by Natalie Finn | Sun., Dec. 30, 2018 3:00 AM
On Oct. 27, 1989, Amy Mihaljevic sat through a school presentation on "stranger danger," the unforgettable term that kids learn at the behest of police, parents and PSAs about the potential perils lurking outside the safe havens of their homes and how to avoid getting kidnapped.
It was a Friday, and after school, at around 2:05 p.m., the 10-year-old fifth grader walked with two friends a quarter mile to the Bay Village Square Shopping Center in Bay Village, Ohio. They headed for the Baskin Robbins. Her older brother was also planning to go over there when seventh grade let out an hour later to get ice cream, but decided against it, not wanting to run into some boys who had been bullying him lately.
Sometime between 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., Amy was abducted from the shopping center, where she had gone to meet a stranger.
"If I had maybe been there, could I have changed the situation? One of those questions you'll never be able to answer, but...still races through your mind," Jason Mihaljevic, Amy's brother, wonders in the new special The Lake Erie Murders: Who Killed Amy Mihaljevic?, premiering tonight on Investigation Discovery.
The 29-year-old case is the latest to be examined by the true crime-devoted network, and was the subject of the podcast Who Killed Amy Mihaljevic? earlier this year.
Type "who killed" into the search bar of wherever you download your podcasts, and Amy's name is one of half a dozen that come up. And that's just among the sagas with similar titles.
In the wake of Serial's engrossing pop culture phenomenon of a first season, the search for answers in a homicide or abduction case—be it a year, 30 years or 90 years old, and particularly when the victim is a woman or a child—has become ideal fodder for serialized deep dives that are multiplying by the week.
But while the genre still falls squarely in the guilty-pleasure category when you're choosing to listen to the specifics of a gruesome crime in your spare time, the best podcasts—just like any book, documentary or other thoughtful handling of the subject—are simply trying to get at the truth.
"Maybe it triggers some type of memory of the case," Bill Huffman, the journalist behind Who Killed Amy Mihaljevic, told Cleveland Magazine in November. Huffman was also an Ohio fifth grader when Amy went missing in 1989.
"It was innocence lost," he said.
And people can certainly identify with that. In 2016 the podcast In the Dark took on the 1989 abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling (five days before Amy disappeared) in St. Joseph, Minn. He wasn't found until the perpetrator, who lived in the next town over, confessed in 2016 and led authorities to Jacob's remains. The podcast—which was in the works while the case was still open—discussed, among other things, why Jacob's killer, Danny Heinrich, wasn't found much sooner, considering he was a local guy with a history of harassing children (if no arrests on his record) and a suspect in a previous abduction.
So beyond the retelling of the who-what-when-where of the crime comes the examination of every step taken along the way. And for those living the case every day, they can only hope that those steps are leading somewhere.
Amy's killing remains unsolved and Huffman said that police "want people to know they're still working. It's never been a cold case."
It is a sickening case, however.
Amy went to the shopping center that day because someone had called her house and told her that he wanted her to pick out a present for her mother, as a reward for a job promotion, according to Bay Village Police. Margaret Mihaljevic worked at Trading Times Magazine in Westlake, Ohio.
It's unclear how much convincing the call entailed or whether Amy was skeptical of the person on the phone at all. She was 10. She was promised $45 to buy the present once she got to the shopping center.
Being a normal child, Amy did not keep the calls a secret. She told several friends and Jason Mihaljevic said he overheard a conversation about a shopping trip.
Through the course of the investigation it would turn out that the presumed killer had apparently tried out the ruse on several other girls first over the summer, in nearby North Olmsted. A male caller would say he wanted to take them shopping to buy presents for their mother.
Bay Village Police
Two witnesses said that they saw Amy outside the shops with a white male, aged 20 to 30, 5'7" to 5'10", medium build, dark hair, maybe wearing glasses. One person saw them talking, the other observed what appeared to be the man leading Amy toward the parking lot. They just assumed he was her dad, or at the very least they didn't suspect anything was amiss.
