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Man Weighs What-Ifs of 1969 Disappearance

Today's broader custody laws would have made a father's quest for O.C. girl easier than it was in the '60s, family law experts say.

September 27, 2004|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Year after agonizing year, Richard Pulsifer searched for his daughter, futilely trying to get authorities to help track her down.

When authorities finally paid attention -- more than 30 years later -- it was far too late. Three-year-old Michelle, police said, had been killed by her mother and the woman's long-ago boyfriend.

Pulsifer's painful odyssey is an extreme but very real example of the unbending custody laws that were in place in the 1960s, family law experts say. In today's climate, they say, Pulsifer probably would have found Social Service agents and police far more receptive to his pleas.

"I do wonder how things would have been different had the system been more friendly, but you can't dwell on that," Pulsifer said in a recent interview from his Las Vegas home. "I just don't know how I could have gotten them to do anything."

His former wife, Donna J. Prentice, had lived in Huntington Beach with full custody of Michelle and their son, Richard Jr., after the couple divorced in 1968. Along with her then-boyfriend, she was charged this month in the death of Michelle, even though a body hasn't been found. Both say they are not guilty.

In the intervening years, custody laws have been overhauled and a growing acceptance of the importance of fathers has taken root, experts agree.

"In terms of the crime, tragically, that's something that could happen at any time," said Orange County family law attorney Jacqueline Whisnant. "In terms of the recourse, there's a lot more available now. I can't imagine a father having to go through what that man did."

Others, though, believe custody law still favors mothers and hands children over to them even when they haven't proved themselves capable.

"This gender bias in our system can completely disable fathers from protecting their children," said Illinois family law attorney Jeffrey M. Leving. "This California case is a good example of why both parents should always have the ability to protect their children, because you never know when one will decide to use their child as a tool of revenge."

Pulsifer's nightmare began in July 1969, when he went to his former wife's Huntington Beach home to pick up Michelle and Richard Jr., 6, for his every-other-weekend visitation. The house was empty. When he reached Prentice by phone a few weeks later, she said Michelle had been left with relatives, but wouldn't say where.

"There was nothing I could do," Pulsifer said, who is close to his son, now 41 and living in Vista. "She had custody."

It was an answer he got over and over the next 30 years as he approached the county Social Services Agency, the district attorney and police with the story of a missing daughter.

In the same shoes and in the same era, other parents took matters into their own hands, hiring private investigators to find the children, then snatching them back. Some moved overseas, and some changed their names and looks in an attempt to keep from being found.

A 2000 U.S. Justice Department study reported that about half of the 1,214 kidnappings of children reviewed in 1997 were by family members, compared with 24% by strangers and 27% by acquaintances.

Custody laws in the 1960s, when Michelle disappeared, were built on the assumption that children, especially young ones, were better off with the mother. Pulsifer didn't fight it, he said, because that's the way things were.

"I understood they couldn't do anything. So I tried to do what I could with the money I had, which was nothing," he said. "I was on my own."

He was concerned that his daughter was missing, although he never suspected she might have been killed. He tried to file a missing-persons report but was spurned. District attorney officials told him that Prentice was allowed to take their children, even across state lines, without his permission.

"It was always the legal custody thing," he said. "I didn't have it, and she did. They totally disregard that the mother could be doing something wrong."

In 2001, an aunt of Michelle's hired a private investigator, who couldn't find any record of Michelle's existence after July 1969. Orange County prosecutors have extradited Michelle's mother, 57, and James Michael Kent, 62, from the Midwest. They remain jailed in Santa Ana on $1-million bond.

Parents, both custodial and noncustodial, have more resources now than they did when Michelle disappeared, legal experts and law enforcement sources said. For parents to involve the authorities in cases, having custody is no longer needed. Concealing a child from another parent is illegal almost everywhere in the U.S.

"It sounds like [Michelle] was already murdered before the mother left the state," said Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Christine Murray. "But if things had been different, at least the father wouldn't have struggled with grief for 35 years."

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