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Still missing, but not forgotten

When the end came and yet another jury said it couldn’t reach a verdict, the temptation was to say the system did horribly wrong by 3-year-old Michelle Pulsifer.

Maybe that’s a no-brainer, that it goes without saying. When a toddler disappears and is presumed dead -- almost certainly by nefarious means and under the supervision of her mother and a boyfriend -- how can no one be held accountable? We put common drunks in jail; couldn’t we find a way to bring justice for a 3-year-old?

The short answer is that life is full of square pegs and round holes, even in matters as consequential as a little girl who vanished in 1969 and whom no one seemed to care about for the longest time.

And that’s the way the story could have ended. The system could have permanently forgotten Michelle and relegated her disappearance to the deepest, darkest section of the cold-case files, but Orange County prosecutor Larry Yellin insisted that not happen.

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And though he lost twice in trying to hold someone accountable, I’d argue that Yellin struck a blow for at least some version of justice. Which is to say, he tried.

Michelle Pulsifer would be 42 had she lived. Odds are that she would have been a wife and mother. She would have gone to high school, maybe college, listened to pop music and gone to movies and, like the rest of us, marveled at how things have changed since the 1970s.

Even these kind of mundane thoughts drove Yellin as he took Michelle’s mother to trial twice since 2007 on murder charges. Both ended in mistrials, the most recent being earlier this month with the jury deadlocking 11 to 1 for acquittal of second-degree murder and 7 to 5 for guilt on involuntary manslaughter.

The judge ruled that there won’t be a third trial, saying the evidence isn’t there to get a conviction. Aside from the difficulty inherent in trying a 39-year-old case and the absence of a body, the boyfriend of the girl’s mother -- who also had been charged in the case -- died in custody in 2005. He denied killing the girl, indirectly pointed the finger at her mother, Donna Prentice, but said he buried Michelle in an Orange County canyon. Prentice’s attorney argued that the boyfriend was probably the killer.

I’m not writing today about the evidence or the strength of the case. What moves me, in a way that’s hard to nail down on paper, is how Yellin’s determination to bring a tough case to trial shows that we didn’t forget the 3-year-old.

It is a case with many complications. You can see why it could have remained dormant forever. There was no public outcry to solve the Michelle Pulsifer case.

“The clamor is for the current case,” Yellin says. “There’s no reason to be clamoring over cold cases. But one of the things that makes it poignant is that you get the sense in hindsight as to the life they have missed. . . . You see how life has passed them by, how it went on without them. It’s a loss they didn’t get to come along for the ride.”

That’s what I’m trying to say, that even if Michelle didn’t get a chance to live a life, at least someone all these years later cared enough to take note of that and assign some responsibility for why she didn’t.

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I ask Yellin about that aspect. Yes, there’s the law to consider, but what about the personal sense of making things right for a forgotten child?

“My personal sense of justice, or sense of compassion, which leans toward the victims, does fuel my efforts,” he says. “I don’t think I can keep that out of it. But I hope I’m smart enough that I never let it blind me or make a mistake that could lead to an injustice, like if would I feel so passionate that I go after the wrong person.”

But even that dispassion didn’t keep him from choking up during his closing argument, he says.

It came while he was talking about what might have been for Michelle. “I was trying to catch the jury’s emotion, and it caught my own.”

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The case wasn’t prosecuted all those years ago because Prentice told people that she had left Michelle with others when she and her boyfriend abruptly left Orange County for the Midwest. The couple, however, took, two young boys with them -- sons from their previous marriages.

Michelle’s biological father says that because Prentice had full custody, he was stymied in learning in the ensuing years of her whereabouts.

I ask Yellin, the father of daughters ages 11, 8 and 5, if the failure to get a conviction haunts him. “I can accept it because I recognize it was a difficult case,” he says. People on both sides of the bar in Orange County praised his efforts, he says.

“The most heartening thing is that if nothing else, we did make people remember her. That wasn’t really our goal, but there’s a component of sort of remembering these lost people, reminding other people who didn’t know anything about them or that they even existed. In this case, not even her loved ones knew what happened to her.”

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The investigation and subsequent trials brought some answers to her biological father and his family, Yellin says. “I take a lot of solace in that. At least I did that for them.”

And they left him with something, too. After the second hung jury, Michelle’s father gave him a Christmas ornament with his daughter’s name on it and asked Yellin to hang it on his tree.

In a very literal way, Yellin says, he took the case home with him.

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dana.parsons@latimes.com


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