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Michigan librarian dedicated to 41-year-old Halloween cold case

11-year-old Karl Heikell told his parents he was going for a walk in Calumet, Michigan. He never returned home.
The Daily Mining Gazette

On October 31, 1981, 11-year-old Karl Heikell told his parents he was going out for a walk in his town of Calumet, Michigan. The boy never returned home. A year later, evidence of his remains would be found in the nearby woods.

Forty years later, locals in the town of Calumet are still wondering what happened that Halloween night in 1981.

Now, after all these years, a local librarian is trying to bring the case back into the minds of Calumet residents. Dillon Geshel lives in Chassell, Michigan, just a few miles from Calumet. About 10 years ago, he heard a story that he could not believe.

Dillon Geshel

In an interview with Dateline, Dillon said he was told this story by a fellow library employee. “So the story was there was someone who moved to the Calumet area for a new job,” Dillon said. “They had a 40-acre plot of land that they were going to use to hunt on. The very first night he was up in a tree stand and he could hear a boy crying in the forest. When he would turn his floodlight on to look around, the crying would stop. Likewise, when he shut the light off, he could hear more crying. He felt like, at times, the crying was maybe getting closer to him.”

Dillon continued. “So this person apparently approached local librarians with this story to say, ‘Can you help me find out if anything strange happened on my property in the past?’”

Dillon said that it was on a return visit to the library that the person read Michigan Tech University’s archives about a child who went missing and was later found on his property.

Dillon’s curiosity was piqued immediately. “So I went to the Michigan Tech University’s archives and pulled the vertical file on missing persons in Michigan's Upper Peninsula,” Dillon said. “And sure enough, I found newspaper clippings about Karl Heikell going missing.”

The young librarian was eager to learn more about this local mystery. “So I put in Freedom of Information Act requests to the state police to get their files and looked to other Upper Peninsula libraries to find some more newspaper clippings,” Dillon said.

As he read through the documents, the decades-old story began to unfold…

Karl Heikell was just like any other 11-year-old kid. He was the youngest of four children, and the only boy. Dateline spoke with one of his older sisters, Patty Heikell, who said, “he had three older sisters and we terrorized him.”

Patty said that Karl was happy and outgoing. “He wasn't shy by any means. He was a very social kid,” Patty told Dateline. “I think he wanted people to like him, so he liked all kinds of people.”

In the early evening of October 31, 1981, Karl told his parents he was going out for a walk. As it grew dark, and Karl had not yet returned home, Karl’s family began to worry. Patty told Dateline her little brother was terrified of the dark. “That child was definitely afraid of the dark,” Patty said. “He slept on our sofa in the living room because the street lamp was shining through the window. He wouldn't sleep upstairs in the bedroom because it was dark.”

When Karl still hadn’t returned home the next morning, his family reported him missing to the Michigan State Police.

Detective Sergeant Jeremy Cleary of the Michigan State Police spoke to Dateline about the case. While not one of the original investigators in 1981, he was assigned to investigate Karl’s case earlier this year. He said that Karl had originally been classified as a runaway/missing person. Patty says their family never believed that. “No,” she said. “No, my brother did not run away.”

Detective Sergeant Cleary told Dateline that authorities performed an aerial search, a ground search and used canines to try to find Karl. But they found nothing.

Word of the missing boy soon spread throughout the area of Calumet.

According to Dillon Geshel, locals believe there were multiple reported sightings of Karl in the days following his disappearance. “About Karl being out and about that night at different restaurants – pizza place and the bowling place,” Dillon said. “There's those kids who have stories about Karl maybe living in the woods and other children are bringing food to him – that he's hiding.”

Detective Cleary could not confirm any of those sightings to be legitimate. “The issue that they ran into is people were sighting him, saying they witnessed him in locations,” he said. “Which led the police to believe that he was alive and moving around.”

Some of the alleged sightings reported to authorities were from nearby towns. “They’d say, ‘I saw him here,’ and [police] checked into it and they couldn't catch up with him,” Det. Cleary said. “They were just a step behind, you know, in the beginning of that investigation.”

Patty Heikell, who was only 13 years old at the time, told Dateline that her parents were hopeful they would find Karl. “My dad just – constant, every day, you know, just trying to figure out where he would be at– who he’d be with,” Patty said. “I don't think at that point my parents ever thought that he was gone.”

The holidays were very difficult for the Heikells. “It was just torture for my dad. It was hard on my parents,” Patty said. “Christmas came and he wasn't there, you know, going through the holidays.”

Dillon Geshel told Dateline that the random, unfounded, sightings of Karl went on for weeks. “But it doesn't lead anywhere for the police,” he said. “Until 11 months later, when a bird hunter is hunting in a forested area northeast of Centennial Heights and he finds some torn clothing.”

