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tv   Dateline NBC  NBC  July 19, 2009 7:00pm-8:00pm EDT

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that is "nbc nightly news" for this sunday. brian williams will be here tomorrow. i'm carl quintanilla reporting from new york. for lester holt and all of us here at nbc news, good night. ñ
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>> hi, tom. >> jackie wrote from the tiny town where they set anchor of tom's great time here with surfing.
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typical little happy child. >> at the time, ritz junior 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. >> what at that point did you think had happened? >> i just figured they were gone for the day. because nobody there was knocking on the doors and you know, looking over the fence and stuff. there was just nobody at the house. >> it had been awhile since dick had vsited his children, so he wasn't sure what to think.
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he decided to contact one of donna's friends, who told him something strange. donna, her boyfriend and the kids h apparently moved away, without telling dick. >> she said, oh, they moved. i said what do you mean they moved? he says, well, they left the state. >> have they left any forwarding address? >> huh-uh. >> any phone contacts? >> 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. >> i went to the services, told them, i said, they can do that. it's illegal. and they said, well, yes she can. she's had full custody. she can do what she wants. >> without any notification? >> anything. >> he was helpless, and heartsick. where were they? it would be months, and he'd
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receive another blow. news that his wife and son were accounted for, but his daughter michelle was not. somehow, michelle was gone. coming up, as a father continues his search, a glimmer of hope. is help finally on theway? >> seeing this one little ficture, kind of get an ieadf o what she could have been.f pe >> when the girl in the little with its revolutionary web os. they're running multiple live applications at the same time. - ( thunder and rain ) - 3 million are using the simply everything plan. each is saving $1200 - over an at&t iphone plan. - ( cash register dings ) together that's over $3 billion. - enough to open a dunkin' donuts in space. - ( walkie-talkie sounds ) from america's most dependable 3g network. bringing you the first and only wireless 4g network. get the palm pre from sprint. only on the now network. deaf, hard of hearing and people with speech disabilities access ( applause ) good...cuz here's something else to love --
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it had been nearly a year since donna paulsifer left california, vanishing with her children in the summer of 1969. then, suddenly, she returned. her ex-husband learned about it from mutual friends. during all this time she hadn't called you, she had -- >> 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. >> saw her, talked to her, where's michelle? she's with friends. i said no, no, no, that don't work. i said where's she at? i want to talk to her. i want to see her. and i want to know where she's
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at. that's none of your business. >> none of your business? >> 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 packed them all up and left california. and little michelle was not with them. >> he said when we left, michelle was not there. i said what do you mean she wasn't there? he said, well 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. >> i figure well, you know what? this can happen to my son, i've got him right now. i said i'm taking him. she says no you're not, i'll call the police on you. and so, we got into actually a yelling contest.
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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 she says she knows where the child is, there was nothing the police or dick could do about it. >> 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. and why -- i didn't think anything violent or, you know, anything physical happened. >> there was good rason for dick paulsifer to have such years 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.
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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, eleven years after donna first left california, there was a break. dick paulsifer 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 nuer and called. he talked to his son rich jr., who was now 17 years old. and then he spoke to donna, who unbelievably refused to tell him where michelle was living. what was life like when you have
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to wonder and look at every little girl you see? >> you're always seeing that child. someone, walking through a crowd. wow that could have been her. >> this isn't like once a year? >> 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. >> i think it was my junior year, i don't recall exactly, but i walk up to her crying. her bedroom door was closed and i heard michelle's name, and i also heard dad, also. but i was not quite coherent and i was just barely awake. >>bout a year after rich jr.
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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 onto his fading memory of the last time he saw his sister alive. he was 6 years old. it was in the wee hours of the morning when 3-year-old michelle woke him up. >> she came walking, strolling in the room and crawled up on my bed and asked me to hide her. she said, hide me. please. >> yeah? >> hide me. >>id s seem terrified? >> no. just minutes, not even probably a minute after that mom came in and, you know, took her out of the room. >> what did she say? >> she didn't say anything. she just picked her up and walked her out of the room. >> did you ever see her again? >> that was the last time. >> within a day or two, rick says his mother and mike suddenly decided to move away saying they were leaving michelle with relatives.
