By Mark E. Vogler
---- — Many people had given up years ago on ever finding Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight alive after they vanished without a trace.
But last week’s rescue of the three women who had been held captive in a Cleveland, Ohio home for about a decade is renewing hope for police who are determined to solve missing children cases.
“It was a miracle — because in most of these unfortunate tragedies, the victims are not found alive,” Kingston Police Chief Donald Briggs said in an interview Friday, reflecting on the Cleveland case that has grabbed national attention.
“This certainly gives you hope that we will find Rachael Garden alive. Previous information that we received was that she’s deceased. But there’s always hope that she will be found alive,” Briggs said.
Briggs was referring to the 15-year-old Newton, N.H. girl who vanished on the night of March 21, 1980 after buying a pack of cigarettes and chewing gum at Rowe’s Corner Market on Route 108 in the center of town. She was headed for a friend’s home on Main Street, but never showed up.
The Kingston and Newton police departments continue to work closely with New Hamsphire law enforcement officials to find out what happened to the petite girl with hazel eyes and light brown, shoulder-length hair.
“It’s always a possibility that Rachael is alive,” Newton police Chief Lawrence Streeter said.
“We haven’t forgotten about her. The potential is always there (to find Rachael). You always want to shake the bushes and try to develop some information. You never want to forget about it,” Streeter said.
Rachael’s case is one of four missing-child cases from the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire posted on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s website. Overall, there are 42 cases from Massachusetts and 11 from New Hampshire. They include parental kidnappings, endangered runaways and cases were the child was abducted by a non-family member or stranger.
The other area missing children highlighted on the website (http://www.missingkids.com) include:
Angelo “Andy” Puglisi Jr., 10, of Lawrence, who disappeared Aug. 21, 1976. He was last seen swimming at the Higgins Memorial Pool, a short walking distance from his home at the Stadium Housing Projects. Foul play was suspected.
Judith Chartier, 17, of Chelmsford, who has been missing since June 5, 1982. She left a party that night in Billerica with her boyfriend, dropped him off and continued home. But she was never seen or heard from again. Her car hasn’t been found either.
Tammy Belanger, 8, of Exeter, N.H., who disappeared Nov. 13, 1984. The little brown-eyed brunette with the lazy eye was last seen at about 8 a.m. on Court Street in Exeter, walking to school.
Detectives and police involved in the investigation of each these cases have been frustrated at being unable to solve their respective childhood abductions after years of dogged pursuit of leads. Most concede the chances are slim for a happy ending and that they are working to solve abduction homicides now — to bring closure and peace to surviving family members.
The trail has grown the coldest in Lawrence, where police Chief John Romero notes the investigation has been inactive for several years. About five years ago, police did some digging in the woods behind South Lawrence East School, but found nothing. That was the last time they worked on a lead in the cold case of Andy Puglisi, according to Romero.
There have been two promising pedophile suspects in the case.
Wayne W. Chapman, a Providence R.I., man, was convicted of raping two boys after luring them from the same swimming pool a year earlier.
Then there was Charles E. Pierce, a Haverhill drifter and carnival worker who kidnapped and killed 13-year-old Michelle Wilson of Boxford in 1969. Three weeks before he died in prison in 1999, Pierce confessed to killing an unidentified boy in Lawrence. Some believed it may have been Andy.
Investigators never obtained the evidence to charge either suspect.
“This case is almost four decades old, so, obviously the general consensus is that people don’t hold a lot of hope that he’s (Andy) alive,” Romero said in an interview last week.
“It’s a case that we look at from time to time. It’s a case we’d like to solve for the family’s sake as well as the city’s sake. We’d certainly like to be able to bring closure to this and find out what happened to Andy,” the chief said.
“This is a case that the city has talked about for almost 40 years. People want to know what happened. If we ever solve it, it will only be because somebody who knows something talks and information we developed from a tip. We have followed up on every lead that’s been made available to us over the years,” he said.
While the Lawrence police investigation into Andy Puglisi’s disappearance has been virtually dormant for several years, Romero hopes that the national coverage of the Cleveland case will generate new public interest locally.
“Certainly, it (the Cleveland case) can have a positive impact on our case,” Romero said.
“Everybody’s talking about what happened there. Locally, people will want to know what’s going on with our case. So, there’s always the possibility that somebody starts talking and it develops a good lead for us. There’s always hope. It’s also possible he could still be alive. We don’t know. Cold cases get solved in this country every day. We get tips on crimes that occurred decades ago,” he said.
When people stop talking about an unsolved, high profile missing child case, the chances of solving it grow slim, Romero acknowledged.
“But it’s not unheard of to get tips that are very, very old. And I’m hoping that we’ll get a few to help solve this case,” he said.
Keeping the case in the public eye is what has been driving the ongoing leads received by police investigating Rachael Garden’s abduction — even after 33 years, according to Kingston police Chief Briggs.
“We’re continuing to chase down any and all leads that pertain to the disappearance of Rachael Garden,” Briggs said.
“It still continues to be a very active investigation and we’ve got a $10,000 reward we’re offering to anyone who helps solve it. And we would encourage anyone with any information to come in and talk to us or call us anonymously,” he said.
Meanwhile in Exeter, police Chief Richard Kane has named the person he believes abducted 8-year-old Tammy Belanger: Victor Wonyetye, a long-time suspect who died in a Florida prison hospital last December.
“He was the one that committed that crime,” Kane told WMUR (Channel 9) last week.
The chief told the Manchester, N.H. television station that Wonyetye’s death’s might develop new leads while encouraging other potential witnesses to come forward. Wonyetye worked in an auto body repair shop near the Lincoln Street School at the time of Tammy’s disappearance.
Later this month, the area’s four long-term missing children will be remembered with hundreds of others as the country observes the 30th annual National Missing Children’s Day. President Ronald Reagan declared the day in 1983 to call attention to the issue of missing children. He chose May 25 — it was on that day in 1979 when 6-year-old Etan Patz was abducted from a New York City street corner on his way to school. He has never been found.
It will also be a day when the nation also celebrates the virtue of hope, which led to last week’s finding of three Cleveland women alive a decade after their abductions.
“Just because a case remains unsolved for many years does not make it less important to families, law enforcement or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children,” the center notes on its website.
“Missing children are never forgotten and NCMEC will work diligently to ensure these children are physically located and returned to their families,” it continued.
The center is a private, nonprofit organization. It cooperates with law enforcement, families and social-service agencies to find missing children and to prevent exploitation. Since it was founded in 1984, the center has handled more than 3.7 million calls about missing children through its national toll-free hot line, 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678), circulated billions of photos of missing children and helped law enforcement recover more than 183,000 missing children.