Love, Money Drove Search for Michelle

Millionaire had the means and motivation to pursue a mystery that led to murder charges.

The Orange County Register

Little Michelle, a big-eyed, chubby-cheeked towhead, burst into her big brother’s bedroom one hot summer night and pleaded, “Hide me. Please hide me!”

Then the 3-year-old crawled under the covers.

“She sounded real scared,” said Richard Pulsifer Jr., who was only 6 on that July night in 1969. “And then my mom came into the room and got her.

“I never saw her again.”

The mystery of what happened to Michelle has tormented him ever since.

Now, because of the intervention of a multimillionaire Coronado woman who once was married to Michelle’s uncle, authorities believe they know what happened.

Little Michelle was murdered by her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, prosecutors say, and the killing was covered up for more than 35 years.

Ann Friedman, 57, a wealthy investor and former golf professional, spent tens of thousands of dollars on private investigators to find Michelle.

And when one of those private eyes felt certain after an exhaustive paper chase that Michelle died that night in 1969, he turned his file over to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

After a year of follow-up work, DA investigator Ed Berakovich was convinced.

On Friday, he took Donna Pulsifer Kent Prentice, 57, into custody at her home in La Crosse, Wis., on an arrest warrant charging her with the 1969 murder of her daughter.

Two days earlier, Berakovich arrested Michael Kent, the 62-year-old former boyfriend, after he appeared in an Illinois court room for a traffic ticket.

Both are charged with the murder of Michelle Kelly Pulsifer.

The quest to find out what happened to Michelle was triggered by her disappearance from her home on Tigerfish Circle in Huntington Beach that warm day in 1969.

Big brother Richard had just experienced the first-time thrill of riding his bike with no hands on the handlebars a few days before. It is his only vivid memory of Michelle.

But Richard also remembers walking into the tract home’s garage the next day and catching a glimpse of a large cardboard box that had not been there before. A blanket covered the contents.

His mother sternly ordered him to get out of the garage – and stay out.

“They told me it was a motorcycle seat,” said Richard, now 41. “But when I think about that, I wonder why would anyone put a blanket over a motorcycle seat?”

A day or two later, Kent suddenly decided to move the family from Huntington Beach to a suburb of Chicago.

Donna Pulsifer had won full custody of her two children when she divorced Richard “Dicky” Pulsifer Sr., her high-school sweetheart, in early 1969. But she allowed him weekend visits when he could make it north from his home in El Cajon.

On an unannounced visit to Huntington Beach in mid-July 1969, Dicky – as he was known in the family – was startled to discover that his ex-wife and her new boyfriend were gone, along with his two kids.

“I didn’t think they could just move like that without telling me,” he said. “When I tried to complain, I was told that because Donna had full legal custody, she could take them wherever she wanted.”

Dicky soon learned that she and Kent were raising his son in Illinois, but the whereabouts of his daughter were unknown.

He said he tried to file a missing-person report with police agencies but was met with reluctance because his ex-wife had legal custody and she insisted – in telephone interviews – that Michelle was fine.

In Huntington Beach, Michelle had been a part of the family. But she never showed up in Chicago.

Nobody ever told Richard Jr. what happened to his little sister.

But then in 2001, Ann Friedman became reacquainted with the Pulsifer family.

Her first love had been Nelson Frederick Pulsifer Jr., known as Freddy. He was a tall, handsome man, the oldest brother of four siblings.

“He was the most beautiful man in the world, and I loved him with all my heart,” Friedman said. They had one daughter together, Mary Ann.

But Freddy was sent to Vietnam in the early stages of the war. On Nov. 14, 1966 – his brother Dicky’s birthday – Freddy was killed by a sniper.

Two years later, Ann married Harold Lucerne Zug, her brother’s Marine Corps drill instructor, before he, too, shipped out to Vietnam. She had two daughters with Zug.

Zug was killed by a mortar blast in Vietnam, sending Ann into a two-year depression from which she thought she would never emerge.

But she did.

While she said she was always well-off financially, she became enormously wealthy in September 2001, when she became the fifth wife of Leonard Friedman, an investor 32 years her senior who was part owner of the Hotel del Coronado.

Shortly after that wedding, and quite by happenstance, she was dragged along by daughter Mary Ann to a Pulsifer family reunion at Griffin Park in La Mesa.

As the kids in the group romped on the playground and relatives grilled hot dogs, Ann encouraged Dicky Pulsifer, who had been her first husband’s closest brother, to sit down for a chat.

Dicky told her that he had gone through an amicable divorce from his first wife, Donna, but that she had disappeared with her new boyfriend and both children.

Years later, Dicky told her, he was able to get in touch with his son, Richard Jr. But he lamented that he was never able to find his daughter, Michelle.

“Well, when Dicky mentioned that, my blood boiled,” Ann said. ” ‘Let’s find her,’ I said. And from that point on, I could not sleep, I could not eat. I had to find out what happened to her.”

