CANADA

'WE ARE NUMBED’

THE DUNAHEES ARE LIVING MANY PARENTS’ NIGHTMARES SINCE THEIR SON WAS TAKEN IN MARCH

HAL QUINN September 23 1991
CANADA

'WE ARE NUMBED’

THE DUNAHEES ARE LIVING MANY PARENTS’ NIGHTMARES SINCE THEIR SON WAS TAKEN IN MARCH

HAL QUINN September 23 1991

'WE ARE NUMBED’

CANADA

THE DUNAHEES ARE LIVING MANY PARENTS’ NIGHTMARES SINCE THEIR SON WAS TAKEN IN MARCH

Nearly every waking minute since March 24, Crystal and Bruce Dunahee have endured every parent's nightmare. On that early-spring afternoon, their four-year-old son, Michael, disappeared from the Blanshard School playground in Victoria. The day was balmy in the provincial capital. The family, including daughter Caitlin, then just six months old, went to the playground to watch Crystal Dunahee play in a women’s touch-football league game. About 60 players, spouses, friends and family members gathered around the playing field behind the school to watch. Children cavorted in the sunshine. Along the adjoining streets, people mowed their lawns. Michael—blond, blue-eyed and handsome—wandered over to the nearby playground, down a slight hill from the football field. His family has not seen him since. Said Crystal Dunahee, 29: “We are numbed. We just live day to day.”

Since the boy disappeared, the Dunahees’ hopes have been raised countless times by apparent new leads, only to be dashed when they proved to be false. The initial panic, the furious and frustratingly vain first days of searching, the long nights of weeping, have subsided. During an interview in the small kitchen of their two-bedroom, co-op townhouse about two kilometres from the playground on the west side of Victoria, the Dunahees sipped tea as Caitlin explored her world with tentative steps. The couple’s kitchen table is laden with posters of their missing son smiling happily in his dress shirt, bow tie and suspenders. The image has become familiar to millions of Canadians who have seen the posters displayed on billboards and in 7-Eleven stores, McDonald’s restaurants, post offices, airport terminals and day care centres.

The Dunahees’ voices are subdued, their pale blue eyes—inherited by both children— reflect fatigue and unrelenting sadness. Bruce Dunahee’s face brightens only when he talks about his son. “He likes fishing and gardening, watching me work on cars,” the unemployed journeyman laborer, also 29, said. “I just got him into a lacrosse league two weeks before he disappeared. He has all kinds of interests. He’s a great kid.”

National records hold files on more than 61,000 missing children. But Michael was one of the first youngsters ever to be abducted in Victoria, a quiet, garden-like city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island best known as a tourist mecca and seat of the provincial government. The response to his disappearance from the community—and eventually the entire country—was swift and quite remarkable. Said Bruce Dunahee: “The money just started coming in, we didn’t ask for it. So far, about $60,000 has been donated.”

Within three days of Michael’s disappearance, Bruce Dunahee and some friends set up a search centre at the Canadian Legion in Esquimalt, the community bordering Victoria’s western limit, where both Dunahees graduated from Esquimalt Senior High School. This week, the centre will move to the community’s Tourist Information Office, where space has become available because of the end of the summer vacation season. From early morning until late evening, seven days a week, up to 12 volunteers at the centre answer the phones, alerting police forces to tips, mailing posters or bundling them for Loomis Courier Service— which delivers them free. Almost all of the $60,000 donated has been spent so far. The lion’s share—including $40,000 in postage—has been used to produce and distribute the more than one million posters in circulation. Smaller amounts have been spent on food and gasoline for volunteers, and on phone bills.

The centre supplements a continuing official investigation into Michael’s disappearance. Nine Victoria Police detectives, the RCMP and three FBI agents have been involved in the case. Still, the Dunahees have not relaxed their own determined search for their son. Explained Crystal Dunahee: “You basically have to do it yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you. We could let the police do all the work, but you have to do something, you can’t just sit back.” Michael’s father added that he goes to the search centre each morning “at about 10, and I try to get home for supper before going back for a few hours.”

Some days the phones do not ring, on others they rarely stop. But there is a new lead nearly every week: a fragment of evidence or a supposed sighting. The Dunahees were cheered when a child’s blue jacket, similar to the one that Michael was wearing on the day that he disappeared, turned up in a restaurant at Kaslo, about 480 km east of Vancouver, in late August. But by last week, police forensic tests had still not determined whether the jacket was indeed Michael’s. Said Crystal Dunahee: “There have been so many tips where the police think they have the bubble and then they pop it and you’re right back down again. So the police don’t tell us about half of them.”

The couple’s anguish is shared by thousands of parents across Canada. According to the national Missing Children Registry that the RCMP maintains in Ottawa, 61,248 children under 18 were reported missing during 1990. Only 84 were cases in which children were known to have been abducted by strangers. By contrast, 432 were abducted by an estranged parent and 44,803 were known runaways, while the status of most of the remainder was unknown. And the national figures indicate as well that for most families, the difficult wait for a discovery does end—usually happily. In 1990, 56,804 cases were removed from the registry list—including 74 of the 84 children abducted by strangers. Said Phyllis Hallatt, Saskatoon-based president of Child Find Canada Inc., a national volunteer organization: “There is always hope.” Indeed, of the two children found in the past 12 months as a result of Child Find’s nationally distributed posters, one had been missing for 12 years after being abducted at the age of three.

For their part, the Dunahees say that they have done everything they can think of to find their son, whose fifth birthday was on May 12. Still, they remain haunted by the fear that they have neglected some possibility. That has led them to accept even unconventional help. “We are talking to psychics,” Crystal Dunahee said, adding, “but we’re not living by what they say.” They say that they take comfort from the fact that Michael’s body has not been found, bolstering their belief that he may still be alive. Said Bruce Dunahee: “All the information we have on pedophiles is that they take them, and then just get rid of them. So if that was the case, they would have found something by now. Someone must have taken Michael to put into a family somewhere. That’s the only thing we can think of.”

The Dunahees say that uncertainty is the worst part of their ordeal. Over the months, it has taken a toll on their relationship. Earlier this summer, Crystal Dunahee moved in with her parents for 10 days. Now, together again, the Dunahees have regular meetings with a counsellor who specializes in helping grieving parents. Bruce Dunahee’s mother is also seeing a stress counsellor. Despite the strains, they remain doggedly optimistic. Said Crystal Dunahee, who returned to her job as a claims examiner for the Guardian Insurance Co. of Canada in Victoria on Aug. 19: “We just got the OK from the co-op to move into a three-bedroom townhouse. But we’re going to wait until we get Michael back, so he can have the pleasure of picking out his own room.” Until that happens, the Dunahees will live in a nightmare.

HAL QUINN in Victoria