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Home  >  Topics  >  Investigations

May 23, 2000
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The disappearance of Kellie Brownlee

Tips, hopes keep case alive; Cold trail still haunts mom, cops The Detroit News (WALLED LAKE) -- Have you seen Kellie Brownlee?It was 9 p.m., and Kellie was supposed to be at Mark Graves' house. She'd skipped school that Thursday morning in May, trying to beat out the college kids for the best summer job. But she promised to meet her boyfriend Mark later.That was hours ago. It was getting late. Kellie hadn't arrived. And Kellie hadn't called. Kellie always called.Have you seen Kellie Brownlee?Mark called one friend and then another. But nobody had seen the 17-year-old with the dark eyes, mischievous smile, and dark, Farrah Fawcett-style hair since she left Walled Lake Western High School at 9 a.m.Kellie didn't have a car. Kellie always hitched.Have you seen Kellie Brownlee?By 11 p.m., her friends decided to call Kellie's mom, Loretta. Things weren't going so well for Kellie at home, so she had been staying with Mark's family. But Kellie always told Loretta what she was up to. Maybe Loretta knew where Kellie was.Carrie made the call. Carrie knew Kellie the longest."Mrs. Brownlee? This is Carrie. Have you seen Kellie?""Not for a while," Loretta replied."Kellie's ... missing."The word still rings in Loretta's head. Missing."It was just the way she said it," Loretta said. "I knew right away something was wrong. I just had no idea that years later, I'd still be talking about it."Loretta reported Kellie missing 18 years ago today. At least one suspect has remained on the list since the beginning. And one cop won't let it go.This much West Bloomfield police Sgt. Dan O'Malley believes: Kellie's kidnap was not random. Neither are most child abductions. Some 2,200 U.S. children are reported missing daily; 98 percent are found alive in a day. But in cold cases, all but 2 percent will be found dead.Advances in technology, especially the Internet, help close cases. But as parents and activists mark National Missing Children's Day in Lansing and around the country Thursday, they'll warn against being numbed by a traditional approach that still works -- if the public pays attention to photos of missing children.The kid on the milk carton has become a cliche. Hardly anyone takes a hard look at mug shots in post offices, in weekly mail advertisements and on the doors of corner stores."The pictures are common enough that people don't stop and really look at them," said Julia Cartwright at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.The center's Web site gets as many as 3 million daily hits from people looking for lost children or trying to connect unidentified bodies with missing kids.Police now use computers to send alerts and photos across the country, almost immediately.When Kellie disappeared, the national center didn't exist. Neither did the kid on the milk carton. Police took Kellie's case immediately, but most departments weren't required to until 1990, and most didn't.Kellie has been gone so long the national center now posts two pictures of her. One is Kellie at 17, the photo that has appeared on posters, fliers, juice cans and wine bottles at one time or another for 18 years.The other illustrates what she would look like if she were alive today, at 35.The national center champions the hope that lost children will be found. But it does not believe Kellie lived past the day she disappeared. The caption under her photo reads: "FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED."Cops have yet to close Kellie's case. National center caseworkers said it stands out because it has remained active for so long. Police have run down dozens of tips on bogus sightings and eliminated at least three serial killers as suspects."You can't ignore any possibility, but usually it's someone who's close to them," O'Malley said."I think whatever happened to her, happened that day."* * *Kellie was a "Wall 'Tuckian," the nickname for the big-haired girls in blue jeans, high heels and army jackets who hung around Walled Lake in the early 1980s.She listened to Ozzy Osbourne, dabbled in drugs and smoked Marlboro Reds. School was a place to meet friends before going to the Big Boy for coffee. Then one would use a fake I.D. to buy beer, and off they'd go to Hines Park.Kellie didn't care what people thought. Her motto: "Live, love and laugh."She grew up in a two-story, green clapboard house on Springridge in West Bloomfield with her mother, Loretta, stepfather Paul Brownlee, a sister and two brothers.Few people knew Paul wasn't Kellie's natural father. And even fewer people knew why her sister, Kim, left in 1977 to live with her biological father in California.Kim told police Paul started fondling her when she was 13, court documents stated.The abuse worsened as Kim got older. When she turned 16, she decided she wasn't going to take it anymore and filed charges with police.Paul initially was