"Don't rule anybody in, don't rule anybody out based upon those composite drawings 'cause the accuracy of those is pretty suspect," Bay Village Police Chief Mark Spaetzel said on Crime Stoppers Case Files: Northeast Ohio in 2012.
"...Specific features of those composite drawings may not be accurate at all. They had no reason to take specific note of this person, yet the next day they're asked what he looks like and you can imagine the difficulty in trying to remember specifics about the shape of the face, hair color, glasses, no glasses, unshaven, shaven, color of the hair and so forth. Very difficult for an adult to do that, let alone a couple of 10-year-olds."
According to Jason, when it got to be about 3:20 p.m. and Amy still wasn't home, he called their mom at work.
Margaret was about to leave when she got another call. It was Amy, telling her she was "fine" and at home. "See you soon," the child says. The Lake Erie Murders reenactment of the sequence of events that day has Amy's tone sounding unmistakably off.
When Margaret got home 10 minutes later, her daughter was still not there. She took off for Amy's school to look for her.
"I knew immediately something was wrong, I knew it," she said in an old interview.
After finding Amy's bicycle still parked in the bike rack at school, Margaret headed straight for the police station.
She talked to then-Office Spaetzel, who had been on the job for four years at the time. (He also, coincidentally, was the cop who talked to Amy's class that day about stranger danger.) They immediately mobilized to search for the missing girl.
"For Amy not to tell the truth, that was totally out of character for Amy," her father, Mark Mihaljevic, recalls getting home and Margaret telling him about the strange phone call from their daughter. Meanwhile, she was calling everyone she knew to see if they'd seen Amy.
By 9 p.m., friends were gathered at their house as Margaret grew increasingly distraught.
Mark and his friend Don Boycik walked down French Creek, which led from the shopping center to the lake, calling her name. Maybe Amy had gotten lost in the woods while looking for animals, which she loved, or had an accident. Another friend took Amy's school picture and drove it over to Channel 3, to get the missing child's face on TV as soon as possible.
However, she had not been missing for 24 hours yet, so they refused to report her disappearance right then. (In In the Dark, Jacob Wetterling's mom recalls hearing a radio station refer to her son as being lost in the woods. When she called to demand that they report he was kidnapped, they said that they couldn't until the police officially called the case a kidnapping.)
When the friend returned to the Mihaljevics' house, though, she heard Margaret screaming—because she had just seen Amy's picture on the news. And it would be on the news every night for weeks, first locally, and ultimately nationally as the FBI were brought in and the heart-wrenching search for Amy continued.
Rewards were offered for information, community groups organized search parties and put up missing posters, and tips poured in from all over the country.
"Over the span of the next three months, literally tens of thousands of leads and tips came in that were followed up by the Bay Village Police Department, 60 agents from the FBI and various other law enforcement agencies. A lot of suspects were developed, a lot of names came up. They were vetted out as much as you could possibly do with any kind of suspect.
"Unfortunately it yielded very little."
Mark Mihaljevic said on Crime Stoppers that, by the time his daughter's 11th birthday came and went on Dec. 11, "I just realized in my heart that I would probably never see her again."
Amy's decomposing body was discovered by a passing female jogger on Feb. 8, 1990, in a farm field set about 20 feet from County Road 1181 in Ruggles Township, Ashland County, Ohio—50 miles away from the Bay Village Square Shopping Center.
She was wearing the clothes she was last seen in—a light pale green sweatsuit—but her shoes, low black boots with silver studs, and earrings, turquoise studs in the shape of horse heads, were missing. There was also no sign of the white windbreaker she was wearing when she left for school or her denim backpack, which had white buckles and white piping. Inside the backpack was a black Buick-brand notebook that read "Best in Class" given to her by her father, who worked for General Motors. (Spaetzel suspects the killer purposely kept some of her things as souvenirs.)
