The Coldest Case

16 years after Amy Mihaljevic vanished, the hunt for her killer presses on.

Kasabian Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, $12, 216-321-5588
Before there was Natalee Holloway, Shasta Groene, or Shakira Johnson, there was the little girl with the ponytail.

It's the ponytail, braided on the left, that most people remember first. Just a side-saddle swish dangling above the half-closed eyes of a 10-year-old girl, smiling for her class photo.

Amy Mihaljevic always hated that picture.

But the image was burned into Northeast Ohio's consciousness after she was abducted in October 1989. For three months, it hung from telephone poles, flashed on daily newscasts, and peered out from front pages of suburban newspapers.

Sixteen years later, Amy's spirit still haunts the upper-middle-class suburban bubble that is Bay Village. That snapshot remains chiseled into its fabric; it's on a rose garden memorial under a magnolia tree at the police station, on a slab of wood inside the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center, and on a plaque collecting dust in the library of the new middle school.

In Bay, where dilemmas usually consist of whether to take chips or dessert to the block party, unsolved murders are taken personally. Locals still cringe about the 1954 slaying of Dr. Sam Sheppard's wife -- the case that inspired The Fugitive and the search for "the one-armed man." Shepherd spent 10 years in jail before the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, and his son still fights to clear his name. Did the doctor get away with murder, or did the window-washer do it? Everyone in town has an opinion, even today.

Likewise, many have their own theory about who stole Amy, though no one has ever been charged. The 60 FBI agents once assigned to the case have dwindled to one. At the police department, Detective Mark Spaetzel has become the reluctant curator of 14,000 interviews, 8,000 leads, four file cabinets stuffed with reports, two shelves of bound photographs, and a locked cabinet containing evidence. It's all kept in a broom closet, a sort of makeshift mausoleum.

Spaetzel was a kid cop in 1989, with four years in the department. Today, he is a well-worn family man, his hair graying at the temples. Amy smiles down at him each day from the missing-child poster that hangs above his desk. The fleet of volunteers and the phalanx of investigators have long since retreated in frustration. But Spaetzel hasn't given up. The two or three new leads that come in each week motivate him.

"I think about it like it was yesterday," he says. "The next tip that comes in could be the one."

Until then, he whittles away at a shrinking list of suspects. Keeping Amy alive is his job.

Mark Mihaljevic met Margaret in high school in the tiny Wisconsin burg of West Allis. Wanderlust led the newlyweds to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Mark got a job with Buick. He was a field rep, handling complaints and warranties. It was his job, once a year, to ship the biggest watermelon in the state to the corporate headquarters in Flint. The couple started their family in Little Rock -- first with a boy named Jason, then, in 1978, with Amy Renee.

Mark was transferred, briefly to Mississippi, then to Cleveland in 1984. They bought a four-bedroom colonial on Lindford Road in Bay Village. It seemed like the safest place around.

Before long, the Mihaljevics grew comfortable in their new routine. Margaret would shuttle Jason and Amy to friends' houses or the park during the day, then Mark would come home and take them to the pool to cool off at night. Picked on by other kids because of his weight, Jason spent most of his time building model cars in the basement and helping neighborhood adults with small chores. Amy, however, had no trouble making friends.

To neighbors, she was a little bundle of kinetic energy, zigzagging her banana-seat bicycle down the sidewalk, waving at everyone. When Margaret visited friends, Amy trailed behind like a miniature shadow and always joined in the conversation.

Nine doors down lived Kristen Balas, who was a grade ahead of Amy. Some days, they would flatten pennies on the railroad tracks behind Lindford. Mostly, they would stay inside and watch reruns of The Monkees on Nickelodeon. Amy knew it was time to go home when the streetlights came on.

She also befriended a classmate named Kristen Sabo, who lived a few streets away. During the summer of 1989, Amy was at the Sabos' house practically every day. Kristen's mother, Jeanne, came to think of Amy as her adopted daughter.

"Amy spent a lot of time at my house because I didn't want her to be alone," remembers Jeanne. Margaret Mihaljevic had an escalating drinking problem and would drop Amy off late at night for impromptu sleepovers, Jeanne recalls.

Most days, Amy looked slightly disheveled. She preferred sweats to jeans, and when she talked or smiled, she tilted her head so she could look out from her unbrushed hair. Jeanne lovingly nicknamed her "Ragamuffin."