charged with two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge. "The victim may have caved into family pressures and decided not to testify," court records stated.Paul was ordered to pay court costs, spend two weeks in jail and receive counseling and probation for two years.Kim moved to California to live with her biological father. Kellie stayed behind.Eventually, Kellie's relationship with Paul deteriorated. She confided in Kim and told close friends that Paul abused her, a charge he's denied. One day, the friends counted 32 bruises on Kellie's body. "They fought a lot in that home," Kim said. "It was a way of life."When things got bad, Kellie left home, sometimes for days at a time, but never without telling Loretta where she was.Six weeks before she disappeared, Kellie moved in with Mark's family in Walled Lake. The Graves' apartment was only a temporary solution. Loretta wanted Kellie home. Kellie wanted Paul out of the house first.But Loretta wasn't working. She had no way to support her children alone.She did have plans, though. She was close to finishing nursing school. With a degree, she could get a good job.She needed Kellie to hang on, just a little longer.* * *On the morning of May 20, 1982, Kellie and Mark took the bus to school, but Kellie had no intentions of attending class. She needed a job. She dressed up a little, trading in her jeans and army jacket for white pants and a peach silk blouse.At 9 a.m., she said goodbye to Mark and hitchhiked to Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi. She filled out applications at Albert's, Winkleman's and Brook's Fashion Stores. She listed Loretta and Paul's place as home. It was an indication, Loretta believed, that Kellie intended to return home.At 11 a.m., Kellie ran into a friend's mom, Judy Mehay. She offered Kellie a ride, but Kellie wanted to put in more applications before heading home."Mrs. Mehay doesn't know if it was 'home' in Walled Lake or 'home' in West Bloomfield," O'Malley said. "And that's the last time anyone saw her."* * *In the days after Kellie disappeared, Mark waited by the phone, certain she'd call. Her friends skipped class and searched for her. Loretta walked around the Walled Lake shoreline, showing her daughter's picture to everyone she met.No one remembered seeing her.Police tracked down old boyfriends. They briefly considered Mark a suspect, but he had an alibi. Paul Brownlee called police with tips. He heard Kellie was spotted with two white men at the Cloverdale Ice Cream Parlor. Someone else thought they saw her in Farmington Hills. Another heard she was doing drugs in Belleville. An A&W Root Beer employee was certain he saw Kellie -- he just couldn't remember when.People who met Kellie at the mall remembered little, except that she was alone.It wasn't long before police started to suspect foul play. On June 8, they asked for Kellie's dental records -- standard procedure in missing persons cases, but only after 30 days."Usually, even now, runaways don't stay hidden that long," O'Malley said. "They talk to someone or they call somebody. They've got to survive."The next day, one of Kellie's friends finally told police the reason Kellie went to live with the Graveses -- because Paul allegedly sexually abused her.A month later, Paul put up a $1,000 reward for information about his daughter's disappearance.* * *At 4 p.m. on July 23, police conducted an in-depth interview with Paul. They asked: Did he make sexual advances toward Kellie? Did he ever touch her and say, "Ya' know I've been nice to you, now I think you owe me something?" Did he know where Kellie was?No. No sir. No way. Never. Those were Paul's replies.Paul said on the day Kellie disappeared he left home in the morning to visit the grave of Loretta's father.He bought flowers for the grave. Drove home. Made a few calls. Went to the gym. Drove back home.Tom Nelson, the original detective on the case, then floated one of his theories. He believed Kellie may have met up with Paul, and Paul made a sexual advance toward her or "some physical confrontation ensued and that basically ... you did her in.""No, I did not see Kellie that day," Paul replied.Police then asked Paul if he would take a polygraph exam. Paul said he'd think about it.On Aug. 9, Paul hired an attorney and decided he wasn't going to take the test.* * *Kellie's birthday came and went. Then Christmas. Loretta found herself wandering the mall, wondering if she should buy Kellie a present. What if Kellie came home and she had no presents?She tried psychics. They gave her false hope. She sought therapy to deal with the guilt. She tried to move on. She got that nursing degree and later became the director of a community mental health center. She divorced Paul in 1985, remarried, and now goes by the name Loretta Burke-Gooch.Loretta knows Kellie is probably dead, but she still holds hope. She daydreams. She envisions herself at Metro Airport. A plane lands. Kellie emerges.Loretta hugs her daughter, tells her she loves her. And they go home to begin their lives again.