Among Allegan County’s missing people, Kathy Sue Wilcox—last seen in Otsego in 1972—has been gone the longest.
Wilcox, then 15, apparently ran away from home after an argument and has not been heard from by her family since.
“We assumed that she was angry and would just walk around the block and come home—that kind of thing,” said Karen Ortegel, her sister.
But it didn’t happen and it’s now 42 years since anyone is known to have seen her.
The police investigation at the time didn’t find her. According to records, officers talked to a few people who’d seen Wilcox around town near that time, but no trace of her was located.
In 2011, a Hamilton-area woman, Shannon Froeber, noticed the name Kathy Sue Wilcox on a state missing persons web site.
“I was in shock, because the whole time I was in school I’d gone to Otsego and I’d never heard anything about her,” Froeber said.
She eventually decided to create a Facebook page to get people talking and try to encourage any information to come out by spreading Wilcox’s face and story.
“I just couldn’t believe a person can just walk out of her home and just not be seen,” Froeber said.
Initially, Froeber left a few comments on web sites, trying to encourage television stations to pick up the story and asking for information.
One of those comments led Ortegel—who now lives in Montana—who said she often does Google searches on her sisters name, to Froeber and they talked back and forth.
“For some reason, she’s been inspired to pick up this cause and she’s doing it,” Ortegel said. “As far as I believe she has no personal gain, she’s just been inspired to do it.
She said Froeber had asked her if it was okay to create the Facebook page.
“I think this is the first time ever there’s been any interest in promoting awareness,” Ortegel said.
David Schock, who runs the website Delayed Justice, also spent time communicating with her, Ortegel said, and helped her come up with a way to deal with her feelings about her sister.
“His website is so full of hope,” Ortegel said.
She always assumed her sister had run away and started a new life somewhere.
“I’ve always had the great hope that she’s out there somewhere,” Ortegel said. “I always shut out the fact of allowing myself to think otherwise.
“Maybe that sounds unrealistic, but I didn’t have any other answers and I couldn’t think otherwise.”
Recently, she has come to think much more about the possibility her sister is dead. The first time it really hit her was when she went to give a DNA sample to join ones given by her brother and her late father so law enforcement could have all three on file.
“It was hard to sit there for a few minutes and realize that I’m not doing this to prove that she’s alive, this would be to verify remains,” Ortegel said. “As that awareness was washing over me, tears came to my eyes. I held it together until the end; he asked me a question and I just started crying.
“I got out to my car and I just was sobbing. I had an awareness that I had to look at that as a possibility. It was really hard, because it was the first time I thought that might be a possibility.”
Still, she says that isn’t all she thinks.
“I have great hope, period,” Ortegel said. “I still have great hope, even though I have that awareness, I still have great hope.
“Hope remains. I’ve always said that. I want to hold onto that hope. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I have hope for today.”
She hopes someone will come forward and tell what they know.
“I believe with all my heart that somebody knows something and that’s my great hope,” Ortegel said. “It’s my great hope that somebody will find it within themselves to come forward. “
Det. Bruce Beckman is the contact at the Otsego Police Department who has charge of the case. He agreed with Froeber that it didn’t seem well-known in town.
“I started in (19)77 and I had no idea about this until someone mentioned in 1993,” Beckman said.
The main steps taken recently on the case have been to get DNA for the database. Beckman was part of a countywide cold case team a few years ago which solved several decade-or-older murder cases. He said they’d started to look into Wilcox’s disappearance right around the end of the team, when funding ran out.
Doing much reinvestigating, he said, was also complicated because some of people named as possibly seeing Wilcox after she left home or being seen with her are out of town.
“There may be a possibility of interviewing a few different people, but they aren’t in this state,” he said. “It’s a matter of sending someone to talk to them.”
Beckman said he’d spoken to a woman recently who’d called because she thought she was Kathy Sue Wilcox, but the details she gave didn’t match anything and it became clear she couldn’t be but thought she resembled an age-progressed photo.
He said it certainly couldn’t hurt to have the case publicized again.
Froeber said she wants to accomplish getting it talked about again, as a way of maybe finding out what happened.
“I just thought, this is the least I can do, as far as post her picture and do something to raise awareness,” she said.