This story originally aired on Dateline NBC on March 14, 2008. An update aired on July 19, 2009. Watch the latest video here.
ORANGE COUNTY, CALIF. — A photograph -- and a question.
How long does a father's love last? How powerful is a memory?
John Larson (Dateline NBC): What is it about that 30-year-old grainy picture of that little girl?
Larry Yellin: Because she's anybody, which means she's everybody, you know.
This is a story, oddly enough, about what we don't know about a little girl in the blue dress -- because what we do know is simple.
She was born on St. Patrick's Day, 1966. Michelle Kelly Pulsifer was the new baby sister, filling out what her parents hoped would be a perfect family. But soon little Michelle would disappear, and who took her and where would be a secret.
John Larson: Did you ever stop looking?
Dick Pulsifer: Not really.
When they met, her parents were still just really kids themselves.
Donna and Dick met as they entered high school, and soon were just another young couple falling in love in El Cajon, just east of San Diego.
Dick Pulsifer: I met her at a high school party. And we kind of danced, talked, and I got her telephone number, and we started dating.
Dick Pulsifer says he and Donna were inseparable. They dated for three years and when Donna became pregnant -- though still in high school -- they wanted to do the right thing.
John Larson: You were very young when you got married. Did you have any sense at that time whether or not you were up to the task?
Dick Pulsifer: Oh, I felt that I was -- had no problem with it. You know--
John Larson: You were 16 years old. You've got the world by the tail, right?
Dick Pulsifer: I wasn't wild, you know. I was a straight A student in school. And we actually got married in our junior year.
They moved into an apartment. Donna dropped out of high school to care for their newborn son, Rich Jr. Dick stayed in school and worked nights busing tables. Two years after Dick graduated, Michelle was born.
Dick Pulsifer: They were like twins. She just followed him all over and did everything he did. So it was great.
John Larson: What are some of your fondest memories of your little girl at that point?
Dick Pulsifer: Well, she's always crawling on you. You know, that's a kid thing. And then pretty soon, they're pulling themselves up. And then they're walking and talking.
While the children got along fine, Dick and Donna's relationship began to crumble. And just two years after Michelle's birth, they divorced, and Dick accepted it when the courts gave Donna full custody of the kids.
John Larson: It really wasn't a bad breakup?
Dick Pulsifer: No. It was a mutual agreement. Nobody fought anything about the custody or anything. I had visiting rights. I paid child support.
Donna and the kids moved in with a friend in Garden Grove, Calif., in a county just north of San Diego. Dick visited his children on weekends.
But by 1969, Donna had found a new boyfriend. Dick said the presence of a new man in Donna's life did not bother him, just as long as Dick could see his kids.
He clearly remembers one of his visits.
Dick Pulsifer: Rich went outside. He was playing. And Michelle and I were in the living room, sitting, watching TV or doing whatever toys she had and stuff. So I was visiting mostly with her. She was a good kid. She wasn't fussy. She was a typical real happy child.
At the time, Rich Jr. was 6 and Michelle was 3. Dick asked about their well-being and Donna assured him that everything was fine. She also said that her new boyfriend was good with children.
The new boyfriend was Michael Kent, who had a son of his own named Jamie. Kent, Donna and their children lived together as a new family.
One day in the summer of 1969, Dick made an unannounced visit -- but no one answered the door.
So he left and came back a few hours later, but still no answer.
John Larson: What, at that point, did you think had happened?
Dick Pulsifer: I just figured they were gone for the day because nobody was there. You know, I’m knocking on the doors and looking over the fence and stuff. There was just nobody at the house.
It had been a while since Dick had visited his children so he wasn't sure what to think. He decided to contact one of Donna's friends, who told him something strange: Donna, her boyfriend, and the kids had apparently moved away without telling Dick.
Dick Pulsifer: She said ”Oh, they moved.” I said, what do you mean, they moved? She says, well, they left the state.
John Larson: Had they left any forwarding address?
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John Larson: Any phone contacts, anything like that?
Dick Pulsifer: Nothing. They just up and just like disappeared from that house.
Even though Donna had full custody of the kids, Dick had never imagined that his ex-wife and her boyfriend could just take the kids and vanish without his permission. He immediately complained to local authorities.
Dick Pulsifer: I went to the social services. Told them-- I said, "They can't do that. It's illegal." And they said, "Well, yes, she can. She's got full custody, she can do what she wants."
