J. B. McNickles was probably the best-known 6-year-old in the San Fernando Valley last week. Too bad he was having such a good time at summer camp in Malibu that he didn't realize it.
It was an unscheduled vacation. McNickles jumped aboard a bus eight days ago when he discovered that it was headed for Knott's Berry Farm and a Salvation Army camp in Malibu and spent six days hiking, swimming and "really enjoying himself," according to Los Angeles police.
Unfortunately, he hadn't told his foster parents. Odell and Edna Williams called police and set off an intense search for the precocious youth, whose picture was plastered on telephone poles from Pacoima to Lake View Terrace with an urgent plea to call police with information about the missing youngster.
A police command post was set up at the family's Lake View Terrace house, and officers began searching J. B.'s neighborhood, going door-to-door, distributing flyers and pictures of the boy.
On Monday, when he returned home safe, J. B. told his parents that he was sorry he had caused them so much concern but that he had no idea he was going to be gone so long.
"He said he had quite an adventure," Edna Williams said Wednesday. "I was just so happy to see him. It wasn't his fault. He said he thought about us a lot."
J. B.'s travels began after he was dropped off by his father at the Boys & Girls Club of San Fernando Valley on Glenoaks Boulevard shortly before noon July 13, according to Lt. Robert Stemples of the Los Angeles Police Department's Foothill Division.
That was the last time J. B.'s parents saw him until a neighbor brought him home Monday.
As it turned out, J. B. left the club and wandered over to a church where a group of children were boarding a chartered bus headed for the amusement park and the Salvation Army's Camp Gilmore in Malibu Canyon. J. B. decided to join them.
"He heard the bus was going, and he jumped on it," Stemples said. "I think he just thought he was going camping. And he was whisked away for an all-expenses-paid vacation."
Edna Williams said she was angry that the Boys & Girls Club and the Salvation Army didn't know something was wrong.
But organizers of the camp speculated Tuesday that J. B. sneaked onto the bus by using the name of another child.
"Evidently, there was a no-show and this boy . . . took another boy's place," said Joe Noland, general secretary for the Southern California Division of the Salvation Army.
When the name of the boy who did not go on the camping trip was called, J. B. may have assumed his identity, Noland said. "What happened after that point, I'm still trying to sort out," he said.
Noland said he has not talked to the counselor in charge of J. B.'s group at the camp.
Leroy Chase, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of San Fernando Valley, which along with the Salvation Army organized the camping trip, said J. B. sneaked onto the bus.
"Our director did not see him in the vehicle," Chase said of J. B. "Somehow he walked around, got on the bus and didn't say anything. This kid was definitely hiding."
Noland said J. B. managed to slip by three checkpoints. He said the names of all the children were called before they boarded two buses bound for the camp, again after they boarded and again when they arrived at the camp.
Still, Chase and Noland agreed that the club and the Salvation Army are responsible for the mix-up. "We have a big responsibility," Noland said. "We try to do the best we can. Sometimes mistakes are made."
Chase said: "We were just as concerned as everyone else for the safety of this youngster."
They said extra precautions will be taken to ensure that no similar incidents occur.
"Fortunately, it turned out OK this time," Noland said. "Another time it might not."
When the buses returned Monday, J. B. got off one of them. A neighbor recognized the boy and returned him to his foster parents.
Edna Williams said J. B. told her that he became scared when he realized he had been gone so long.
"He was afraid when he got back we would be gone," she said. "He said: 'Mom, I went to camp. I had a good time.' "