On November 19, 1988, 9-year-old Michaela Joy Garecht was abducted in broad daylight from Hayward, California. While sketches of her abductor were distributed nearly immediately, search efforts proved fruitless.
The first renewed interest of the case came in 2009 when Jaycee Dugard, who had been kidnapped and held captive by a couple for nearly 2 decades, was found. Though the couple was interviewed in relation to Michaela's abduction, nothing ever came of it. Additionally, in 2012, a convicted serial killer came into the conversation when it was brought to law enforcement's attention that the sketch looked similar to his accomplice. However, nothing ever connected the killers to Michaela. Today, the case is still cold.
Michaela was abducted on November 19, 1988 on a fall Saturday morning. She and her friend left home at around 10 am to ride their scooters to the market, which was only about 2 blocks away, to buy food and pop.
They arrived at the store and left their scooters by the front door and went inside to get their snacks. When they left, they began walking home, forgetting that they rode their scooters to the store. They turned back to retrieve them, but when they arrived, they saw one scooter was missing. They started looking around, and Michaela spotted it across the parking lot, placed near a parked car.
Being an innocent 9-year-old in the 80s, and not a true-crime obsessed adult in 2020, she went over to grab it, likely not thinking anything was amiss. But when Michaela leaned down to pick up her scooter, a white male came out of the parked car, picked her up around the waist with his right arm, and threw her into his car while she screamed.
Michaela's friend, Katrina Rodriguez, said: "I looked up when I heard a scream, and I saw a man putting her into his car. She was still screaming. I just stood and watched, frozen in shock." She was the only one who witnessed the kidnapping, and she darted back into the store to get help. The kidnapper escaped with Michaela while the clerk at the store called the police.
Immediately, the investigation went in the wrong direction. The clerk gave a description of a man who was "hippy-like"in appearance, having a mustache and driving a burgundy car... but a few days later, it was determined that she inadvertently mistook the kidnapper as another man driving through the parking lot. The media distributed this false description for 2 days after Michaela's abduction. "The first opportunity and best opportunity to rescue this girl was immediately after it happened, and for 2 days they were looking for the wrong person," said journalist Dennis Oliver.
The dispatcher and the police should have gotten, or at least corroborated the description, from Katrina. She was the only witness. She said the man was a white male in his twenties, and had severe acne all over his face. He had shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and was about 6 feet tall and slender. He was wearing a tee shirt and had blue eyes. Unlike the clerk's description, Katrina told police that he was driving a large, older model sedan that was tannish gold or cream in color. She remembered that the bumper was battered, perhaps from a previous accident.
It was already 2 days later when the correct description was distributed, but the search began right away. Her kidnapping was one of the most extensive police investigations ever done by the Hayward Police department. The FBI got involved, and forensic investigators inspected Michaela's scooter for fingerprints, fingerprints that they believed belonged to her abductor.
On November 30, Joe Montana, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, made a public appeal for Michaela's return. Nearly 4,000 tips came through by late December. But even then, they were no closer to finding the abductor, or finding Michaela. A $70,000 reward was posted, and her face was featured on milk cartons, as well as billboards and fliers. Over 42,000 missing person fliers were distributed by friends, family and volunteers within the first 24 hours of her disappearance.
The first potential break in the case came in December of 1992, which ended up being a false lead. Prison inmate Roger Haggard claimed to have buried Michaela's body. He was flown out to recover her body, but after 8 hours of inspecting the field he claimed to have buried her in, he admitted he was lying about it. 6.5 years were added to his existing sentence for lying.
Over the years, many suspects have come to mind in the case, but unfortunately, none have led to arrests.
In June of 1988, 7-year-old Amber Swartz had been kidnapped in Pinole, California. Because Pinole and Hayward are close in proximity, police believe the abductions of the girls could have been connected. Therefore, suspects in Amber's case became suspects in Michaela's case.
Tim Bindner had injected himself regularly in Amber's disappearance, making him a suspect in that abduction. He was also suspected of the disappearance of Ilene Mishelhoff, a 13-year-old who had disappeared from Dublin, California in 1989, and Amanda Campbell, who went missing from Fairfield, California in 1991. Bindner has repeatedly denied any involvement in any of the disappearances, and no evidence was ever found to connect him to any of the 4 cases.
However, he was weirdly involved in all of them. A 1997 book titled Stalemate: A Shocking True Story of Child Abduction and Murder, the author John Philpin detailed Bindner's involvement in the investigations surrounding the disappearances of all 4 girls.