An article published on October 4, 1982, in the Daily Mining Gazette states, “State police said the remains and badly torn clothing were found by a hunter at about 2 p.m., Saturday, October 2, 1982, in a heavily wooded area about half a mile east of Centennial Heights."

Dillon Geshel described the area in which the remains were found. “Based on the description from police reports, Karl's remains were found Northeast of Centennial

Heights,” he said. “It was somewhere near the Centennial Mine #6 tailing dam. This is sometimes referred to as the "old dam patch" in the police reports.”

Centennial Heights
Centennial HeightsDillon Geshel

The Daily Mining Gazette article reported that the “State police combed the area and turned up the skeletal remains and some hair, according to Det. Sgt. John Arid of the State Police Post in Calumet. The county medical examiner, Dr. Howard Otto identified the remains as those of a young male.”

According to the article, that same detective, John Arid, also said, "There is little question in anyone's mind that the remains are those of Karl Heikell. His mother said her husband and daughters identified the clothing. The question is now, how he died.”

Dateline asked the current detective, Jeremy Cleary, about the area where the evidence was found. “They don't really have a scene, right? I mean, the bone wasn't found until what – over a year later? You know, some remains of Karl,” he said. “So at that point, they had no clue.”

After the remains were identified as Karl, in 1983 the family petitioned the court for a death certificate. “So that they could have some semblance of closure,” Det. Cleary said. “And the court agreed to do that.”

“It’s almost like they unofficially sort of closed the case,” Det. Cleary told Dateline. “It’s still an open cold case, but they incinerated the evidence they had and returned some of the remains to the family to be buried.”

This means that none of the original evidence gathered at the scene is available today. Detective Cleary said he is unaware of any DNA that may be available to help solve this case. It’s “really sad, in retrospect,” he added.

According to both Patty Heikell and John Karvonen – a longtime resident and business owner in Calumet – there was speculation that Karl may have been headed to go see a friend the night he disappeared: Billy Langdon. Billy died by suicide in the time between when Karl went missing and when his remains were discovered. Some thought this meant Billy may have been involved in Karl’s disappearance.

“I personally never thought that Billy Langdon had anything to do with my brother's disappearance,” Patty said. “I knew Billy well. He was a real mild-mannered teenager. He was, you know, he was a little on the wild side, but I don't think that I could ever say that Billy would have done anything to my brother.”

John Karvonen agreed. “It's a shame that so many people have Billy in their heads as this” kind of person, he told Dateline.

Detective Cleary told Dateline that after Billy’s suicide, police looked into his possible involvement in the case. “I don't think they found anything that would say he was involved by any means,” he said. “But they did investigate further after the suicide.”

Detective Cleary said the police looked into another person, as well. It was a man who had worked for Karl’s uncle, Paul Heikell Sr., at the Mr. Radiator Transmission shop. “I personally don't think he had anything to do with it,” Det. Cleary said. “The information I have leads completely away from him.”

Detective Cleary said he is fairly new to his position at the Calumet, Michigan post. He told Dateline that he’s collected some new leads in the time since Dillon Geshel began taking an interest in the case.

The detective told Dateline he is hoping to close the case. “It's not cold in my opinion anymore,” he said. “I would call it warm.”

After all this time, Dillon Geshel is hoping that his work will help uncover more answers about the boy who went missing all those years ago.

He has compiled the information he’s gathered into a website that details the case.

Lawrence and Pat Heikell holding up a photo of missing son Karl
Lawrence and Pat Heikell holding up a photo of missing son KarlDaily Mining Gazette

Patty Heikell is hoping Dillon’s efforts help bring closure to her family. “I'm grateful that Dillon has taken this and kind of revived it,” Patty said. “I would really love it if something came out of this and somebody just finally would step forward and say they know what happened to my brother.”

Patty and Karl’s father passed away in 2017. Patty said their mother is elderly, and still hoping for answers. “I think since my brother disappeared, it’s been a hard time for her,” Patty said. “It’s hard for her every Halloween.”

It’s hard for Patty, too. “Until my kids were past the age 11, I would freak out on Halloween,” she said. “I would never let my kids go trick or treating by themselves.”

Patty is hoping that the recent interest in her brother’s case brought on by Dillon Geshel’s work will lead to answers. “Over the past 40 years, my parents -- they found out where my brother was at,” she said. “But they don't know what happened to him. So there was never really closure at all,” she said. “Give my mom some peace.”

If you have information about the disappearance and death of Karl Heikell, contact Detective Sergeant Cleary of the Michigan State Police Calumet Post at 906-337-5145.