John Larson: Without any notification?
Dick Pulsifer: Anything.
He was helpless -- and heart sick. Where were they?
It would be months, and he'd receive another blow -- news that his wife and son were accounted for, but his daughter, Michelle, was not. Somehow, Michelle was gone.
It had been nearly a year since Donna Pulsifer left California, vanishing with her children during the summer of 1969. Then, suddenly, she returned. Her ex-husband Dick Pulsifer learned about it from mutual friends.
John Larson (Dateline NBC): Now during all this time she hadn't called you? She hadn't written you?
Dick Pulsifer: Never heard a word. Never.
Donna had been living in Illinois with Mike Kent, her boyfriend whom she would soon marry. And now, nearly a year after she first left California, she was unexpectedly back. But she had only one of Dick's children with her -- his son, Rich Jr.
Dick Pulsifer: Saw her, talked to her. Where's Michelle? She's with friends. I said, no, no, no. That don't work. I said, "Where she's at, I want to talk to her and I want to see her, and I want to know where she's at” – “That's none of your business.”
John Larson: “None of your business”?
Dick Pulsifer: It's none of my business, that's exactly what she said.
Donna, however, did allow Dick to take his young son for a ride. And during this ride, Rich Jr., who was still 6 years old, said some alarming things. He, too, had no idea where his little sister was -- hadn't seen her in months -- hadn't seen her since the day Mike Kent and Donna had packed them all up and left California. And little Michelle was not with them.
Dick Pulsifer: He said, "When we left, Michelle was not there." I said, "What do you mean, she wasn't there?" He said, "When we packed up, I don't know where she was. She just wasn't with us."
Angry and frustrated, Dick confronted Donna about Michelle’s whereabouts.
Dick Pulsifer: I figured, well, you know what, this is can happen to my son, I got him right now. I said, "I’m taking him." And say, "No you're not, I’ll call the police on you." And so we got into an actual yelling contest. I said, "This is over. This is done. I'm not doing this." That's when I went to the police department again to file a missing person this time.
According to Dick, the police referred Michelle’s disappearance to the Orange County District Attorney's office. But once again, he was asked who had legal custody of Michelle and was told that as long as Donna had custody and says she knows where the child is, there was nothing the police -- or Dick -- could do about it.
Dick Pulsifer: She's missing. And they would not do anything. I was so beside myself, I could have ripped the counter off because I knew there was something wrong. I didn't think anything violent or, you know, anything physical happened.
There was good reason for Dick Pulsifer to have such fears, because just days after his confrontation with his ex wife, Donna left California and disappeared once again -- this time taking Rich Jr. and the secret of where Michelle might be with her.
With no one to turn to, Dick kept searching for his children on his own, until sadly, the days turned into years. Dick went on with his life but not one day went by without him thinking about where his children might be.
And then in 1980, 11 years after Donna first left California, there was a break.
Dick Pulsifer was served with court papers -- a new request for child support. But Dick noticed something unsettling. Donna had requested child support for only one child, Rich Jr. -- not for Michelle.
She had divorced Mike Kent and was living in Wisconsin. Her address was listed on these documents. So Dick immediately got her number and called.
He talked to his son, Rich Jr., who was now 17 years old. Then he spoke to Donna, who unbelievably refused to tell him where Michelle was living.
John Larson: What is life like when you have to wonder and look at every little girl you see?
Dick Pulsifer: You're always seeing that child somewhere, walking through a crowd. Wow, that could have been her, you know.
John Larson: And this isn't like once a year.
Dick Pulsifer: No, it's all the time.
After Dick called Donna’s home, he and Rich Jr. reconnected as father and son. Within a year, Rich Jr. decided to move to California to live with his father.
As a kid, whenever he asked his mother about Michelle, she would change the subject.
Over the years Rich Jr. was haunted by something he remembered hearing late one night, back when he still lived with his mom.
Rich Pulsifer Jr.: I think it was my junior year. I don't recall exactly. But I woke up to her crying. Her bedroom door was closed. And I heard Michelle’s name and I also heard "dead." But I was not quite coherent, and I was just barely awake.
About a year after Rich Jr. moved to California, Dick took him to a hypnotist to see if he could remember a clue, maybe a distant memory that would lead them to Michelle. But the session proved useless.