She said she felt she was the only one who could jump-start the search for Michelle. Cost was no object.

“I loved Freddy so much. Michelle was Dicky’s daughter and Dicky was Freddy’s brother,” Ann said. “That is all it takes. It doesn’t matter that we’re not blood relatives.”

She hired a private investigator out of the Yellow Pages and paid him $15,000 to find Michelle.

“He was pretty much a bust,” she said.

Then her attorney recommended Paul Chamberlain, who spent 20 years in the FBI and was a specialist in tracking down long-lost people.

“I figured we would find her alive living with someone else in no time,” Chamberlain said. “But the more we searched, the less we found.”

Chamberlain said detectives from his Los Angeles agency chased clues to Canada, Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida and elsewhere.

After two years, Chamberlain determined that there wasn’t one public record about Michelle after 1969. No school records, Social Security data, marriage, court cases, driver’s license. Nothing.

“It became apparent to me that the girl was just gone,” Chamberlain said. “She didn’t exist anymore anyplace in this world.”

At some point, he said, “we just became engrossed with finding what happened to Michelle, and this became our quest as well as Ann’s quest.”

Chamberlain said Ann paid his agency a lot of money to find Michelle, perhaps as much as $50,000. But eventually, the agency stopped taking her money and continued to work the investigation at no charge.

In August 2003, they turned their information over to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Berakovich, a cold-case specialist with 17 years as a homicide investigator, said the case intrigued him from the beginning.

One of Berakovich’s first steps was to track down Donna Pulsifer Kent, who was living in Florida with her third husband, Nobel Prentice.

In a chatty interview in January across the kitchen table of her home in Lehigh Acres, Fla., Donna told Berakovich that she and Mike Kent gave Michelle to Kent’s mother to care for when they relocated to Illinois. The plan was to retrieve Michelle after they settled in, according to Donna.

“But we quickly learned that Mike’s mother was an alcoholic who was suffering from cancer and who could barely take care of herself, much less a 4-year-old girl,” Berakovich said.

When Kent’s mother died a few years later, neither Donna nor Kent made any effort to find out about Michelle, Berakovich said.

When he asked Donna why she didn’t go back for Michelle, she just shrugged, Berakovich remembered.

“What mother has no idea of where her little girl is?” Berakovich asked.

Soon, Berakovich felt he had enough evidence to convince veteran trial prosecutor Larry Yellin to file murder charges against Kent and Donna.

“There is no way that we would not seek justice for an innocent 3-year-old-girl,” Yellin said.

Ann, who sent detectives on the trail of Kent and Donna, lives with her 89-year-old third husband in the penthouse of the Coronado Shores Condominiums overlooking miles of beachfront.

She wants to send the two defendants a message.

“Tell them that I did this,” she said in an interview last month.

Dicky Pulsifer, 57, Michelle’s father, lives in Las Vegas now, where he runs a karate dojo and works as a security officer for the Luxor Hotel and Casino.

He said he still hopes Michelle will walk up and knock on his door.

“I know that’s unlikely,” he said. “No one knows anything about her for 35 years, except that she just disappeared, and that’s not good.”

But he says he prefers to think that she’s alive someplace, living her life. “I just leave it at that,” he said. “I hope she is doing well.”

Richard Pulsifer Jr., who lives in a 700-square-foot house in Vista, said that over the years he’s told his friends that he once had a sister.

“Sometimes I have this image of walking past some lady on the street,” Richard said, “and thinking, ‘Hey, that could be my sister.’ ”

He said his life with his mother and Kent in Illinois after the move from Huntington Beach in 1969 was difficult.

“Mike didn’t treat me too well,” Richard said. “He hit me a lot, but he wouldn’t leave any marks you could see.”

One time, Richard remembers, Kent beat him with a belt over something minor.

“Every time he hit me, he asked me how many that was,” Richard said. “The number 11 sticks in my mind.”

Richard said Kent hit his mother, too. Often. After about 10 years of a tumultuous life in Illinois, Donna had enough and moved to Wisconsin.

“She asked me once when I was about 15, ‘Don’t you want to know what happened to Michelle?’ ” Richard said. “And I said yes, sure, tell me.”

But his mother changed the subject and clammed up.

Years later, when he was 26 and living back near his dad in California, Richard called his mother out of the blue and asked, “Don’t you think I have the right to know where Michelle is?’

Again she refused to talk about it.

These days, Richard doesn’t speak to his mother.

“I called her seven years ago and told her she was going to be a grandma,” he said. “She never called back. Don’t you think a grandma would call and find out what kind of a grandchild she has?”

After 35 years, Richard still wonders about his little sister.

“I don’t know what happened to Michelle,” he said. “I hope she’s alive. That would be great. Then I would have a sister.

“But if she’s dead, someone needs to pay,” he added, “even if it is my mother.”

Tags: , , , , , ,