Missing Michael: ‘Hellcats’ friendships forged in tragedy
Posted January 25, 2022 5:54 am.
Last Updated January 25, 2022 1:00 pm.
The field near Blanshard Elementary wasn’t a favourite place for the Hellcats, a Victoria-area women’s football team, to play.
Surrounded by low rises and Blanshard Courts supported housing, the neighbourhood had a slightly down-on-its-luck feel. A mix of residential and commercial, busy with traffic, the area was not as picturesque as the other fields the team played on regularly. Still, none of the team members could ever dream the field would become the backdrop for the nightmare they’d be witness to on Sunday, March 24, 1991.
Crystal Dunahee and her fellow Hellcats players were warming up for a 1:00 p.m. game when Bruce Dunahee told his wife he could not find their four-year-old son, Michael. The couple had allowed Michael to run ahead to the little school playground while Bruce helped Crystal and their baby daughter, Caitlin, to the nearby playing field.
“I just remember seeing Crystal talking with him and then he went to the park. I didn’t see him actually go there. I just know he did,” former Hellcat Cathy Brown recalled.
Today, Brown is one of the only people, besides the Dunahees, who say they saw Michael that day.
Fellow teammate Donna Fetterley caught a ride to the game with the Dunahee family that day, sitting in the back seat with Michael and her baby sister, but cancer claimed Donna’s life in 2004.
The Hellcats would become part of one of the biggest searches for a missing child in Canadian history.
“We instantly stopped exactly what we were doing and just started looking for him in the field, the school grounds and the park and the, like, everywhere. And I remember my girlfriend and I were looking together and we just looked at each other and said this only happens in movies,” Brown said of the moment everything changed.
Michael Dunahee is special to his mother’s team mates. Crystal was the first of her teammates to have a child and brought Michael to practices and games. The Hellcats treasure Michael.
“We were close. We were really, really good friends. We skied in the winter and camped during the summers. We went to everybody’s weddings and baby showers and all that kind of stuff,” player Cheryl Miller said.
“We were just so frantic,” Miller said of the moment they realized Michael was missing. “We were running everywhere, it was horrible. The thing that I remember in hindsight, nobody thought it was an abduction. Everybody just thought he had walked away.”
As the hours passed, former Hellcat Corrine Timmerman remembers the anxiety building.
“Our emotions started to get to us because you were just a little bit more on heightened alert, like what the heck is going on, right? Little Victoria, nobody really expected anything to happen. It was what I would call maybe back in the day, more of a sleepy little town,” Timmerman said.
Player Nova-Lee Tinnion says the search didn’t stop all afternoon and went into the night.
“I was still in my shorts and I believe I had my flags on, we still had our uniforms on and we just started knocking door to door. And there was like a housing complex, for low-income families. and I kept on thinking come supper time, somebody will find an extra kid and he’ll get booted out. And then the next morning when I heard the helicopters it just kind of hit me, they’re still searching. Where did he go? He just vanished right into thin air,” Tinnion recalled.
The initial search for Michael was carried out by the football players. The first call to Victoria police was made at 1:06 p.m. Officers arrived quickly and began to coordinate search efforts soon after.
John Ducker retired as a Deputy Chief of the Victoria Police Department. Back in 1991, he was a junior officer working in the sex crimes unit. He remembers being asked to assist in the Dunahee investigation.
“I got a call from one of the senior sergeants in charge-a guy by the name of John Smith. He said, we’re calling everybody in, it looks like this kid has disappeared under unusual circumstances, and we need everybody to come in and start working on tips,” he said.
Ducker knows that those first few hours and days would be crucial for the case.
“There was a lot of pressure in that period because there was a great sense of the clock was running down and from experiences with other jurisdictions that, you know, you have to really move hard on these things within the first 72 hours. So there was a lot of psychological pressure there for sure,” he explained.
Retired Det.-Sgt. Don Bland was one of the lead detectives on the Dunahee case. He says the search covered a lot of ground in the area Michael was last seen in.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a search like the one that was done of the surrounding mile or so of the site. It’s almost like it was the war measures act,” he said.
“We sent people out to search every house, knock on every door and request to search the house saying, ‘we don’t care if you got a dope plant in here, we don’t care if you’ve got drugs, we’re looking for a missing kid and we want to search your house.’ And we did that as a matter of emergency and probably not totally legal in the light of today, but when people wouldn’t let our people in to search, we went to find out why,” Bland added.
Despite the extensive canvassing of the area by police and the Hellcats, no sign of Michael Dunahee was ever found. Remarkably, Michael disappeared from a busy area, surrounded by people who know him, without anyone seeing anything.
Could someone have seen something without knowing they had actually witnessed a key moment? It’s a question that has led to an unusual step.
Player Timmerman says she and her fellow teammates agreed to be hypnotized, with hopes it would help lead to Michael.
“I know I went under hypnosis. I know a number of my friends did as well. It was really just trying to recall any details of the route, starting from leaving at home, the route down to the field and getting out of your car and what you might’ve seen or not seen and looking around,” she said.
Victoria police confirm the players were hypnotized. Current Dunahee case lead Det.-Sgt. Michelle Robertson says “the theory was to find in their memory, someone that was there that was unaccounted for.”
“Someone that someone happened to see or a vehicle in the parking lot that your conscious memory doesn’t remember, but it’s actually in there,” Robertson explained.
However, the hypnosis didn’t result in any new leads, with the players unable to recall anything to move the investigation forward.
Despite the trauma resulting from the search for Michael, the now-former Hellcats say the experience bonded their easy, young friendships.
“In some ways it brought us closer, we needed to be there for Crystal and Bruce and I think Crystal needed a positive outlet with her friends, you know?” Miller said. “And I think the football in itself was something positive, I think it was good for Crystal to be able to run and play.”
Three decades on, those friendships remain, as does the hope that Michael will one day be found. Brown believes a positive outcome could still be possible.
“I think maybe one day Michael is going to do one of those DNA tests and find out that he is who he is and not who he thinks he is. And that’s how I like to think things are going to end,” the former Hellcats player said.
If you have information about the disappearance of Michael Dunahee, please go to Michaeldunahee.ca and click on the report a tip button, which will direct you to Victoria Police.
‘Missing Michael’ is a 10-part podcast series for Rogers Frequency Network.
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