Missing Since: July 1969 from Huntington Beach, California
Classification: Endangered Missing
Date of Birth: March 17, 1966
Age: 3 years old
Height and Weight: 3'2 - 3'5, 40 - 45 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: Blonde hair, blue or brown eyes.
Details of Disappearance
Michelle was last seen sometime during July 1969 in her hometown of Huntington Beach, California. She resided with her mother, Donna J. Pulsifer (often referred to in media accounts by her later married name, Donna Prentice); her mother's boyfriend, James Michael Kent (often referred to as Michael Kent); her older brother, Richard Pulsifer Jr., and Kent's young son by a previous relationship. Photographs of Donna and Kent are posted below 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 and seemed frightened, then Donna 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 Donna as well.
Richard Jr. 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. Donna 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, Donna, Kent, and the two boys packed all their belongings and moved to Illinois with their dog. Donna and Kent told the children that there was not enough room in the car for Michelle so they were leaving her behind. 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 Donna. A photograph of him is posted below 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 Donna 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 Donna and Kent were living with Richard Jr. in Illinois and that Michelle was not with them. Donna promised Richard Sr. that she would permit Michelle to contact him after the child graduated from high school, but Richard Sr. never heard from his daughter again.
Donna called Richard Sr. a few weeks later and said Michelle was with relatives, but she refused to say exactly which relatives or where they were. Richard Sr. had to pay child support to Donna, but only for their son. In 1980, a judge ordered that Richard Sr.'s payments be withheld until Donna disclosed Michelle's whereabouts, but Donna never told anyone where the child was. Donna married Kent and lived with him for ten years after they moved to Illinois, but eventually divorced him and moved to Wisconsin in 1979; she still lives there. Kent stayed in Illinois. Donna never filed a missing person's report for Michelle, so her disappearance was not investigated by police for over thirty years.
Michelle's paternal aunt hired a private detective in 2001 to find Michelle. The investigator interviewed Donna, 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. Donna 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, Donna and Kent were arrested and charged with murdering Michelle. The murder charge is punishable by 25 years to life in prison. 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 Donna 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, and since in 1969 she was already ill with the cancer that would later kill her, it seems unlikely that she would have agreed to care for the 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 Donna found Michelle lying dead in her bedroom with no signs of injury and he helped Donna dispose of the remains. He stated that they never discussed the child's death afterwards but he assumed Donna had killed her. Donna maintains her innocence and her lawyer has stated that if Michelle is in fact dead, Kent probably killed her; he had an extensive criminal record, a violent temper, and a history of violence towards women and children. Richard Jr. later remembered that Kent always became very angry whenever Michelle soiled herself, and he once made her sleep in a cardboard box in the garage because of this. Both suspects pleaded not guilty to the murder charges.
Kent agreed to waive his right against self-incrimination and give testimony against Donna 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, he became too ill to speak, so authorities never got his testimony. Prosecutors are hoping to be able to use his previous videotaped statements in court against Donna. 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.