Last year's dramatic rescue of Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby proved that missing children - even those gone for years - can be found. But it also serves as a grim reminder that many parents wait years, decades, lifetimes without ever learning the fate of daughters and sons who vanish.
Dick Moreau has hung 10,000 fliers asking for the return of his daughter Kimberly. (Photo by Joel Page)
By Stacey Chase February 3, 2008
DICK MOREAU CARRIES A STACK OF FLIERS IN A DOG-EARED CARDBOARD BOX ON THE BACK SEAT of his GMC Sonoma. Each has a photograph of a fresh-faced teenager and a desperate plea: Please Help Bring Kim Home!!! Twenty-two years ago, Moreau's 17-year-old daughter vanished. Since then, the recently retired paper-mill worker has been patrolling two-lane roads throughout rural western Maine, papering telephone poles with missing-child fliers - 10,000 so far - hoping someone, somewhere has an answer.
(Illustration by Brian Stauffer)
relatedThese are the families' websites for some of the missing children featured in this story:
Brianna Maitland: bringbrihome.org
Kimberly Moreau: findkim.com
Maura Murray: mauramurraymissing.com
Angelo "Andy" Puglisi: haveyouseenandy.com
On May 10, 1986, Kimberly Moreau and a neighbor girl were hanging out in the hardscrabble towns of Jay and Livermore Falls when they met two 25-year-old men cruising Main Street in a white Pontiac Trans Am. The four paired off and partied. Eventually, Kimberly and one of the men ended up in the car alone. At about 11 p.m., they swung by her house on Jewell Street in Jay. The teen ran in, told her 19-year-old sister, Karen, she'd be back in an hour, and then got into the car idling outside. She has not been seen or heard from since.
"This is Marilyn Monroe, this is D.B. Cooper, this is Jimmy Hoffa - I mean, for this area," says State Police Detective Mark Lopez, the lead case investigator.
Dick Moreau, 65, has spent two decades hounding the man in the Trans Am, who Lopez says is a "person of interest" in Kimberly's disappearance. "Any time I get the chance to rattle his cage," Moreau says, "I do it." The enraged father has plastered Kimberly fliers on telephone poles leading to the man's house, convinced him to have a three-hour chat at Moreau's kitchen table, talked him into taking a lie-detector test, and showed up at his brother's funeral last spring with Lopez. "I told him I was sorry for his loss of his brother," Moreau recounts. "Then I leaned into him, squeezed his hand, and said, 'I know exactly, exactly how you feel.'"
Families of children who have gone missing suffer through an unthinkable saga of fear, uncertainty, guilt, and grief. Often, they cope with their heartbreak by an almost obsessive need to know what happened, turning to private investigators, psychics, or prayer. Many investigate on their own, meeting with law-enforcement officials and other sources and scouring the Internet for clues. Starting next year, they and the rest of the public will be able to fully search the US Department of Justice's still-in-development National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, the first nationwide, online repository of databases of missing-persons reports and records of those who died without being identified. Some families of the missing reach out and console parents who have more recently lost children. Still others retreat into their pain.
It's been a year since the public was reminded of these families' torment when Shawn Hornbeck, then 15, and Ben Ownby, then 13, were rescued from the Missouri pizza-parlor manager who had kidnapped and sodomized them. Shawn had been held captive for four years; Ben, for four days. The older boy's recovery reignited the possibility that other coldcase missing children might be found alive. "It's proof positive that missing children can come home," says Colleen Nick of Alma, Arkansas, a national advocate for missing children whose 6-year-old daughter, Morgan Chauntel Nick, was abducted in 1995 from a Little League baseball game.
But until a child, or a child's remains, are found, searching families are left suspended "between hell and hope," says Magdalen Bish of West Warren, mother of 16-year-old murder victim Molly Bish, whose 2000 abduction from nearby Comins Pond galvanized one of the largest kidnapped-child manhunts in Massachusetts history. Molly's remains were found three years later, 5 miles from her home. (No arrests have been made.) "If you find out your child is dead," says Bish, 56, a first-grade teacher, "your hope is lost, but your hell has ended, because you don't have to worry that anyone is harming them."
The worst child predators are rare. Of the 797,500 children younger than 18 reported missing to authorities in 1999, the last year for which data are available, the vast majority were classified as runaways or "thrown-aways"; were victims of family abductions, typically carried out by parents who didn't have custody; or were only temporarily missing, with a benign explanation. Only an estimated 115 were the victims of what experts call "stereotypical" kidnappings, defined as crimes perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance in which a child is transported 50 miles or more, detained overnight, held for ransom, taken with the intent of being kept permanently, or killed. Of those returned to their families, nearly half have been sexually abused and about a third injured by their captors. Four in 10 stereotypical kidnapping victims - predominantly white teenage girls - end up dead; 4 percent are never found. Last September, the FBI signaled how seriously it takes the risk posed by those who prey on children when it added New Hampshire pedophile Jon Savarino Schillaci to its Ten Most Wanted list, alongside Osama bin Laden and James "Whitey" Bulger.
