Michael Dunahee: Family and community still haunted by disappearance 25 years later
Dunahee disappeared from a Victoria playground on March 24, 1991
The disappearance of four-year-old Michael Dunahee from a Victoria playground nearly 25 years ago not only devastated a family but also changed a community forever.
On March 24 1991, Michael disappeared from the Blanshard Elementary playground in Victoria. He has never been seen again and is believed to have been abducted by a stranger.
His mother, Crystal Dunahee, was playing touch football in a field next to the playground when he disappeared.
"I did up his hood, because it was windy out that day, and I let him go to the park and told him to stay there and wait for Daddy to come," she recalls.
"[Michael's father] Bruce went back to the playground and came back and said he couldn't find Michael."
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"I made sure he was looking at me, and that he understood that he was allowed to go to the park by himself, but he had to stay and not leave with anybody else and wait for his dad to come," she said. "I recall having those lovely tummy butterflies, and I regret not following those."
When Michael's father couldn't find him, the game stopped. About 50 people started fanning out, looking for Michael and calling his name.
His parents called the police immediately, and so began what was then the largest police investigation in Victoria's history.
It didn't take long for now-retired Detective Inspector Fred Mills of the Victoria Police Department to classify Michael's disappearance as an abduction.
"I received the phone call at home on a Sunday that a child had gone missing from the playground ... it became quite clear that this was more than just a missing child, that, in fact, it had all the earmarks of an abduction," he said.
15 detectives worked the case at one point. They checked out tips, looked into known sex offenders and interviewed children at the playground. One witness reported seeing a man in his late 40s or early 50s hanging around the playground.
Still, they couldn't produce any leads.
A month after Michael's disappearance, police staged a recreation of that day at Blanshard Elementary. It was hoped that by having the community walk through their movements someone might remember an important detail. This included using a brown van that had been spotted by a child on the day of the disappearance.
"We did put a lot of resources into the brown van tip. In fact we did locate a brown van — a number of brown vans — and we eliminated the owners and drivers through interviews," Mills said. "The brown van was a big thing for a while until we could discount it."
There were reported sightings in New York, New Jersey, and Vancouver Island. Tips came in, 50 a day at one point, but the mystery of Michael's disappearance remained unsolved.
"I think of it as often, it was something that was unsolved in my time," Mills said. "Do I take some responsibility? Certainly you do, that's what policing is all about. You feel involved with the cases you're investigating, and you like to see them come to a successful conclusion. And this particular case hasn't as of yet."
'This could never happen in sleepy little Victoria'
In 2011, police became aware of a man living in Chase, B.C. who bore a resemblance to Michael Dunahee. But even before DNA testing proved not to be a match, Crystal Dunahee knew it wasn't her son.
"I've seen two of his closest friends in their 20s and I totally recognize them, so I would think, being a mother, I would recognize my own son," she said.
In the months after Michael's disappearance, fear continued to grow among parents, children and in schools about the risk of abduction.
Author Valerie Green remembers that time in 1991 well and believes there was a "loss of innocence" when Michael disappeared.
"Like many people in Victoria, I was just totally shocked," she said. "I mean, this could never happen in sleepy little Victoria. ... They happened somewhere else."
"If it could happen here, It could have happened to my children. You just look the other way, and they're gone."
Green wrote a book about Michael's disappearance, Vanished: The Michael Dunahee Story, and believes Michael could still be alive. She even wrote him a letter in her book.
"Perhaps you might recall an old favourite toy, a cereal, a crying baby who was your sister Caitlin, going with your dad to Fleming Beach to watch the fishing boats coming in and listening to your real mother telling you a bedtime story," the letter reads.
"Only your abductor or abductors know the truth about your disappearance that day, and they have kept that appalling secret for 25 years, and it is now time to break the silence. An answer is well overdue. We need to know what happened on that morning in March of 1991."
Crystal Dunahee has also never lost hope and is willing to retell the story of her loss even though it causes her pain.
"If Michael's out there, he's now an adult. If he's got questions, he sees picture and maybe realizes, 'that's me,'" she said.
"The case is not closed. We haven't given up. We're going to keep going until we have the answers that we need."
For more information on the disappearance of Michael Dunahee or to report a tip, visit michaeldunahee.ca.
To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: 25 years later, Michael Dunahee's family still holds out hope for missing boy
With files from Jean Paetkau, CHEK News