"They didn't have a lot of money," she says of the Mihaljevics. "Every time I saw her, I just wanted to make her up. She was a beautiful kid."

Sleepovers at the Sabo house were mainly spent with the two girls sharing a living-room chair, memorizing lines from Dirty Dancing or Sixteen Candles. When Amy grew tired, she would lie down and rock herself to sleep.

"'Do you mind if I rock?' she would ask me," recalls Kristen. "I would just say, 'Rock on, Amy. Rock on.'"

Amy and Kristen also formed a babysitters club that summer. They passed out fliers around Bay Village, advertising their services. Both Amy's and Kristen's home numbers were printed on the front.

The pair began to grow apart when Kristen joined a soccer team and Amy took up riding horses at Holly Hill Farms, which sat just across the border from Bay in Avon Lake. Amy, like the other girls, wore a black blazer, cap, and boots whenever she rode Razzle through the farm's obstacle course. For two years prior to 1989, she visited Holly Hill once a week for lessons. By that October, she was spending almost every day at the stables.

"Right at the end, she would take her bike out there," Mark says, shaking his head. "She was unsupervised."

Friday, October 27, was picture-retake day at Bay Middle School. Amy hated the ponytail in the photo taken at the start of the year. She was a fifth-grader now, and she wanted to wear her hair down.

Indian summer had settled in that week, so many students made the half-mile trek to Baskin-Robbins that afternoon. Amy had told her parents she was staying after school for choir tryouts. But she was really meeting someone, according to schoolmate Kristen Balas. Amy had told Balas that a man had called her at home, after school, earlier in the week. He had said that he worked with Amy's mother, and that she had just gotten a promotion. He suggested they get her a present, and he told her not to spoil the surprise by telling anyone.

According to Balas, Amy was instructed to meet him in the parking lot next to Baskin-Robbins on Friday. Amy knew her mother had started a part-time job recently with Tradin' Times, the barter magazine in Rocky River, but she didn't know everyone who worked there. And lately, she and her mom had been fighting. Amy told Balas she had overheard her parents talking about divorce.

Amy agreed to meet the man. She told friends not to tell anyone.

Wearing a lavender shirt with green sweatpants and ankle-high black boots, Amy left her bicycle in the rack at school and made her way to the ice-cream shop. When the junior high let out an hour later, her brother also started in that direction, until he noticed a group of boys ahead. They were bullies -- older boys who picked on him. So he changed direction and went home instead. When he arrived and Amy wasn't there, he called his mom at work. Margaret told him that Amy had gone to a choir function and should be back soon. She asked Jason to have her call when she got in.

At 3:30, Jason called his mom again. "Amy's still not home," he said. Alarmed, Margaret prepared to leave the office. Then Amy called.

Margaret asked Amy about choir, she would later recall.

"Choir meets on Wednesday and Thursday," Amy answered.

"Wait a minute. This is Friday. Why were you there?"

Amy grew quiet.

"Is this some kind of audition or something?" Margaret asked.

"Yeah, it was for the new people."

Margaret assumed that Amy was calling from home. They spoke for a moment longer before hanging up. Still, something didn't feel right. Amy, normally talkative, had kept her answers short.

Margaret finished packing for the weekend and went home early anyway. When she stepped across the threshold of her house, she was greeted only by Jason.

"Mom, she's still not home." It was 4:30.

Margaret drove to the school to find Amy's bike still leaning in the rack. Then she bolted to the police station. Though Amy had been missing for only a couple of hours, her disappearance was immediately treated as an abduction, her description called in to cruisers and passed along to surrounding communities.

By the time Mark Mihaljevic came home from work, Margaret was hysterical. Between convulsions of sobs, she called all of Amy's friends, trying to figure out who had seen her last. Jeanne Sabo mobilized the PTA. Names of all the fifth-graders were divided among the board members, who called each child to see whether anyone knew where she was. No one did.

Desperation grew palpable as the sun retreated over the treetops. Mark frantically searched Amy's favorite haunts. He checked back at school, then at Huntington Park. He and a friend followed a small creek behind the school to where it drained into Lake Erie, shouting her name into the darkening autumn sky.

Sabo drove Amy's class picture downtown to Channel 3. She pulled back into the Mihaljevics' driveway just in time to hear Margaret's primal scream. Amy's picture had just come up on TV.

