Through the years I have read about, listened to podcasts about, or watched television programs about other missing and murdered children. Obviously their stories are horrifying and as a parent, strike a fear in me that I never knew I could experience until I actually became a parent. Certain stories have really stuck with me through the years and now as we research Cheryll’s case haunt me even more.
10-year-old Amy Mihaljevic was last seen alive at a shopping center in a quaint suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in 1989. Amy received a phone call at her home after school and told a friend she was meeting someone who was going to help her buy a gift for her mother. She too was stabbed to death and her body, like Cheryll’s, was discovered in a rural area though Amy was found four months after she was last seen. Also, like Cheryll, her murderer has never been caught. Amy’s case went national quickly. Her mother appeared on The Sally Jessy Raphael Show and her story was aired on America’s Most Wanted as well as The Oprah Winfrey Show. Amy’s mom went on to co-found a foundation that worked to protect children from situations like Amy’s where they were lured to meet a trusted stranger who ultimately sought to do harm.
Amber Hagerman was a nine-year-old living in Arlington, Texas when, on a random day in 1996, she was abducted as she rode her bike in a vacant store parking lot near her home. A witness saw a man pull up and pluck Amber off of her bike, throw her into his truck, and ride away with her. She was found stabbed to death in a creek four days later and her killer has never been caught. I still get a chill when I think of the similarities to Cheryll–the age, the circumstance, the way she was killed, where she was found, and the fact that it’s unsolved. Because of Amber’s abduction and murder, a nationwide system called the Amber Alert was developed to alert everyone that a child had been kidnapped. Amber’s parents have said though they’re happy something positive came from Amber’s death, they often wonder if it would have saved her if it had existed before she was abducted. I know an Amber Alert probably wouldn’t have saved Cheryll in 1971, but I can’t help but think of how little exposure her case received outside of her neighborhood in Highland Heights.
There are more. There is Jacob Wetterling who was taken in 1989 while riding his bike with his brother and a friend. It wasn’t until 2016 that a local man confessed to the crime and would eventually lead authorities to his remains. Jacob’s mother started the Jacob Wetterling Foundation to assist other families with missing children. And Polly Klaas was abducted at knifepoint from her mother’s home during a sleepover in 1993 only to be discovered murdered later. After her murder, her dad started the Polly Klaas Foundation which helps educate citizens about child abuse and assists in searching for other missing children.
The fact that these cases happened decades after Cheryll’s murder, is not only sad, but also sobering. These abduction murders are rare, but they DO continue to happen. And regardless of time and place, many aspects of these cases are similar. The one glaring difference is that Cheryll had absolutely no national exposure. Her face wasn’t on a milk carton–Johnny Gosch’s abduction sparked this idea and that didn’t happen until 1982, her missing flyer didn’t appear on a billboard, her case wasn’t featured on crime shows– John Walsh didn’t begin America’s Most Wanted until 1988 (seven years after his son’s abduction and murder), no foundations were created after her death (those all seem to have come about in the 1990s), and no legislation was passed in her name. Why? The biggest reason, I believe, is that she was a victim of time. All of the things I mentioned above didn’t exist in 1971. Her case was such a rare occurrence, the kind that most police investigators will never encounter during their careers, that in small town Kentucky in 1971, authorities’ heads were spinning. There was no research to consult, no criminologists to weigh in on developing a suspect profile, and no organizations to contact to assist the family and the community. Plus, it was much easier to assume she had run away than it was to consider that someone had snatched her up and murdered her.
What about the investigation? Obviously, what occurs in the immediate time after a child is noticed to be missing is of utmost importance. The more time that passes, the less likely the child will be recovered alive. With the cases above, authorities were alerted almost immediately after the child disappeared. In Cheryll’s case, many hours passed before anyone was alarmed about her being unaccounted for. Precious time was lost. Sadly in all of these cases, none of the children were found alive, but at least evidence was collected and for some, a suspect was arrested and convicted. Because Cheryll was only considered missing on October 19, 1971, police weren’t looking at a crime scene– they didn’t know that they SHOULD be looking for a crime scene. In fact, no one is quite sure where Cheryll was last seen or where the crime scene even was. Important evidence was lost or overlooked at the time. More about the investigation next week…..
