The case of Michael Dunahee: Waiting for a miracle
Posted March 22, 2022 7:24 am.
Last Updated March 22, 2022 7:30 am.
Crystal Dunahee has dedicated much of her life to helping to keep her son’s story alive and to keep other children safe. On March 24, 1991, her child, Michael Dunahee, vanished from near a playground on a Sunday afternoon.
In 2011, Crystal was awarded the Order of BC, the province’s highest honour, given to those who have served with the greatest distinction and excelled in their field of endeavour.
Her award is in recognition for her work with Child Find BC and for her efforts in supporting B.C.’s Amber Alert system.
In 1991, when Michael disappeared, there is no CCTV footage in the area, no smart phones recording video, and no Amber Alert system.
“Now we have these alerts across the boards, so you’ve got more people looking,” Crystal remarks.
“Thirty years ago we were dealing with fax machines because we didn’t have the technology and there were no cell phones. It was fax machines and radio. So now, with technology, you get the information out there much quicker and more people are seeing it faster.”
Crystal recalls getting a picture of Michael, then heading out to make photocopies at a drugstore in order to get Michael’s poster distributed as widely as possible. Ensuring Michael’s case is being considered beyond his home town takes time and energy.
“We had to register with each province, we had to register with each state and within each state, any other agencies individually. You couldn’t just go to one person and say, ‘I need help.’ It was very involved and time consuming and exhausting and emotionally exhausting because you had to repeat it over and over and over again to the hundreds of different agencies that are out there.”
2011 is also a momentous year for the Hebert family. Paul Hebert credits the Amber Alert system, which Crystal Dunahee helped make happen in B.C., with keeping his son alive after his boy was abducted from his bed.
Today, the Hebert family lives in Peace River, Alberta. But on Sept. 7, 2011, they live in Sparwood, B.C. At the time, three-year-old Kienan was taken from his home in the small B.C. community in the middle of the night.
His mother, Tammy, recalls checking in on Kienan to tell him it was time to get up and finding that her boy wasn’t there.
“And I’m like, well that’s weird. I checked the other rooms. He wasn’t there. So, I thought, okay, he’s downstairs. No big deal. I went downstairs and then I went down in the basement and checked there and there was no Kienan. That’s when I tore the whole house apart as I was, I was flipping the beds up to see if he was under the beds, opening all the cupboards and everywhere I could think that he would be hiding. Just tore it apart. And he wasn’t there.”
Paul Hebert remembers thinking that perhaps his son went out in the middle of the night and locked himself out. The whole area where they were living was under construction. The first thing he did is tell the workers to stop the big machinery in case Kienan is hiding in a culvert or somewhere they wouldn’t see him.
“Like you just don’t know, right? You’re still trying to grasp at straws. And the last thing I’m thinking that someone took him. So you’re trying to find every reasonable thought process of, you know, what possibly could be there, but we just don’t know. So that’s when we phoned the police and said, ‘Listen, our son’s missing. He went to bed last night. He’s not here in the morning, you know, please help us find them.’ It was … pretty surreal.”
Police quickly zero in on a suspect and an Amber Alert was issued. The hunt for Kienan and a suspect named Randall Hopley was on.
“Then there’s a whole other series of bad thinking now. You hear horror stories. Everything starts going crazy, you start thinking his body’s dumped somewhere. So now your mind is working in a totally different direction. You went from a kid being lost to a culvert, to now you want closure. Now you need to find him just to find closure, right? You go from fear of him being hungry and scared. Now you’re … more worried about him being duct-tape and beaten,” Paul says.
“Your fear and being sick, become a nightmare. Every, every news article about anything bad that you’ve ever heard, goes through your mind.”
The Heberts were told to prepare for the possibility Kienan would not be found alive. They finish each other’s sentences as they reflect on that period.
“They were preparing us. Saying that after 24 hours there is a good chance, you’re not getting them back alive. And so we were expecting that they were going to find him somewhere dead. That was pretty well where we’re at. And we were preparing our hearts for it, our minds for it.”
Four days later, in the middle of the night, Kienan’s abductor, Randall Hopley, dropped the boy back at his home, unharmed.
“Getting him back alive was pretty miraculous. There was no other word you could really use, you know? It was like he came back from the dead,” his parent says.
The Hebert’s had been staying in a nearby house as their home was considered a crime scene.
“I just remember running, my legs are like Jello,” recalls Tammy Hebert of the moments she was reunited with her boy. “I walk in, I open the front door of the house inside folded, neatly beside the door is his blankets and everything. Paul was standing there holding Kienan. I just dropped to my knees. I’m crying and falling and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord.'”
Paul shares that feeling as well, adding, “We tell the story of a happy ending. I can’t be angry with that.”
Their son Kienan is now a teen who doesn’t remember much about the four days he was held captive.
“He used to remember more, but he’s forgetting. He still remembers little bits and pieces. He never said anything negative. He’s always said this guy was always nice to him and there was no real trauma. He talks about the juice and the pudding and playing in a hole that was in the wall and going for walks on the train tracks,” Paul says.
“He loves everything, nature and bugs and rocks and the sun, the moon, the stars, he just loves it all. And if we didn’t get him back, those are things I would never, ever have known about him.”
Tammy and Paul say their hearts go out to the Dunahees. Tammy says it’s impossible to think what it would be like not to have answers.
“You’d always be wondering who he would be now. I couldn’t imagine.”
Paul, too, is grateful.
“We’re very blessed. It’s the ones that are not found. It’s the ones that don’t have that closure. I, my heart would be ripped apart still to this very day … You are always going to question, ‘Is he still alive?’ That’s something far scarier than anything else. Our hearts really go out to them and we think they’re tough.”
RCMP Sgt. Lana Prosper says “changes in technology and changes in relationships have helped authorities find abducted children faster” in the years since Michael vanished.
Prosper is with the RCMP’s National Center for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains (NCMPUR).
“We have so many more tools in our toolbox as investigators now, as compared to 30 years ago. We can share that information more rapidly,” she notes.
On Sunday, March 27, 2022, the Dunahee family will once again invite supporters to join in the annual ‘Keep the Hope Alive’ walk and run.
The event is held to mark the Sunday afternoon Michael vanished, on March 24, 1991. Once again, as a pandemic precaution, participants can take part from wherever they live, in a virtual event.
Crystal Dunahee admits keeping Michael’s story alive comes with a cost.
“Sometimes it can be very daunting. It’s really hard because you’ve got anniversaries, you’ve got birthdays. Everything that comes up, it comes and goes and it just continues to go.”
The decision to be in the public eye is one she and her family made 30 years ago.
“That was the choice that we made at the onset, to keep it open and to make ourselves available for interviews, doing whatever we can to get it out and keep it going, so people don’t lose touch, so we will someday be able to figure out what happened with Michael,” Crystal recalls.
‘Missing Michael’ is a 10-part podcast series for Rogers Frequency Network.
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