Michaela Joy Garecht was a 9-year-old fifth-grader from Hayward, California, where she lived with her parents and three younger siblings. Michaela was known to be an exceptionally cheerful little girl that loved to sing, draw and play Tri-Ominos with her family. On her website “Dear Michaela” her mother, Sharon, writes: “Michaela was my first child, the desire of my heart for over five years before she was born, finally conceived only with the assistance of a prescription for fertility pills. She was the first person to curl her little tiny hand around my fingers, and around my heart, the first one ever to call me “mommy.”1
On Saturday the 19th of November, 1988, Michaela pulled on a pair of blue jeans, black shoes, and a white t-shirt with the word “Metro” on the front, before sitting down to eat breakfast with her family. Afterwards, Michaela’s friend, Trina Rodriguez, called and invited Michaela over to her home and then to Rainbow Market. At Trina’s home, Trina’s father gave the girls some money to buy candy and soda at the market which was just a few blocks away. The two young girls grabbed their scooters and set off for the market. Michaela was allowed to go to the store but only if she was accompanied by somebody. “It was just last summer that we let her start going up to the store,” said Sharon.2
Inside the store, Michaela and Trina purchased two Mountain Dew sodas, two sticks of beef jerky and two pieces of cherry taffy. Upon leaving the market, the two friends started to walk home, completely forgetting about their scooters which they had left just outside the door. When they realised, they rushed back to the market but found only one scooter sitting where they left them. Michaela noticed the second scooter further down the parking lot, leaning against a parked car. As she went to lift the scooter, a young man with long blonde hair appeared from the car and grabbed Michaela under his arm and shoved her into the car as she screamed for help. Trina witnessed the entire ordeal unfold and rushed back to the store to get help. The cashier subsequently called police who arrived at the scene within minutes.
Word of the abduction quickly spread around the neighbourhood and a neighbour drove to Michaela’s home and told her father, Rob Garecht, that his daughter had been kidnapped. When police arrived at the abduction scene, they took Michaela’s scooter off to be examined for fingerprints. Upon questioning any potential witnesses, a Rainbow Market cashier, Rona Ronolon, said she had seen the kidnapper acting suspiciously in front of the store. “I thought he was looking to rob the store or something,” she said. “He went by very slowly and looked in the window. I think he was watching the girls.”3
A composite sketch of the abductor was drawn up based on information given by Trina. He was described as being between 18 and 25 years old with dirty blonde shoulder length hair. He was slender, had severe acne and was wearing a white t-shirt. The description of his vehicle was conflicting. Witnesses said it was a four-door older-model that was either tan or burgundy with mud or concrete splatters. Several neighbours of Michaela came forward to report that their daughters had been accosted by a man who resembled the composite sketch of the man who kidnapped Michaela. One woman said the man tried to lure her daughter into his pickup truck just days before the abduction.
By Sunday, the FBI joined in on the investigation and sent six agents to Hayward. One of the first lines of enquiry was to run computer checks on possible suspects who matched the kidnapper’s description. As is typical protocol when it comes to child abductions, police also examined photographs of registered sex offenders in the area to see if any matched the description given of the man who abducted Michaela. Police even followed a tip given by a physic who claimed that Michaela was under a tree next to a pond in Garin Park; they found nothing.
The search took an even more disappointing turn when Hayward police discovered that Michaela’s scooter didn’t contain any fingerprints left behind by her abductor but instead palm prints that were untraceable.
Following the abduction, the community rallied around the Garecht family. Volunteers blanketed the surrounding area with posters showing Michaela’s face emblazoned on the front. Both the parents of Amber Swartz-Garcia and Kevin Collins – other kidnapping victims from the Bay area – came to the Garecht home to offer support. Fighting back tears, Sharon appeared on television in the days following the abduction and begged the kidnapper to drop Michaela off on a street corner where she could find her way home. Addressing her daughter, she said: “I love you and we’re praying for you and even though I don’t know where you are physically, you’re with me in my heart.”4
While police announced that they were “assuming he [the kidnapper] lives in the local area,” the search for him and Michaela soon expanded to other parts of the Bay area.5 They called for a helicopter armed with an infrared camera to comb the rugged hills and canyons that California is famous for. “We spotted a few things we feel were long shots. But what they were, were really animals,” said Sgt. Randy Parent.6 In addition to the helicopters, assistance came in the form of horses, bloodhounds, and volunteers on foot. They searched inch-by-inch in the hopes that somebody could find some evidence as to what happened to Michaela.