The Police Officer
I’ve been surrounded by police officers for much of my adult life. Being married to one, my husband’s coworkers and their wives have become our friends and acquaintances through the years. Throughout the past year, I’ve worked hard not to bring up Cheryll’s case when we are out socially because it isn’t usually the appropriate setting and I don’t want to casually talk about the case and come across as being flippant about it. Recently, I found myself at an event where police officers were gathered and I had a nagging need to ask one former officer what he knew about Cheyll’s case because I had heard that he may have helped investigate it. I was literally having an internal argument with myself. Don’t do it. This might not be the right time…. Do it! You may not get this chance again….. What if he doesn’t want to talk about it here?….. What if he doesn’t want to talk about it at all? But he might be willing to talk about it… Just ask. Maybe it was me just not wanting to let an opportunity pass me by or maybe something–or someone– was pushing me to ask–so I did it.
“I’m investigating the Cheryll Spegal case.” I marched up to this officer and said.
“Oh really. I did not know that. Why? What have you been doing to investigate it?” I told him about my motivation for learning about Cheryll’s case and I explained that I have talked to residents of Highland Heights, friends of Cheryll’s, people from Pendleton County, a former police officer, and read through all the old newspaper articles all in an effort to learn more.
“You’ve done your homework,” he said with a slight smile. “Who do you think did it?” He came right out and asked me.
“The man on the porch,” I said and then said the man’s actual name out loud. The officer asked me to explain why I thought the man on the porch was the guilty party and I listed all of the points that have led me to believe he was involved. In that moment I had no idea if this officer agreed or not–he was straight-faced as I talked. When I finished, he finally responded.
“You make a great argument and I can see why you and others think he may be the one who did it, but I can tell you I knew him–I interacted with him often–and I don’t think he did it. There was another suspect at the time, someone you would probably call the prime suspect, and I’m telling you he’s the one you need to learn more about.” In this very moment, I was hearing about an alternate suspect for the very first time. I was shaken for a moment but then had a quick flashback to my meeting with the other former Highland Heights police officer who told me there were alternate suspects.
“Really? Really?” I found myself asking him out loud, exasperated, my disbelief on display. “And this suspect has more evidence against him than the man on the porch?” I asked with a doubtful tone.
“Yes,” he said affirmatively. “You need to work on getting the police file. I helped look into the case years ago and I’m telling you there’s a lot of information in there.”
“Wow. I’m just shocked I guess because for a whole year I never heard that there was someone else who was investigated. This is good to know and I’ll work on it. And you really don’t think it was the man on the porch?” I still couldn’t believe it.
“I don’t. He was a weird guy and I know he made a lot of people uneasy. He definitely was watching the neighborhood and knew all the comings and goings of people and the police, but I talked to him often. He and I had a good rapport. When he was drinking, he was a bear to deal with, but when he wasn’t, I found I could talk to him easily. I asked him about the murder numerous times and I’m telling you he would look me straight in the eye and tell me he did not do it and I believed him.” He finally told me the name of the prime suspect, I thanked him for talking to me, and walked away from the conversation floored.
How had all this time passed and no one had mentioned there was a strong suspect from the beginning? I have to admit, I was rattled. For two days after having this conversation I did no research, I discussed it with no one besides Bridget, I halted my writing– I was feeling so sure about the man on the porch and now…I felt like maybe things had just been turned on their head. I asked Cheryll to help me understand what this was all about and it eventually dawned on me that though I knew that I could be right about the man on the porch’s involvement, I also knew that I needed to get to work researching this new suspect. I’d been asking Cheryll to lead me to where I needed to go and if she was behind this, that night she lead me straight down a totally new path and exposed a whole new vine tangled within her story.