A West Michigan teen walked away from a family fight and vanished. But her sister still hasn’t given up hope that she’s alive somewhere.
OTSEGO — Some people think she’s crazy. Others just feel sad for her. But Karen Wilcox remains convinced that her little sister is still alive.
Even though she disappeared 43 years ago.
She’s held firmly to this belief ever since Kathy Sue stormed out of their house after a family argument one afternoon, walked off and vanished without a word or a witness.
Long after nearly everyone else grew resigned to the likelihood that something very bad probably happened to the 15-year-old, Karen has refused to accept it. Whether it’s protective denial or bottomless faith, the 58-year-old believes her then-teenage sister managed to escape a troubled family and start a new life — somewhere.
“Do I think Kathy Sue could’ve gone out and made it? Yes I do,” Karen said confidently.
Nobody has heard from her sister since the day she vanished back in July 1972. Her body was never found. And no real clues have ever emerged.
But that lack of closure leaves a door open just a sliver, just enough for Karen to maintain a flickering hope, a faint belief, that against all odds the almost impossible still has a chance to be true.
For 43 years, Karen has scanned the faces of people in crowds, trying to spot Kathy Sue, who would be 57 years old now. She flips through local phone books when she travels, looking for her sister’s name. And to this day, the residents of Otsego can see flyers made by Karen posted around their little downtown, imploring people to share anything they know about a girl few remember.
For 43 years — the bulk of a lifetime — it has been an agonizing, lonely search.
“Everyone asks me what keeps me going, and I tell them hope,” Karen said. “It’s the one thing that saves me and protects me from the things I can’t bear to think about.”
In 1972, Kathy Sue was a 15-year-old country girl who played softball, listened to the Who and had a thing for dating older boys from the high school.
“I was like Miss Priss, and she was the tomboy,” said Karen, a year older than Kathy Sue. “She was a daredevil, she was rebellious, and yeah, she hung with a rough crowd. Her friends were, I’ll just call them ‘unsavory.’ “
Their parents divorced, their dad remarried and their stepmother didn’t approve of one of Kathy Sue’s new boyfriends, an 18-year-old from the local high school. This led to a family argument on July 17, 1972, in which Kathy Sue was slapped in the face, Karen said, sending her running out the front door of their modest West Franklin Street house, just blocks from downtown. As she left, she turned and said, “I will never see you again.”
At the time, it seemed like teenage drama. After all, she left with nothing but the clothes she was wearing — blue jeans and a purple shirt. But by evening, her panicked father, Bernie, came home from his job at the local paper mill and was combing the streets, looking for her. He flagged down a cop on patrol to report her missing. A description was given, a report was filed and a few boys who dated her were interviewed. But police found nothing suspicious.
Kathy Sue’s disappearance was before Amber Alerts and sex offender registries, and without much to go on, the case quickly went cold. She was classified as a runaway, a “delinquent juvenile” as the police report called her.
Four decades later, little has changed. She’s among 416 unsolved missing persons cases in Michigan, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Karen’s parents died long ago. The girls’ only other sibling, a brother, wanted nothing to do with this never-ending search. And the family lost touch with their stepmother.
It left Karen alone in her search for her sister.
“Our family was incredibly dysfunctional,” Karen said. “A lot of stuff happened that was really traumatic.”
But their troubled childhood fostered a plausible explanation for her sister’s absence. Karen grew to believe that Kathy Sue made an escape, that she broke free of the family and started a new life somewhere.
She has to believe this. Because it’s the only option other than all the grim alternatives.
“We all said, ‘She’s out there. She’s got a life of her own. She got out of this,’ ” Karen remembered. “That’s how we dealt with it.”
A flimsy tip
Detective Bruce Beckman was on the road again, taking the two-hour drive from Baldwin back to the Otsego Police Department. He’d dutifully headed Up North in late May on a flimsy tip about someone who might’ve known something about Kathy Sue long ago.
But after 43 years, the man Beckman spoke to seemed genuinely clueless about who Kathy Sue was, let alone what happened to her.
“It’s hard to talk to somebody who’s right around 58 or 60 years old and say, ‘What do you remember when you were 14?’ That’s kind of how my interview took place,” Beckman said as he headed back home.
The veteran officer became involved with the case in 2009 when he was a member of a now-folded cold-case team in Allegan County. These days, as a detective with the Otsego Police Department, it falls on him to follow up on any new information that emerges about Kathy Sue. But after this many years, memories grow dim. And trying to find clues is like chasing ghosts.
