Jill Smolowe
July 05, 2010 12:00 PM

To all appearances, Terri Horman is the sort of mom any community would be glad to call one of its own. A former elementary school teacher who put her career on hold to focus on her three children-James, 16; Kiara, 18 months; stepson Kyron, 7-Horman volunteers at Kyron’s elementary school and runs a home that friends and family describe as loving. With her kids she regularly reads aloud and goes on family trips. At Halloween, Horman, 40, stages outings to a pumpkin patch and creates costumes. “The whole family would dress up,” says her father, Larry Moulton, 72, a retired teacher. “She’s really good with her kids.”

Now Horman is caught in the harsh glare of a police searchlight as investigators continue to hunt for Kyron, who has been missing since June 4. Though authorities with Oregon’s Multnomah County sheriff’s office have not designated Horman as either a suspect or a person of interest, they have repeatedly dissected her movements that day. Saying only that they aim to jog memories, on June 18 sheriff’s office authorities disseminated fliers with pictures of both Horman and the type of the white Ford F250 truck she drives, and asked everyone who was at the school that day fill out a form with questions about Horman and Kyron, and whether they saw them. “Terri is the last known person to have seen Kyron before he disappeared,” said Capt. Jason Gates. “A huge part of this investigation right now is we’re eliminating a lot of leads.”

Authorities say Horman has been extremely cooperative. She has also been criticized for posting on her Facebook page about going to the gym in the midst of this tragedy, but loved ones say she is devastated by the ordeal. “She’s a mess. I talk to her at least every other day,” says Jennifer Jones, a close friend. “She sends me text messages at random and says, ‘I miss my son; I want my son back.’ It’s heartbreaking to talk to her.”

By her own account, Horman toured the school’s science fair with her stepson on the day he went missing, dropped him near his second-grade classroom as the 8:45 a.m. bell rang, then assumed he was fine until she went to meet his bus at 3:30 p.m. In addition, her father tells PEOPLE, police have given Horman at least two polygraph tests (police have not revealed the results), have searched her house more than once, taken her truck twice and interrogated her for up to six hours several times. “The finger points back at stepmoms,” says Moulton. “She’s trying to be cooperative.”

So far, those who know Horman have only good things to say about her and her parenting skills. The second of her three husbands, Richard Ecker, who adopted James before he and Horman divorced, told The Oregonian, “She would never hurt a child.” If anything, her family has seemed a happily blended bunch-and Horman, says her friend Jones, “is the binding that holds the book together.” Before Kyron was born, Horman was friends with his mother, Desiree Young, 38, and his father, Kaine, 36, a supervisor at Intel. While pregnant with Kyron, Young filed for divorce; two years later, sick with kidney failure, she traveled to Canada for treatment.

“Kaine being a new father didn’t know how to raise a baby by himself,” says Jones. “So Terri stepped in-and being friends with Desiree-said, ‘I will come and I will help you take care of Kyron.'” Jones says after the divorce was final, a relationship blossomed between Kaine and Horman, “and they have been together ever since.” The couple wed in 2007. In essence, says Moulton, Horman “raised Kyron since he was in the cradle.” Last week Young released a letter to Kyron that read in part: “I would give anything to run my fingers through your short hair again. … I am afraid I can’t live without you.”

In 2008 Horman gave birth to Kiara. The addition of a daughter did not appear to change Horman and Kaine’s relationship with Kyron, a quiet, bright child with blue eyes and brown hair, who stands 3’8″ and weighs 50 lbs. “The kid loves them both, and they love their kid,” says Mike Harmon, a family friend. “They are very good people.” A Skyline School parent says that the Hormans are among the families “we see every day, every week at the school” and not just at holiday events.

On her Facebook profile, Horman says that her dream job would be superintendent of a school district. After this investigation, says her concerned dad, “she’ll never get another job.” Before this is over, does he think she’ll be arrested? “I think,” Moulton says, his eyes filling with tears, “it’s fifty-fifty.”

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