By Luz Villarreal, Dateline Producer
It was an early Monday morning in late August 2004. I was the first one in the office that day. I warmed up some instant oatmeal and started reading some of our local newspapers. One story jumped out at me. The headline read "Investigation into girl's disappearance leads to murder charges against mother."
The next day, I was sitting in Dick Pulsifer's living room. He's a simple, quiet man with a shy smile. He worked in security at a Las Vegas casino and also ran a karate school in town. He told me he grew up in San Diego and married young. I could tell he was trying to keep his emotions in check.
While we talked, his wife, Cathe, was fielding phone calls from media organizations across the country. I was the lucky one; when I knocked on their door that morning, they agreed to give Dateline the exclusive to their story.
The woman in the headline I read the previous morning was Dick's first wife and the girl was their daughter, Michelle Kelly Pulsifer. She was only 3 years old when she went missing in 1969.
During this meeting and all those that followed, I learned just how hard Dick Pulsifer tried to find Michelle after his ex-wife mysteriously fled California nearly 40 years ago. He contacted social services, the police and the district attorney's office. He said they all turned him away.
He searched on the Internet and telephoned a few people listed as Michelle Pulsifer. Every time Dick was in a crowd, he wondered if he could recognize the little girl who would now be an adult, possibly with kids of her own. He held out hope that someday she would walk up his home, knock on his door and surprise him.
But that would never happen. Investigators told him Michelle never left the state of California alive.
When police arrested the little girl's mother, Donna Prentice, they also arrested her former boyfriend, Michael Kent. Both entered not guilty pleas in Santa Ana, Calif.
I spent hours talking to friends, relatives and investigators trying to piece Michelle's life together. I also tried to interview Donna. Her attorney wouldn't allow it. I tried to interview Michael Kent, but he was in poor health and died in jail six months after his arrest.
Next, I turned to Michael's son, Jamie Kent. He was only two years old at the time of Michelle's death and had no memory of her but he did remember what his father told him in 2004 after he was arrested and charged with her murder. Still, Jamie didn't want to share his story with us. He has a family of his own now and wanted to protect them. But he is the only person alive who could defend his father and speak on his behalf. After several calls, Jamie agreed to talk to us and tell us what he knew.
The case took nearly three years to work its way through the judicial system. Throughout the process, I kept reminding myself, "This is a story about Michelle." To me, it's not about Donna Prentice, Michael Kent or even the people that loved her. It's about a little girl who never had a chance.
Dick never stopped loving his little girl. All he wants now are answers. Was it an accident? Was it malicious? How did it happen? He said to me once, "I have no clue what happened to Michelle. That's the question, and that's the answer I'll probably never get. I don't know what a three year old could possibly do to make this happen."
Dick Pulsifer hoped to find out in court. We all did.
A special Dateline on this case, 'The Girl in the Little Blue Dress,' airs on NBC Friday, March 14 at 9pm ET. Click here for the full story and video.