Rich Jr. was forced to hold on to his fading memory of the last time he saw his sister alive.
He was 6 years old. It was the wee hours of the morning when 3-year-old Michelle woke him up.
Rich Pulsifer Jr.: She came, walked, strolling in the room and crawled up on my bed and asked me to hide her. You know, she said, "hide me."
John Larson: "Please."
Rich Pulsifer Jr.: Yeah. "Hide me."
John Larson: Did she seem terrified?
Rich Pulsifer Jr.: No. Just minutes, not probably -- not even a minute after that, you know, mom came in and took her out of the room.
John Larson: What did she say?
Rich Pulsifer Jr.: She didn't say anything. She just picked her up and walked her out of the room.
John Larson: Did you ever see her again?
Rich Pulsifer Jr.: No -- that was the last time.
Within a day or two, Rich says his mother and Mike suddenly decided to move away, saying they were leaving Michelle with relatives.
During their 11-year separation, Rich Jr. had no idea how badly Dick wanted to find his children. Now, after living under his dad's roof, his father's obsession to find Michelle also became his quest.
In 1987 or 1988 -- nearly 20 years after his little sister disappeared -- Rich Jr. called his mother demanding to know what really happened to Michelle.
Rich Pulsifer Jr.: And she just flat out said, "I’m not going to tell you." I said, "Well, you know, I’m her brother. Don't you think I have the right to-- to know?” And she goes, "Rich, you know, things happened. We didn't have a whole lot of money, and we couldn't keep all three of you. And be grateful that I chose you." And I asked her, "Well, is she still alive?" and she said, "yes." And I asked her, "Well, is she still under the last name of Pulsifer?" And she said yes. And I said, "Well, what's it going to take for you to tell me--" when she goes, "Rich, I’m not here to make a deal with you." And that was pretty much it. That was the conversation.
Had Michelle been sold or given up for adoption? Or maybe fallen ill and taken somewhere? And why would Donna be so secretive? Had Michelle been harmed? Dick had long since remarried, but he had never stopped looking for his Michelle. He scanned the internet searching names, even speaking once with a Michelle Kelly Pulsifer. But sadly, it wasn't his Michelle.
And then in 2001, 32 years after Michelle’s disappearance, Dick's relatives had a family reunion at a park in San Diego. It was there that a former sister-in-law was reminded about Michelle’s disappearance and about Dick's desperate attempts to find her. She offered financial help to hire a private investigator who might finally find Michelle.
Paul Chamberlain: When we were first hired to find Michelle Pulsifer, I assumed it would be quite easy and that this would take a matter of several weeks -- if not a month at the most.
Paul Chamberlain worked as an FBI agent for nearly 20 years. He handled hundreds of kidnapping and extortion cases before forming his own investigative and security consulting firm in Los Angeles, and taking on the search for the missing girl.
Paul Chamberlain: The facts as they were given to me sounded very much like a domestic problem. And that therefore, the child was probably out there somewhere, and not that difficult to find.
But after searching for documents, school records, and interviewing dozens of people, not only had Chamberlain not found Michelle, but he could find nothing to suggest Michelle Pulsifer even existed after she was about 3 years old.
Paul Chamberlain: I had the feeling that something terrible might have happened when we realized that standard investigative techniques were not finding Michelle Pulsifer.
The private investigator had never seen anything like it. As he'd later report to Dick, there was no paper trail, no one who'd seen her, no leads whatsoever. Nothing. When a father has searched so long, how much does nothing weigh? Almost enough to crush him.
Video: Help on the way for father?
Dick Pulsifer:When he said there's no record. There was no record of Michelle from 1969 on.
That's when Chamberlain took his files to the Orange County District Attorney's Office -- the same office where 34 years earlier, authorities told Dick that since he didn't have legal custody, there was nothing they could do about finding his missing little girl. But this time, they saw something in this case -- and in a small photograph from 1969.
Larry Yellin (Orange County Deputy District Attorney): She's just this little kid. I got the feeling very early on, in seeing this one little grainy picture, that is all we had at the time of this little blonde girl, and you kind of get an image of what she could have been maybe, growing up-- what her life could have been like, the things that she was deprived. And so, you are driven to find out what happened.
An investigator for the district attorney's office spoke to Donna, who was now married for a third time. She was living in Wisconsin. Her new name: Donna Prentice.
Finally, for the first time since leaving California, she tells her story.
