Sunday, March 30, 2008 12:10 AM CDT Finding the lost, naming the unnamed
By DEB NICKLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org
MASON CITY — It was the year that Michael Jackson introduced “Thriller.” Ronald Reagan was president. “Terms of Endearment” swept the Oscars.
It was also the year Grace Esquivel disappeared.
Grace, then 25, was last seen on June 10, 1983. She lived at 1619 N. Pennsylvania Ave. in Mason City with her daughter, Angie, 6.
Grace’s story has faded in most memories. But not all.
“I don’t want anyone to forget about Grace,” said Angie Bunch, an area director in Iowa and Indiana for the Doe Network, a group of nationwide volunteers who try to find the missing or identify the unknown. “I still have hope.”
Grace is just one of 200 cases of missing men, women and children in the two states she investigates. The 34-year-old Kentucky woman is familiar with each of them, even calling the victims by first names.
Bunch roams the Internet for information, updates files and contacts law enforcement agencies in the hope of uncovering that one clue that might lead to a discovery. She works on multiple cases daily.
“There aren’t many nights I go to bed before 4 a.m.,” she said, her soft southern voice like velvet. “If you ask my fiancé or my children, they’ll say I have an addiction. But I believe this is a way I can help.”
The Doe Network was founded on a simple principle: If the correct information — dental records, DNA, police reports, photographs — is entered into the right databases, many of the unidentified can be matched with the missing.
In the United States, there are more than 40,000 unnamed bodies, according to the National Crime Information Center and about 100,000 people are formally listed as missing.
In Iowa, there are six unidentified bodies and 43 listed as missing. The oldest case is the 1973 disappearance of 11-year-old Boy Scout Guy Heckle of Cedar Rapids; the most recent are the 1999 disappearances of 56-year-old Dennison Stookesberry of Blakesburg and Dennis Addlesberger, 46, of Council Bluffs.
There are four North Iowa cases on the list. Besides Esquivel, there is the 1986 disappearance of Rodney J. Olsen of rural Mason City; the 1995 disappearance of KIMT-TV anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit
of Mason City; and the little-known case of Kenora Cavan, a 16-year-old Clear Lake teenager who was last seen on her birthday, June 6, 1998.
Although Bunch has not resolved any case herself — she has only devoted full-time hours to the position since 2006 — she is hopeful her work will pay off.
She continually seeks media reports and other bits of information to add to and update files, but all information must be verified first through law enforcement agencies.
“It’s only then that we will post that information,” Bunch said. There is also an Iowa-based researcher who works with Bunch to seek out information.
Cooperation shown by law enforcement has been good, Bunch said.
Cerro Gordo Sheriff Kevin Pals said he is more than willing to work with “any agency that might help us shed light” on a case.
His department is the primary investigating agency for the Olsen case. He still believes there are some in the area “who still can be re-interviewed in this case,” he said.
The problem is time, he said. That’s hard to admit, he added, when family members continue to hope for breaks in the cold cases.
“But the day-to-day never ends,” he said. “The work on new cases is always there. So when someone like this (Doe Network) inquires, I am very open-minded about them helping us solve cases.”
Lt. Ron Vande Weerd of the Mason City Police Department agreed.
“I have no problem” with the work done by the network; in fact, he said, they have contacted the department on the cases several times.
“I think they have done some amazing things,” he added.
Bunch said that older cases like Esquivel’s make investigations tougher, but not unsolvable. Primary investigators retire and, sometimes, family members move from the town in which they lived at the time of a disappearance.
In other cases, DNA has not been secured from family members in case where remains are found. Losing ties with family can make it hard to obtain DNA or even dental records.
Vande Weerd said his department is fortunate to have kept in contact with Grace’s family and does have DNA from Grace’s family members in case remains are found.
In Cavan’s case, however, investigators found that the family moved at some point after her disappearance and are not sure where they are today, said Clear Lake Police Chief Greg Peterson.
Keeping in touch with families is important for other reasons, said Bunch, especially if there are children. Sons and daughters often take up searches after their parents, or other older relatives, die or can no longer be involved. Bunch believes the more looking into cases, the better.
Bunch becomes very close to many victims’ families, she said. “I have one case in Indiana; sisters who are looking for their sibling. I talk to them weekly. In many ways, they become like extended family.”
Her own interest in resolving cases came with a first-hand experience when a childhood friend disappeared. She and other children were on a playground with a young boy who left the playground on his bike to go to a nearby store. He was not seen after that.
“My family moved from that area and I never heard what happened to him,” she said. Years later, she began to look for information about him on the Internet and discovered the boy’s body had been found in a pond near the town.
“Along the way, when I was on the Net, I came across the Doe Web site and I was fascinated with all of it,” she said.
If the hours of searching get long, she does not get depressed, she said.
“For me, not being able to find someone just fuels the fire. It pushes me to work harder,” she said.
It is hard, though, when some cases — like Grace’s — provide little information. Vande Weerd agreed that few leads have surfaced since 1983.
“I really want to find more,” Bunch said. “It’s such a long time.
“I feel bad, too, when some cases overtake others, just because we know more about them. I want to get Grace’s case out there (in the public eye), get out as much as we can. And we can hope.”
North Iowa's Missing:
Kenora (or Kenore) Cavan. Cavan, of Clear Lake, has been missing since June 6, 1998, her 16th birthday.