As the weeks passed by with no fresh leads, Hayward police sent out 40,000 fliers with a picture of Michaela on the front beside the composite sketch of her abductor. It was the start of a nationwide search as opposed to a statewide search. The Missing Children’s Project assisted by mailing cards to 50 million U.S. households. By now, Michaela could have been several states away if that is what her abductor had planned. In theory, the more that was done to publicise Michaela’s abduction, the more volunteers there would be to assist and expand the search. The publicity led to a flood of tips from people who were adamant that they had seen Michaela and/or her abductor in many locations far and wide. None of the leads ever panned out, however.
According to FBI analysts, Michaela’s kidnapper probably worked or lived in the area and didn’t have “real strong social behaviour” when it comes to communicating with women his own age.7 Moreover, they said that the abductor had likely suffered something – possibly rejection – shortly before the abduction, and that he may have used drugs or alcohol to reduce his inhibitions.
Over the forthcoming years, there would be a number of persons of interest as well as suspects.
One person of interest in the abduction was Kyle Allen Ramer, a 35-year-old registered sex offender in Lake County who was arrested in 1994 for molesting a 7-year-old San Jose girl. Ramer had also been charged with attempting to kidnap a 10-year-old girl in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and molesting a 6-year-old girl at a nudist camp. While Ramer initially seemed like a likely suspect, further investigation uncovered that he had been in jail at the time of the kidnapping. In 2005, another convicted sex offender was named as a person of interest. Rex “Randy” Crowell – who lived 471 feet from where Michaela was abducted – had been arrested in 1986 for assaulting a woman with the intent to commit a sexual assault. He was questioned by police in regards to Michaela’s abduction but was subsequently released without charge when police could find no evidence to tie him to the abduction.
One lead police followed was that Michaela could have potentially been abducted by Phillip and Nancy Garrido, the couple who abducted Jaycee Lee Dugard and lived just an hour away from Michaela. After a thorough investigation, however, police could find no evidence that the cases were connected. While it was determined that Phillip ad Nancy Garrido were not involved, the news of the discovery of Jaycee – who was abducted 18 years prior to her discovery – was the glimmer of hope that Sharon had been waiting for. “That totally revolutionized everything I had been thinking. As more and more information came out, I started to understand how she might be somewhere and have the ability to free herself but not want to.”8
Another suspect came to light in 2012 when Wesley Shermaine, one of the “Speed Freak Killers,” wrote a letter to The Stockton Record newspaper claiming that his partner, Loren Herzog, was responsible for the abduction of Michaela, adding that Herzog looked eerily like the composite sketch of the suspect. Several years later, it was revealed that a San Joaquin sheriff’s deputy excavating a well where the duo discarded victims found a pair of shoes that were similar to those Michaela was wearing when she vanished. For reasons known to only the San Joaquin sheriff’s office, they refused to allow Hayward investigators to examine the shoes or even view the shoes. Herzog was never interviewed in regards to the abduction of Michaela as he committed suicide in 2012. Sharon has since said on her blog that she doesn’t believe that Michaela was a victim of the Speed Freak Killers.
The abduction of Michaela led to one of the most extensive investigations in Hayward’s history. The abduction gripped the nation and Michaela’s photograph featured on billboards and milk cartons. Moreover, “America’s Most Wanted” and other television programs reported on the abduction and brought in tips. At one point in the investigation, a $100,000 reward was offered to anybody who could lead police to Michaela and/or her abductor. Hayward police and the FBI sifted through thousands of tips up but all led to a dead end. As of today, what happened to Michaela Joy Garecht still remains a mystery.
If you have any information into the abduction of Michaela Joy Garecht, please call 1-800-222-3999.
- The Mercury News, 20 November, 1988 – “Kidnapper Snatches Girl in Hayward”
- Daily News of Los Angeles, 20 November, 1988 – “9-Year-Old Girl Abducted from Market”
- The Mercury News, 21 November, 1988 – “Awaiting Word on Daughter Police Sift Through Leads”
- The Mercury News, 23 November, 1988 – “The Search for Kidnapped Girl Expands”
- The Mercury News, 25 November, 1988 – “Michaela’s Family Delays Holiday”
- The mercury News, 18 January, 1989 – “New Photo Approach in Michaela Search”
- The Oakland Tribune, 20 November, 2009 – “Missing Girl’s Mother Looks Back on Remarkable Year”