It's been more than 27 years since Julia Tager-Norris has seen her daughter Michelle. She still thinks of her every day.
"Yes, you have to try and move on, but you never really do," Julia told Dateline. "She was such an innocent little girl, such a momma's girl. And it not being solved is a big thing for us."
Michelle Norris was shy and smart. She and her brothers were living with their mother and grandmother in Central Falls, Rhode Island, as their mother was suffering from a kidney infection at the time. While her mother was resting inside, Michelle, her brothers and a few cousins decided to head to play at the park behind Capt. G. Harold Hunt Elementary School, where she was a first grader. It was May 26, 1988.
"She came in and said, 'Mom, do you want me to give you some Tylenol?' I said, 'Thank you, but no,’" Julia recalls. "Then she told me, "OK, bye. I love you!' And I responded, "Momma loves you too!' Those were the last words I got to tell her."
No one appears to know what happened after that. While at the park, Michelle simply vanished. None of the other children heard her scream or saw anything suspicious, authorities reported. "My mother used to say that it was like the ground just swallowed her up," said Julia. "She wouldn't just go with a stranger without a fight. So I think it was someone she had to know who took her."
Michelle had just turned seven a few days earlier.
Several days of searches brought few clues. Four days after Michelle disappeared, officials discovered her bruised body on a debris-covered hill in a desolate wooded area less than a half mile from the school. Her clothes were lying next to her. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled.
"Who could do that to such an defenseless soul? No child deserves what happened to my little girl," Julia told Dateline through tears. "And now, whoever did this is just out there, no responsibility."
The Central Falls Police Department brought in several people for questioning, but little information has ever been released regarding Michelle's case. "In order not to hamper the investigation or any subsequent legal proceedings, no details will be released," then Police Chief Robert Choquette told reporters several days after Michelle's body was found.
Julia has her frustrations regarding the investigation, saying police were heavily invested the first year but have not investigated much since. She admits that there isn't much to work with, but wishes her daughter's case was more of a priority. "It's horrible, how could there be nothing? It was daylight, someone saw something and we just need to identify them," she told Dateline.
Several years after Michelle’s death, The Children's Friend and Service agency in Rhode Island created the Michelle Norris Memorial award to honor and remember her. It's awarded each year to an individual or organization that has provided extraordinary support or assistance toward improving the futures of the state's most vulnerable children.
"In naming the award for Michelle, we honor her memory and acknowledge the preciousness and potential of all children," the award's program reads.
As for Michelle's mother, Julia, she has moved away from Rhode Island and is now living in Massachusetts. She’s now the grandmother of seven. As she watches her grandchildren play outside, fear rises up inside her, despite their growing ages. "They tell me, 'Meema, I'm 15. I'm OK.' But I can't help it. It's a scary world out there."
If you have any information regarding Michelle's case, please contact the Rhode Island State Police at (401) 444-1046.