Michael Dunahee is the boy everyone knows but no one has met.
He has been missing now two decades, the details of his disappearance as chilling of those of a television docudrama. Last seen at a playground next to a school. A father looking back while standing on a rocky outcropping, puzzled why he can't spot his son. Two touch football games halted as players scour the area. A frantic telephone call to police at 12:03 p.m. on March 22, 1991.
A tape recording of the call was marked Exhibit No. 1 and sealed in a manila envelope before being placed in a file cabinet at police headquarters.
It is evidence in a case that remains more mystery than crime. After 20 years of investigation, after the checking of thousands of tips, after input from do-gooders and psychics and trouble-makers, no charges have been laid.
There is no crime scene.
There is only the absence of a boy.
Crystal and Bruce Dunahee, the parents who have carried this burden for so long, once again appeared before cameras and microphones last week. They do what they can to ensure the case of their missing son is not forgotten by the public.
As if any of us who live in Victoria, any of us who are parents, any of us with empathy could ever forget.
Michael Dunahee vanished 7,311 days ago. For more than half that time, Don Bland, a detective sergeant with the Victoria police, worked on the case. On the first anniversary of the boy's disappearance, he showed me the department's work to that point: 12,000 tips; 789 possible sightings; exhibits including another sealed envelope whose contents included a boy's grey sock and underwear decorated with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, samples from a missing boy's dresser drawer available for comparison should such a gruesome task be necessary.
With each passing year, it seems ever more incredible to imagine that a missing boy has survived to become a man.
"If he were still out there - and here's hoping he is - he's 24 years old," said Mr. Bland. "If he is still with us, he doesn't know where he came from, or thinks he was raised by somebody that isn't really his true parents. If it's gone this long, god knows how much longer it could go."
Mr. Bland, 57, retired as a detective more than seven years ago. He is not by nature an optimist, the sunny side of life not always apparent for those whose working days involve corpses.
"Everything you can surmise might happen is based on assumptions based on the balance of probabilities," he said.
"Statistically speaking I don't think it's a good outcome. Crystal, bless her heart, she's still holding out hope. I hope she's right."
He remains stumped by the Dunahee case.
He heard about the missing boy on the day he disappeared, was on the case the following morning.
"You've got a set of parents and you couldn't imagine anything worse happening to them," he said. "At the same time, as an investigator, you have to look at them as suspects. It's a touchy business."
Police checked out the parents, the football players, the neighbours. All were cleared.
For the first month, he worked 20-hour days on the case. Michael was reported spotted at a highway rest stop in New York; at a convenience store in New Jersey; in a home video filmed on northern Vancouver Island. Every lead was checked out. Someone called in to say Michael, the cherubic, blue-eyed boy from the Missing posters, had his skin dyed black and was living in the United States. That, too, was checked out.
"After thousands of interviews and re-enactments, there's not a living soul who saw him disappear," he said.
"Except the person who took him."
He spent 27 years "at the pointy end of policing," walking the beat before finishing as a detective with major crimes. He handled plenty of cases - a gangland slaying; the strangulation of teenager Kimberley Gallup, whose body was found in a motel room; "a few drug murders here and there." Some were solved, some were not.
He wishes he could have brought the Dunahee case to a resolution.
"I would have liked to have settled it, one way or the other," he said.
"Bad news is better than no news."
On Facebook, you can find a page titled "We will never forgot Michael Dunahee." It has 6,210 members. It is administered by Caitlin Dunahee, a young woman who now plays touch football like her mother before her. She was born shortly before her brother went missing, a time so long passed that he disappeared before the World Wide Web even was available on the Internet.
Special to The Globe and Mail