Janice Rott sits tensely in the back seat as the car bumps along a dirt road, clouds of dust rising in its wake. Her eyes dart back and forth, scanning trees, marshes, ramshackle trailers, fishing huts.
"My baby, my poor baby," she murmurs in a low, gravelly voice. "Oh, God, was she crying? Did she cry for me? She must have been so scared."
Somewhere in these remote northern Michigan woodlands, a killer dumped the body of Rott's 16-year-old daughter nearly two years ago. Mushroom hunters found the remains of Kathey Lynn Horn in May near the Otsego-Charlevoix county line.
Rott had been obsessed with finding her daughter, quitting her job as a waitress to devote all her time to the quest.
It's over now, but she cannot let go.
She and a group of supporters founded the Missing Children's Network of Michigan a year ago to help parents and law enforcement agencies track down lost youngsters.
Law enforcement agencies across the country reported 969,264 missing persons to the FBI's National Crime Information Center in 1995. The agency estimates 85% to 90% were children. All but 4,921 of the cases, or more than 99%, had been solved by year's end.
Rott, 44, is devoting her life to the cause, hoping to spare other children Kathey's fate.
And she vows to bring her daughter's murderer to justice.
Police say they are questioning a suspect. They won't identify him for the record, but Rott knows who he is.
She wastes no opportunity to learn more about him--and anything else connected to Kathey's death.
A few days after the May 24 funeral, Rott joined a reporter tracing her daughter's steps on what probably was the last night of her life. With her was David Ufer, a private investigator and president of the Missing Children's Network.
It's nearly dark as they spot a place where the suspect once lived. One of his former in-laws, whom Rott has met previously, is working nearby. She invites him to join the group in the car.
She fires question after question at the man, who answers readily but provides no "smoking gun."
On to the Gaylord coffee shop where Kathey and a friend hung out the night she disappeared--another place Rott has visited before in her quest for answers. This time, she doesn't know the guy behind the counter. He has just closed, but Rott persuades him to sell one more cup.
She lights a Newport, then takes out a picture of the suspect. Does the worker know him? Yes, he used to come in now and then. He would sit at the bar and sip coffee. Kept to himself.
Again, nothing spectacular. But Rott is pleased with the evening's work. Every scrap of information enhances the mental profile she is developing of the man she is convinced brutalized her daughter.
"He's not getting away with this. No way," Rott says through clenched teeth, fighting back tears. She shakily lights another cigarette and mutters a curse as the car pulls away.
'She Would Have Had an Awesome Life'
Kathey was a pretty girl, short and slender. Her brown hair just reached her shoulders. She had an impish grin and a bubbly personality. Friends called her "Jibber" because she talked so much.
She was born in Mount Clemens. Her 22-year-old brother, Jim, still lives in the Detroit area. Rott divorced their father 15 years ago; he is not suspected in Kathey's death.
Rott and Kathey moved to Traverse City in 1991 to make a fresh start, living in a small apartment above a muffin shop. Money was tight, but they got along. Kathey made friends easily at school.
"She was always really happy, always shining. She would have had an awesome life," says Autumn Kelley, 16.
"She wanted to be free. She wanted to be in the oceans, swimming with the dolphins. She wanted to save the dolphins and whales."
And people. As a child, she gathered cans of food and a bottle of milk to send to starving Ethiopians.
She sometimes brought homeless people and destitute teens to the apartment, demanding that Rott take them in.
"I'd say, 'Don't bring those bums over here,' " Rott recalled. "She'd say, 'They're not bums, they're homeless!' She wouldn't let me send them away without giving them something to eat."
Longing to be different, she talked her mom into letting her insert an "e" into her name, which had been spelled "Kathy."
But with adolescence, a darker side of her free spirit emerged.
She rebelled against house rules, experimented with drugs, got tattoos, even lived with her boyfriend for a few months the year she disappeared. Rott disapproved, but decided experience would be the best teacher for her strong-willed daughter.
They quarreled often, but remained so close that Rott immediately feared the worst after learning of the girl's disappearance. Kathey wasn't the type to run off without a word.
"Even if she was mad at me, she'd have at least called and said, 'Hey, I'm outta here,' " Rott said. Besides, she had taken no extra clothes, money or personal belongings.
Rott had dropped her daughter at school the morning of Sept. 23, 1994. It was a Friday, and Kathey had permission to spend the weekend with a friend.
That night the teens went to a dance, then to the Gaylord coffee shop, where they chatted with other young people--and a man in his 30s known to some in the group.
About midnight, Kathey wanted to go home. Three other youths were looking for a ride to Mancelona, about halfway between Gaylord and Traverse City. The older man offered to take them.
The threesome from Mancelona later told police they got out at a party store there. The driver said he drove about 100 yards, then dropped Kathey off because she had decided to rejoin them.
No one saw her alive again.