WHEN THE NATIONAL MISSING AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSONS SYSTEM becomes fully available next year, families of missing children will have more clues at their fingertips. But already they troll websites like The Doe Network and others, picking through grisly case files of unidentified human remains found across the country, looking for a match. Kellie Maitland of DeKalb Junction, New York, has stared at the morgue photographs and forensic artists' renderings of Jane Does - grotesque, wax-museumlike figures with dead eyes - searching for the face of her missing daughter, Brianna Maitland. The bestcase but least likely scenario, she says, is that Brianna "ran off or fell in love with someone and made a split decision, took off to somewhere warm and exotic and is having a good time."
Brianna, then 17, was last seen at about 11:20 p.m. on March 19, 2004, leaving the Black Lantern Inn in Montgomery, Vermont, where she was a dishwasher. The next day, her Oldsmobile Delta 88 was found a mile away backed into the side of an abandoned house, the rear bumper hung up on the concrete foundation. There were no signs of a struggle and no sign of Brianna. "The police tell me that most likely this was a homicide," says Maitland, 47, who helps her husband, Bruce, run their small Highland-Angus cattle farm. "If Brianna's alive, she won't be a teenager anymore. She'll be, like, 21. What if she's been abused? What if she needs rehab? What if? What if?"
In the early days of the search, the mother - who speaks of Brianna in both the present tense and past tense - heard that a body in a garbage bag had been discovered near where her daughter had disappeared. "We tried to go bed that night," she recalls, "and we laid down and we held hands and we just hoped that it wasn't her. `Please, just don't let it be. Don't let it be.' " When morning came, the couple's prayers were answered: The remains were those of a pig.
The anguish of not knowing, and the search for answers, often takes parents of missing children on "horrendous emotional roller-coaster rides," says Nancy McBride, national safety director at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "A lead will come in; it will look really, really promising and then turn out not to be. . . . You're up and you're down, there's really no steadiness. You're also in this limbo where you can't really move forward."
Brianna Maitland's father, Bruce, and Fred Murray of Weymouth, whose daughter is also missing, became friends as they searched for a possible connection between their cases, though police agencies have ruled that out. Maura Murray, a 21-year-old University of Massachusetts at Amherst nursing student, vanished after crashing her car into a snowbank in Woodsville, New Hampshire, near the Vermont border, the night of February 9, 2004 -the month before Brianna's disappearance. The fathers' newly forged bond is based not only on a mutual effort to find their daughters, but also an unspoken understanding: "We don't say, you know, 'Poor you. Poor you,' " Murray says. "Everybody's grief is personal. He knows how I feel; I know how he feels."
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has a support group for searching families, called Team HOPE, but many families, like those of Brianna Maitland and Maura Murray, create their own informal networks to console and assist one another through the overwhelming trauma. Bereft parents, siblings, even aunts and cousins call and e-mail one another with encouragement, link to other families' websites to publicize their cases, print and distribute missing-child fliers and buttons, participate in searches for one another's children, and send sympathy cards and flowers when a child's body is found.
LYMAN AND CLAIRE MOULTON OF Portland, Maine, have been keeping a private vigil for 37 years for the 16-year-old daughter they knew - and her alter ego, a 52-year-old woman they can't imagine - hoping against hope she's still alive. Their ordeal began the afternoon of September 24, 1971, when Cathy Marie Moulton got a ride into town from her father to buy pantyhose for the YWCA dance she planned to attend that night. She was supposed to walk the 2 miles back along busy Forest Avenue but never made it home for dinner. "One of my greatest - greatest, greatest - sadnesses is that I may die ... and never know what happened to Cathy," says her 83-year-old father, a retired auto dealer, his blue eyes turning moist. "And yet I'm helpless to change it."
Former Portland detective William Deetjen, who worked the case in the late 1980s, theorizes that, after shopping in Portland, Cathy accepted a ride in a Cadillac from a boy she liked. Weeks later, there were unconfirmed sightings of the pair and another male in remote, sparsely populated Aroostook County - about 300 miles north of Maine's largest city - but no solid evidence she had been there or had been abducted.
For years, her parents have been tormented by something one of the purported witnesses said: that Cathy, working in the potato fields, kept begging to go home. "I've always held out the hope that, maybe, somehow, she has amnesia as a result of a beating or something," says Claire Moulton, a 78-year-old former nurse, "and she is alive and has a life and doesn't know who she is."
Experts say families looking for lost children experience a unique kind of despair. "Parents are fearful about their child's uncertain fate and feel guilty for not adequately protecting the child," says Dr. Sharon Cooper, a Fayetteville, North Carolina, forensic pediatrician and authority on crimes against children. The ongoing absence is like a death, without a body to grieve over.
"It's like your worst, most horrible nightmare that you never wake up from," explains John Walsh, the host of the Fox television series America's Most Wanted and the father of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, snatched from a Florida shopping mall in 1981, killed, and decapitated. (The prime suspect was never charged and died in prison serving life for other crimes.) "And it's not just grief. It's disbelief.
"We celebrate Adam's life, not the horrible day that he was found missing," the 62-year-old Walsh says, "but we're only able to do that because we know where he is and what happened to him. . . . I can name thousands of cases where parents have no idea what happened to their child. Dead, alive? Is the child involved in the sex trade? Child pornography? Where is the child? How were they murdered? Where is the body, so we can go and pay our respects to it?"
