This Wednesday marks thirty years since four-year-old Michael Dunahee disappeared from a school playground in in Victoria, Biritsh Columbia, sparking one of Canada’s largest police investigations.
On Sunday, March 24, 1991, Crystal and Bruce Dunahee loaded their son Michael and baby daughter Caitlin into their family car and headed to Blanchard Elementary School for Crystal’s touch football game.
When they arrived at the school parking lot around 12:30 p.m., Michael asked Crystal if he could go play on the playground, which was just a few meters away. Despite a gut feeling that “something wasn’t quite right,” she let him. Before he turned away, she said, “Wait there and don’t leave with anybody, just wait there and daddy will come and get you.”
In a matter of moments, while Crystal tied up her cleats and Bruce checked the score from a previous game, Michael disappeared.
About fifty people who were at and around the field immediately began searching for little Michael, who was last seen wearing a blue-hooded jacket with red lining and red cuffs, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt, multi-coloured rugby pants, and blue sneakers. Police were also immediately notified and arrived promptly at the scene.
It didn’t take long for investigators to rule Michael’s parents out as suspects and classify his disappearance as a kidnapping.
Despite the help of hundreds of volunteers, thousands of tips from across North America, police from multiple agencies, and the offer of a $100,000 reward, Michael was never found.
Cases like Michael’s are unheard of in the small city of Victoria. Even though Victoria’s the capital of British Columbia, it’s known as being quiet and safe since it’s located on Vancouver Island, an hour and a half ferry boat ride away from the mainland.
“Like many people in Victoria, I was just totally shocked,” Said Valerie Green, who wrote a book on the case titled, “Vanished: The Michael Dunahee Story.” “I mean, this could never happen in sleepy little Victoria.”
The shock factor of this case captured the nation. Unfortunately, despite the media attention, viable clues have been slim. No one witnessed Michael’s abduction, although there were reports of a man in his late 40s to early 50s being seen in the neighbourhood as well as a mysterious brown van.
“We did put a lot of resources into the brown van tip. In fact we did locate a brown van — a number of brown vans — and we eliminated the owners and drivers through interviews,” Mills said. “The brown van was a big thing for a while until we could discount it.” Said Detective Inspector Fred Mills of the Victoria Police Department.
Police also interviewed everyone who they thought could have information, including the other children who were playing at the playground. In addition, every sex offender in the area was looked into and interviewed but that lead to a dead end as well.
Police also reenacted Michael’s disappearance with everyone who was there that fatefully day, hoping it would generate new leads, but nothing came of it.
Because of the nature of his disappearance, police believe this was a crime of opportunity- an abduction by a stranger and not by someone in the Dunahee’s circle.
John Ducker, who was a junior detective at the time of Michael’s disappearance and is now retired, said he has come to believe Michael was taken by a person or persons without criminal or police records and “totally unknown in this community.”
Ducker noted that in 1991, police were still writing and organizing tips by hand. They also didn’t have much of the technology available today, such as modern DNA science, computer databases, and video surveillance.
“I can’t help thinking that if we had some of the technology which we have today available to us then, we might have been able to locate Michael.” Said Ducker. “One clip of a suspicious person or vehicle in the area might have turned the case around.”
Like with any high profile case, there’s been no shortage of theories as to what happened to Michael.
Of course, although statistically slim, some people believe that Michael is alive and well, having been raised under another identity without any knowledge of who he really is. In 2006, police received reports that a young man living in the Interior of British Columbia resembled Michael. DNA testing confirmed that it was not him. Again, in 2011, a different man, this time from Chase, British Columbia, received a DNA test since he also strongly resembled Michael, but like the last man the test confirmed that he was not a match. Lastly, in 2013, a man from the Greater Vancouver area was contacted by police for a DNA test since he also resembled Michael. However, the DNA test confirmed that he was not the missing boy.
There have also been reported sightings of Michael in New York, New Jersey, and other parts of Vancouver Island.
On top of these false hopes, the Dunahee family has also endured phone calls saying that Michael was killed in a satanic cult and even one caller that went as far as to say that he had Michael and demanded a $10,000 ransom, only to never be heard from again.
Michael’s name made headlines again In 2009, when Victoria police took a “cautious” look into a Milwaukee, Wisconsin man named Vernon Seitz. Seitz had confessed to his psychiatrist that he had murdered a child in 1959 and knew of another child killing. When Milwaukee police raided his home, they found child pornography and files of missing children cases, as well as books on cannibalism, human hair, a bone, and drawings of naked boys.
Among these items, police discovered a missing persons poster of Michael and a copy of a map of somewhere not in Milwaukee, titled “Millstream Park.” Victoria locals note that while there isn’t a Millstream Park, there is a Millstream Road which leads to several remote parks.
Police found Seitz dead of natural causes before they were able to question him.
Despite decades passing since they have seen Michael, the Dunahee family has never given up hope in finding him. Bruce and Crystal have a bedroom for their son filled with toys and Christmas and birthday presents, wrapped and waiting for him to open. They have also kept the same phone number since Michael had memorized it.
Micheal’s sister, Caitlin, who was six months old when he disappeared, organizes an annual charity event called the “Michael Dunahee ‘Keep the Hope Alive’ Fund Run.” The money raised from the event is donated to Child Find.
Crystal has worked as the president of Child Find BC and Child Find Canada. She was also one of the loudest voices behind the movement to introduce the AMBER Alert System in British Columbia, which has since been implimented across Canada. All of this work led to her being awarded the Order of British Columbia, the province’s highest civilian honour.
“Rather than becoming hopeless, she has continued to offer total support to the police officers and community members who rallied to her side. Simply put, she is working to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.” Says the website.
Crystal has said in the past that she has blamed herself for her son’s disappearance, “Giving my permission to let him go play in the park by himself… I should have made him wait. That’s the hardest part to deal with.”
Nevertheless, she continues to hold out hope for her son’s safe return.
“Crystal, bless her heart, she’s still holding out hope.” Said Don Bland, a detective sergeant with the Victoria police who worked Michael’s case. “I hope she’s right.”
Although thirty years have passed, all it could take is one tip to bring Michael home. Someone knows something, and if you think you might have any information relating to Michael’s case please call the RCMP. If you would like to remain anonymous, call the Crime Stoppers 24/7 tip line at 1–800–222–8477.