Ohio abduction case rekindles hope, pain for some NH families
After 8-year-old Tammy Belanger disappeared while walking to school in downtown Exeter on Nov. 13, 1984, searchers from dozens of communities looked for the dark-haired little girl with the sweet smile and lazy left eye. Over the years, tips led to renewed searches and a named suspect, but Tammy was never found.
Patricia A. Belanger is Tammy's mother. The news out of Cleveland last week was bittersweet, she said. "I'm glad that they were found. It's amazing."
Still, she said, "It's painful, for missing her."
And she said, "You wonder how many other children are out there that may be in the same predicament."
There's always hope
Belanger, who has two mother children and is a grandmother now, said the discovery in Cleveland raised hope in her heart.
"You always just wonder if she is still out there somewhere," she said.
Tammy Belanger is one of six children listed as "missing" by the New Hampshire State Police's cold case unit.
Sgt. Scott Gilbert, who runs that unit, said that list includes children younger than 17 who are "missing and presumed to have met with foul play."
Gilbert called the rescue of the three young women who had been imprisoned for as long as 10 years "almost unbelievable."
"It does remind you that there's always that possibility," he said.
But for the families of the missing, Gilbert said, the news could have good and bad effects.
"You know that they most likely met with foul play, but you don't even know that for sure. It's got to be awful," he said. "And then you see this, and does it give you renewed hope, or is it false hope?"
Laureen Rahn is also on Gilbert's list of missing children.
She was 14 when she disappeared on April 27, 1980, from the Manchester apartment where she lived with her mother.
Her mother, Judith Swanson, now lives in Florida and could not be reached for this story. But Judith's sister, Diane Pineault, still lives in Manchester.
Pineault said news that the three young women were found alive in Cleveland was "a wonderful Mother's Day gift" for their families. "But what they went through is not so wonderful," she said. "It's sad."
She said her sister and the rest of the family have never given up on finding Laureen. "We've always hoped that someday she's just going to show up at our door and say, 'It's me.'
"They haven't shown us anything that proves different, so you can't give up hope," Pineault said. "That's what it comes down to."
Every Christmas, she still hangs up an angel ornament that Laureen made for her out of an egg carton, Pineault said. "It's very fragile, but it goes on my tree every year," she said. "We take very good care of it."
Pineault's own children are grown now and have children of their own. What happened to their cousin deeply affected them, she said.
"They're very careful of their children," she said. "It's something you can't let go of that easily. It's been a long time, but you can't help it."
The others on the cold case list of missing children are: Rachael Garden, 15, who disappeared in Newton in 1980; Shirley "Tippy" McBride, 15, missing from Concord since 1984; Bethany Sinclair, who was 15 when she and her mother, Tina Sinclair, disappeared in Chesterfield in 2001; and 3-year-old Patricia Ann Wood, who disappeared from Swanzey in 1976.
Sandra Matheson is director of the Attorney General's Office of Victim/Witness Assistance. She's been doing this work for 26 years and knows well the trauma families of murder victims go through.
"But at least if the case is solved . the family knows who did it, knows what happened to their loved one, has had the opportunity to bury their loved one and had some kind of funeral and way to say goodbye," she said. "But when you have a disappearance and a missing child and they're never found, families don't give up hope."
Reliving the nightmare
What happened in Cleveland not only rekindles that hope, but also may retraumatize these families, Matheson said. "It's right back to the raw pain and trauma that you felt when the child first went missing," she said.
"You just start picturing everything that could possibly happen to your child and it haunts you. And it haunts you forever."
Gilbert said he's amazed at the patience and understanding families show in the face of such horror and uncertainty. It pains him when he can't give them the answers they need.
"More than once, I've gotten a phone call reminding me, 'I'm getting to the end of my life and if there's one thing I could ask for, it's that you solve this case and give me some answers.'
"They're begging me: 'Can you get me an answer before I pass away?'"
The hardest part? "You can't do anything for them, and then they do pass away. And that's tough."
Still, Gilbert remains hopeful that such cases can be solved. "I have learned from doing these as long as I have that the answers that you need can come at any moment when the dynamics change. The things that kept it from being solved could change at any moment."
Couples divorce. Friends fight. Criminals repent.
And any of those circumstances could prompt someone to come forward with key facts, Gilbert said. "It doesn't have to answer all our questions; it could be just that one little piece that does steer us in the right direction."
Seeks help from public
Matheson pleaded for the public's help to solve these cases. "If anybody knows anything that could prevent these families from going through what they're going through, please come forward. Because you may be the difference in families getting the answers, and understanding what happened to their child."
One suspect was identified in the Tammy Belanger case: Victor Wonyetye Jr., on parole for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl, was working at an Exeter auto body shop when Tammy disappeared. He was also a suspect in the disappearance of a Florida girl six months before Tammy disappeared.
Wonyetye spent more than 18 years in a Florida prison on burglary charges after he was arrested there as a "peeping Tom." During his 1992 Florida trial, detectives testified that Wonyetye had told fellow inmates in New Hampshire that he had strangled the two girls.
Wonyetye was released on parole last year and died in December, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. He apparently left no confession.
Patricia Belanger said Exeter Police Chief Richard Kane called her a few months ago to tell her that Wonyetye was dead. "I'm glad he's gone," she said. "He won't be able to . take other children."
Asked whether she believes Wonyetye took her little girl, she said, "I just have to go on what the police have said. And they seem to think that he's the one that did do this."