-- It turns out that Shea Brown, a rambunctious boy who watched cartoons, played football and inhaled fast food like any 6-year-old, was hiding in plain sight.
He disappeared in 1996 as an infant. He was seen being carried away from his house the day his mother was shot and her body burned in an unsolved murder that haunted police and this community.
Then came the anonymous tip that led police to arrest the women Shea knew as his mother and grandmother. They are accused of kidnapping the boy and raising him a few miles from where the murder took place.
Now the boy -- born Le-Zhan Williams -- is in protective custody while authorities figure out how to reintroduce him to the family he has never known. And that family is trying to reconcile their joy with the frustration that their missing boy was always just across town.
"That was what was overwhelming to me, that he was right here under our noses," said Riva Lee Boyden, 70, the boy's great-grandmother. "Some of those people that knew, knew me."
Boyden sits in the front room of her neatly kept bungalow on the couch that replaced the one where her 17-year-old granddaughter was shot and killed in May 1996. Witnesses spotted two girls fleeing the house -- soon engulfed in flames -- with a small bundle.
When authorities told Boyden they had made arrests Friday that could close the case, she didn't have to wait for DNA testing to confirm the boy was Le-Zhan. When she saw his picture, he looked just like his uncle Mark.
News of the boy's recovery is particularly welcome in Vallejo, a city of 117,000 about an hour's commute northeast of San Francisco that epitomizes the new, diverse California suburb. Relatively affordable, it houses a population that includes blacks who came for jobs in World War II shipyards, as well as more recent arrivals from Latin America and the Philippines.
The city's recent history has been littered with high-profile child abductions. One ended in euphoria when the girl escaped her captor -- another ended when authorities found the skull of a 7-year-old off a road in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Boyden, who spent years pressing police to find the boy and solve the slaying of her granddaughter, Daphne Boyden, smiles and sighs as another well-wisher comes to her iron-barred door. It's bittersweet.
Le-Zhan surely will be traumatized, now that the women who reared him are in jail. County social workers aren't sure how he'll react to his biological family.
"I'm glad he's back, and I just want to see him. Because there's so much to do," Boyden said. "He's going to have some counseling. And we will, too."
Le-Zhan's father is Lathan "Young Lay" Williams, a 1990s rapper with a major-label record who is serving time in state prison for armed robbery.
Police believe jealousy over his relationship with Daphne Boyden probably drove then-teenagers Latasha Brown and Ocianetta Williams to kill. But they haven't offered a detailed motive.
"I just wanted to hold a baby," Latasha Brown said in an interview published in the Daily Republic of Fairfield, a neighboring suburb.
Brown acknowledged visiting Daphne Boyden's home and taking the 25-day-old baby but told the paper she couldn't remember any details of the killing. "I looked down at the baby and said, 'I owe you the world,' " she said. "I felt the baby didn't have anybody."
Brown told the paper she fled to Texas for five months, then returned to live with her mother, Dolores Brown, just a few miles from the murder scene. At first, she told her mother she was baby-sitting the boy, but finally divulged the truth. Ultimately, the women decided to conceal the crime, Latasha Brown said.
Latasha Brown, 22, and Ocianetta Williams, 23, who is unrelated to the rapper, face murder charges. Because they were minors at the time, they won't face the death penalty if convicted, prosecutors said.
On Wednesday, Ocianetta Williams pleaded not guilty to murder and conspiracy charges. Dolores Brown, 44, also pleaded not guilty to felony child concealment charges but signed a plea deal that likely will be entered during a hearing Friday, her lawyer Karl Spieckerman said today.
Latasha Brown has not entered a plea on murder, arson and kidnapping charges, but is expected to do so Friday.
Latasha Brown's name never surfaced in the Vallejo police investigation. Last week an anonymous tipster called in details of the alleged conspiracy.
What amazes and frustrates locals about this kidnapping is its brazenness -- that Latasha Brown, who went to high school with Daphne Boyden, kept living with the boy in the same community.
"How could you stay in the county knowing the truth?" asks Vallejo resident Carolyn Alexander, who helped the Boyden family after the crime. "These women weaned this child, cared for and loved and caressed him. They call this child by an unrightful name. Then they tell the child all sorts of stories to cover the crime in their heart."
Now 6 years old, the boy is in protective custody.