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Gone but Not Forgotten

Dublin remembers a girl who vanished 20 years ago.


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Courtesy of the Misheloff Family

Tim Sbranti did not know Ilene Misheloff all that well. They went to school together, starting in the first grade, but didn’t happen to be close friends. One day, when they were eighth-graders at Wells Middle School in Dublin, they had a mundane conversation in the style of adolescent school acquaintances, nothing profound—the future journalism teacher and Dublin mayor was trying to get Ilene to buy a copy of the school newspaper.

It was January 30, 1989, the same day that 13-year-old Ilene disappeared while walking home from school. Sbranti says that when he learned Ilene was missing at a school assembly the next morning, he thought, it’s a misunderstanding; she’ll be back by nightfall.

Twenty years later, no one knows if Ilene is still alive, who took her, or why. Her disappearance devastated her family and close friends. It also reached deep into the hearts of people who knew her less well, people like Sbranti, who, after all this time, attends a candlelight vigil each January to remember the happy, bright girl who loved figure skating. Sbranti says that to this day, his brief final conversation with his classmate is a vivid childhood memory.

More than a hundred people have attended each annual vigil, even in recent years. Many are longtime friends of Ilene’s parents, Mike and Maddi, and her two brothers, Robert and Brian, the latter being Ilene’s 33-year-old twin. Some are Ilene’s classmates. Others are simply residents of Dublin, including ones who were not yet living in Dublin at the time of Ilene’s disappearance, and some who were not even born in 1989. Although Dublin has doubled in size to a population of 50,000 since Ilene’s disappearance, the town’s connection to the case remains remarkably strong. 

Former mayor Janet Lockhart says the still-resounding impact of the tragedy may relate to how shocking it was at the time. She says Dublin felt “completely” safe before the abduction, and that the case inspired Dublin residents to reach out to one another. “It strengthened our resolve to stay a small town,” Lockhart says. “It has made us a more caring and reflective community.”

Mike and Maddi Misheloff still live in the house on the west side of Dublin, where they moved when Ilene was in fifth grade. They describe her as a cheerful, loving daughter—and a hardworking figure skater, who put in 20 to 30 hours’ practice each week at Dublin Iceland skating rink.

It was there that Maddi discovered Ilene was missing. Mike says Maddi was frantic when she called him at work, saying, “Ilene is gone.” Mike raced back to Dublin and met Maddi at the ice rink. Ilene was supposed to have gone there after stopping off at home, and Maddi was going to pick her up after work.

Ilene had left school at about 2:30, walking home through neighborhoods everyone considered safe. She normally walked west on Amador Valley Boulevard, past the Shamrock Village shopping center, and took a well-used shortcut along a dry creek bed and behind Nielsen Elementary School. Police who traced her path say she never made it home.

The next day, TV satellite trucks lined the Misheloffs’ cul-de-sac, and news reporters crowded into their living room. Her disappearance hit hard throughout the Bay Area, in part because Ilene was the third East Bay girl to be kidnapped in seven months. The first was Amber Swartz, seven, who vanished while jumping rope in front of her Pinole home in June. Then, Michaela Garecht, nine, was snatched by a man in front of a Hayward market in November.

“Parenting in the East Bay was not the same after that,” Sbranti says. “After Ilene disappeared, parents were going to check in more frequently, set up carpools, and even say no to your going places.”

Although the police still get tips about Ilene’s disappearance, they can’t discuss them because that could jeopardize what is still an open case. Detective Wes Horn says files related to Ilene’s case and other evidence fill a large closet at the department. A missing children’s flyer with a photo of Ilene hangs prominently in his office.

Those flyers also hang in the windows of the Misheloffs’ living room and cars. Mike acknowledges the possibility that Ilene died long ago, “but I won’t accept that as a certainty until we have proof.” Maddi, likewise, holds onto hope that Ilene will return. “We wake up every day saying, this is the day she’s going to be found. … I can’t give up on my child.”

Through their grief and suffering, the Misheloffs have managed to maintain a huge network of friends. “Mike and Maddi are the most amazing people,” says Liz Pallesen, who was one of Ilene’s best friends and one of the last people to see her before she left school 20 years ago. Pallesen, who teaches fourth grade in Alameda, says she is inspired by the faith Ilene’s parents hold in the possibility of their daughter’s return. “It helps me put things in my own life into perspective,” she says.

Pallesen and Sbranti have attended nearly every vigil. Such devotion shows how the tragedy has become a part of the community’s “collective consciousness,” says Harry Manhoff, the rabbi at the Misheloffs’ synagogue.

For Sbranti, the gathering shows how people in Dublin still look out for each other: “A lot of people have left, and new people have moved in and heard that something terrible happened. They have a level of empathy, and they want to show support for the family. It’s great to see that Ilene is not forgotten.”

The exact date and time for the vigil, to take place at Dublin’s St. Raymond’s Catholic Church, is not yet set. Call (925) 829-3810 for information. To contact police about Ilene Misheloff’s case, call (800) 635-6306. ■

 

 

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