Boston Globe

February 3, 2008

Return to Me

(1 of 2)

By Stacy Chase

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.

These are the families' websites for some of the missing children featured in this story:

Brianna Maitland:

Kimberly Moreau:

Maura Murray:

Angelo "Andy" Puglisi:

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."