Friday, June 11, 2010

Where is Baby Beth?

by Kathryn Casey

These are the days of social networking, and like many of you, I’m on Facebook and Twitter. Because of what I do, I’ve befriended causes involving victims’ rights, law enforcement, crime, and pages devoted to helping the search for missing persons. Now I knew there were a lot of folks unaccounted for across not just the U.S. but the world, but seeing their names and photos, the desperate pleas of their families, touched me deeply. So much so that I decided to do the little I could to help, by focusing attention on some of these cases through posts in the coming months.

Toward that end, for my first such post, I’d like to familiarize you with the story of a little girl named Beth “Betsy” Gill, who disappeared exactly 45 years ago this Sunday.

June 13, 1965, was a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon. Lyndon Baines Johnson was in the White House, and the headlines were filled with articles about the Vietnam War. Picture yourself on Lorimier Street in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, as a two-year-old wanders out from a backyard, swinging a sand bucket. Her older siblings don’t notice at first that the toddler has left. This was a kinder, gentler era, or at least many assumed it was, and the Harry Gill family had been a comfortable presence in the area for generations, surrounded by not just neighbors but close friends. But within minutes, the little girl simply vanished.

When Anola Gill, the children’s mother, drove up a short time later, her sister rushed forward and said, “We can’t find Beth.” Anola collapsed on the ground. By then, police swamped the street, but the child, just 22 pounds, with light brown hair, wasn’t to be found. For the next four days, would-be rescuers searched ravines, abandoned cellars, junked cars, and the shores of the nearby Mississippi River. Dogs traced Beth’s path from the family backyard but stopped cold when they reached the street, as if the girl had been picked up and driven away.

In 1965, Beth’s disappearance was front page news not just in Missouri but across the U.S. police explained to reporters what lengths they’d gone to attempting to find the toddler, all to no avail. Where was Beth Gill? “I’m certain the child was kidnapped by someone who just wanted a little girl,” said the police chief, Irvin E. Beard. His conviction was a reflection of the times, when darker possibilities rarely if ever invaded the thoughts of those who searched for Beth.

Before long, the investigation turned cold. Then, five years after Beth vanished, it seemed that the riddle of her disappearance might be solved. In April 1970, a man named Phillip O’Dell Clark came forward, claiming that he’d hit the child with his car. Because he’d been drinking and didn’t have a driver’s license, Clark said he was afraid to take Beth to a hospital. Instead, he said he'd abandoned Beth's small body in a park, later returning to bury it.

Perhaps that would have been the end of the case, but authorities didn’t believe Clark, a convicted killer who by then was serving a life sentence. The inmate was desperate. He had a hit out on him in prison, and police speculated that Clark grabbed onto the Gill case hoping to get at least temporarily out of prison and back to the safer surroundings of the county jail. Adding to the doubts, some parts of Clark's story made no sense, and he later recanted, saying he had nothing to do with the case. “It was a diversion,” says Martha Gill Hamilton, who was fifteen on the day her baby sister disappeared.
The result is that for more than four decades, the Gill family has searched, wished, and waited. “It broke both my parents’ hearts,” says Hamilton. “My dad died in 1970. He grieved and grieved.” Her mother, who is now 82, has never stopped yearning for or searching for Beth. “When Beth first disappeared, I thought we’d find her, she’d turn up,” says Hamilton. “I don’t know how my mother has lived with this all these years.”

How did it affect the eight brothers and sisters? “It’s always been there,” says Hamilton, a real estate agent. “It’s always been in the backs of our minds that somewhere, Beth could be out there.”

What does Hamilton believe happened to her sister? In the days before the disappearance, Irish wayfarers, a gypsy-like crew, stayed in a motel behind the Gill house. What piques Martha’s curiosity is that they left town quickly the day after Beth disappeared. “The police weren’t able to catch up with these people,” she says. “The gypsies used multiple license plates and names, which gives the impression that they were involved in something illegal. I believe they either took Beth to raise or to sell.”

Over the years, three women seeking their real names and families have had their DNA tested to see if they might be Beth Gill. None were. If she’s alive, Beth is now 47 years old, and those are her photos above, as a toddler and (above right)in an age-enhanced portrait from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Hoping that someday her youngest child will resurface, Anola (pictured left with six of her children in 1989) has her DNA on file with CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System maintained by the FBI, to be available for future testing.

This Sunday at 8 p.m., to commemorate the anniversary of Beth's disappearance, much of the Gill family along with supporters plan to gather for a candlelight vigil near the old Mississippi bridge in Cape Girardeau. They'll dream of finding a sister long-lost and call attention to the plight of families of the missing.


Delilah said...

Kathryn, thank you so much for recognizing the need for families of the missing to know where their loved ones are. They never stop searching, never stop hoping for the day when they can find the answers.

I look forward to your future posts and I know many others do as well.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post. How awful that this family still has no closure after forty five years!

Kathryn Casey said...

Thanks, Delilah. Wish I could do more. I can't imagine how hard it must be on the families of the missing. Incredibly sad.

For anon: I hope someday the Gill family will know what happened to Beth. It would be a relief, I'm sure, to have an answer.

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