The FBI was alerted 14 hours after Amy disappeared, and a command post was set up inside the Bay Village Police Department. Special Agent Dick Wrenn, who lived a few streets away from Lindford Road, led the investigation.

Among the first people he spoke to was Kristen Balas, who told him about Amy's plans to meet a man she had spoken to on the phone. To Wrenn, it sounded like the clue that would solve the mystery. But the man's call had been placed from a local number; only long-distance calls were logged by the phone company at the time.

Another classmate had seen Amy leaning against a post in the parking lot of Baskin-Robbins, talking to a white man with large round glasses and dark hair, with a bald spot near the back of his head. A composite sketch was created; from that moment on, the black-and-white rendering accompanied Amy's photo everywhere.

Over the first weekend, dozens of volunteers set up their own headquarters in the basement of the police station. There, they ran off endless copies of Amy's picture and the composite sketch, and prepared food for the investigators working upstairs.

By Saturday afternoon, FBI agents with search dogs began to canvass the area around Holly Hill Farms. Over several days, planes with heat-sensing equipment swept over the woods and fields that surrounded the stables.

Wrenn turned his attention to Harold "H.B." Bound, the son of the farm's owner. A paranoid schizophrenic and veteran of Vietnam, Bound lived in a small apartment above the garage and cleaned out stalls at the stables. A gun enthusiast, he kept a collection of firearms and other weapons in his room.

Jennifer O'Brien, who rode horses with Amy, recalls seeing Bound walking through fields behind the barn in camouflage, carrying a bow. She remembers feeling uneasy around him.

"All of us girls thought he was really creepy," says Shannon Conway, who also took lessons at the farm. "He would wander around the barn sometimes. Every girl at the barn assumed H.B. did it."

In questioning with Wrenn, Bound offered no verifiable alibi for October 27. His brother, Greg, later said he saw Harold return to the farm late that night. He took multiple lie-detector tests, but was never held. Within a week of Amy's disappearance, Bound signed himself into the mental ward at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Brecksville. He was plagued by bouts of uncontrollable violence.

Meanwhile, there were other leads. Residents of Lindford Road recalled a man who had painted the house next to the Mihaljevics' shortly before Amy's abduction. Kurt Van Gunten, they said, bore an uncanny resemblance to the composite sketch. He was a free spirit who lived in a shack on the other side of town. Bay Village police received numerous calls asking that he be checked out; his own ex-girlfriend was among them.

But Van Gunten had an airtight alibi: He had attended the Bay-Fairview football game that night with sportscaster Casey Coleman, a childhood friend. They were sitting together when the booth announcer came on, appealing to the crowd for information about Amy's whereabouts. Coleman confirmed for the FBI that Van Gunten had been with him since that afternoon. (Van Gunten declined comment for this story.)

Though Billy Strunak only barely knew Margaret, the 35-year-old donated time and reams of paper for Amy's posters. Then he sent Margaret two decorative pins in the mail -- one for her and the other for Amy when she returned. These gifts, as well as the paper, investigators later learned, were stolen from BJ's Wholesale Club, where Strunak worked.

FBI profiler Robert Ressler had been traveling the country, researching a book about serial killers, when he and another agent visited Strunak's Fairview Park efficiency under the pretense of thanking him for his help with the volunteer effort. But as Ressler's questions became more pointed, Strunak grew defiant. Ressler asked why Strunak was so involved with the investigation -- and whether he had taken Amy. Did he pick her up with the best intentions before something went wrong? Maybe she fell and hit her head? Accidents happen.

Strunak insisted that he had nothing to do with her disappearance. Lacking evidence, Ressler backed off.

Halloween came and went that first week, but there was no trick-or-treating on Lindford Road. Parents instead went door to door with bags of candy passed through half-opened doors to the children inside.

As the weeks passed, front-page photos in the newspaper gave way to inside-section briefs, which gave way to one-paragraph blurbs. After a while, there was nothing left to report.

December 11 marked Amy's 11th birthday. Margaret Mihaljevic threw a small party, and friends brought gifts for the missing girl. It was the day Mark Mihaljevic gave up hope.

Janet Seabold set out for her jog around 7:30 a.m. on February 8, 1990. The route led her through barren cornfields down County Road 1181 in Ruggles Township, a desolate section of Ashland County, 50 miles southwest of Cleveland. As she approached a small incline across from an access road leading to a sugar mill, Seabold caught a glimpse of lavender fabric and a mop of flaxen hair.

