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Mother Faces Trial in Girl's '69 Death

Three-year-old daughter is believed buried in an O.C. canyon. Murder defendant's lawyer says a boyfriend, now dead, committed the crime.

June 15, 2005|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

A former Huntington Beach woman was ordered Tuesday to stand trial in the 1969 slaying of her 3-year-old daughter, whose body is believed buried in an Orange County canyon.

Donna J. Prentice, 58, has been in jail since August, when Orange County prosecutors charged her with murder in the death of Michelle Pulsifer.

A judge's ruling setting a trial followed a three-day preliminary hearing in which investigators detailed the alleged involvement of former boyfriend and co-defendant James Michael Kent, 62. Before dying in February of kidney and liver failure, Kent was in custody and cooperating with homicide detectives.

Prentice's attorney, Ron Brower, attacked Kent's credibility, saying that if Michelle was actually dead, he was the more likely killer.

According to Kent, when Michelle didn't come to breakfast one morning in 1969, Prentice went into the girl's room and came out pale, said Ed Berakovich, an investigator for the Orange County district attorney's office.

Kent said he went to the bedroom that Michelle shared with her brother and Kent's son and found the girl in her pajamas, curled on her bed in a fetal position with no sign of blood or injury. He said he touched her face, then felt for a pulse. "She was cold and lifeless," Berakovich said Kent told him.

Berakovich said that according to Kent's account, he returned to the hallway, where Prentice waited. The couple embraced and started crying. She asked, "What are we going to do?" He placed the child's body on the floor in the back seat of his car.

Calling the police or paramedics "never crossed his mind," Berakovich said.

Kent said he drove the body to Williams Canyon, in eastern Orange County, and dug a 3-foot-deep grave that he covered with rocks to keep animals away.

Within two days, the couple, their boys and their Labrador retriever moved to Illinois, Kent told investigators.

"There was never any discussion about what happened to Michelle," Berakovich said Kent told him. Michelle's brother, Richard Pulsifer Jr., said he had been told that his sister went to live with relatives in Canada and said he never saw her after 1969.

Prosecutors believe Prentice killed Michelle the night before, when Kent left the house for several hours to return a motorcycle he had stolen.

But Brower argued that Kent was the more likely killer and that he terrorized Prentice into keeping quiet. Kent threatened women, including Prentice, by putting guns to their heads, the lawyer said, and gave his son "man-size beatings with his fists" starting when the boy was in the first grade.

On the other hand, there is nothing "to even remotely suggest" that his client is responsible for the death, Brower said. Even Kent described Prentice as an "easygoing" woman and a "good mother," Brower said.

Searches for Michelle's body in Williams Canyon in September, with cadaver dogs, old maps and a backhoe, yielded nothing.

Prentice told detectives when she was interviewed in 2003 that Michelle had gone to live with Kent's mother when the rest of the family moved to Illinois. Kent's mother, however, was battling breast cancer and died in 1972, and witnesses said the woman never took care of Michelle.

"We have a mother whose child has been killed who is still lying 34 years later," Orange County Superior Court Judge John D. Conley said at the conclusion of Prentice's preliminary hearing.

Prentice is next scheduled to appear in court June 28, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Yellin said he hoped the trial would start by January. Despite the lack of a body, Yellin said he was sure jurors would convict Prentice.

"A jury's going to have no problem seeing her lies as horrific," he said outside court.

Attending the hearing were several of Michelle's relatives, all wearing white badges with the child's name pinned to their chests.

They filed out of the courtroom after the ruling, one woman in tears. Michelle's father, Richard Pulsifer of Las Vegas, stayed behind and stared at his ex-wife, her gray hair in a ponytail and gaunt frame clad in a navy blue jail jumpsuit. He didn't get up until a bailiff led her from the courtroom.

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