A Mother’s Mission : Ghost of Death Haunts Search for Daughter


Joyce Cutshall is consumed by a battle she can never win. She thinks her daughter is dead, but can’t prove it. She suspects she is buried nearby, but can’t find her.

She wants to bring her home, but can’t do it.

She has made that her mission, taking the law into her own hands to find out what happened to her child. Fearful that Jill’s case would sink deeper in police files, the determined mother who had never touched a legal book started a petition drive, forced a grand jury probe, and prompted an arrest.

Three years after Jill’s disappearance, Joyce Cutshall believes she is closer than ever to the truth--a truth that will bring even greater agony.


“I feel that this last chapter is going to be my absolutely most difficult,” she says. “It’s a very, very strange feeling to work so hard toward something to know that at the end of it, it’s going to bring as much grief and pain as a mother can feel.”

This fall, when David Phelps, 26, goes on trial on charges of kidnaping Jill, Cutshall will be there, hoping his words will lead to her daughter’s body, knowing that even if she wins, she loses. The prospect is frightening, yet comforting.

“Once I can put Jill to rest in my own mind and have a place that I can go and visit her whenever I’m having a difficult day or feel the need to see her,” she says, “that will help me deal with the fact that I won’t have a chance to hold her again.”

For now, she lives with memories--how Jill loved butter. And mementos: pictures of horses and hearts, a note to “the greatest mom in the world,” crayon drawings of the sun, flowers and rainbows--her symbol for the future--and poems.

“The world is a great round ball thing that is made by God,” Jill wrote. “It has good things on it and bad things on it. The world is great to me.”

On Aug. 13, 1987, 9-year-old Jillian Dee Cutshall vanished from that world she so cherished.

She disappeared in Norfolk, where she was spending the summer with her father, Roger. The Cutshalls divorced in 1985; Jill and her brother, Jeff, lived in Kansas with their mother.

Jill, her mother says, feared staying in her father’s apartment house alone; it was seedy, noisy, filled with transients. So when he and his new wife left for work at 6 a.m., she did her chores, then walked to the baby sitter’s six blocks away.

That day, she was last seen at 6:30 a.m. on her sitter’s stoop, where she normally waited until someone inside awoke.

Jill had been repeatedly warned about strangers. But the blonde, blue-eyed youngster “just loved people,” her mother says. “She trusted them. She always found something good in everybody, even if they weren’t good.”

After Jill’s disappearance, the FBI, state and local police blitzed the area. There were roadblocks, door-to-door searches, hundreds of interviews. Tens of thousands of posters flooded the country.

At first, Joyce Cutshall thought Jill would return in a week, then months. “After the third month,” she says, “I emotionally and mentally was telling myself that if we work hard enough, we’ll have her back in a year.”

A year passed. No Jill.

Hope turned to heartache.

Then in the fall of 1988, when Cutshall, 36, was attending a local college, a journalism student, Gail Pedersen, interviewed her for a story. Pedersen revealed that police had questioned her brother, David Phelps, about Jill.

Phelps’ sister, she says, told her: “‘I’m not saying that he is guilty or innocent’ . . . (but) she felt that it was a possibility that he in some way was connected to her disappearance.”

Pedersen also claimed her brother sexually abused a little girl when he was a teen.

Phelps and a man once imprisoned for sexual assault, Kermit Baumgartner, lived together in the same building as Roger Cutshall the summer of 1987. Both reportedly met Jill then. Police had interviewed both men.

Roy Stephens, a private investigator on the case since the beginning, pursued the lead too, knowing his own secret--a 1976 prison stint for burglary--could be revealed and he could be blackmailed.

“I’ve put everything on the line for Jill,” says Stephens, who last year made public his past, returning the detective’s license he falsely obtained.

The burly, bearded investigator believed his own history gave him an edge--"I know both sides of the law,” he says. In January, 1989, Stephens drove Phelps to the wildlife refuge where a hunter discovered Jill’s clothes in late 1987.

He handed him a shovel. He asked him to help find Jill.

