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‘Whose little girl will disappear next?'

Two young girls taken before their time

By Ken Raymond
Staff Writer

Aug. 3, 1967, Brenda — a bit of a pixie herself with light brown hair, blue eyes and a mischievous smile — pedaled a bicycle down St. Patrick Drive to the corner grocery store, which was jam-packed with penny candy. Among her favorites were the thin straws filled with candy dust.

The 6-year-old matched her speed to that of her bike-less friends, including neighbor Carol Alexander, 7.

"When we got there,” Alexander, now 47, said, "it turned out that all of us had a dime except for Brenda, who only had five cents. So we went back to get her another nickel.”

The afternoon sun had turned the Midwest City street blistering hot, and Brenda was barefoot. She elected to remain outside the store while the others headed less than a block up the road to get the money.

By the time her friends returned, she had vanished. The bike remained.

Forty years ago, the disappearance of a young girl was rare enough to fuel the fear and ire of an entire community. Many still kept their doors unlocked and trusted their children would be safe playing outside without adult supervision.

Under ordinary circumstances, what happened to Brenda would have been shocking. In the summer of 1967, it was worse.

Brenda wasn't the first child to go missing.

About a month before, Judith Elwell, 5, vanished from her parents' northwest Oklahoma City home. She still hadn't been found.

Now there were two girls missing. Two lost little girls.

Were the disappearances connected? Who was responsible? And would anyone ever see the girls alive again?

‘A beautiful child'

By the time Brenda went missing from the corner store, metro residents were already rattled.

Sometime before 9 p.m. July 6, 1967, Judith had vanished from her home at 1114 N Meta. Her mother described the girl to reporters as "a beautiful child” with "long black hair that was so curly it made little ringlets” and "eyes so dark brown they looked black.”

That night, Judith had been wearing light green shorts and a blue-and-white striped pullover with white socks and blue canvas sneakers. One of her shoes was found the next day beside an abandoned house half a block from the Elwell home, leading police to theorize she lost the shoe while struggling with her kidnapper.

No other trace of her turned up.

It wasn't for lack of looking. In the hours and days after her disappearance, hundreds of searchers swept across the area. Individual volunteers mingled with police, firefighters and Civil Air Patrol workers, and a command post grew outside the Elwell's house.

The Oklahoman characterized the search as "one of the longest, most exhaustive, detailed and organized” ever led by police. But it was also one of the most disappointing, and after three days the hunt was called off.

Details of the police investigation are sparse. At some point over the past four decades, the police case file was misplaced or destroyed. What is clear, though, is that police dedicated significant resources to the case, checking out more than 75 false tips — including some from self-professed clairvoyants — in the first three days.

By late July, police had passed information on the case to every city in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico and Missouri. No solid leads developed.

'Filled with fear'

Then Brenda disappeared.

Precious time was lost in the immediate aftermath of Brenda's kidnapping. Her father, a Western Electric telephone installer, was working in St. Louis. Her mother was home but didn't know that one of her seven children was gone.

"They was all out playing with the neighbor kids,” Connie White, 71, said recently. "I didn't even realize she was missing until ... the kids all came in, and we couldn't find her.”

Neighbors and relatives searched for Brenda for two hours before White called Midwest City police.

Officers were dispatched to the area, and a radiogram was issued advising all police units to look for the girl, who was described as "4'3”, 40 to 45 lbs., long light brown hair, blue eyes. Last seen wearing grey dress with white flowers print and no collar. She has habit of sucking thumb and playing with hair when nervous or sleepy.”

Hopes that Brenda was simply asleep somewhere were dashed, though. As Brenda's father, Bobby White, raced home, police searched cars and outbuildings throughout the area. They turned up nothing.

First Judith. Now Brenda.

What was happening to the children?

The search effort expanded, eclipsing even the hunt for Judith. More than 400 people scoured 48 square miles, including two lakes. Among the searchers was Judith's father, James Elwell. Right or wrong, people were already lumping the two disappearances together.

Aug. 6, 1967, The Oklahoman posed a disturbing question: "Whose little girl will disappear next?”

"Street and coffee-break conversations indicate Oklahoma City is filled with fear — more fear than last December when a killer-rapist was on the loose and took two victims in less than two months,” reporter Jim Rogers wrote.

A terrible discovery

In the early stages of the White investigation, there was no shortage of suspects.

Rumors flew as neighbors accused one another. A man named "Tom” fell under suspicion because he'd served time for molesting children; in fact, his prison sentence was for entering a home illegally, and he was at work when Brenda vanished.

A woman swore she'd been followed by a white car twice earlier in the week. "The vehicle made no attempt to stop her,” police reported, "however, she felt certain that the man in the car, whom she could not describe, had intentions of attempting physical harm if he got (a) good opportunity.”

A white car figured prominently in the search. A neighborhood boy told police he saw Brenda drive off with a young white man in a white car the day she disappeared, although he placed the time of the sighting as before lunch, hours before Brenda was last seen.

Carol Alexander also saw a white car drive away from the corner store just as she returned there with Brenda's other friends.

