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OREGON TOWN STILL DIVIDED OVER BOY'S DISAPPEARANCE

Nearly four years have passed since people in this little mill town slogged through mud and snow searching for a 2 1/2-year-old boy who disappeared from his front yard.

Time has done little to diminish the division between folks who think the boy's father, former deputy sheriff Larry Gibson, killed the boy and hid the body, and those who believe Gibson is a victim himself."It used to be a saying that you don't talk about sex and religion," said Terry Reid as he pumped gas into a pickup truck for a couple of loggers. "Well, in this town, you don't talk about sex, religion and Larry Gibson."

Reid and others in this southern Oregon town of 800 hope the arguments finally will be settled as Gibson goes on trial on charges of murder and murder by abuse.

Jury selection began Wednesday in nearby Roseburg. The trial itself could last two or three months as each side presents more than 100 witnesses.

The body of Tommy Dean Gibson was never found, despite intensive searches. Gibson, 34, says that someone must have stolen his little boy from the front yard of their isolated mobile home while Gibson was off jogging in the wooded hills and his wife was in the house.

But state police investigators immediately identified Gibson as a suspect, initially theorizing that he killed his son while shooting at a neighbor's cat.

Crucial to the case is the testimony of Gibson's daughter, Karen, who was just 4 years old when her brother disappeared. She told investigators in April that she saw her father hit Tommy three times, stick him in a black plastic trash bag and stuff him in a sheriff's department patrol car on March 18, 1991.

The statement sharply contradicts her statement to police soon after Tommy disappeared that she saw two strangers drive up to the yard and take him away.

Former defense attorney Charles Lee says Karen was hypnotized to improve her memory soon after her brother disappeared and never said anything under hypnosis about her father hitting Tommy. Police say she was too frightened to talk at the time because her father had threatened her.

Even before he was charged this spring, Gibson's life was crumbling.

Ten months after his son disappeared, Gibson resigned from the sheriff's department and moved his family back to Montana, where he went through bankruptcy.

His wife, Judy, left him last spring and returned to Oregon, where detectives interviewed Karen and gathered enough evidence to charge him. Family and church members also told investigators that Gibson threatened to kill his wife. Gibson moved in with his grandmother in Montana and sold insurance until his arrest.

Unable to raise $25,000 to secure his release, Gibson has spent the last nine months in the Douglas County Jail, where he reads novels and studies his Mormon religion, said his lawyer Alan Scott, a public defender.

"He's very relieved that this is finally going to trial," Scott said.

Reid, for one, is tired of the people he meets at horse shows knowing just one thing about Glendale, and that's the Gibson case.

"If you done it, Larry, confess," Reid said at the gas station. "If he didn't do it, leave him alone. It's up to the man upstairs. He knows what happened."