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D.A.: 'Lies' Surround 1969 Disappearance

A woman and ex-boyfriend are accused of killing her daughter, who was 3 when she vanished from Huntington Beach.

August 31, 2004|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Orange County prosecutors said Monday they were searching for the remains of a 3-year-old girl they believe was killed 35 years ago in Huntington Beach by her mother and the woman's then-boyfriend.

James Michael Kent, 62, of Lakemoor, Ill., and Donna J. Prentice, 57, of Genoa, Wis., have been charged with murder in the previously unexplained disappearance of Michelle Pulsifer in 1969.

Authorities allege that though the mother told people Michelle was staying with relatives, she and Kent had killed the girl and left town.

"What [our] investigation revealed," Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said, "was a series of lies and mistruths about [Michelle's] whereabouts."

Prentice and Kent, arrested last week, have denied the charges, he said. But prosecutors believe that within a day or two of Michelle's disappearance, the family -- including two boys -- "packed up all of their belongings, everything they owned, including the family pets, and moved to Illinois," Rackauckas said. "The children were told that there was not enough room in the car for Michelle; instead, Michelle would stay with relatives in California. No missing-person report was filed, and no one talked about Michelle again.... In fact, we have concluded Michelle never left that home alive."

Investigators attributed much of their interest in the case to the persistence of the girl's father.

Richard "Dickie" Pulsifer, divorced Prentice in 1968 but maintained contact with Michelle and her 6-year-old brother, Richard Pulsifer Jr., during visits every other weekend (the second boy was Kent's son). On one visit, around July 4, 1969, he told investigators, he arrived to find the house empty. .

"They were just gone, and nobody knew where they were," said Pulsifer, now a 57-year-old martial arts instructor and security guard in Las Vegas.

Over the decades, he tried to find out what had happened to his family. When Pulsifer re-established contact with Prentice and his son, there was no Michelle.

The father sought help from the district attorney's office and a government social service agency, he said, but was told that without legal custody or a court order nothing could be done.

In 1980, he said, a San Diego County judge ordered that child support payments -- demanded by his ex-wife but only for their son -- be withheld until the mother disclosed Michelle's whereabouts.

"She never did," said Cathe Pulsifer, his wife of 28 years, "and that was the end of the line. Ever since then, he's been looking for her every day. He's gone on the Internet and talked to a few girls who had the same name, but they weren't her."

Said Pulsifer: "I've fantasized about her walking in and saying, 'Hey, I'm your daughter.' "

Three years ago at a family reunion, he ran into his brother's widow, Ann Friedman. Friedman, remarried to a wealthy Coronado, Calif., investor, hired a private investigator, who spent two years tracking down leads. He turned his findings over to the Orange County district attorney's office last year.

What his investigators discovered, Rackauckas said, was a "much darker description" of what had happened to Michelle. He would not discuss specific evidence.

Richard Pulsifer Jr., the girl's 41-year-old brother who lives in Vista, told Associated Press that "the very last conversation I had with her was when she came into my room and asked me to hide her."

He said that he did but that their mother came and got the girl. He never saw her again.

"A lot of questions, hopefully, will be answered, and it will all be resolved," he said. "In the past, we've always hit dead ends."

Kent and Prentice, who split up years ago, are each being held on $1 million bond, Kent in Orange County, where his arraignment has been continued until Sept. 10, and Prentice in Vernon County, Wis. Her extradition hearing is set for Sept. 22.

Residents of Tigerfish Circle, where Prentice and Kent lived, said late Monday that they had not seen evidence of a search in their neighborhood.

"It would worry anyone if they start digging up a yard," said Steve Morris, 32, whose family has owned a home there since 1972.

"We're all trying to figure out which house it was."

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