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Dateline Producer's Notebook for 'Vanished' (Jan. 11)

Vince Sturla
Producer, Dateline NBC

Searching for the missing is a personal and passionate cause for Marc Klaas. The first time he took to the field,  in October 1993, was during a frantic, two-month hunt for his own daughter—twelve year-old, Polly.  Searches were,  at times,  chaotic and disorganized as volunteers, with little skill or training, took to the hills. Search efforts that were ultimately fruitless.  Polly’s body wasn’t found until her killer confessed to detectives, eventually taking them to Polly’s burial site. Realizing there was a need for trained search teams, Klaas formed the KlaasKids Foundation--led by a professional search director--to aid families looking for missing loved ones.  One of the most notable cases involving Klaas’ group was the hunt for Amber Dubois, a 14 year- old who disappeared north of San Diego in 2009. Sadly, Dubois was found murdered 13 months after her disappearance.  A year later, in June 2011, the KlaasKids Foundation was asked to help in the search for Michelle Le.

The Hayward Police Department was deep into the criminal investigation, at that time, but simply didn’t have the staff to do an extended, wide-ranging search for Michelle.  To get an idea of the area that needed to be canvassed, take a look at this map that investigators put together.  

 

This is an aerial view of the southeast corner of the San Francisco Bay Area.  On the left side you’ll see a cluster of numbers in a circle around a building. Those are the times Giselle Esteban and Michelle Le’s phones pinged off the cell tower at the top of the parking garage. 

Now follow the lines and arrows to the right. Michelle’s phone is depicted in yellow, Giselle’s in red.  This is the route the two phones went on the night of May 27, 2011. The red and yellow lines are not the exact path the phones took, they merely connect the various cell towers in a chronological order as they detected either Michelle or Giselle’s phone. The towers are depicted as either a yellow or red dot.  If you look closely you’ll also see the hills and canyons that run north and south. Looking for body here--especially if it was buried--would be labor intensive work.  So you can see how helpful it was for Marc Klaas to a):  get this cell tower information from police to narrow the search area and b): help raise and organize search teams. 

 

Michelle Le’s body was discovered on the right side of this map, west of Interstate 680, a few miles south of the northern most cell tower--pretty much where the number 4 is--found by Carrie McGonigle’s  dog, “Amber.” Less than a year old at the time, “Amber” was being trained to be a search and rescue dog, not a cadaver dog. So, it’s odd she found Michelle’s body at all. Carrie, still devastated by the loss of her daughter, was very much hoping she would not be the one to find Michelle.

Since then, Michelle’s cousin, Krystine, and brother, Michael, have been active volunteers with the KlaasKids Foundation.  Like Klaas and McGonigle  before them, they’re willing to relive their grief--their pain—to help other families lost and in need—new members  in a group that Klaas sardonically refers to as, “The Club That Nobody Wants To Be a Part Of.”

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