Details of Disappearance
Michelle was last seen sometime during July 1969 in her hometown of Huntington Beach, California. She resided with her mother, Donna Prentice); her mother's boyfriend, James Michael Kent (who went by his middle name); her older brother, Richard Pulsifer Jr., and Kent's young son by a previous relationship. Photographs of Donna and Kent are posted with this case summary.
Richard Jr. was six years old at the time of his sister's disappearance. He remembers that Michelle tried to hide in his room sometime in the middle of the night, around July 4, and seemed frightened. Prentice went in and took her away and he never saw her again.
Richard Jr. says he was often abused physically by Kent and that Kent hit Prentice as well. He also recalls that the day after he last saw Michelle, he went into the family's garage and saw a large cardboard box covered with blankets. The box had not been there the last time he was in the garage.
Prentice found Richard Jr. in the garage and told him to get out of there and stay out. She told him the box contained a motorcycle seat.
A few days after Michelle vanished, Prentice, Kent, and the two boys packed all their belongings and moved to Illinois. Prentice and Kent told the children that there was not enough room in the car for Michelle, so they were leaving her behind. She did take her own pet cats and dogs with them, however.
Richard Jr. later said he had been forbidden to ever mention Michelle's name while he was growing up, and his mother and stepfather ignored him whenever he asked what had happened to her. Kent reportedly told his own biological son that he would only discuss Michelle's fate when he was on his deathbed.
Michelle and Richard Jr.'s father, Richard Pulsifer Sr., was divorced from Prentice. A photograph of him is posted with this case summary. He visited his children every other weekend, but was not notified when they moved.
He called the police and attempted to file missing persons reports, but since Prentice had full legal custody of Michelle and her brother, no action was taken to find the children. Custody laws at the time often granted a mother complete rights to her children, to the exclusion of the father.
Richard Sr. eventually found out that Prentice and Kent were living with Richard Jr. in Illinois and that Michelle was not with them. Prentice and Richard Jr. returned to California about a year later, without Michelle.
When Richard Sr. spoke to his son, Richard Jr. told him he did not know where his sister was and had not seen her since before moving to Illinois. Richard Sr. tried again to file a missing child report for his daughter, but was refused help because Prentice had custody and claimed to know Michelle's whereabouts.
A few days later, Prentice took Richard Jr. and left again, and Richard Sr. didn't hear from them for years. In 1980, eleven years after Michelle's disappearance, Richard Sr. was served with an order to pay child support, but only for their son.
The child support papers gave Prentice's address in Wisconsin. She had married Kent after moving to Illinois, but later divorced him and had moved to Wisconsin in 1979, leaving Kent behind in Illinois. She continued to live there for the next 25 years. Richard Sr. called her when he realized where she was, and she refused to tell him where Michelle was.
A judge ordered that Richard Sr.'s child support payments be withheld until Prentice disclosed Michelle's whereabouts, but Prentice never revealed Michelle's location.
Richard Jr. moved to California to be with his father after turning 18. He said he did not know where his sister was. Because Prentice never filed a missing person's report for Michelle and the police refused to accept Richard Sr.'s report, her disappearance was not investigated by authorities for over thirty years.
Michelle's paternal aunt hired a private detective in 2001 to find Michelle. The investigator interviewed Prentice, who said she had given Michelle over to the care of Kent's mother but had not tried to find her or get her back after Kent's mother died of breast cancer in 1972. Prentice stated that she did not contact Michelle again because Kent had become abusive and she was afraid of him.
The private detective passed on his casefile to police after he was unable to find any record of Michelle following July 4, 1969, and law enforcement began their own investigation at that time.
In August 2004, Prentice and Kent were arrested and charged with murdering Michelle. Police investigated Michelle's disappearance but could not find a single public record of her after 1969; they concluded that her mother and Kent had murdered her and then moved away quickly so no one would notice her disappearance.
Kent and Prentice told people in Illinois that they had left the child with relatives in California, but family and friends in California did not have her and had no idea she was missing. People who knew Kent's mother say she never lived with Michelle. By 1969 she was an alcoholic and was already ill with the cancer that would later kill her, so it seems unlikely that she would have agreed to care for a small child.
Kent cooperated with authorities and confessed to burying Michelle's body in a shallow grave in a remote gorge. Kent claimed that he and Prentice found Michelle lying dead in her bedroom with no signs of injury and he helped Prentice dispose of the remains. He stated that they never discussed the child's death afterwards but he assumed Prentice had killed her, as Michelle had died while in Prentice's care.
Both suspects pleaded not guilty to the murder charges. Kent agreed to waive his right against self-incrimination and give testimony against Prentice before her trial, as he was suffering from diabetes, internal bleeding, and severe liver and kidney problems, and was dying.
In the weeks before his death in February 2005, however, he fell into a coma, so authorities never got his testimony.
At her 2007 trial, Prentice denied responsibility for her daughter's death. She said Michelle had simply disappeared and she was too afraid of Kent to ask any questions about it for the next three decades. He had an extensive criminal record, a substance abuse problem, a violent temper, and a history of violence towards women and children.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared. Prentice was retried in 2008, but the jury was again unable to reach a verdict. After the second trial, the judge dismissed the charges, saying there wasn't enough evidence to try her a third time and the case should be closed.
Michelle's remains have not been found. The canyon she was allegedly buried in has regular floods and unless her body was buried deeply, it may have been washed away by the water or eaten by animals. Foul play is strongly suspected in her case due to the circumstances involved.