Too terrified to look further, she dashed to the house on the corner and banged loudly on the back door. "I think I saw a dead body! Call the police!" she screamed.

In 14 years with the Ashland County Sheriff's Department, Roger Martin hadn't seen a sight like the one out on 1181. The girl lay face down, 12 feet from the side of the road. Her body was badly decomposed, her teeth had fallen out and sunk into the ground below her. He knew it was the girl he had seen in the posters hung up at the office; he could tell by the blond hair and the clothes she was still wearing.

After 104 days, Amy Mihaljevic had been found.

She still wore her sweat pants and lavender shirt. But they had been taken off and put back on. Her boots were nowhere to be found. A single turquoise horse-head earring lay nearby.

According to the autopsy performed by Cuyahoga County Coroner Elizabeth Balraj, Amy had been struck on the back of the head with a blunt instrument. She had been stabbed three or four times on the left side of her neck. According to Balraj's report, she may have lived 30 minutes after this trauma.

It appeared that she had lain in the field for the entire three months.

"We never ID'd the remains," says Mark Mihaljevic. "There was no sense in it. I never really cared to know."

Forty-one FBI agents descended on Ashland County, some of them dropped from helicopters directly out of headquarters at Quantico, Virginia. Seemingly the route to nowhere, County Road 1181 is nearly 30 minutes from any major highway; the only features in sight are sprawling farms. Harold Bound claimed that he'd overheard a man at Holly Hill Farms mention the Ashland Lake Gun Club. The farm's manager, Jeff Taylor, denied that there was such a man, and the lead went nowhere.

The search had gone cold again.

The past three months had been unkind to Billy Strunak. He was interrogated by FBI agents. He broke up with his girlfriend. Money was tight. And the psoriasis that ravaged his skin had become unbearable.

Two weeks after Amy's remains were discovered, Strunak poured himself a cup of Coca-Cola for breakfast and mixed it with a gasoline additive. He downed it, then headed to work. That evening, he slipped into a coma; he died three days later.

"It pretty much ate away his stomach and esophagus," says Detective Spaetzel.

A police search of Strunak's apartment yielded a suicide note that made no mention of Amy. But for Ressler, the FBI profiler, his death was proof enough of his guilt. In his book Whoever Fights Monsters, published in 1992, Ressler included a chapter on Amy's murder, in which he strongly implicated Strunak.

"Coming out of the interview, I told [another agent] that my gut said this was the guy," he wrote.

But the chapter also includes numerous inaccuracies. Ressler mistakenly wrote that Amy was 12 when she was abducted, not 10. And the Strunak family, he wrongly claimed, had discarded all evidence before police and FBI could conduct a search of the apartment. He described the site where her body was found as being "right off I-71," when in fact it was a winding 15 miles away.

Though he had spent only a weekend in Bay Village during the time Amy was missing, Ressler thought he knew better than the feds who had pursued her killer for months. This made Dick Wrenn furious. "Those of us who were closely associated with the investigation do not believe that Strunak was the individual involved in that abduction and homicide," he says. "Because of that book, people might not have come forward with important information. They thought it was solved."

A year after Amy's body was recovered, Wrenn closed the command post at the Bay Police Station and returned to his Cleveland office in defeat. What little evidence there was had pointed nowhere. New tips slowed to a trickle after the release of Ressler's book. Short of someone confessing, it seemed Amy's killer would never be found.

The Mihaljevics' marriage, troubled before Amy's abduction, finally dissolved later that year. "The divorce is probably more a result of what happened," says Mark. "It wasn't everything, but it was the icing on the cake."

Margaret and Jason lived in the house on Lindford Road until 1992, when she bought a smaller place in town. She became a victims' rights advocate for Ohio Attorney General Lee Fisher until Betty Montgomery replaced him in 1995. In August 2000, she moved in with her elderly mother in Las Vegas. The following year, she died there. The coroner's report cited chronic alcoholism.

She was buried next to Amy's cremated remains in a family plot in Wisconsin. To the end, Margaret believed that the man who murdered her daughter was still alive.

On Sunday, October 13, 2002, parishioners at St. Angela Merici Roman Catholic Church in Fairview Park had just started taking communion when the shaggy-haired man began shouting from his pew.

"May I have your attention, please! My name is Richard Alan Folbert. People know me as Satan. I killed Amy Mihaljevic."