“If she was that determined to run away, there was a truck stop right on Highway 131 that was a 24-hour truck stop,” said Beckman, 60. “It had truckers running in and out of there all the time. She could’ve picked up a ride to anywhere and gone anywhere.
“And she could’ve picked up a ride with the wrong person, too.”
There’s still a guy police want to talk to, someone rumored to have been dating Kathy Sue around the time she vanished, someone who Karen is convinced knows something about what happened to her sister. But he’s living out west now, and it’ll be tough getting out there for an interview. And Beckman isn’t convinced anything will come of it anyway. “It’s pretty slim,” he said.
Over the years there have been a few false alarms, like when a coroner with Franklin County in Ohio contacted the Ostego Police in 2002 to say they’d found a body that he thought might be Kathy’s. But after medical records were sent over, he expressed his doubts.
And there was the woman who called the department several years ago and insisted she might be Kathy Sue because she couldn’t remember her childhood. Nothing about her matched, though.
Although Beckman knows what can happen to a lone girl walking along a rural highway, he said he keeps his mind open to Karen’s theory that her sister could still be alive somewhere.
“I think it’s possible,” he said. He remembers hearing about a boy who ran away from Otsego long ago, and 38 years later his family got a call from him, telling them where he lived, how he’d gotten married, how many kids he’d had. “But I think that’s rare,” Beckman said.
Beckman got DNA swabs from Kathy Sue’s family members a few years ago that can be used to check against any other unidentified bodies that might turn up. But there’s little else he can do besides wait until someone sees Kathy Sue alive or the ground somewhere gives up its secrets.
“I haven’t got a clue what happened to Kathy,” he said. “I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. Karen can think what she wants and hope for what she wants, and I’m not going to discourage her either way.”
Starting a cause
In some ways, Karen moved on. She got married, got out of Michigan, ended up in Wyoming, and spent a life and a career as a counselor there.
But then some strangers recently took up the search for her sister, and their involvement reignited Karen’s slim hopes.
A few years ago, Shannon Froeber stumbled across the story of Kathy Sue on the Michigan State Police website. Something about the girl staring back from 1972 with a tough expression fascinated her.
“I was shocked, because I grew up in Otsego and I never heard of a missing girl,” said the 32-year-old. “It’s such a small town and everyone knows everyone’s business. When I was still smaller you couldn’t even cross the street without somebody telling your parents. How does a girl go missing and nobody from this town knows anything about it?”
Her curiosity grew into a cause. She started her own Facebook group, called Find Kathy Sue Wilcox, which so far has drawn nearly 600 members. She printed up flyers with help from Karen and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which created an age-progression photo of what Kathy Sue might look like now, and posted them around town.
And last year, Froeber organized a gathering at a local park for Kathy Sue, partly in remembrance, partly to solicit clues to her disappearance. Dozens of people came out, including Detective Beckman, just in case someone there by chance could provide some new information that would finally lead to an answer.
Froeber admits her doubts that the search for Kathy Sue will end well.
“My mind jumps back and forth with it,” she said. “Did she manage to get out of Otsego and get a new identity for herself? Is she living a happy life?”
Froeber heard of a girl who ran away years ago and was found years later, married with kids. Just like the guy Beckman heard about. Stories like these make the improbable seem less farfetched.
“Then the other part of me thinks, what’s the real probability of that actually happening? I don’t know. It’s hard.”
David Schock, founder of Delayed Justice, an organization dedicated to investigating cold cases, took up the cause in 2009, after she’d written him, pleading for help. His group has worked to keep the search for Kathy Sue alive.
He defends Karen from those who say she should’ve given up long ago, that the odds are against her.
“She has this absolute devotion to her sister, and who of us in our right minds would not?” he said. “She loves her sister and she has carried a terrible load for so many years. She’s doing the best she can under circumstances beyond comprehension.”
Karen admits sometimes that the renewed efforts have reopened old wounds, caused her bouts of depression and flooded her with memories she’d rather not recall. But she said she’ll endure it all, including the pitying looks from people who question her sense of reality, until she finally finds out what happened to Kathy Sue.
“I know people think I am crazy, or sick, or in denial,” Karen said. “The truth is, we don’t know. And as long as we don’t, my best hope is to believe she is alive. I cling to hope.”
Columnist John Carlisle writes about interesting people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org.