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Amy Mihaljevic was kidnapped in 1989, and police are still searching for her killer

Case remains unsolved despite new leads
Posted: 5:30 PM, Feb 08, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-22 10:19:19-04
Amy Mihaljevic

BAY VILLAGE, Ohio — Nearly three decades ago, Amy Mihaljevic, a young girl from Bay Village, received a phone call that would lead to one of Northeast Ohio’s most high-profile kidnapping and murder investigations. Friday, Feb. 8, marks the 29th anniversary of when her body was found.

Taken

On a fateful Friday afternoon in late October 1989, 10-year-old Amy was home alone when the phone rang. To this day, the person on the other end of the call is still unknown, as well as what was said during the conversation with Amy.

What is known, however, is that the caller convinced Amy to meet at a nearby shopping center so the two of them could buy a gift for her mother, who had just received a promotion at Trading Times Magazine.

It was Friday, Oct. 27, just days before Halloween.

Classmates of Amy told police they had seen her talking to an unknown man near the barbershop at Bay Village Square on the afternoon of her disappearance.

Law enforcement believe it's quite possible that Amy knew her abductor. Friends and family said she was too smart to go with a stranger willingly.

A barbershop employee said he was working the day Amy was taken but didn’t hear anything unusual outside the shop. “There was no screaming, no struggling, cause I would have known it,” he told News 5.

Two 10-year-old classmates of Amy said they saw her talking with a man before she disappeared. The girls gave police a description, which was then turned into a composite sketch. That sketch would later circulate throughout the community thousands of times.

Amy’s disappearance from Bay Village set the entire community on edge. When parents took their children trick-or-treating that Halloween weekend, Amy was on everyone’s mind.

The Search

The FBI joined in the search for Amy. Missing person posters were placed in store windows across Bay Village in hopes someone had seen what happened to her. A Pizza Hut in the city put copies of Amy’s missing poster and the composite sketch on every box to get the word out. Within days, tens of thousands of fliers would be distributed across the city and nearby states.

Amy’s mother appeared on television, pleading for the person who took her child to let her make a phone call.

“You got my work number; you got my home number. Just call, sweetie. Please call,” her mother Margaret Mihaljevic said in a News 5 Cleveland interview.

“Oh my god, you can’t imagine. The stress has been unbearable,” Mihaljevic said.

Mihaljevic described Amy as responsible and reliable. She said whoever had kidnapped her took advantage of her by conning her into doing something that would have made her mother happy.

Within three days, the Bay Village Police Department and the FBI received more than 100 tips. Authorities worked tirelessly, logging 16 hours a day or more and combing through leads. In those early days, 24 Bay Village police officers and between 30 and 50 FBI agents worked to piece together what happened to Amy.

For police in Bay Village, the case was personal. “They relate this and Amy to their own children,” Bay Village police Lieutenant Richard Wilson said. “They just want to find her.”

A Bay Village police officer told News 5 that authorities were checking out every single lead and “they can’t afford to ignore any, no matter how small.”

On the day of Amy’s disappearance, a Bay Village officer gave a presentation at the middle school about stranger danger. The officer — Mark A. Spaetzel — would be assigned to work on the case and would become police chief decades later.

In the early days of the case, investigators had help from the Cuyahoga Regional Information Service — a system of law enforcement computers linked together from across the county and the country. The technology at the time, while advanced, was strained by the amount of information processed through it. The system was designed to handle around 1,000 inquiries per case and had already surpassed that limit.

A Community Comes Together

Fear gripped the Bay area, prompting parents to take their children to school personally. Teachers at Bay Middle School helped ease the tension by talking with students.

When News 5 talked to Bay parents shortly after the kidnapping, one parent said her daughter knew Amy and was shaken over what happened. “She just wants to know why. Why does this happen, why does this have to happen? Why did it happen here in Bay Village?”

But as Amy’s mother found out, “It can happen anywhere. Kids need to understand that fact,” Mihaljevic said.

One resident told News 5 shortly after Amy disappeared that Amy’s kidnapping made him realize Bay Village isn’t such an isolated community anymore.

Residents took solace by going to churches in Bay Village and praying for Amy’s safe return.

“People have been talking to one another in hushed tones, in small groups and all talking about the concern that’s here, but I think the church has attempted to allow an opportunity for the entire community to respond. And a prayer vigil seems to have done that for many of us. It’s been a vicarious release of a lot of pent up feelings and pain and grief,” one church official told News 5.

Throughout the city, in the days following Amy’s disappearance, white ribbons could be seen tied around trees lining Bay Village streets. Residents said the ribbons were a reminder to Amy’s family that the community was there for them.