Off-duty policeman Thomas Zinsmayer and two auxiliary officers grabbed the man and took him into custody. A schizophrenic 42-year-old who vaguely resembled the composite sketch of Amy's abductor, Folbert had skipped taking his medication for at least three weeks. He had randomly selected St. Angela to reveal his secret.

He told investigators that Satan was trying to frame him for Amy's murder. She had been killed to silence him, before he could warn the world of impending doom. Detective Spaetzel questioned Folbert inside the Fairview Park Police Station. He had nothing to do with Amy's murder, Spaetzel concluded.

"I still stand by those statements," Folbert says today, with unwavering eyes. "I do feel I'm responsible for the death of Amy Mihaljevic." He also believes Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist.

Folbert wrote about these intuitions in a 184-page memoir, for sale on the internet, titled: Buy the Truth. Do Not Sell It! Completed earlier this year, it includes references to Amy's abduction throughout. Read in its entirety, the book merely serves as singular insight into the workings of a schizophrenic mind.

"He was just a nut," says FBI Special Agent Gary Belluomini, who worked with Wrenn on Amy's case. "We had a lot of people like that."

On the day Amy Mihaljevic disappeared, Detective Mark Spaetzel visited her class to talk about safety. Today, he remains on the Bay force, mentoring young detectives. Amy is his lone case. When a tip comes in -- they're most frequent in the days following new abductions -- he weighs the new information against existing evidence and shares it with the FBI's new case manager.

A break may be around the corner. DNA samples can now be compared to those in a national database of convicted felons that's maintained by the FBI. Last month, Spaetzel sent his evidence to be retested with new forensic equipment. He won't discuss specific details of the evidence in question.

Spaetzel believes that someone other than the murderer has knowledge of the crime, and he hopes that person will pick up the phone.

"From the sheer guilt of this, they would have talked to somebody at some point," he says. "That's the call I'm waiting for."

Harold Bound still receives outpatient treatment at the VA Hospital, and he lives in a group home on the border of Tremont. He looks older than his 57 years. Meaty jowls hang underneath thick tinted glasses, the last strands of his dyed red hair are slicked across his head. His voice is nasal and meek.

Most nights, he can be found at church. A couple days a week, he drives to Brecksville for group therapy. He's able to live off his disability checks, in addition to what he makes organizing hunting trips for area travel agencies and bartering at gun shows.

"I can't prove one way or another I didn't do it," he says of Amy's killing. He admits to having bouts of uncontrollable violence in 1989, but says he hasn't had a problem for the past 10 years. Back then, he failed two FBI lie-detector tests because of stress, he claims. He still holds contempt for the agents who grilled him.

"I have problems with voices. I still hear them. I'm glad I don't know who [those FBI agents] are. I'm glad I can't recognize them anymore."

At one point in the conversation, Bound claims that he couldn't pick out Amy if she were standing in a lineup of 10 girls. Later, he says that he used to watch her from his apartment at Holly Hill Farms. He remembers seeing Margaret drop Amy off for lessons one day. They appeared to be fighting. Amy got out, and Margaret threw her boots out the window before driving away. Amy sat alone in the gravel parking lot.

"That's when I met her," Bound says. "She was putting on her boots."

He went up to the girl and asked whether she needed help. Amy wouldn't talk to him, so he walked away.

Detective Spaetzel dances around the subject of Bound.

"Was Harold Bound a suspect? Yes. Was he ever ruled out? No, I don't think so," he allows. "He did take lie-detector tests and probably failed them. But barring any new evidence, there's nothing that could lead to an arrest."

Harold Bound's brother, Greg, lives on the second floor of a ramshackle house not far from Harold's place. He knows his family will be associated with Amy's death until other proof emerges. And he says what the FBI will not: "Yes. My brother is the main suspect."

When Kristen Sabo's mother told her that Amy's body had finally been found, that her best friend really was dead, she didn't say a word. She walked slowly to her bedroom and then destroyed it, ripping up pictures, throwing toys at the wall. "Amy, how could you be so stupid!" she shouted.

Sixteen years have not softened her memory of that day. She knows what Amy would have done, once she realized she was in danger. "She would have fought and fought and fought to the death of her," she says, her eyes suddenly shiny, her gaze trailing off to an indefinite point in space.

Her mother, Jeanne, purses her lips together. "Whoever it is, he's been living a life for 16 years, and she hasn't," she says.

"She was my ragamuffin."

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