Did you ever lose a friend growing up? Wonder what their life might look like today if they hadn’t died? What they would look like? What they’d be doing for a living? If they'd have children?
For the community of Bay Village, about 14 miles west of Cleveland, a lot of people are still asking those questions about a girl named Amy Mihaljevic.
Thirty years ago, it was one of the most high-profile kidnappings and killings ever in Northeast Ohio. High profile, because it got a lot of national attention, in a place where crime just didn’t happen.
A boogeyman leaving casualties. A mother who never got over it. A witness who beats himself up over not memorizing the license plate of the car that whisked Amy away. A brother who wishes he'd stayed with his sister after school. A police department that warned Amy’s fifth grade class on the day she disappeared about strangers, but failed to stop Amy from ultimately leaving with one after school. And a community, that to this day, conjures her name in a warning: “Be careful of adults. Don’t end up like Amy Mihaljevic.”
It's a fate no one would wish on their worst enemy. Because when she was found, months after her disappearance, she’d been stabbed twice in the neck, beaten over the head with a blunt object and sexually assaulted.
She was left by the side of a rural road, while her killer got away.
A 10-year-old girl who loved horses and wore a cross around her neck in one of the most-published missing children’s posters of all time. She would never come home and never grow up.
Meanwhile, her disappearance and death caused an all-out frenzy, starting with her mother, followed by her community, then her friends. It's a frenzy that hasn't fully ended.
Amy’s dad, Mark, was a car salesman. Her mother, Margaret, sold ads for cars at a paper called the “Trading Times,” which carried all kinds of classifieds.
A lot was different then.
No internet, no way to send or receive a mobile push alert, or even an AMBER Alert.
And on Oct. 27, 1989, there was no way to track Amy.
That Friday, Amy was at school, where a Bay Village police officer named Mark Spaetzel spoke to her class about "stranger danger." He’d later go on to become a detective on Amy's case.
At that time, Spaetzel had no idea that Amy had already been contacted by a stranger just days before -- and that she planned to meet him.
A man, who called her home and seemed to know her family. He told Amy that her mom had recently received a job promotion and asked to meet in a public place to pick out a present, suggesting a shopping center just a block from Amy’s school.
Amy agreed to meet him, and even told a few friends. But she did not tell her family, likely believing she was protecting a surprise from a man who called her by name outside an ice cream shop that fateful day.
He was described as white, between 35 and 45 years old, about 5-foot-8, medium build, with dark hair and glasses.
We know this, because we spoke with someone who may have been a witness.
Rick Burns is a mechanic who worked at the shopping plaza where Amy was abducted. His shop is right behind it.
There are three strips of stores surrounding a parking lot in the middle. Rick’s auto shop is behind one of those strips, just on the other side of a small alley that empties onto the road. That's the alley where the abductor parked his car, in a spot that Burns sometimes used himself.
“It was a brownish-gold GM and it was parked right here," Burns recalled.
Burns said he assumed it was a father picking up his daughter. Now, he wishes he had only remembered the license plate.
He says it’s a habit now, memorizing plates, in the event he could one day provide helpful information. But he was still helpful in 1989, with a description that was soon key to the suspect composite.
It should be noted that Burns first told police he hadn't seen any suspect car when he was first interviewed in 1989. He provided the description of the GM years later, but police say he recanted it.
It's still, frankly, sort of vague. Think of this -- the abductor never gave reason for anyone to pay closer attention at the time. A father picking up his daughter – how close would you look? It only made the case harder for investigators.
Amy got out of Bay Middle School around 2 p.m. By 2:45, she was outside the Baskin-Robbins at the shopping plaza, and soon after that, in a strange man’s car.
And here’s where it gets really weird.
In the Mihaljevic household, the kids were required to call their mom at work after school, just to let her know they’re OK.
Amy’s brother, Jason, called from home around 3:10 p.m. and told his mother that his sister wasn’t home yet. Then Amy called, around 3:30 p.m., 20 minutes later, to tell her mom that everything was fine.
Margaret Mihaljevic assumed Amy had returned home. But she hadn't.
And when Margaret came home from work, she learned Amy never had.
She then did what any worried parent would do, calling friends and neighbors, retracing Amy’s route back to school, where the girl’s bike was still on a rack. And then – just before 6 p.m. – she went to police to report her daughter missing.
It was on the 11 p.m. news.
That night, the mother curled up beneath the phone mounted on her wall, waiting, waking up to the first day of the rest of her life without her daughter.
The place where Amy placed that phone call remains a mystery – a pay phone likely, but where? Records didn’t exist back then.
As the trail went cold, Amy’s story went national. Parents freaked.
After all, Family Circle magazine had ranked Bay Village as the country’s sixth safest city.
Communities soon canceled trick-or-treating. By Thanksgiving, there were 800,000 posters of Amy’s face, which people took with them and posted in faraway places where they traveled. Countless volunteers searched and spread the word.
On her birthday, Dec.11, Amy's classmates planted a tree by their school as both a present and a wish for a safe return. Later, at 7 p.m. that night, every church bell in Bay Village rang in unison.
Back at Amy’s home, there was a candle by her picture and one in the window, and another message from her mother – wearier than the last. She looked tired on TV as she said, "Oh, happy birthday. We miss you. Come home. It’s very difficult to have a birthday party without the birthday girl.”
Earlier that day, officials announced a reward for information that led to Amy's return.
“I ask as Amy’s mother on this, her 11th birthday, to give us the gift of that information," Margaret Mihaljevic pleaded.
Christmas came next, followed by a new year. Nothing… until Feb. 8, when a jogger found a body along County Road 1181, a rural road in Ashland County, in Ruggles Township, 50 miles from where Amy was abducted.
The gruesome details came next.
Amy had suffered what so many had feared. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner determined Amy had been stabbed in the neck multiple times.
Later that year, on Oct. 27, 1990, the first anniversary of Amy's disappearance, Margaret Mihaljevic spoke again, at a service for her daughter. She stood beside a marble monument to Amy in a park at the center of Bay Village. It looked like a headstone.
“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," Margaret Mihaljevic said.
But in the shadow of Amy’s death, living wasn’t easy. After all, her killer was still loose. If he could get the Mihaljevics' daughter, how could he not get someone else’s?
Soon, 20 other girls came forward, saying a strange man also called them, wanting to meet. And there were even more suspects, with investigators conducting roughly 20,000 interviews, using truth serum at times; other times, hypnosis.
It was all to catch a killer, who didn’t just take a life, but also took trophies.