* * *With no evidence Kellie was murdered, police continued to follow dead-end leads throughout the country. She was in Illinois. In Indiana. She was Snow White in Disney World. A convenience store clerk in New Mexico. A topless dancer at a New York City nightclub.In November 1983, Nelson, the first investigator, thought he found his first big break: James Mitchell DeBardeleben.DeBardeleben ran a huge counterfeiting operation in northern Virginia. When the Secret Service raided his warehouse, they discovered his other hobby: the rape, torture and murder of women, all of it documented in diaries, photos and tape recordings.DeBardeleben liked to be called "Daddy." He had a penchant for brunets and picked up hitchhikers. And police initially believed some of his money turned up at Twelve Oaks when Kellie disappeared.DeBardeleben refused to cooperate with police. It took months for Secret Service workers to log into a computer database everything DeBardeleben kept from his escapades. It was years before they could give the database to police.Meantime, the Secret Service sent pictures of women fitting Kellie's description to West Bloomfield, and investigators asked Loretta to look at them.No Kellie.* * *Sgt. O'Malley stepped into the West Bloomfield Police Department youth bureau in November 1989. He had been on the force six years, after a two-year stint as a Detroit cop. He inherited Kellie's case and found the records crammed into a large accordion file.He had dozens of other cases. New cases. Active cases. But it wasn't long before he received a teletype describing the body of an unidentified female. O'Malley reviewed Kellie's file, separated it into three volumes, and put each into a large, black binder. Every few months he got a tip, mostly more bodies with no names. He looked at the file some more. He picked up on some things he missed the last time. He called Loretta. He talked to Kellie's friends.Paul still called to ask about the case and offer tips. O'Malley couldn't understand why."When Paul married Loretta, Kellie was about 6," O'Malley said. "It doesn't seem to me they had the closest of a relationship, and yet after she disappears and after he and Loretta divorce, he's still calling the police, wanting to know what's going on."In January 1991, Paul paid O'Malley a visit. He brought an ad from a Jacobson's catalogue showing a tall girl with long brown hair modeling a hot pink bathing suit. He thought it was Kellie. He gave O'Malley the phone numbers of the person who handled advertising for Jacobson's and of the person who hired the models.The girl in the picture was 12. Kellie would have been 26.O'Malley took the picture and asked what Paul was doing the day Kellie disappeared. Paul refused to answer and abruptly left, O'Malley said.Later, when a new tip came in that gave O'Malley a reason to call Paul, he tried again. Usually, Paul wouldn't talk."He's basically invoked his right to remain silent," O'Malley said. "He won't talk to me. So I talk to people around him. And then he'll call me."Paul denied abusing Kellie and denied killing her, but he refused to discuss the case further with The Detroit News. He referred all other questions to Loretta.* * *O'Malley has no body and no evidence of a crime. He has three black volumes on Kellie's case, filed neatly in his small bookshelf, and a flier that shows the two photos of Kellie -- one as a 17-year-old, one at 35 -- propped up on his desk.One by one, suspects have fallen away. First DeBardeleben. Later a serial killer who roamed U.S. 131. And even one of Kellie's girlfriends, Paula Kuchciak, convicted last October of trying to hire a hit man to kill her ex-boyfriend.Tips still come in. Last week, O'Malley received word of a suspected serial killer who murdered a northwestern Michigan woman in the early 1970s. It's too soon to say if he is a suspect in Kellie's case.Paul has never been cleared from the list of suspects, O'Malley said. The two talk from time to time, never for long.Paul recently called O'Malley. He thought the detective was looking for him."I haven't lawyered up," Paul told O'Malley. As always, he refused the detective's request for a meeting.O'Malley has no plans to let the case go cold. He needs a confession or a body to close it."I think it's a solvable case. It's just going to take some diligence," he said."Hell, I got eight years till I retire."Facts about missing childrenAs of two weeks ago, 1,778 children were reported missing in Michigan. State police do not keep more detailed statistics. But every year across the country, there are as many as:* 114,600 attempted abductions by non-family members.* 4,600 abductions by non-family members.* 300 abductions by non-relatives where the children were murdered or gone for years.* 354,000 abductions by family members.* 450,700 runaways.* 127,100 children who are abandoned or forced out of their home.* 438,200 children who are lost, injured or otherwise missing.






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