch-up phone calls and birthday cards in the mail through the 1980s and '90s as Silbaugh bounced from address to address in Delaware and on Maryland's Eastern Shore, running bulldozers and backhoes when the hiring was good.

He didn't visit his blood relatives often. And after what he did in 1997, he wasn't welcome.

'You surely must be ashamed'

"I have needed to write you," Silbaugh said in a prison letter to Martha Skeen, his penmanship meticulously neat. "I have hesitated several times in doing so because I have been embarrassed. . . . The reason I am here is something that I just cannot discuss with you right now."

The four victims, ages 15 and 16, slept in Silbaugh's small home in rural Delaware at various times, mainly because they needed shelter, court records show. He pleaded guilty to plying the boys with Jack Daniel's, showing them porn videos, taking off some of their clothes and touching them indecently.

"I know that you surely must be ashamed and disappointed in me," he wrote in another letter to Skeen. "I am sorry for not being a very good son."

Naturally, Silbaugh's sexual predilections are of interest to detectives working the trunk case, although Hickson wouldn't go into specifics.

"With all decedents, we study everything we can find out about the person's background, and we consider everything we learn," he said. "Their families, their jobs, their habits, their criminal histories, their associates. We look at all that stuff."

The crimes occurred a few years after Silbaugh's long, bad marriage disintegrated, his relatives said. If Silbaugh had been a victim as a youth, his brother said, he saw no sign of it. Bob Silbaugh, who died in 1991, was a caring parent, Tim Silbaugh said, and so was Ernie Mercer, who sold home decor.

Released from prison on probation in 1999, Bill Silbaugh went back to chasing construction work where he could find it, a registered "moderate risk" sex offender tooling around east of the bay in his aging Pontiac convertible.

In West Virginia, the Skeen daughters, concerned for their children, told him to steer clear. "He always wanted to come visit me," said Martha Skeen, whose husband Loreing died in 1983. "And I'd just have to tell him, I'd say: 'Bill, you can't. There'' no way. The girls won't have it."

She paused. "I wish I could have made his life better. All I could do was tell him I loved him."

With their adoptive parents gone (June Silbaugh died in 1989), Bill and Tim Silbaugh rarely saw each other in the past two decades, their relationship reduced mostly to phone chats. Bill Silbaugh was full of tall tales in recent years, his brother and Martha Skeen said: Oh, he had a big job coming up in the Middle East. He had a new mobile home and truck. He had a beautiful girlfriend in Mexico. They'd listen politely, knowing he was living hardscrabble.

"Bill was prone to talking about things as he wished they were, rather than the way they are," Tim Silbaugh said with an air of melancholy. As he awaits the finality of a DNA test, he said he doesn't doubt that his brother is dead. "They told me the body had dentures," he said. Bill Silbaugh was fitted for false teeth long ago.

"My great regret is that I didn't go visit him," Tim Silbaugh said, "that I didn't reach out to him more, that I wasn't more of a brother, more of a friend."

Short said: "I had a brother. I wish I'd have had the chance to know him."

On July 3, nine days before his Pontiac was towed in Washington, police in Easton, Md., on the Eastern Shore, charged Silbaugh with shoplifting reading glasses from a Wal-Mart. He's due to appear in Talbot County District Court this week, technically speaking.

A boarding house in Preston, Md., near Easton, was his last known address. He was booted out for smoking in his room not long before he disappeared.

The Sunbird apparently became his home.

And evidently his coffin.

"I talk to people about it," said Short, her voice weighted with sadness and bewilderment. "And people around here all say, 'Irene, a man just doesn't get in a trunk by himself and die.' "

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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