A bit more than 25 years ago now I spent some time in Fargo ND working for America’s Most Wanted. The case in particular was a missing child named Jeanna North, an 11 year old who had disappeared roller blading the three blocks between the Dairy Queen and her home. In that short distance she had to pass Kyle Bell’s house where he was that day outside fiddling with his truck. That’s as close to home as she got. Her body has never been found, her parents died without ever getting her back, but her murderer, Kyle Bell, is in prison.
Kyle Bell was a horror. He sexually abused kids, his own relatives. He used a young pregnant wife as cover, used the camera she gave him for Christmas to record his crimes. When we caught him he was hiding in another state, living with a single mother of young girls, grooming his next victims. He threw Jeanna North’s body in a river he said. I was there when divers went under the ice looking for her. A furious cop gave me the horrific pornographic pictures Bell took of his victims. I spent hours with Jeanna’s mother who was essentially destroyed. Hours with the killer’s wife who tried aloud to understand what had happened to her. I stood in Jeanna’s unchanged little girl bedroom, a shrine.
God knows, and we do too, that this stealing of children isn’t a new thing. And the not-comforting statistical, factual truth is that most kids who are abused and/or taken are victims of a member of the family or at least people they know. Like Kyle Bell. For that reason the first suspects are usually family, often the father. So, to the unimaginable pain of a missing daughter or son add the police interrogation, the dawning understanding in the midst of horror, that the cops think maybe you did it. Often there is a lie detector test. This has been part of the parental experience of every kidnap I’ve covered. Like Kevein Collins’.
Kevin Collins vanished forever from a San Francisco bus stop in the winter of 1984. He was one of the first milk carton kids. There were also thousands of leaflets, volunteer searches, as well as great deal of news attention, those things that became the model of what a community does when a kid goes missing. There was also the unchanged bedroom, the home telephone monitored day and night, the sidewalk memorials. Some years later I ran into David Collins, Kevin’s dad, at a search headquarters for another missing kid — Ilene Misheloff. David, the veteran, was helping organize another fruitless search, and we stood looking at each other in that room full of posters, leaflets, volunteers, hopeful energy. “Gets old, doesn’t it,” he said.
The raw fear of the families is exacerbated by people like me who must be let into the private space because we deliver public attention. More than once I’ve seen victim families exploited by psychics — I caught one trying to steal a kid’s clothing — and harassed by the frankly and thoughtlessly curious. The blow to the missing child’s siblings can be awful. The stress often destroys the marriage itself.
While at the NBC station in San Francisco I reported three major missing child stories and wrote a magazine story about them as well. At Most Wanted I followed several more including Jeanna North. Yes, it gets old. Even if somebody gets caught and goes to prison it doesn’t end. One of the mothers called me one night, two years after the event, called to talk to me about suicide.
I had an email exchange not long ago with a Fargo journalist who worked a quarter century ago on North-Bell. Like me he still recalls the names, the places, the scenes, even our own tears.
Ilene Misheloff was 13 in January 1989. She was walking home from middle school in a upscale San Francisco suburb when she disappeared. The search that followed was based at the ice rink where she was supposed to go that day for a lesson, the rink where I ran into David Collins. Another frantic then methodical police search, more leaflets, a telephone that doesn’t ring, another little girl’s bedroom shrine. All they ever found of Ilene was her key chain. And the reporters sat awkwardly in another living room, in another wrecked home, with another mother and father, barely able to speak.