Knowing the search had ended for 3-year-old Michelle Pulsifer's remains, the child's relatives said Thursday that they were placing their faith in the courts to find closure after her 1969 disappearance.
"Her spirit is always going to be there," said Michelle's father, Richard Pulsifer of Las Vegas. "We don't need a body or a memorial to know that. What we need now is justice."
Pulsifer, along with his wife, son and daughter-in-law, pinned homemade badges to their clothes bearing a photo of the child before the arraignment hearing in Superior Court in Santa Ana for the people accused of killing Michelle: her mother and the mother's ex-boyfriend.
Donna J. Prentice, 57, and James Michael Kent, 62, pleaded not guilty to murder charges in Judge M. Marc Kelly's courtroom.
Each has blamed the other for the child's death.
During an interview with police in September in Lakemoor, Ill., where Kent lived when he was arrested, the truck driver said he wasn't involved in Michelle's death. But he said he had helped bury the girl's body in Williams Canyon in eastern Orange County.
With the help of a backhoe and dogs trained to search for cadavers, investigators and volunteers scoured an area the size of a football field for five days as Kent watched, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Yellin, trying to help pinpoint the area where Michelle was buried.
The unsuccessful search ended in mid-September.
"It was a shot in the dark," Yellin said.
"Not finding the body hasn't shaken my confidence in the case at all. Finding the body was more for" the family, he said.
Michelle's brother, Richard Pulsifer Jr. of Vista, said the family had given up hoping that her body would be found, transferring their wish for closure instead to court proceedings. The younger Pulsifer, who hadn't seen Prentice in more than a decade before recent court hearings, said he didn't see the woman in the blue jail jumpsuit as his mother.
"I just think of her now as some lady who knows something about my sister," he said.
Prentice and Kent left Orange County in 1969, each with a son from a previous marriage. They told Richard Pulsifer Jr., 6 at the time, that there wasn't room in the car for Michelle and that she was staying with relatives.
For three decades, Richard Pulsifer Sr., who was divorced from Prentice, tried to find his daughter. Because he didn't have custody, law enforcement told him he couldn't do anything.
In 2001, one of his relatives hired a private investigator, who couldn't find any record of Michelle's existence after July 1969. Prentice and Kent were arrested in September.
Through her lawyer, Prentice has said Kent was responsible for Michelle's death. Lawyer Ronald G. Brower said Thursday that Kent has a history of violence toward women and children, according to their investigation.
Kent's convictions include those for kidnapping and assault, Brower said. "He is the most likely candidate to have committed this act." In contrast, he added, a former roommate of Prentice's described her as a "very normal, caring mother."
Kent's lawyer, Lisa Ann Eyanson, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The couple will return to court Dec. 6 for a pretrial hearing.