In September 2003, Donna told an investigator what happened to little Michelle.
The last time she saw her daughter was before she and Mike Kent packed up the family to leave their house back in Huntington Beach, California, in 1969.
She said since they did not have much room in their car and the long road trip to Chicago would be hard on a small girl, Mike had taken Michelle to stay temporarily with his mother who lived nearby. Donna agreed to this arrangement.
The next day, Donna, Rich Jr., Mike, and his son Jamie traveled to Illinois. Once they were settled, they would send for Michelle. That was the plan, Donna told the investigator.
But investigators later learned Donna never sent for Michelle. Years passed and no one reported seeing her again.
The more they looked into Donna’s story about Mike giving Michelle to his mother, Jane Lambert, to watch, the more Donna’s story appeared to unravel.
When Michelle was allegedly left with Mike's mother, relatives say Lambert was an alcoholic suffering from breast cancer and in no condition to care for a 3-year-old girl. Not exactly the type of person you'd think Donna would choose to watch her daughter, let alone raise her.
And there was something else: relatives say all those years Lambert supposedly had Michelle, no one ever saw her with a little girl.
Just three years after Donna and Mike left California, Lambert died. It was 1972. She was buried here at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, Ill. -- less than an hour's drive from where Donna and Mike were living. Michelle would have been 6 years old at the time, yet Donna didn't attend the funeral. She never asked to see her daughter. She never even made a phone call.
So if Michelle wasn't with Jane Lambert, where was she? Had she been sold or adopted as Dick had feared? After more than 30 years of hope and heartbreak, Dick Pulsifer was no closer to knowing what had really happened to Michelle.
John Larson (Dateline NBC): At what point do you give up that hope?
Dick Pulsifer: When they tell me what happened. You know, why isn't she here?
Orange County investigators continued searching and soon new information surfaced about Mike Kent.
The boyfriend-turned-husband, and now ex-husband, had a criminal record -- with convictions for battery and violating restraining orders. He also had a history of alcohol and drug abuse.
By August 2004, the Orange County district attorney announced Mike Kent and Donna Prentice had been arrested for murder.
Video: 'He was a good father' Mike was the first taken into custody. He reached out to his son Jamie Kent -- the little boy who also lived with Michelle but was too young to remember. He was only 2 years old when they left California in 1969.
Jamie Kent: He told me the day he was in custody in Lake County Jail, he called me and he just wanted to let me know, he says, “Jamie, I swear I never hurt that little girl.”
Larson: Who do you think did it?
Jamie Kent: My dad swore to me he didn't hurt that little girl. So I think Donna did it.
John Larson: Why would he not walk out the door that day and go directly to authorities?
Jamie Kent: He was in love. He was protecting Donna, I believe.
Mike Kent and Donna Prentice both pleaded not guilty.
As it turned out, Mike would never have his day in court. He was in poor health when he was arrested and died just six months later.
With Kent dead, Donna Prentice was about to stand trial for murdering her daughter, despite the case's obvious challenges.
John Larson: You don't have anybody.
Larry Yellin: Right.
John Larson: You don't have a murder weapon.
Video: Hoping to find missing girl alive
John Larson: Do you have a motive?
Larry Yellin: I couldn't comment on that.
What he could say is his team of investigators had exhausted all leads, talked to friends, relatives and former roommates in an effort to find Michelle -- or at least to find out what had happened to her.
Larry Yellin: We started this investigation thinking she was dead, but wouldn't it be great if we were wrong. And wouldn't it be great if we could reunite this now-adult girl with her long lost father.
John Larson: Maybe she did go to another family or ran away or grew up with somebody. How do you prove that's not the case?
Larry Yellin: Because of all the avenues that we went to, all the hints or clues we could have had, all lead us to the sad conclusion. And that is: she was dead and she never left that house in Huntington Beach alive.
So what really happened to Michelle? Was her death an accident? Had an angry parent hit her too hard? Or was she deliberately killed?
Whatever the answer would turn out to be, the prosecutor said it was time someone besides her father stood up for little Michelle, so he would -- in court.
John Larson: What is it about that 30-year-old grainy picture of that little girl?
Larry Yellin: Because she's anybody, which means she's everybody, you know. And we should not let her just be lost and forgotten.