Rott suspected nothing until Monday, when the friend she was supposed to spend the weekend with stopped by the apartment and asked, "Where's Jibber?"
"I said, 'What do you mean? She was with you.' I was freaking out," Rott said.
She rushed to the Traverse City police station and filed a missing-person report.
"They patted me on the back and said, 'Go on home, she's probably just a runaway,' " Rott said.
"God, I hate those words. 'Just a runaway.' Does that mean we shouldn't try to find them? Don't they realize if a kid's out alone on the streets and nobody knows where they are, they're in danger?"
Ralph Soffredine, city public safety director, says police had to consider the possibility that Kathey was a runaway. Most missing youths leave home on their own, he says, and most eventually return.
But he insists his department--and neighboring police agencies--took the case seriously from the beginning and quickly suspected foul play. Officers chased down hundreds of leads and interviewed every witness they could find.
"If something happened to one of my kids, I'd be the most impatient guy in the world," Soffredine said. "I understand that victims' families want things to happen real quick . . . like a one-hour TV program. It doesn't happen that way in real life.
"But I can promise you, when everybody else has gone away, we'll still be here. This investigation will never die."
Still, Rott and many of her supporters felt police were dragging their feet, said the Rev. Nathan Rose, who conducted Kathey's funeral service. "They felt pretty bitter about it at first."
Police rejected Rott's plea to comb the countryside around Mancelona and Gaylord, saying it was too vast and rugged. So she organized her own searches, appealing for volunteers through the local media.
Sometimes dozens of people showed up, sometimes a handful. Throughout the fall they tramped through marshy woods and open fields, checking barns, abandoned buildings, gullies, waterways.
They held candlelight vigils and plastered trees and telephone poles with posters. During the November deer season, they asked hunters to keep their eyes open.
Rott hired a professional searcher from Texas with $580 in donated funds.
Self-proclaimed psychics showed up. One said birds fluttering outside the apartment window held the answer to Kathey's whereabouts.
Rott installed a toll-free phone line for people to call with information. Some, anonymous and frequently obscene, berated her.
"If you took better care of your kid and she was home where she belonged, this wouldn't have happened," one snapped.
The calls dwindled as winter set in, and by spring 1995 things seemed at a dead end. Frustrated, Rott turned to a new project: the Missing Children's Network of Michigan.
"I had been so angry when Kathey disappeared and I couldn't get any answers, couldn't even find out how many other missing kids there were in Michigan," she said.
She founded the nonprofit organization and became its executive director, running it out of her apartment. A nine-member board was chosen. Wal-Mart chipped in $20,000 for expenses.
The network keeps records of missing children, reports possible sightings to law enforcement agencies and offers families advice and support. Rott bought a computer and is learning how to share information via the Internet. She hopes to open a separate office and get more sophisticated equipment.
"You see that?" she asks, pointing through her living-room window at an abandoned building across the alley. "That's going to be a shelter for runaways someday. Kids need a place where they can go right away when they're in trouble.
"God, there's so many needs! I want to help so much. But I'm just a mom; what can I do? But you know, this must be what God wants me to do. I've got a lifelong mission ahead of me, and that's that."
Saturday May 18, 1996
Less than two weeks have passed since police summoned Rott to identify Kathey's tattered clothing, found 25 miles northeast of Mancelona. A crushing blow.
Still, she joins members of the Missing Children's Network for a child identification clinic at Grand Traverse Mall. They photograph and fingerprint more than 100 kids, who squirm and giggle at McGruff, the crime dog.
A state police detective approaches. Rott's mouth is dry; she knows what is coming.
He gently breaks the news: Mushroom hunters have found human remains. They're believed to be Kathey's.
"I didn't scream or pass out," Rott remembers. "I just sat quietly, asked him a few questions . . . then there was this incredible, overwhelming sadness.
"You know, I'd always figured that once I knew for sure, I'd feel relieved. But I wasn't. When I looked at that casket, dammit, I didn't feel one bit better."
The funeral was packed. Police were there, as were adult volunteers who had scoured the woods for Kathey. Teens, some with spiked hair and grunge clothing, sobbed and held each other.
Propped on easels were collages of pictures and mementos from Kathey's life--notes to Santa Claus, Batman comic books, a dolphin poster, a tiny white baby shoe.
A few days later, Rott sits in the apartment, grieving and exhausted but still thinking of the future. She figures it may be time to clean out Kathey's room, which has been kept mostly untouched.
She opens a scrapbook. Near the back is a handwritten note from Kathey, dated a few months before she disappeared:
"Mom--I know I seldom say I love you, and I sometimes act like I don't care. But the truth is, I really do. I'm sorry for all the problems I've given you and all the hurt. Please accept my apologies. And love me for who I am."
Below, Rott has scrawled her reply:
"Kathey, I love you more than life itself. Mama."