Missing Michael: A stranger abduction?

Four-year-old Michael Dunahee vanished from near a Victoria school playground while his parents were close by. Victoria police consider the possibility of a stranger abduction almost immediately.

David Finkelhor is the director of the ‘Crimes Against Children Research Center’ at the University of New Hampshire. They research all kinds of crimes against kids; abduction, child abuse, bullying, and internet crimes.

A man wearing a light coloured shirt smiles while sitting for a portrait photo

David Finkelhor is the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He speaks with Laura Palmer as part of the Missing Michael podcast, which talks about the 1991 disappearance of Michael Dunahee.

He is reluctant to talk about stranger child abductions as he doesn’t believe it should be top of mind when people think of children’s safety issues. Still, Finkelhor appreciates why 30 years on Michael’s story is so enduring.

“It’s a trauma for a whole community. It’s a trauma in part because it’s something everybody identifies with. It’s something everybody can imagine happening to them if they have children. And it also stays in the news for a long period of time. So they’re reminded of it. So it’s a flashbulb kind of crime,” he says.

Today, Finkelhor stresses that “stranger child abductions are exceedingly rare and getting rarer.” He says that is due to the high level of surveillance that exists in many public places. The surveillance combined with the ubiquity of smartphones makes it much more difficult to carry out this kind of crime and not be detected.

But back on March 24, 1991, when Michael disappeared, there was very little CCTV camera usage outside of financial institutions. Publicly available smartphones were still more than a decade away.

Strangers who abduct children can have very different motivations including replacement, revenge, financial gain, and pedophilia. Sexual motivation accounts for the greatest number of these cases, and as such, it is unsurprising that investigators in the Dunahee case focused their investigation in this area.

A globe light fixture with Police written on it outside the Victoria Police department

FILE – Victoria Police headquarters. (Courtesy Instagram/Victoria Police)

Victoria Police Det.-Sgt. Michelle Robertson heads up the Historical Case Review Unit and is the current lead on the Dunahee file.

“Police did an examination of convicted sex offenders at the time, there were 1,200 convicted sex offenders in British Columbia. They narrowed the pool down to locally and to the type of offenders who would offend against a small boy, and they narrowed it down to in the 30s, in the immediate area. We have a very high percentage of dangerous offenders here. We still do. I can’t explain why,” she says, looking back at the case file.

In 1995, Arthur Plint was described as a ‘sexual terrorist’ by the judge who handed down an 11-year sentence to the former residential school dorm supervisor. He was found guilty of sexually abusing dozens of young boys over more than two decades. Plint lived a block and a half away from where Michael Dunahee disappeared. It is later confirmed that police interviewed Plint at the time. Plint was 70 when Michael disappeared and used a cane to walk. Victoria police have ruled out the now-deceased Plint as a suspect.

“Well, they look at every one. And of course, they would look at him, but he’s been excluded. He’s not a current suspect,” said Robertson.

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In 2005, a man currently serving an indeterminate sentence as a dangerous offender emerged as someone who may hold information about the Dunahee case, or may himself have been involved. This individual is not being named as he has never been charged in connection with the Dunahee case. He is in prison for vicious sexual assaults and raises Michael’s name in the context of a group therapy session. It is his fellow inmates who sound the alarm to both authorities and some media.

Retired Victoria Police Det.-Sgt. Al Cochrane had conduct of the Dunahee file at that time. Here’s how he recalls the police response to this possible suspect:

“The one thing about people in prison, they have nothing but time. We did have investigators go out and interview him on two occasions and I know in the end they discounted that it was him. Now, what happened about him saying that ‘I know who did it and it’s this person.’ It could still be an open tip. It could be that he was bored and wanted to get some activity, to talk to somebody, thinking that he’d get something out of it.”

‘Abbotsford Killer’ Terry Driver is another notorious B.C. sex offender and convicted murderer whose name briefly emerges in connection with Michael’s case. He dies in prison before an interview is possible. Robertson confirms he is not a suspect in the Dunahee case.

“His profile is a bit different than this. His is not small boys. It was young girls. And then we found no connection with him whatsoever. So, he’s not part of our suspect pool,” she said.

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Victoria police confirm they have searched for Michael’s image online, looking at things like ‘Operation Cathedral’, the British-led police operation that broke up a major international internet child pornography ring.

Michael’s abductor could be a pedophile who has never been convicted of any crime. Police refer to those individuals as people who may have ‘skated’ on charges time and time again.

If Michael Dunahee was taken by a pedophile who has never been charged, it is conceivable there is someone in that specific community who knows something.

The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) is a pedophilia advocacy organization based in the United States. They want to abolish age-of-consent laws criminalizing adult sexual involvement with minors. Their website hosts cartoons normalizing ‘BL’ (‘boy lovers’).

When contacted for their assistance in the Dunahee case, NAMBLA responded that the question itself was “abhorrent and epitomizes the ignorance and stupidity in society.”

Finkelhor believes it is important to remember that children are far more likely to be harmed by those close to them.

“I can’t even put it strongly enough. Fear of stranger abductions are tremendously exaggerated. Children are at high risk for harm, but it is really crimes that occur at the hands of family members, people in the neighborhood, and friends. I spend a lot of time trying to get people to stop worrying about stranger deduction and to worry about other things, but they are so compelling that it’s a hard thing to do.”

If you have information about the disappearance of Michael Dunahee, please go to Michaeldunahee.ca and click on the report a tip button. You can also report a tip here.

Missing Michael’ is a 10-part podcast series for Rogers Frequency Network. New episodes will be published weekly on Tuesdays until the end of March. 

You can listen to this series and other Island Crime episodes on all podcast platforms.

Rogers is the parent company of this station and the Frequency Podcast Network

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