Now jurors were going to hear not only from Donna herself, but also from Mike Kent -- in his own voice, from beyond the grave. Would the mystery of what had happened to the girl in the little blue dress finally be solved?
It had been four decades since the girl in the little blue dress seemed to vanish off the face of the earth. Now her mother Donna Prentice was about to stand trial for her murder.
Now, Dick Pulsifer, Michelle’s father, was determined to be at every hearing -- no matter how routine or insignificant. Each time, he drove 270 miles with his wife Cathe from their home in Las Vegas to Orange County -- a trip that would sometimes take four to five hours each way.
He wanted to see Donna in court, hoping to finally hear the truth he felt she'd kept from him for so long.
Dick Pulsifer: This whole thing from '69 on has been nothing but a lie. She's lied to me the whole time, you know? “Michelle's alive. She knows who I am. She's going to graduate when she's 18. If she wants you to be in her life, she'll call you.”
"A little girl lost" is how prosecutor Larry Yellin described Michelle to the jury in his opening statement.
On the first day of trial, Rich Jr. testified about that night when he was 6 years old, when Michelle had asked to be hidden. The last time he'd seen her alive.
After an array of other witnesses, Yellin let the jury hear Donna’s side of the story in her own words. He wanted to give her enough rope to hang herself. They listened to an audio cassette of her interview with Ed Berakovich, an investigator with the district attorney's office.
Donna stuck to her story about how they'd taken Michelle to Mike's mother's home while the rest of the family relocated. But she also tried to explain away Rich Jr.'s claim that he'd overheard her one night using the words Michelle and dead in the same sentence.
(Police interview tape)
Donna Prentice: He at one time said that he had, uh, overheard me saying that she was dead.
Investigator: That he overheard you say that?
Donna Prentice: And that he heard, yes...
Donna Prentice: -- that he heard me say this. And I said, well, I disagreed with him. As far as I was concerned because of the length of time that she was dead.
Donna Prentice: Because I’m not -- I was not going to go through anything to find her. I was not going to—
Investigator: Why would you think she was dead?
Donna Prentice: No, no, I didn't say that.
Donna Prentice: I said she was dead to me...
Donna Prentice: ...because I was not bringing her into my life.
Donna also defended her seeming indifference to what had happened to her own daughter.
(Police interview tape)
Investigator: It's hard to believe that you never, ever, I mean -- how, you know, all these years about your daughter, I mean aren't you curious --
Donna Prentice: I know.
Investigator: -- of where she is or if she's alive or who's she with?
Donna Prentice: I know, I know, I know … No.
Investigator: OK, so you kind of just erased her from your mind?
Donna Prentice: Uh-huh.
In the interview, Berakovich asked Donna seven times about Michelle’s whereabouts. And each time, she told him she thought her daughter might have been taken to Canada by Mike's mother. After all, she said, there was a girl named Michelle -- about her daughter's age -- among Mike's relatives there.
Video: A mother’s surprising admission But Detective Berakovich poked a giant hole in Donna’s theory.
(Police interview tape)
Investigator: There's a sister that has a daughter Michelle in Canada, but it's their daughter. They just happen to have a daughter that's Michelle.
Donna Prentice: OK.
Investigator: I know it's a lot years gone by. I got a feeling this has probably been eating at you for all these years. It's had to be.
Donna Prentice: That was -- that was the last --.
Donna Prentice: That was the last thing I could have hoped for. (crying)
Was Donna crying because she finally realized that her daughter was dead or was there something else?
Larry Yellin: She could be crying for herself because investigator Berakovich just blew up her alibi.
What kind of mother could so callously, so matter-of-factly describe putting her little girl out of her life for so many years? Prosecutors argued only one that was guilty of killing her. But remember the state had no body, no eyewitnesses to a crime, no physical evidence that a murder had even occurred.
The defense was about to present an alternate killer. In essence, they would put Mike Kent on trial. Jurors would hear new details about the marriage -- and a haunting tape with his claims about exactly what happened to little Michelle in the summer of 1969.
To defend Donna Prentice from the charges that she'd murdered her daughter Michelle nearly 40 years ago, her attorney Ron Brower built his case around her ex-husband's character, criminal record and history of abuse.
Ron Brower: I knew while we attacked the character and credibility of Michael Kent that we also, necessarily, dirtied my client up a little bit because she was in association with such a person.
Perhaps the most surprising thing the attorney did was play the jury the audio-taped interview an investigator had done with Mike Kent before he died.
