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Mother goes on trial in O.C. girl's 1969 slaying

For years, the missing toddler was said to be with relatives. Defense attorney points to the woman's late boyfriend for the crime.

June 01, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Hide me. Hide me.

Those words, believed to have been spoken by 3-year-old Michelle Pulsifer the last time she was seen alive 38 years ago, echoed in an Orange County courtroom Thursday as her mother went on trial for murder in her 1969 slaying.

Donna Prentice, 60, her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, was portrayed by the prosecution as a woman in league with her then-boyfriend in her daughter's death and in a lifelong cover-up that left the girl's father and brother in a futile search for answers.

Prentice's attorney, on the other hand, painted the boyfriend, James Michael Kent, as the villain. It was Kent, the lawyer said, who killed the girl, buried her in a remote canyon, then kept Prentice silent with a barrage of beatings and death threats after they moved from Huntington Beach to Chicago.

Kent had also been charged with the toddler's death but died in custody of kidney and liver failure at 63 in 2005.

He left a taped confession that will be played for jurors. In it, Kent reportedly denies killing Michelle, saying that one morning Prentice came out of the child's bedroom ashen-faced and that when he entered the room, he noticed the child was lifeless. He admits helping bury the child.

Prentice and Kent were arrested three years ago after a lengthy investigation driven primarily by the family of the victim's father, Richard Pulsifer, who said he could never get a straight answer from his former wife about their daughter's whereabouts.

For more than three decades, his attempts to track down the girl through social service agencies, friends, relatives and attorneys proved fruitless. Ultimately, he hired a private detective, who later turned his files over to the Orange County district attorney's office.

Prosecutors have not said how and why they believed Michelle was killed, only that she had not been seen or heard from since the couple abruptly left Orange County and moved to Illinois in 1969, taking their two 6-year-old sons from other marriages with them.

The couple told the boys that there was not enough room in the car and that they were leaving their sister in California with a relative, according to prosecutors.

Weaving a narrative of a "little girl lost," Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Yellin revisited what he said were Michelle's final moments in the home that Prentice shared with Kent in Huntington Beach in 1969.

"Hide me. Hide me," Michelle called to her 6-year-old brother, Richie, coming into the room she shared with him, according to Yellin.

The brother, who knew Michelle had gotten into trouble earlier for "messing her pants," was trying to cover up his sister with the blankets on his bed when their mother came in, picked her up and took her away, Yellin said. It was the last time he saw her, the prosecutor said.

Prentice never discussed Michelle after that, Yellin said. She continued to deceive the girl's father whenever he questioned her about what happened to Michelle, saying only that the girl was with friends or relatives, but never elaborating, Yellin said.

Pressed for answers years later by a district attorney's investigator, Ed Berakovich, Prentice -- by then estranged from Kent -- said Michelle had been left with Kent's mother, "grandma Jane," Yellin said. In fact, the woman had fallen gravely ill a couple years after Michelle was last seen and died in the early 1970s. No one remembered her caring for a little girl, Yellin said.

After his arrest, Kent implicated Prentice in the slaying and took investigators to Williams Canyon in the mountains in eastern Orange County, where he remembered digging a 3-foot grave. But even with the help of cadaver-sniffing dogs, old maps, anthropologists, archeologists and a backhoe, investigators went away empty-handed, Yellin said.

"They found nothing. But that did not change the fact that Mike Kent and Donna Prentice could no longer hide the murder of Michelle," Yellin said.

Defense attorney Ronald G. Brower spent most of his opening characterizing Kent as the "poster boy" for the crime. He said evidence would show that Prentice was a "super mother" who was "not violent ever and not abusive" toward Michelle and that even Kent described her as a good mom.

Kent, on the other hand, was a foul-tempered man hooked on booze and drugs who kept Prentice quiet by beating her.

Kent even tracked Prentice down after she left him, using his gun to force her back home, Brower said. On one occasion, Kent fired a gun around Prentice's head while she lay in bed, he said.

"There's nowhere she can go and nothing she can do to get away from his evilness and his threats and his violence," Brower said.

Kent also provided more than one version about how he discovered the girl already dead, Brower said. He urged jurors to consider Kent's credibility.

"It will be abundantly clear who was involved in that child's death and abundantly clear who was not," he said.

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