Kathy Sue Wilcox left her home in Otsego after a fight with her stepmother 43 years ago. She hasn’t been seen since. Her sister’s search was featured on NBC’ s Dateline Cold Case Spotlight. (Courtesy photos, Karen Wilcox)
OTSEGO, MI – The case of Kathy Sue Wilcox, an Otsego teenager who left home after a fight with her stepmother in 1972 and has not been seen since, was featured on NBC Dateline’s Cold Case Spotlight Sunday, Nov. 8.
In recent years Karen Wilcox, the girl’s sister, has distributed fliers, organized a meeting of friends at a local park and turned to social media to try to generate clues about what might have happened to her sister. She said the Dateline story may be picked up for more coverage on the NBC Dateline television series.
So far, though, the attention has generated very few tips, said Bruce Beckman, the Otsego police detective who for years has pursued the search for Kathy.
A Detroit Free Press story earlier this year generated one email and two telephone calls. Local newspaper and television stories over the years — nothing, Beckman said. Facebook has yielded a few tips, he said, but nothing that has panned out.
He has dutifully collected DNA from family members and checked against unidentified bodies; any new bodies will automatically be checked against that information on file. He has interviewed everyone he can locate on the list of her acquaintances, no easy task after all these years, he said, especially with women who have married and changed names.
Every step typically taken to locate missing persons has been taken, but has so far yielded nothing.
Did 15-year-old Kathy hitch a ride at a truck stop on the edge of town then, where M-89 and U.S. 131 meet? Did she ride somewhere with a friend? Was she killed? Is she still alive, but purposely remaining out of touch with anyone from her past?
Beckman said there are so many possibilities that he doesn’t speculate what may have happened. He’s not sure anyone really knows.
Karen said she has trouble even remembering what generated the argument Kathy had with their stepmother the night she left the house.
She remembers only that it was something she told her stepmother about Kathy.
“I was 16, she was 15. We had a pretty horrible relationship with our stepmother,” Karen said, “so it had to have been something big that I told on her about. I would never have told on her for something little. ”
Although she cannot remember what infraction or information triggered the argument, she has clear recall about what happened next. As she sat on the porch swing on the front porch, she could hear the angry words indoors, heard her sister’s face slapped.
“I was scared,” Karen said. In the midst of the fight Kathy came out the front door, started down the steps and turned to tell her sister: “I will never tell you anything again.”
“That’s the last time I saw her,” Karen said.
Karen Wilcox said she was initially not too alarmed. “I used to get mad at our stepmom, too, and go for walks all the time, so I assumed she would walk around the block and come home.”
But when Kathy had not yet returned by the time her father got home from work at the local mill, he contacted police. “It was a pretty anxious time,” she said. “Dad and I would go driving all over trying to find Kathy.
Nancy Boettcher moved into a house in the 200 block of West Franklin street in 1966, and knew the family across the street only slightly.
The mother was a seamstress, and Boettcher recalled borrowing some thread from her once.
She remembers neighbor kids stopping by that summer of 1972, asking if she had seen Kathy. She hadn’t.
“I remember her dad sitting outside in a folding chair, several nights in a row, waiting,” Boettcher said.
Police never contacted her.
Karen said she believes police quit looking for her sister within a few weeks of her disappearance, closing their investigation and classifying Kathy as a runaway.
“Keep in mind it was 1972, ” she said, before Amber Alerts or internet searches.
She said the case was reopened in 1993, at the request of her stepsister and stepbrother, and reopened briefly and closed again numerous times over the years.
She said it is frustrating that police have not located and interviewed some people she believes may be a significant part of the picture, but she has also agreed not to name those people herself, in order not to interfere with the investigation.
Karen now lives in Montana but she has tried to spread word of her search, in Otsego and nationally. “I have tried to express to people that as difficult as it is, I welcome any suggestions,” she said. “At this point I would rather know one way or another. If she’s gone, can you please tell us where she is — one way or another?”
There are people who know what happened, she believes, and she believes they must be in “a dark place.”
“I can’t imagine holding on to a secret for 43 years,” she said. “I’m not seeking revenge, I just want to know where my sister is, to be her voice.”
“Kathy had a tiger spirit, she was not afraid of anything,” she said. “She was a tomboy, rough and tumble. But she also had soft, gentle side.
“She was loved.”
She asked that anyone who knew her sister, who might have any information, to share it with Detective Beckman or on the Find Kathy Sue Wilcox Facebook page.
She is confident that her search will eventually yield results, a good thing for her, and for all of Otsego — where her sister is the only missing person of record, Beckman said.
“How can it be in a town the size of Otsego,” Karen asked, “that a child goes missing and no one knows?