Boston Globe

February 3, 2008

Return to Me

(2 of 2)

By Stacy Chase

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?"

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."