“All he keeps saying is: ‘I don’t know anything,’ ” Stephens recalls. “I keep saying: ‘You do.’ ”

Stephens, accompanied by a partner, says he then fired a gun in the air. Frustration, he says, not a threat. He claims Phelps led them to a nearby cemetery, dug in one spot, then told him he and Baumgartner had taken Jill to the refuge and even described her clothes and underwear.

Stephens had Phelps repeat his statement to an Omaha TV crew he had waiting nearby. The investigator says he didn’t go to the police, fearing that they would reject the information.

In that interview, later broadcast on “60 Minutes,” Phelps described how Kermit got a nervous Jill out of the car. “Kermit kept his hand on her mouth and started fondling her and stuff,” he said. “I got real nervous and said, ‘Hey, let’s get the hell out of here.’ And Kermit says, ‘Well, then, you take the car back into town and I’ll get back later.’ And I left.”

Baumgartner, who lives in California, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. He claims Phelps was trying to cover his tracks.

When police questioned Phelps, he recanted, claiming his statements were made under duress. No body, no confession, no charges.

David Phelps was a free man. He soon left town.

So did Baumgartner, who had also been questioned by authorities.

“I was empty,” Joyce Cutshall recalls in hushed tones. “Whatever there is inside of me that says . . . ‘I need to fight. I need to go on'--that was gone.”

She’d lost her faith, too, in the police. “There were major screw-ups,” she says.

Norfolk Police Chief Bill Mizner disagrees, noting that thousands of hours were spent interviewing hundreds of people and pursuing leads in several states.

“There was some outstanding police work done in this investigation,” he says. “It is by far the longest, most in-depth case that the police division here has ever faced (and) by far the most frustrating case.”

Last summer, when Mizner placed Jill’s case on semi-active status, Cutshall was outraged.

“If you cannot rely on people that you’re supposed to be able to rely on to do the job, I guess the old adage is . . . ‘Do it yourself.’ ”

She began.

Cutshall discovered that under Nebraska law, authorities had to convene a grand jury if presented with petitions from at least 10% of county voters participating in the last gubernatorial election.

In December, while others shopped for Christmas gifts, she collected signatures. While the local mall was being decorated, she was setting up a table and banner reading: “Jill Cutshall Needs A Grand Jury.”

A dozen volunteers gathered signatures at the mall and braved blizzards to collect more in door-to-door visits. Petitions were presented to authorities on Feb. 20--the day after Jill’s birthday--"my gift to her,” her mother says.

Authorities, she says, certified 1,471 signatures, hundreds more than needed.

Cutshall downplays her doggedness, saying: “I don’t have anything extra. The only thing I have is the love for my daughter.”

In June, a grand jury indicted Phelps on charges of abduction with intent to commit sexual assault. Last month, he returned to Nebraska from Iowa and pleaded not guilty. He’s being held on $100,000 bond.

Baumgartner wasn’t charged. Special prosecutor James Smith said one problem was getting him back to Nebraska to testify before a grand jury. He had already made consistent statements to authorities. “It’s not as if they didn’t know what the guy’s story was anyhow,” Smith says.

Stephens, who keeps a picture of Jill on his desk, says he won’t rest until he finds her. He heads investigations for the Missing Youth Foundation, a nonprofit group founded after Jill’s disappearance that boasts of having brought home 17 children since January, 1989.

Cutshall, meanwhile, hopes the Nov. 5 trial will help her and Jeff, 14, start over.

Jeff, who saw himself as Jill’s protector, has endured his own hell with schoolmates’ taunts of “We know where your sister is.” He even talked of suicide.

For a year after Jill’s disappearance, Joyce Cutshall wrote her letters. Part of the first one seems prophetic.

“There is a part of me that is gone. I hope you are doing OK, sweet pea,” she wrote. “I know you feel inside how special you are to me. I could never ask for a better daughter than the one I’m blessed with. If I can’t find you soon, I’m afraid I’ll never see you again.”

Three years later, Joyce Cutshall’s heart still needs to convince her head.

“I absolutely have to be able to have her in a place where I can make that contact with her,” she says. “Until I can do this, there’s a chance she’s still alive. . . . She’s out there lost waiting to be found. I can’t quit doing this until I can find her and bring her back.”