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during their 11-year separation, rich jr. had no idea how badly dick wanted to find his childre now, after living under his dad's roof, his father's obsession to find michelle also became his quest. in 1987 or '88, nearly 20 years after his little sister disappeared, rich jr. called his mother demanding to know what really happened to michelle. >> she just flat-out said, i'm not going to tell you. and i said, well, you know, i'm her brother. don't you think i have the right to know? >> sure. >> 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 pulse if ifer and she said yes. and i said well, you know, what's it going to take for you
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to tell me where she is. and she said rich, i'm not here to make a deal with you. and that was pretty much it. 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. then in 2001, 32 years after michelle's disappearance, dick'sryives 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 attempt to find her. she offered financial help to fire a private investigator who might finally find michelle. >> when we were first hired to
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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. >> the facts that 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 after she was about 3 years old, he could find nothing to suggest michelle pulsifer even existed. >> got the feeling that something terrible might have happened, and we realized that standard investigative techniques were not finding michelle pulsifer. >> the private investigator had
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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. >> when he said, there's no reco record, from 196 -- 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.
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but this time, they saw something in this case. and in this small photograph from 1969. >> she's just this little kid. >> larry yellin, orange county deputy district attorney. >> i've got the feeling very early on in seeing this one little grainy picture that was 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 life, 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 is now married for a third time. she was living in wisconsin. her new name, downa prentiss. finally, for the first time since leaving california, she tells her story. coming up, can michelle's mother help find her? is it possible, after all this time, that michelle is still alive? >> we started thisesnvti igation hinking she's dead.
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in september 2003, donna
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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 settleled 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.
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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 saint's cemetery in des plaines, illinois, 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?
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after more than 30 years ofope and heartbreak, dick pulsifer was no closer to knowing what had really happened to michelle. at what point do you give up that hope? >> when they tell me what happened, you know, why isn 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 conviction for battery and violating restraining orders. he also had a history of alcohol and drug abuse. >> we concluded michelle never left that home in huntington beach alive. >> by august of 2004, the orange county district attorney announced mike kent and donna prentice had been arrested for murder. 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.
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he was only 2 when they left alifornia in 1969. >> 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 jame, i swear i never hurt that little girl. >> who did he think did it? >> my dad swore to me he didn't hurt that little girl. so i think donna did it. >> why would he not walk out the door that day and go directly to authorities? >> he was in love. he was protecting donna, i believe. >> the people versus james michael kent and donna prentice. >> 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. you don't have any body. >> right. >> you don't have a murder weapon. >> right. >> do you have a motive?
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>> couldn't tell you one. >> what he could say was his team of investigators had exhausted a 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. >> 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? >> maybe she did go to another family or ran away or grew up with somebody? how do you prove that's not the case? >> because all the avenues that we went to, all the hints or clues we could have had, all led us to the sad conclusion, and that is, she's dead. 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
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father stood up for little michelle, so hewould, in court. what is it about that 30-year-old grainy picture of that little girl? >> because she's anybody. which means she's everybody. 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 happened to the girl in the little blue dress finally be solved? coming up, a mother's story, and a surprising admission. >> she's alive or who she's with? . and you're still going strong. glade lasting impressions. two fragrances alternate to keep things... fresh and exciting day after day. - and not just for 30 days. - ( inhales deeply, sighs ) but for 60. it's the longest-lasting plugins ever.
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in this lab demo, one sheet of bounty extra soft out-scrubs two sheets of the bargain brand. game on. bounty extra soft. look for new prints. 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. 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 hiswife kathy, from their
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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. >> 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. she wants you to be in her life, she'll call you. >> a little girl lost, is how prosecutor larry yellen described michelle to the jury in his opening statement. on the first day of trial, rich j testified about that night when he was 6, when michelle had asked to be hidden. the last time he'd seen her alive. after an array of other witnesses yellen 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
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ed barakovich. 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. >> he at one time said that he had overheard me saying that she was dead. >> that he overheard you say that? >> yes, that he heard me say this. >> okay. >> and i said, well, i disagreed with him. >> okay. >> as far as i was concerned because of the length of time, that she was dead. because i'm not -- i was not going to go through anything that was not going to -- >> why would you say she was dead? >> no, no, i didn't say that. i said she was dead to me,
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because i was not bringing her into my life. >> donna also defended her seeming indifference to what had happened to her own dghter. >> it's hard to believe that you never, ever, and you know, after all these years without your daughter. i mean, aren't your curious where she is or if she's alive or who she's with? >> no. >> okay. so you kind of just erased her from your mind? >> mm-hmm. >> in the interview, barakovich 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. but detective barakovich poked a giant hole in donna's theory. >> there is a sister that has a
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daughter michelle, and it's their daughter. they just happen to have a daughter named michelle. >> okay. >> i know it's a lot of years gone by. i got a feeling this has probably been eating at you for all these years. it had to be. >> that was -- that was the last -- >> okay. >> was donna crying because she finally realized that her daughter was dead? or was there something else? >> she could be crying for herself, because the investigator just blew up her alibi. >> what kind of mother could so callusly, 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
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an alternate killer. in essence, her attorney's would put mike kent on trial. jurors would hear new details about the marriage, and a haunting tape with kent's claims about exactly what happened to little michelle in the summer of 1969. coming up, dead men do tell tales. will the mystery finally be solved? >> michelle didn't come out of the back. apd?hen what hnepe ound a i me okay remember she said she was gone. x# xi
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call the verizon center for customers with disabilities at 800.974.6006 tty/v to defend donna prentice from the charges that she murdered her daughter michelle nearly 40 years ago, her attorney ron brower built her case around her ex-husband's character, criminal record, and history of abuse. >> 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 audiotaped interview an investigator had done with mike kent before he died.