There were stab wounds around her neck and evidence of blunt force trauma to the back of her head. Forensic evidence indicated that she had been killed fairly shortly after she was abducted.
She was uncovered but a beige blanket and an avocado-green homemade curtain, which appeared to be fashioned from a bedspread or quilt, were found about 300 feet away, within 14 feet of each other.
On Crime Stoppers, Mark remembered his daughter as a "can do kid." She was athletic, she loved animals, especially horses, and she had a lot of friends. But, he added, she was shy around adults, polite but definitely not the type to approach adults.
After Amy's body was found, thousands more calls came in. Ultimately, authorities had 10,000 names in a database.
Spaetzel explained that cases like this, the abduction and murder of a young girl, tend to go down only certain roads. So once Amy's family was ruled out, and there was never any ransom demand, they focused on sex predators.
The killer seemed to have knowledge of the Mihaljevic family. Margaret had not been promoted, but she had recently had a job change. Whatever was said, Amy was apparently comfortable enough to go with them.
"So we have a sexual predator, who made pretextual calls, to lure a young girl to a location to kidnap her and take her," Spaetzel said. "Very unusual set of circumstances that you don't see repeated." Looking at cases from all over the nation, "we've been unable to discover anything exactly like that."
Whoever took Amy also needed to be familiar with the area, Spaetzel noted, both Bay Village, which is in Cuyahoga County, and Ruggles Township, in Ashland County.
Microscopic fibers found on Amy's clothes were analyzed and determined to have come from camel-colored automotive carpet, which they were able to narrow down to vehicles—GM vehicles in particular—from between 1975 and 1978.
"It is my personal belief that the only way this case is going to be solved is through the public input," Spaetzle concluded. "Someone is going to have to call us and give us a name, some information that leads us down a road to the person that did this."
The community continued to rally around the Mihaljevics, holding memorials, tying white ribbons around trees all over town and otherwise trying to take care of their own. A memorial plaque, decorated with the silhouette of a horse head, has been outside Bay Village City Hall ever since.
But the family would never recover. Margaret and Mark eventually divorced. She died in 2001.
Margaret had moved to Las Vegas, where her mother lived, in 2000.
"She never got over losing her little girl, little Amy," Margaret's mom, Henrietta McNulty, told the Associated Press. "The lupus probably killed her, but the depression didn't help. She was still so sad."
In 2016, authorities held a press conference exhibiting the blanket and curtain found near Amy's body, hoping the public could help identify where the material came from.
Further testing had found hairs on the curtain and blanket that matched Amy's dog. Investigators concluded the hairs had been on Amy's clothes and got on the items when she was wrapped up or otherwise came into contact with them. They had no doubt the curtain and blanket were involved in transporting her from the crime scene to the field where her body was found.
"If we can find the person who, somebody can call us and say, 'my mom made this curtain; my grandma made this curtain; it was hanging in my brother's room'; whatever that is, we can solve this case," said retired FBI Agent Phil Torsney, who was summoned out of retirement to rejoin the case as a special investigator in 2013, per Cleveland.com. "We're asking the public to push this thing out. Cleveland's a great town for getting things done through the general public and through citizen participation."
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said, "If you're out there and can tell us where this blanket came from, they will finish the job. To the criminals, you can run but you cannot hide. We have proven this in the past, we have solved these cold cases. We can solve this case too."
In 2017, the Bay Village Police Department applied for a $30,000 grant from the state to offset the cost of investigating the Amy Mihaljevic case for all these years.
"It's a case that was never put on the shelf and let go," Spaetzel said. "We still get tips on a monthly basis. There's always something going on with it. It's an important case to the community and obviously, the family."
"Whoever did this was preying on the love this little girl had for her mother," Torsney, still on the case in 2018, told Cleveland's ABC 5 News earlier this year.
Added Spaetzel, "For 28 years we've been trying to get this solved, really like to do it before I retire."
The Lake Erie Murders: Who Killed Amy Mihaljevic? premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Investigation Discovery.
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