MANY PARENTS OF MISSING CHILDREN devise "one view of the future that includes the missing child and another future that does not," says Cooper. They can vacillate back and forth, or they can hold dual perceptions forever. Often, though, when the missing child reaches theoretical adulthood, that coping mechanism collapses. "If the missing child has now become an adult in the parent's mind, if they are still alive . . . the parent is expecting the child to now be able to make the decision that they'll come back home." If the child does not return, she says, the parents must confront four possible reasons: The child is dead; has forgotten the parents (credible for children kidnapped at age 6 or younger); is angry at the parents for not protecting or finding him or her; or is physically restricted or confined.
It took Faith Puglisi of Fountain, Colorado, 30 years to come to the conclusion that her missing son most likely was murdered. Ten-year-old Angelo "Andy" Puglisi disappeared August 21, 1976, from Higgins Memorial Pool in Lawrence, about 100 yards from his front door. Several investigators and family members interviewed for last year's Cinemax documentary Have You Seen Andy? by Medford filmmaker Melanie Perkins are convinced he was stalked and abducted by a sexual predator or predators working in concert. (The case remains unsolved.) "Every now and then, I go into that room that is Andy's room in my heart, where I keep all the information and all the emotions about him," says Puglisi, a 58-year-old pediatric nurse who says she copes by compartmentalizing. "When that door pops open - and I'm starting to connect with all this emotion - there's always that risk I'm going to lose it. A lot of times, I have to slam that door shut."
Some parents never accept the possibility that their longtime missing child is dead. Experts says that's because, psychologically, they have spent years keeping the child alive in their minds, and in everyone else's memory, and by suddenly choosing to believe that the child is deceased - without irrefutable proof - parents feel as though they have killed the child in their thought processes.
"We have a nine-room house here that the children grew up in," Lyman Moulton says, mentioning he and Claire have talked about abandoning their Dutch Colonial for smaller quarters, "but the truth of the matter is, Cathy lived in this house. The truth of the matter is, she knows, or hopefully would know, where this house is." Wringing his hands, he adds: "We've kept the same phone number. I would fight to the end of time to keep this phone number. . . . You could say, 'Oh, my Lord!' but what else have we got?"
Judith Chani of Lake Worth, Florida, has been consulting psychics and praying for the safe return of her only child, Laureen Ann Rahn, for the last 28 years. Fourteen-year-old Laureen vanished from their third-floor Manchester, New Hampshire, apartment late April 26 or early April 27, 1980, while her mother went on a date. "Not one of them has said they see her passed away," Chani says of the numerous psychics who have advised her. "It's a mother's instinct, too. I've never, ever felt her passed away in my heart." Recently, a Florida psychic who gave the 61-year-old retired restaurant/nightclub owner a telephone reading told her that her daughter had been abducted by an Asian gang, is living in Israel, has had two children whom she "had to give up," and would be coming home, alive. "I say my prayers faithfully," says Chani, "and I trust the Lord that he's going to bring her back to me."
Families of cold-case missing children go on missing them - long after the press and public have lost interest - and, in the end, only finding the child or the child's remains can put to rest their searching and waiting.
"You never get to say goodbye, you know," says Magdalen Bish, mother of the Massachusetts girl whose remains were found. "When Molly came home, we just had her 26 bones. We held her skull. We touched her bones, because we needed to say goodbye, but it wasn't the Molly that we knew."
For Dick Moreau, even a fragment of one of the 206 bones in the human body would be enough. Slowly, agonizingly, Moreau had come to the conclusion that his daughter was dead, and he had a death certificate issued in 1993. Now he'd like to bury Kimberly next to her paternal grandparents and her mother. (Kimberly's mother, Patricia Moreau, died at age 48 in 1988.) "All they're looking for now is the major bones of the body, like the elbow, the knee, the hip joint, these kinds of things," Moreau says clinically, having learned over the years about decomposition rates. "We're probably looking for a piece of bone that's 3 by 3 inches - if we're lucky. But that's all we need. It's still her."
Stacey Chase, a Maine journalist, contributes frequently to the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kimberly Moreau, missing since May 10, 1986, from Jay, Maine.
Dick Moreau has hung 10,000 fliers asking for the return of his daughter Kimberly.
(Photo by Joel Page)
The New England children in this photo gallery are all believed to be "stereotypical" kidnapping victims, one of the rarest kinds of missing children. For those gone a long time, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has created approximations of what they may look like today.
At left, Cathy Marie Moulton, missing since Sept. 24, 1971, from Portland, Maine.
(National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)
Claire Moulton, shown with husband Lyman, wonders if their daughter Cathy has amnesia.
(Photo by Joel Page)
Angelo "Andy" Puglisi, missing since Aug. 21, 1976, from Lawrence.
(National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)
Laureen Ann Rahn, missing since April 26 or 27, 1980, from Manchester, N.H.
(National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)
Brianna Maitland, missing since March 19, 2004, from Montgomery, Vt.
(National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)