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Search for Girl's Remains Begins

September 04, 2004|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Armed with a backhoe, old topographical maps and dogs trained to hunt for cadavers, investigators trudged deep into Orange County's outback Friday to dig for the remains of a 3-year-old girl who they believe was killed by her mother and her mother's then-boyfriend 35 years ago.

The detectives concentrated on a small plot in Williams Canyon that the boyfriend identified as the general area where he helped bury the child in 1969.

The child has not been seen since that year, when her mother and the boyfriend abruptly left their home in Huntington Beach and moved to the Midwest. Acting on information turned up by a private investigator hired by a family member, Orange County prosecutors recently revived the case.

James Michael Kent and Donna J. Prentice, who split up years ago, each are being held on $1 million bond in the murder of Michelle, whose body has never been found but is presumed dead.

On Friday, members of the Orange County district attorney's cold-case unit and a canine team from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Dept. spent most of the day scouring a patch of hard-packed earth along both sides of Williams Canyon Road as it winds through the hills above Lake Forest.

They worked in blistering summer heat with the understanding that fires, floods and development have altered the terrain over time, reducing their chances of finding any trace of the child. Williams Canyon Road has been rerouted and paved, and land has been graded to make way for homes.

After more than six hours of searching, they ended the day with no luck. It could take days or longer to determine whether the search will be successful, investigators said.

"After this many years, the chances are not good," said district attorney investigator Ed Berakovich. "But we are going to make every effort to find this little girl out here."

Kent, a 67-year-old truck driver from Chicago, has been in custody at the Orange County Men's Jail since his arrest last week.

He reportedly confessed to authorities that he had no hand in the child's death, but helped bury the girl, according to the Associated Press.

Prentice waived her right to an extradition hearing on Friday and will be moved from her Wisconsin hometown to Orange County within the next two weeks, prosecutors said.

Michelle has not been seen since the summer of 1969, when Kent and Prentice abruptly left their home in Huntington Beach and moved to the Midwest. Prosecutors believe that she never left the house alive. The couple, who also had two 6-year-old sons from separate marriages living with them, told the boys that there was not enough room in the car and that they were leaving their sister in California with a relative, authorities said.

The investigation into her disappearance did not begin in earnest until 2001, when Ann Friedman -- an aunt who is a sister-in-law of the girl's natural father -- hired Los Angeles private investigator Paul Chamberlain to figure out what happened to her niece. Chamberlain's firm turned its files over to Orange County prosecutors last year.

After his arrest, Kent confessed to investigators during a videotaped interview at the sheriff's department in Lake County, Ill., that he helped bury the girl's body. He agreed to take authorities to a spot in Williams Canyon where he thinks he might have buried Michelle, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The canyon is more than 20 miles from where Kent and Prentice lived in Huntington Beach. Kent at one time lived in the area, authorities said.

The site that investigators studied Friday was about the size of a football field.

A pair of German shepherds and a chocolate Labrador worked in shifts with three Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, led by Berakovich and other cold-case investigators who rolled out large aerial maps to help determine the search grid. At one point, a backhoe was brought in to move dirt around in two spots where the dogs showed some interest. A forensic anthropologist may go back and sift these areas for more clues.

Williams Canyon locals said Friday that they were doubtful that investigators would find any evidence after all these years.

In 1969, they pointed out, there were only seven homes in the canyon. There are now 15, including one that was built in the last year only yards from the search site.

And aside from the grading for new homes, the dirt road that accessed the community then is now paved over, and there was a major flood in December 1969 and at least two fires since then, according to Sandi Dunn, who moved to the canyon 37 years ago.

"It was all oak trees, brush and scrub," she said. "The land has moved a lot since then."

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