Worst Fears Realized

On Feb. 8, 1990, three months after she was taken, a jogger found Amy’s body lying face down and barefoot in a field near Township Road 1181 in Ashland County. She had been stabbed to death and left to decompose.

Within a day of finding the body, police received hundreds more leads in the case pointing to who could have possibly killed her.

The Ashland County Coroner’s Office requested Amy’s body be transferred to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s office to complete the investigation into the cause of her death.

Amy’s parents, Margaret and Mark Mihaljevic, who were already grief-stricken, turned their attention to finding the person responsible for their daughter's murder and to keep parents from having to deal with a similar situation.

“There are other missing children. There are more out there, and if I can help wake up the nation to the fate of these children, I want to do it. We know what brutal fate Amy suffered. We can only imagine what torture she must have gone through. But there are other children,” Mihaljevic said.

When Margaret Mihaljevic, holding a sketch of Amy’s abductor, was asked about the killer still being loose on the streets, she responded, “It frightens me. If someone who looks like this did it once, maybe he did it before that time, maybe he will do it again. We have got to find him. I cannot deal with what Amy might have gone through yet. I cannot consciously block it out of my mind; I cannot handle that yet.”

During an interview, News 5 asked Mihaljevic if she had closure when authorities found Amy’s body.

“On one part of it, yes. The door will never be closed for me because there is a vast emptiness inside of me that Amy’s passing has left. But it did end the agony of not knowing,” Mihaljevic said.

During that interview, Mihaljevic was sitting in a chair at her home surrounded with stuffed animals she received in support. Mihaljevic said the animals came from friends and were something tangible she could hold and hug, the way she could no longer embrace Amy. “They have been a great deal of comfort for us, so we will cherish them forever,” Mihaljevic said.

In addition to the slew of letters Amy’s mother received, she was sent a single white rose from Patty and Jerry Wetterling. The Wetterlings were parents from Minnesota whose own son — Jacob Wetterling — was also missing at the time.

Jacob’s body wouldn’t be found until decades later. His abduction sparked the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, prompting the government to require states to create a Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registry.

A Public Response

In a news conference, a teary-eyed Margaret Mihaljevic spoke after Amy was found.

She thanked the businesses that passed out fliers and the citizens who hung posters.

“Thank you, Cleveland, for all your efforts, for all your hope, for all your support, for all your caring and bless you,” Mihaljevic said.

School officials offered grief counseling services at Bay Middle School where Amy attended. Teachers and staff worked to comfort students who were angry, scared or upset upon learning what happened to their classmate.

“We need to listen to our children talk about their grief, their anger, their frustration, whatever they are feeling; to validate their feelings,” a school employee told News 5.

The Amy Center, which was set up in Bay Village City Hall, continued to operate even after her body was found. Originally set up to help spread the word about her disappearance, the center transitioned to a tip center, with workers making more composite sketch flyers and gathering tips to forward to police in hopes of catching her killer.

The Hunt For A Killer

Shortly after finding Amy, Bay Village police set up a command center in Ashland County to work with the county sheriff’s office on the case.

Bay Village police urged the public to keep an eye out for the man pictured in the composite sketch. But they also asked people to keep an open mind for other potential individuals who may look different from the drawing. Lt. Wilson said the man pictured in the sketches might have undergone “drastic changes” to alter his appearance.

He went on to say the person may have undergone changes in their life such as a change in their consumption of alcohol, drugs or finding religion.

“If you know of someone who has had behavioral changes recently since the time of the abduction, if there has been changes in work habits or unexplained absences from work or their residence, by all means call us and let us have that information,” Lt. Richard Wilson told News 5 shortly after Amy was found.

The FBI Special Agent in Charge at the time was William D. Branon. According to Branon, information about Amy’s case was disseminated to FBI field offices throughout the country in their search for answers. Branon would later tell News 5 that there wasn’t a case that had touched the Bureau so profoundly.

In the week before Amy was found, Bay Village police said their leads started to dry up. Some Bay Village police officers had expected to be pulled from the case before Amy was found. Following the discovery of her body, some authorities questioned the validity of the composite sketches. The renderings were made based on the descriptions of two 10-year-old children. But Lt. Richard Wilson said the drawings were the only descriptions the department had to work with other than a profile the FBI created.

Former FBI Special Agent Phil Tornsey, who's known for his instrumental role in the apprehension of Whitey Bulger, was one of the many agents put on the case when Amy disappeared. Now, three decades later, he is a special investigator who works solely on the case for the Bay Village Police Department.

Tornsey said new technological advances have allowed investigators to go back and reprocess old evidence in hopes of finding new leads.

The Suspects

In the years since Amy’s death, a myriad of individuals have been looked at as possible suspects in the case, but no one has been officially charged with her kidnapping and death. Because they have not been charged with any crime associated with Amy's death, we have chosen not to name them. These individuals run the gamut from kooks whose claims were dismissed to persons who have been investigated and interviewed by the FBI.