Police produced a sketch of the possible abductor, based on the recollections of the boy. The results were dubious, and in an internal report dated Aug. 17, 1967, detectives said that "several hundred individuals were checked with negative results. Numerous white vehicles were also checked with negative results.”

As time passed, Judith and Brenda dropped from the headlines. The searches had failed, and most presumed the worst.

In Brenda's case, they were right.

Nov. 18, 1967, hunters found a human skull in a field outside an abandoned house near E Reno Avenue and Harrah Road, about 11 miles due east of Brenda's home at 10147 St. Patrick Drive.

The next day, Oklahoma County sheriff's deputies searched the field and discovered a shallow grave bearing bones, hair and a pair of girl's panties. A crumpled gray dress lay nearby, and other bones were scattered across the ground.

The grave was heartbreakingly small: 34 inches long, 26 inches wide and 14 inches deep. All of the bones had been gnawed by animals.

Inside the vacant house, which had stood empty for five years, law officers found two dirty white shirts, two pair of filthy trousers and a badly damaged straw hat. A piece of cloth hung from a nail in the basement.

"This cloth was tied in the middle,” Midwest City police noted, "suggesting it might have been used as some sort of handcuff.”

If so, it was never confirmed.

The grisly task of identifying the remains fell to Connie White. First she confirmed the dress was the one she'd made for her daughter. Then she examined the hair that had been found at the grave and knew, once and for all, that her daughter was dead.

'You can always hope'

Brenda's parents have little left to remind them of their daughter — a quilt made from her clothes, some photographs, a scrapbook, an Easter basket, a favorite outfit, a few home movies and a handful of hair, given to them by the medical examiner.

Their other children don't like to talk about her.

At least the family knows Brenda is gone. She is buried in Tecumseh. A real grave this time. A proper grave.

Judith has never been found. No remains have turned up. There is nothing to say for certain that she is alive or dead.

Her survivors could not be located for this story.

Brenda's father, Bobby White, awoke with spinal damage about three years ago. A burly man who hand-built his house in Pink, he now moves awkwardly with the aid of a walker. He is 74, and the memories are still difficult for him to live with.

"Before I die,” he said recently, "I'd like to have the man caught who done it, the person who done it.”

"It's important,” Connie White said. "We would love to be able to have it cleared. It's not apt to ever be, but you can always hope and wish, but you know there's somebody out there who knows something. There's got to be.”

The Analysis

Did the same person kidnap Judith Elwell and kill Brenda White?

From the start, police and the media connected the two incidents. Judith, 5, had vanished from her northwest Oklahoma City home in early July 1967; Brenda, 6, went missing from Midwest City in early August, less than a month later.

The girls had certain things in common:

Both were about to enter first grade and lived in neighborhoods crowded with children who often played outside together. Both came from working-class families, had brown hair and were about the same weight. And both knew their home phone numbers and had been taught not to talk to strangers.

Those surface similarities were common to many girls their age in 1967 — and there are differences between the cases as well.

A blue or green sedan was seen near the spot where Judith disappeared; a white car was associated with Brenda's kidnapping. Was either car actually involved in the crimes?

The girls were taken from neighborhoods that were miles apart. They didn't know each other. While one vanished completely, the other's body was buried carelessly in a shallow grave.

Is there enough evidence to determine if the same predator took both girls?

Shawna Cleary, a criminologist and professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, thinks so.

"I do think we're talking about the same perpetrator,” Cleary said. "I think it doesn't matter that he didn't go to exactly the same place for both of them. I would guess that one or both of the kids were probably abducted from areas he was familiar with.”

Abductors usually operate in areas they know well, Cleary said. In these cases, the attacker may have lived near one of the children and worked near the other.

Cleary examined police documents provided to The Oklahoman. Based on that information, she said, it seems likely that the abductor didn't know the girls but instead chose them as targets of opportunity — little girls alone with no witnesses in sight.

Abductors often use lures to attract children, she said. Pets are among the most common lures.

A brief mention in a forensic anthropologist's report caught Cleary's eye. The report notes that the skeleton of a cat was found near Brenda's remains in a field near Harrah. The cat was shot with a shotgun, and it had died or been left in the field about the same time that Brenda was placed there.

Cleary thinks the cat may have been used to lure Brenda into her killer's car.

"It's too unusual to be a coincidence in my opinion,” Cleary said. "I think the cat remains have some connection, I really do, and unfortunately I think that 40 years down the line, we'll never know.”

Judith and Brenda's cases remain open, although no one is specifically assigned to investigate them.

"We have received tips in the past,” Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes said, "and we have gone to great lengths to investigate them. We have not solved the (Elwell) case, but if we get some viable information, we will go out of our way to pursue it.”

Oklahoma City police no longer have Brenda's case file. Capt. Steve McCool said it may have been destroyed when a basement storage area in the downtown Civic Center flooded some years ago.

"We have no more leads,” McCool said, "but if we were to get a call tomorrow, then we would certainly follow up on it.”