Ron Brower: I played Michael Kent’s tape because it was exonerating to Donna Prentice.
On the tape, Mike talked about a summer day in 1969 when he said Donna went to Michelle’s room to wake her and discovered something was terribly wrong.
(Police interview tape)
Investigator: So you're eating breakfast. Jamie's eating breakfast and Richard’s eating breakfast?
Mike Kent: Right, and then she had called for Michelle to come in, get up and come in.
Investigator: So she called for Michelle?
Mike Kent: Yeah.
Investigator: Then what happens?
Mike Kent: Uh, Michelle didn't come out and Donna went back to get her up.
Investigator: OK, in her bedroom -- she went in the bedroom to get Michelle?
Mike Kent: Yeah, Michelle’s bedroom right here.
Mike Kent: Yeah.
Investigator: Then what happened?
Mike Kent: She came back out and, uh, I remember she had -- all the color in her face was gone and she was leaning up against the house like support, you know.
Mike said the look on Donna’s face prompted him to walk into Michelle’s room to see what was wrong. He said the 3-year-old toddler was curled up in a fetal position -- and she was motionless.
(Police interview tape)
Mike Kent: Just looking at her you could see something was wrong. But it looked like it almost felt she was dead from just walking in and seeing her. My first thought was that she was dead.
Mike Kent: And then I touched her and she was cold.
Investigator: How could you tell she was dead, though, right away?
Mike Kent: She was just plain the way that she was laying. She was cold.
Mike said he turned to Donna and told her "Michelle’s gone." Then Donna said something that troubled him.
(Police interview tape)
Mike Kent: She said, "what are we going to do now?"
Mike said he reacted as if they were in deep trouble and he decided to do something about it immediately.
(Police interview tape)
Investigator: Go ahead, Mike. Tell me what you did.
Mike Kent: This is the part I didn't like. Part of the parts I didn't like. Yeah, I had packed up Michelle in the garage and put it on the floor in the back seat and drove up to the canyon. Dug a shallow spot, wrapped Michelle up in the blanket, covered her -- covered her with stones so that the animals wouldn't get at her and --
Mike Kent: -- put the dirt back in.
After his arrest, Mike took investigators to a canyon where he said he buried Michelle’s body. But her remains were never recovered.
Video: 'He was a good father' Brower told the jury Mike Kent’s word was no good. That Donna never knew that Michelle had died or that Mike had buried her. She was, he said, a good mother.
Ron Brower: Every single person associated with this case says Donna Prentice was a loving, caring excellent mother. There is not one blemish or bump.
And Mike? The exact opposite, he argued. A violent monster, he told the jury.
Brower called witnesses who swore Mike had assaulted them while he owned a bar back in Illinois. A business partner was beaten, a customer was shot, a girlfriend was battered. That girlfriend dated Mike after Donna was out of the picture.
Donna, he told the jury, had believed Michelle was alive and always wanted to reunite with her but couldn't because she was a battered woman, terrorized by Mike.
Ron Brower: He went through what I would call some kind of ritual of terror when he made her go up into the bedroom of the place they were staying. That he took a loaded firearm. He fired several rounds at her head while she sat in the bed, to persuade her that if she contacted the mother or tried to get the child back at this time, that she was going to die.
Brower said Donna was so afraid, so terrified, she dared not tell a soul about Michelle for the next 35 years -- not even after she divorced Mike Kent and moved to a different state.
John Larson (Dateline NBC): Why at one point during the many years that followed, when she did get free of Michael Kent, why doesn't she make a simple telephone call?
Ron Brower: The reason she doesn't make a simple telephone call is because he's still at large. He still knows where she is.
The defense wanted the jury to believe that Kent had actually secretly killed the little girl and buried her, and then convinced Donna that her daughter was at his mom's, and then terrorized Donna into asking no questions about it for four decades.
But if jurors did actually believe Mike's story, he wanted them to focus on one thing. The stunned reaction Mike claimed she'd had when she discovered her daughter dead in her room.
Video: ‘The color in her face was gone’
(Police interview tape)
Mike Kent: I remember she had -- all the color in her face was gone and she was leaning up against the house like support, you know?
Brower said that Donna’s reaction -- if it had ever happened -- was proof that she was no killer.
Ron Brower: That was not the description of a person who anticipated finding a dead body.