Another suspect came to light in 2009 when Jaycee Lee Dugard was found. Jaycee had been abducted when she was 11 years old while walking to the school bus stop in Meyers, California. She had been held captive for 18 years by her abductors, Phillip and Nancy Garrido, until she was found in 2009. Because her kidnapping happened less than 3 years after Michaela's, the Garrido's were immediately seen as potential suspects.
Hayward is only about 1 hour away from Garrido's home, and Michaela's abduction occured only 3 years after he had been released from prison for rape and a different kidnapping charge. Jaycee had also been abducted in broad daylight and thrown in the back of a car, and the general description of both the kidnapper and car were similar in both cases. However, no connection was ever made between the 2 cases. Still, this renewed interest in the case, which brought forth new leads.
Another suspect is Richard Helwig. In March of 1989, 4 months after Michaela's abduction and 9 months after Amber Swartz disappeared, Helwig was stopped from entering the U.S. as he was leaving Mexico illegally. He was found with a significant amount of child porn, as well as articles about the disappearances of both girls. Investigations revealed that he had 2 children and a girlfriend in Mexico, and apparently, his 2 daughters were questioned separately and they said both girls had been there when they were shown pictures of them.
More than that, his girlfriend was wearing earrings and a tee shirt that matched what Michaela was wearing when she was missing. Weird. He was investigated thoroughly, but no evidence ever surfaced. He died in prison while serving time for child pornography charges. He would neither confirm or deny responsibility while on his death bed.
Michaela's mother, Sharon, believes this lead is the most intriguing, believing that, if true, she was likely kidnapped by traffickers and not a psycho who was hell bent on murder. It seems to give her hope to think this, believing that it could mean her daughter is alive somewhere.
The final suspect is one Loren Herzog. He and Wesley Shermantine made up the serial killing duo dubbed the Speed Freak Killers, who were convicted for 3 murders but suspected of up to 72. In 2012, Shermantine wrote a letter to The Stockton Record after Herzog committed suicide in prison, where he pointed out to police that his former killing partner bore a striking resemblance to the composite sketch of Michaela's kidnapper. The killers had been apprehended in 1999. Katrina said, "I thought then and I think now he could be the kidnapper. I think there are features that look very much like the man. It seems like a strong lead."
Shermantine gave permission for law enforcement to excavate an abandoned well in Linden, California where they used to dispose of their victims. Thousands of bone fragments were found, belonging to 5 different individuals, but unfortunately, DNA evidence excluded Michaela from the pile of bones. Another excavation of other abandoned wells took place the following year, but no remains were found.
In 2015, a detective was informed that a pair of shoes discovered in the wells bore a similarity to the shoes that Michaela had been wearing. However, the photographs and physical shoes have never been shared or inspected (at least as of March 2015.)
In my professional detective opinion, here is my ranking from least likely to most likely, and why.
4- Garrido. Though he had charges for rape and kidnapping before Jaycee, if he held someone for 18 years, it doesn't seem like his motives were to snatch and kill. I mean, certainly, he could have done that in 1988, not liked it, and then tried something else in 1991. But going from a snatch and kill to holding someone for 18 years is a pretty big MO switch, so I don't believe it.
3- Herzog. I know this is a flaw in my own analysis, but I rarely subscribe to the idea that unsolved deaths can just be attributed to area serial killers. It is a convenient guess, and there are certainly reasons to believe it could have been him (the similarities in looks, his accomplice essentially turning him in, etc.) but I don't think a serial killer who typically killed with a duo, killed people older than Michaela, and dumped their bodies in the same place is the guy.
2- Bindner. This guy seems like a huge creep. The fact that he injected himself or was in some way involved in 4 area abductions of young girls definitely makes him suspicious. Of course, he could just be a huge creep, but I don't know, he rubs me the wrong way. The type of guy who would opportunistically take a scooter so he could kidnap a child seems like the type of guy who would just give off creep-o vibes, and I think that's him.
1- Helwig. He is definitely the most suspicious and the fact that his daughters said the girls were there is super weird. Additionally, he had clippings of the girls and child porn, which makes him Top Creeper in my book. His back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico makes many people think he may have been involved in trafficking, meaning, in theory, Michaela could still be alive. (I've said it before and I've said it again... I'm not sure, as a parent, if I'd rather believe my child was dead or was sold into sex trafficking. Both are so unthinkably heartbreaking.)
Of course, it could have also been just any random creep, as well.
Michaela's mother keeps up with a blog where she tries to keep her daughter's memory alive, and keep people interested in the case. She hopes that her daughter is still alive somewhere.
This case is so terribly sad and scary, and something I could not imagine going through as anyone involved. I truly hope what happened to Michaela is discovered one day.