A year after Amy was found, a witness came forward saying that around 13 hours before her body was discovered they spotted a man near the area she would be located in. The witness told police a man in his mid-20s to 30s was standing outside a dark blue hatchback car with the hatchback open.

“Up to that point, the witness didn’t feel that the information was very important,” Lt. Wilson said.

In addition to a new composite sketch being released, the case took another turn when a man walked up to a Salvation Army bell ringer and confessed to having killed Amy. The man then walked into a grocery store, came back out and said it again and then drove off in a dark brown Chevrolet pickup truck with a bedcap and running boards. But according to police, the man’s description did not match the new composite sketch they had.

While painful, Margaret Mihaljevic said she was grateful that new details about the case kept turning up. “It’s very difficult to handle, but by the same token if things weren’t coming forth that means people would have forgotten, and I’m very, very grateful they haven’t stopped looking,” Mihaljevic said.

At a memorial on the first anniversary of Amy’s disappearance, News 5 caught up with FBI Special Agent in Charge Branon. He said the FBI still wasn’t any closer to finding a prime suspect but held out hope the case was still solvable. “If Amy’s kidnapping and murder can be solved, it will be solved; however, there is no prime suspect at this time,” Branon said. “We have a number of individuals who we have had an interest in, and many of them we have discounted. There are other individuals we are still looking at.”

Years after Amy’s abduction, a man burst inside a Northeast Ohio church during morning mass, started pushing parishioners and shouting that he was the person who killed Amy. Police officers who were attending church arrested him.

The Bay Village Police Department would later dismiss his confession, saying it wasn’t valid.

That man wasn’t the first person who tried to take credit for Amy’s murder. Around the time he was arrested, there had already been dozens of individuals who claimed responsibility.

Over the course of this decades-long investigation, many individuals have been investigated and questioned by law enforcement. We are choosing not to name them in this article because after years or, in some cases, decades of being the subject of an intense, high-profile local and federal investigation, no charges have ever been filed against any of these individuals in connection with Amy’s kidnapping and death.

RELATED: Decades later, new focus on the Amy Mihaljevic murder case that haunts Bay Village

Missing Trophies

According to an FBI representative, child killers often keep items from their victims as souvenirs.

In Amy's case, several items were missing when her body was found.

They include a pair of horsehead earrings, metal studded boots and a notebook with a Buick logo that says, “Best in Class.”

New Evidence

Very little information has been released about physical evidence in the case.

According to the Bay Village Police Department, fibers belonging to a General Motors car made between 1976 and 1978 were also found on Amy’s body. The fibers were tan in color and believed to have come from the interior of Amy’s killer’s car.

Another piece of information was released in 2016 when Bay Village police officials held a news conference, revealing they had evidence from where Amy’s body was found. They showed a drab olive-green curtain, which authorities said they believe came from the location where Amy was killed and was then used to transport her body to where it was dumped in Ashland County.

The curtain appears to have been handmade out of a bed comforter.

The curtain had been collected by the original investigators at the site where Amy was found. Authorities said they found hair on it that matched Amy’s dog.

Authorities hope there is someone out there who may recognize the curtain and be able to identify where it might have come from or who made it.

In the years since Amy first disappeared, investigators have received more than 20,000 tips, conducted tens of thousands of interviews and spent thousands of hours combing over every detail. Authorities are still actively involved and waiting for the moment the case will break.

Amy In The Media

Beyond the hundreds of news articles and television spots, Amy's case has been featured in two podcasts and multiple documentaries.

RELATED: New podcast 'Who killed Amy Mihaljevic' takes a deeper dive into a case that has haunted a community

Six years ago, Transition Studios made a Crime Stoppers Case Files documentary with the latest updates from the case.

You can watch the documentary in the player below:


CS/CF Northeast Ohio - Amy Mihaljevic from Transition Studios on Vimeo .

Amy’s Legacy

At the memorial service one year after the kidnapping, Amy’s mother urged everyone to “stop living in the shadow of Amy’s tragedy.”

“Let’s fill the void that her passing has left with positive thoughts, with a smile on our face and say she blessed our life for a while. Unfortunately, she is gone, but now we must live on. We must do what we can with what she gave to us while she was here,” Mihaljevic said.

Former News 5 reporter Deb Lee said it was Mihaljevic’s wish that “we learn from Amy’s tragedy, not wallow in sadness.”

Margaret McNulty Mihaljevic died in September 2001 without ever knowing who killed her daughter.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the FBI at 216-522-1400 or the Bay Village Police Department at 440-871-1234. A $25,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer.

You can read our most recent articles about the Amy Mihaljevic case here.