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>> played michael kent's tape because it was exerating 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. >> so you're eating breakfast, jamie's eating breakfast, and richard's eating breakfast? >> yes, she called for michelle to come in. >> she called for michelle? >> yeah. >> and what happened? >> michelle didn't come out. donna went back. >> okay in her bedroom. she went in her bedroom to get michelle? >> yeah,ichelle's. >> okay. >> and then what happened? >> she came back out, and 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
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was curled up in a fetal position. and she was motionless. >> just looking at her, you could see something was wrong. you could almost tell she was dead just from walking in and just seeing her. and my first thought was, she's dead. >> okay. >> and i touched her and she was cold. >> how could you tell she was dead, though, right away? >> she was -- she was just -- plain, the way she was cold. >> make said he turned to donna and told her, michelle's gone. then donna said something that troubled him. >> she said, what are we gonna do now? mike said she reacted like they were in deep trouble and he decided to do something about it immediately. >> go ahead, mike. tell them what you did. >> this is part i didn't like.
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part of the parts i didn't like. i picked up michelle in the garage and put it on the floor in the back seat and we drove up to the can on. 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 -- >> okay. >> after his arrest, mike took investigators to a canyon where he said he buried michelle's body. but her remains were never recovered. 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. that she was, he said, a good mother. >> every single person associated with this case says donna prentice was a loving, caring, excellent mother. there is not one blemish or
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bump. >> and mike? the exact opposite, he argued. a violent monster, he told the jury. brower told 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. >> he went through what i would call some kind of ritual terror when he made her go up into the bedroom, of a place that 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 dare
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not tell a soul about michelle for the next 35 years. not even after she divorced mike kent and moved to a different state. 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? >> the reason she doesn't make a simple telephone call is because he's still at large. he's still knows where she is. >> the defense wanted the jury to believe that kent had actually secretly killed the little girl, and buried heir. and then convinced donna 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, the defense wanted them to focus on one thing. the stunned reaction mike claims she had when she discovered her daughter dead in her room. >> i remember she had -- all the color in her face was gone, and
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she was leaning up against the house like support, you know. >> brower said donna's reaction, if it had ever happened, was proof that she was no killer. >> 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 deliberation, the jury was deadlocked, 10-2 in favor of conviction. the judge declared a mistrial. but prosecutor larry yellen vowed to try the case again. >> i want to get back to this trial as soon as possible. a lot of our witnesses 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.
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18 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 coider the case of the girl in the little blue dress. >> michelle was last seen alive in 1969. >> prosecutor larry yellen essentially presented the same case he had before. saying the evidence proved donna was guilty of murder. though he acknowledged some questions might linger. >> some of those questions will never be answered. some of those questions, the answers are buried with miche e michelle, with mike kent, and under a mountain of lies that you will learn of from the evidence in this case that the defendant has told over the next, almost 40 years.
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>> 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. >> very simple, and straightforward. 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 abusiveto 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. >> take all that 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,
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in his closing argument, prosecutor yellen shifted the focus one more time. away from donna and mike kent, and back to a little girl lost. >> it's still and should always be about that little girl, and about holding people, now person, responsible for murder. >> the jury got the case and deliberated for eight days. we sat down with four of the jurors. we've been looking at the evidence. one of the reasons it took us so long in deliberation was that we dissected evy piece of everything that was given to us to the nth degree and 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 40 years. >> she had the strength to come back and be independent at certain times, y still never pursued the whereabouts of her daughter. and i think that was a critical piece for most of us.
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the act that she committed to 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 acquiing donna of second degree murder. >> i couldn't, beyond a reasonable doubt, say that she was in a frame of mind to hurt that little girl. and if there's reasonable doubt you have to go not guilty. and 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. >> a beautiful child, a tragedy that happened. and i wish we could have done more. >> it came to us, you know, and we're actually responsible
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people, making a decision here on her behalf. and i believe she 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 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? >> i have no clue what happened to michelle. that's the question and that's the answer i'll probably never get.


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