PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Everywhere she went, the raggedy doll went with her, a faithful companion in the sandbox, at day care and on her pillow. Then one day the doll was suddenly nowhere to be found and 4-year-old Kali Poulton, heartbroken, learned a hard lesson about growing up.
"I had wanted to keep it in a bag and show her someday when she got older, take it out and say, 'You loved this doll!' " her mother said. "And she would be, like, 'Ah, I don't believe that, Mom.' "
Now, out of the blue, it is Kali who is gone, apparently whisked from in front of her suburban house in Upstate New York. She disappeared in the space of a few minutes on May 23, after getting her tricycle out of the shed.
No witnesses have emerged. Hundreds of possible leads and sightings, notably a drawn-out hoax in Illinois, have fizzled. Abduction seems the most likely answer, by someone brazen enough to snatch a little girl from a fenced-in subdivision and then reach back for her pink-and-white Big Wheel.
"Morning and night are the worst times," said Judy Gifford, a single mother with an only child. "My daughter used to always wake up and come in my bed, and that's something that doesn't happen anymore."
And when she climbs the stairs at night, passing Kali's room, Gifford still absent-mindedly contemplates tucking her in.
"You feel like a part of you dies a little bit every day," she said. "No parent should ever have to go through something like this."
Weeks turn into months, and the white ribbons flutter in the warm breeze from doorways and fences around Gleason Estates--a dead-end loop of 300 townhouses obscured by a profusion of spruce and locust. The communal lawns are lined with boulders and 15-m.p.h. signs enforced by speed bumps.
All over metropolitan Rochester on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, Kali's photo smiles from car windows, office walls and storefronts. On Interstate 490, muffled by sound barriers behind Kali's home, a billboard appeals to passers-by to "Think Hard" if they've seen this face.
Now western New York has one, just like innumerable other places: a lost child with dimples and waist-length blond hair who knew not to go with strangers but wasn't quite old enough to reason why.
Every year in America, an estimated 300 children are kidnaped by strangers. As many as half of them are killed.
It was like any other Monday. Gifford, a legal secretary, picked up her daughter at the day care after work. Kali went out to play with a friend. The mothers chatted, then Gifford went inside to make dinner.
"We felt very safe here. People watched each other's children," said Gifford, peering down the sidewalk that curls around the two-story apartment houses to the small parking lot where she suspects Kali was taken.
When the other girl went home, Kali wobbled back and forth on her bicycle with training wheels, her mother glimpsing her periodically through the window. Around 7 p.m., she came in for her tricycle. Gifford remembers hesitating--she wanted to drop by a McDonald's restaurant--then giving in to Kali's entreaties.
"I told her we were leaving in five or 10 minutes. She said OK, as she always does. And that was it. That was the last time I talked to her."
Kali's parents separated in 1992, but their relationship was amicable. Her father, David Poulton, was happy to let her live with her mother.
Both sides of the family took polygraph tests and were cleared of any involvement, authorities said.
Hopes soared in June, when a man in Naperville, Ill., said he had spotted a blond girl bound and gagged in the back of a van. After a three-day hunt, he confessed that he had lied.
Gifford tries to talk matter-of-factly but the tears flow easily, dabbed with a handkerchief wrapped around her index finger.
She talks about her daughter--how she wore glasses to correct a lazy left eye; how she was pretty enough to compete in the "Little Miss Petite" state finals; how she often caught Kali telling bedtime stories to her favorite doll.
"I know there's a lot of other parents out there just like I am and their hearts are breaking just like mine is," she said.
Since Kali's disappearance, thousands of volunteers have handed out posters, trekked over railroad tracks and wasteland, and kept vigil.
"You feel helpless, and the whole world, the whole community feels helpless," Gifford said. "Everybody says, 'I don't know what to do for you.'
"You just think positively and think she is safe, that someone took her because they wanted a little girl. She'll be home. I believe I will see her face again."