Monday, August 31, 2009

Waiting to be reunited with her missing son

Michael Dunahee went missing at age four. He would now be 23.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 31, 2009


Crystal Dunahee’s birth mother in California was on the telephone with the kind of news that takes your breath away.

Jaycee had been found.

“I was stunned. It was a bit of a shocker,” Ms. Dunahee said.

She knows well the story of Jaycee Lee Dugard, a blonde, bucktoothed, 11-year-old girl whose stepfather watched helplessly at a distance as she was dragged by a woman into a car while on her way to a school bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

The terrible details were familiar to Ms. Dunahee because the girl was snatched just three months after her own boy disappeared from a Victoria playground.

This is what happens when you’re the mother of a missing child and another missing child comes home. The telephone rings and strangers want to know how you feel. They promise it is an opportunity to remind people about Michael.

As if anyone could forget.

The details are as familiar as the plot to a horror movie. A cute, four-year-old boy, a hint of baby fat still carried in his dimpled cheeks, goes missing from the playground at Blanshard Elementary as his parents play sports nearby. Soon, both teams are looking for the boy. The police are called. But no one can find anything.

Poof. Gone.

In the 18 years since, the Dunahee family —mother Crystal, father Bruce, and daughter Caitlin, a baby then and a high-school graduate today — have been tireless advocates for their missing son and brother.

Earlier this month, a “Tournament of Hope” softball showdown was held for the 17th consecutive summer.

Every year, on the anniversary of his disappearance, a “Michael Dunahee Keep the Hope Alive” Dance, featuring That ’70s Band, is held to kick off the “Michael Dunahee Keep the Hope Alive Drive,” a five-kilometre walk and run through the streets of Esquimalt.

Crystal Dunahee begins organizing the dance and walkathon each January. One of the highlights is picking a T-shirt design submitted by local elementary students. The events carrying her son’s name are squeezed into a schedule already crowded with raising a daughter and running the family donair shop on Esquimalt Road.

“It’s a warm feeling to know the community is still out there supporting us,” she said, “and all missing children.”

The Dunahees carry a burden any parent can imagine and all fear.

“I’ve never met a family that is stronger than that family,” said Steve Orcherton, executive director of Child Find B.C., a charitable group for which Ms. Dunahee is president. “What they have had to endure is nothing short of remarkable.”

Child Find offers services to the families of missing children, the vast majority of whom are runaways. The group conducts clinics around the province during which children are photographed and prints taken for passports that provide essential information should they ever disappear.

Of the many cases filed each year, only a few missing children are victims of an abduction by a stranger, the circumstances so rare and puzzling they garner the most attention.

Mr. Orcherton said his delight at the return of Jaycee Dugard to her family was tempered by learning from news reports that police squandered opportunities to end her captivity years earlier.

The details are unsettling. A parole officer who visited the home of her alleged captor failed to notice the two little girls she bore her tormentor. So poor was his reputation as a convicted sex offender that neighbours spoke of him as “Creepy Phil.” Yet, his crimes went undiscovered for years until a woman police officer at the University of California at Berkeley questioned his behaviour erratic as he handed out religious pamphlets while accompanied by two unnaturally pale girls.

Mr. Orcherton said Phillip Garrido should have been drawn the attention of authorities years earlier.

“You can’t just walk through life ignoring people whose behaviours clearly aren’t normal,” he said. “That’s the shocking part for me.”

Mr. Orcherton, a former NDP MLA, spent the weekend sailing around the San Juan Islands with the teenaged son whose bantam baseball team he coached to a Vancouver Island championship last summer. These are delights he knows have been denied the parents of Michael Dunahee, about whom he says, “We’re still looking for him.”

The Dunahee family marked the 23rd year of Michael’s birth in May.

At the family home, a room is reserved for a son’s return, unopened birthday and Christmas gifts waiting to opened.

Crystal Dunahee knows another anguished family has been reunited with a daughter some thought lost forever.

“It just goes to show there’s always hope,” she said.

She repeated the phrase.

“And miracles do happen.”

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