The Girl with the Sideways Ponytail: Searching for Answers in Cleveland’s Coldest Case

Amy
How does a child just disappear?
When I was in the sixth grade, a girl was abducted not far from where my mother lived. Her body was later found lying facedown in a wheat field. That event became the demarcation line between my childhood and an early adolescence. From the day she was snatched away, I began searching the world for her killer.

Amy Mihaljevic was approaching her eleventh birthday in the fall of 1989. She was a precocious girl. The kind who naturally migrated toward the adults in the crowd. A pretty girl with old soul eyes and blond hair she sometimes wore in a sideways ponytail. That fall was especially tough for Amy and her mom. They were arguing a lot, the way moms and daughters will do as the child begins to mature faster than either would like. When the killer called Amy at home after school, he got lucky with his pickup line. He said he worked with her mother and asked Amy if she would like to go with him to pick out a present to celebrate her mom’s recent promotion.

It was all a lie. Her mother had not received a promotion. The man didn’t work with Amy’s mom. He was a cunning predator and he knew how to talk to kids. They set up a meeting for Friday, October 27. He met her at a strip mall across the street from the police station at around three in the afternoon and casually walked Amy to a nearby car.  A jogger found her corpse on the side of a country road four months later.

Maybe it was the simple fact that Amy and I were the same age. Or the proximity of the crime to my mother’s house on the west side of Cleveland. For some reason, I’ve been obsessed with solving this case for twenty-two years. When I was a kid, I’d ride my bike to the neighborhood mall and search for her abductor’s face in the crowds. After college, I became a reporter and Amy’s murder was the first major story I pitched.

Wanted poster
He should have been easy to find.
Until 2005, when I began digging around for real, all the public knew about the case was the location of the abduction and how Amy’s body had been found fully dressed in a field shortly thereafter. I figured the spread of suspects must be pretty small and easy to find. But Bay Village, the whitebread town where Amy was kidnapped, is deep for secrets.

First of all, this isn’t Bay Village’s most infamous murder. That accolade belongs to the gruesome killing of Marilyn Sheppard, in 1954. That case inspired the TV show The Fugitive and the hunt for the one-armed man. It remains, to this day, unsolved. Residents of Bay Village take a strange sort of pride in their sordid history. You have to respect that when you push them for details.

Also, Bay Village is perhaps the wealthiest suburb of Cleveland. It’s decidedly more difficult to get people to dish on their neighbors when their neighbor is a lawyer or someone who can afford a lawyer. But eventually, a couple people began to talk. And once word got around, a strange and macabre one-upsmanship began, as sources tried to outdo their friend’s disturbing tale.

Turns out, many men had their eye on young Amy Mihaljevic.

There was the lawyer who lived on her block, who later got in trouble for dropping his pants in front of a lady at the post office; the dentist whose daughter rode horses with Amy, who got busted for sending a love letter to a little girl; the accountant for the Catholic church who gave money to Amy’s family at the wake and then tried to solicit an underage hooker; the teacher-of-the-year that looked like the composite sketch of her abductor and who ran away one year before retirement to live in a homeless shelter on Key West.

As I dug deeper, I began to risk my own safety and sanity.

I climbed into one suspect’s attic crawl space to find a hidden nook with threatening messages and satanic symbols carved into the walls. When one suspect wouldn’t return my calls, I confronted him at his diocese cubicle. I flew to Florida and spent a night at a homeless shelter talking to men who might have information. Eventually, the doom and gloom of this search weighed on my soul.

In 2008, after many sleepless nights, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had contracted the condition like secondhand smoke. By listening to so many stories of violence, it was as if I had experienced trauma myself. Embedded reporters returning from the Middle East have unfortunately encountered this problem as well.

Amy’s memorial
Twenty-two years after her death, a new memorial.
Since then, I have pulled back a bit on my search for Amy’s killer. My boxes of notes have been transferred to the special collections archive at Kent State. I trade cards with her family at Christmas.

How would the world be different if Amy had lived? How different would my own life be? How far am I willing to go for an answer? Those questions inspired my first novel, The Man from Primrose Lane. And what I discovered was quite frightening.


James Renner is a reformed muckraker who now writes novels and short fiction. He also occasionally dabbles in film and comedy. his debut novel, The Man from Primrose Lane, will be published this month by Sarah Crichton Books.

Comments

  1. Kathleen Ryan

    I sympathize with your plight, James. I learned about an unsolved murder as a child (my grandmother was an armchair detective) and I ultimately became a police officer and patrolled the area where the victim lived and worked (fate ironically arranged this; it wasn’t something I actively pursued). The story takes amazing twists & turns, as I ultimately find myself in a position to investigate the case and interview primary sources, and I uncover the origin of the murder weapon in the most unusual way. I’ve written a true crime memoir about it, but many folks are trying to convince me to fictionalize the story. The jury’s still out on that one.
    I’m sorry you’ve suffered as a result of your pursuit. You’ve done an amazing job, James, trying to find answers to this poor girl’s tragic death. What a tremendous donation you’ve made to the archives at Kent State.
    I have to assume Amy must have shared that information about the phone call to a friend?
    Your novel sounds awesome ~ I look forward to reading it!
    Best wishes!

  2. dk

    I wish you every success with this project. It is truly a life-project, I understand. I am much older than you, but as a child, I escaped a predator. I am still haunted. The man died in a Florida prison, still with the hollow shark eyes of evil, still chilling me now. I am one of the lucky ones. He made crimes against women and children his career, and I was probably one of his first mistakes. We start out so innocent and trusting, until some “EVIL” insinuates himself into our existence. But once that happens, we are never the same. We forever will cheer and slam our fist down on the table, “YES!” when a predator is found and forced to pay for the priceless treasure he stole. I salute you, Mr. Renner, and I have to say, I understand how this thing has taken over a large part of your life. I join you in praying for justice for little Amy, and so many others….

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