She was not immediately classified as missing and questions remain about whether she was a runaway. Her parents, Noi and Natly Cavan, moved from the area.
Description: Height: 5 feet, 5 inches tall; weight: 107 pounds; Asian female with brown hair and brown eyes.
Graciela (Grace) Esquivel. Esquivel, 25, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, Angie, was reported missing in June 1983. She lived at 1619 N. Pennsylvania Ave. in Mason City.
Her daughter spent the night of June 10 with her grandparents, Manuela and the late Armando Esquivel, while Grace said she was going out with friends.
According to reports, her bed was found turned down as if someone was ready to go to bed and her wallet and driver’s license were left behind. Her Social Security number has never been used since her disappearance, according to Lt. Ron Vande Weerd of the Mason City Police Department.
Manuela Esquivel moved to Missouri several years ago.
Description of Grace: height: 4 feet, 11 inches; weight: 140 pounds; Hispanic female with brown hair and brown eyes.Jodi Huisentruit.
Huisentruit’s disappearance is one of the most widely known of Iowa’s missing persons cases. Huisentruit, an anchor for KIMT-TV in Mason City, failed to show up for work on June 27, 1995. Personal effects were found scattered near her car at the Key Apartments in the northeast part of the city, leading law enforcement to term her disappearance as an abduction.
Description: height: 5 feet, 3 or 4 inches; weight: 110-120 pounds; white female with blonde hair and brown eyes.
Rodney J. Olsen. Olsen, a rural Mason City farmer, was 32 when he was reported missing on October 18, 1986. Olsen was the father of a young son and farmed northeast of Mason City. He had moved from his native Britt area not too long before he disappeared.
He reportedly left his rural home at 1 a.m. to visit someone and has not been seen since.
Several months later, Olsen’s car, a black 1978 Pontiac Sunbird, was found in a Forest City trailer park. No clues were found to indicate what happened to Olsen, according to reports at that time.
Twenty-one years later, Olsen’s family still thinks of their lost son.
“You always want to know,” said his father, Myrlen, who lives in Britt. “We always have hope.”
Myrlen believes that Rodney, one of his three children, “went off in the middle of the night by himself — and after that, we just don’t know.”
Rodney Olsen’s son today lives in California, Merlyn said.
Myrlen Olsen keeps in contact with the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s Department, in hopes new information about the case can be developed.
Description: height, 6 feet; weight, 210 pounds; white male with brown hair and brown eyes.
Iowa's Missing Persons
1973 — Guy Heckle, 11, Cedar Rapids.
1975 — Colleen Simpson, 14, Bedford; Jane Wakefield, 26, Iowa City.
1976 — Alice Mae Vanalstine, 28, Polk County.
1978 — Mattie Zabel, 45, Cedar Falls; Steven Kirchhoff, 22, Waterloo.
1979 — Norma Maynard, 61, Boone; Ronald Westwick, 34, Ames; Richard Forsyth, 27, Waterloo; Charles R. Elmquist, 34, Iowa City.
1981 — Naomi Wilson, 32, Cedar Rapids.
1982 — John Gosch, 12, West Des Moines; Kimberly Doss, 16, Davenport; Denise Fraley, 30, Cedar Rapids; Dale Strassburger, 34, LaClaire; Theodore Hoerstman, 45, Dubuque.
1983 — Maurice Kneifl, 58, Sioux City; Grace Esquivel, 25, Mason City.
1984 — Harry Milligan, 21, Albia; Eugene Martin, 13, Des Moines.
1985 — Ronald Zellmer, 31, Sioux City.
1986 — Marc James-Warren Allen, 13, Des Moines; Rodney J. Olsen, 32, Mason City; Sandra S. Vanderhoef, 42, Webster County.
1987 — James Jamison, 75, Burlington; Sharon Pinegar, 42, Des Moines.
1988 — Johnny Shields, 32, Carter Lake.
1989 — Barbara Lenz, 31, Woodbine.
1990 — Robert Lee Kellar, 19, Muscatine; Mervin L. Walvatne, 53, Paul Knockel, 53, Dubuque.
1991 — Matthew Ferris, 20, Des Moines.
1993 — Barbara Lee Elms, 50, Cedar Rapids.1995 — Jodi Huisentruit, 27, Mason City.
1996 — Kenneth Harker, 34, Sioux City; John Johnson, 71, Des Moines.
1997 — Robert Bresson, 57, Independence.
1998 — John Steven Conaway, 36, Council Bluffs; Gary Allan Brown, 23, Waterloo; Crystal Sue Hunt, 21, Centerville; Kenora Cavan, 16, Clear Lake.
1999 — Dennison Stookesberry, 56, Blakesburg; Dennis Addlesberger, 46, Council Bluffs.
For m re information on disappearances and remains found in Iowa being investigated by the Doe Network, go to:http://www.doenetwork.org/
The ProjectEDAN (Everyone Deserves A Name) organization, formed in conjunction with the Doe Network, brings together volunteer forensic artists who offer their time on facial reconstruction and age progressions that help identify remains. Go to: http://www.projectedan.us/
The Iowa Department of Public Safety also maintains a database of missing people at http://www.iowaonline.state.ia.us/mpic/
NOTE: Listings on different Web sites do not match in all cases. The Iowa-based IDPS Web site, for instance, includes many listings for juvenile disappearances, some of which may be runaways. They are not listed on the Doe Network.