Today — 10:15 a.m., to be precise — marks the 20th anniversary of the kidnapping of 9-year-old Michaela Garecht.
The South Hayward girl was last seen being thrown into the back seat of a car in the parking lot of a market near her family's home.. The case remains unsolved.
Michaela's mother, Sharon Murch, has since moved to San Leandro. Hardened over the years from managing the grief from losing her firstborn and not knowing exactly what happened to her, Murch said she's been able to come to "some sort of normalcy in life."
Since the kidnapping, Murch has raised three grown children, with a teenager currently attending school in Castro Valley. She also has remarried and has a teenage stepdaughter.
"You never know where life is going to take you," Murch said this week. "I certainly never thought on the morning of November 19, 1988, that the day would take me where it did."
Day of abduction
It was the first day of Thanksgiving break when Michaela and her best friend were riding their scooters. The two girls decided to leave Michaela's home on Cornell Avenue in South Hayward and head over to the Rainbow Market, on Mission Boulevard near Lafayette Avenue, to buy soda, candy and other treats. (The store is now called the Mexico Super market.)
The girls were on their way home and halfway across the parking lot when they realized they had forgotten their scooters. But when they returned to the place where they had left them, Michaela's was missing. Reports show the scooter was spotted near a parked car and Michaela went to retrieve it. As she bent over to pick up the scooter, a young, blond-haired man snatched her from behind and stuffed her into the back seat of a large car.
Michaela's friend immediately ran back to the market for help and a clerk subsequently called police to report the kidnapping. The clerk — who thought she had seen the man drive by earlier — offered a wrong description to a police dispatcher, according to Dennis J. Oliver, a former reporter who covered the case for The Daily Review.
Oliver, now 45, reviewed 911 tapes during his coverage and recalls the dispatcher relaying a description provided by the store clerk who said "I seen him earlier."
"Never did she say 'I witnessed the kidnapping'," Oliver said during a phone interview Tuesday.
The false description that went out to police and the public was a white male in his 30s with a mustache and driving a burgundy car.
But it wasn't until after police interviewed Michaela's friend that they were able to release a composite sketch of the suspect and a new description of the vehicle two days later.
"Here's a drawing of this completely different person, and for two days the Hayward Police Department allowed media to publish false descriptions of the suspect," Oliver said. "The first opportunity and best opportunity to rescue this girl was immediately after it happened, and for two days they were looking for the wrong person. The dispatcher took information from the wrong person — and from there on out communication was just not handled correctly in the crucial first 24 to 48 hours."
The new description was of a slender white man with dirty-blond, shoulder-length hair, in his late teens or early 20s, with a pockmarked or pimply complexion, wearing a white T-shirt. His vehicle was described as a large, beat-up, older-model car — possibly gold- or tan-colored, with four doors.
Michaela's kidnapping caught national attention and posters with her photo were featured on milk cartons. "America's Most Wanted" and other television programs aired reports about the case, each one bringing in new calls from people eager to share rumors, speculation and possible clues.
There also have been reports that the FBI was able to obtain the suspect's palm print from the scooter. Lt. Christine Orrey of the Hayward Police Department refused to comment on the matter and would not confirm or deny that a palm print had been retrieved.
In 1994, The Daily Review reported that police followed up more than 15,000 leads, all to no avail.
One of those false leads came from Indiana prison inmate Roger Haggard, who in December 1992 told authorities he helped a friend bury Michaela's body in the Hunter's Point area of San Francisco.
Officials began to question the validity of Haggard's claim, however, because he changed his account — and even told authorities the child's body was buried in a Union City gladiolus field.
"If I knew where to dig, I would," Murch said during a Daily Review interview in 1993.
Haggard, who was serving an 11-year prison term at the time, was flown to the Bay Area. After spending eight hours in the field, he admitted he made up the story because he wanted to give the family "peace of mind."
His sentence was subsequently lengthened by six-and-a-half years as a judge ruled the emotional distress to Murch was "incalculable."
Haggard also was ordered to pay $6,836 in compensation to Murch, who at the time was on stress disability from her job as a secretary. She was later fired.
Two decades later, police continue to investigate the case — with the most recent lead coming in just a few weeks ago, said Orrey, who would not release any details because police do not want to compromise the investigation.
"The case is made difficult to solve for many reasons, not the least of which is the thousands of leads that have come in from so many sources," Orrey said. "There are hundreds of registered sex offenders in the area, hundreds of possible suspects. We won't give up. We will continue to investigate leads that come in and continue to hope that we can find Michaela and bring her abductor to justice."
Murch said she credits the Hayward Police Department for keeping up the investigation.
Today, Murch plans to revisit the area where her daughter was last seen, and flood the streets with fliers and yellow-and-pink ribbons.
"This is my way of keeping Michaela alive," she said. "There's also that chance that if she's alive somewhere, perhaps we can reach her and she can still see that we are looking for her. We still love her."
For more information, visit www.myspace.com/missingmichaela. Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Hayward Police Inspector Rob Lampkin at 510-293-7079.
Reach Kristofer Noceda at 510-293-2479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.