So had Donna Prentice found her daughter dead and conspired with her husband to cover it up for decades? Had she done worse? Or was she an innocent, battered woman, too scared to find out the truth about her own daughter?
In the end, after four days of deliberations, the jury was deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of conviction. The judge declared a mistrial, but Prosecutor Larry Yellin vowed to try the case again.
Larry Yellin: I wanna get back to this trial as soon as possible. A lot of our witnesses, when you have a case that's 35 years old, are getting older. And we've lost a few people from the time we began the investigation till the time the trial started. Including Mike Kent.
There would, in fact, be a new trial, with an outcome no one expected.
Eighteen months after a first trial ended in a hung jury, and 39 years after Michelle Pulsifer disappeared - it was time for a new group of jurors to consider the case of the girl in the little blue dress.
Prosecutor Larry Yellin essentially presented the same case he had before, saying the evidence proved Donna was guilty of murder - though he acknowledged some questions might linger.
LarryYellin: Some of those questions will never be answered. Some of those questions the answers are buried with Michelle, with Mike Kent, and under a mountain of lies that you -- you'll learn of from the evidence in this case that the defendant has told over the next almost 40 years.
Donna's new attorney, Ken Norelli, took the focus off Donna and shifted it directly onto Mike Kent, suggesting it was obvious who was more likely the killer.
Ken Norelli: It's very simple and straight-forward. A loving, caring, nurturing mother who never hurt anybody and went out of her way to care for people and a violent and dangerous man with an exceptionally short fuse who was abusive to everyone who was in his family.
Especially abusive to Donna, he argued, and called an expert who testified that Michelle's mother -was- in fact a battered woman who feared for her life while living with Mike Kent.
Ken Norelli: Think of all the evidence you heard in this case and apply your common sense. Go ahead. She didn't harm that child ladies and gentlemen, there's not a shred of evidence to support it. Ladies and gentlemen, this woman is innocent in this case, and I ask you to deliver justice and that is the appropriate verdict of not guilty.
But at the end of the case, in his closing argument, Prosecutor Yellin shifted the focus one more time, away from Donna and Mike Kent and back to a little girl lost.
Larry Yellin: It's still and should always be about that little girl. And about holding the people, now person, responsible who murdered her.
The jury got the case and deliberated for eight days. We sat down with four of the jurors.
Marcus Romero: When we were looking at the evidence, I think one of the reasons it took us so long in deliberation was that we dissected every piece of everything that was given to us to the nth degree. I mean, we went through some testimony three or four times.
The jurors said they believed Donna did suffer abuse at the hands of Mike Kent. But they seemed troubled by her behavior over the last forty years.
Betsy Brooks: ...when she had the strength to come back and-- and be independent at certain times, yet still never pursued the whereabouts of her daughter. And I think that was a critical piece for most of us.
Cindy: The act that she committed, for me, was that she had a duty to her daughter. She failed to-- protect her daughter. She abandoned her daughter.
And yet, had the prosecution convinced this jury that Donna's behavior amounted to murder? In the end, as in the first trial, jurors deadlocked ... But this time, in favor of acquitting Donna of second-degree murder.
Marcus: I couldn't beyond a reasonable doubt say that she was in a frame of mind to hurt that little girl. And if you're-- reasonable doubt you have to go not guilty. And that's-- that is the reason why I voted not guilty.
All of them agreed they tried to find justice for Michelle. And they took one last look at the girl in the little blue dress.
Betsy Brooks: I see a beautiful child. A tragedy that happened. And I wish we could have done more.Video: Time to ‘pay’?
David Hart (tears on his face): I mean, it's just sad it came to this, you know. And we were actually the responsible people making a decision here on-- on her behalf. And -- I believe we did-- all we could do.
But there was one more surprising act to play out.
Just days after declaring a mistrial, the judge admonished Donna Prentice for covering up what had happened to her daughter for 40 years. But then he dismissed the charges against her citing insufficient evidence. He said she could never again be charged with Michelle's murder.
So after four years in prison, Donna Prentice was released.
It's time for closure, said the judge. But can closure come for this father? He's been asking himself the same question for four decades ... Where has his little girl gone?
Dick: I have no clue what happened to Michelle. That's-- that's the question, and that's the answer I'll probably never get. That's-- I-- I don't know what a three year old could possibly do to make this happen.
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