Missing Arizona children: In 90 seconds, Mesa's Mikelle Biggs … – The Arizona Republic

The faint calliope-style jingle grew louder, acting as a familiar siren call to the children on the tidy Mesa block.
Parents reached for their wallets, kids laced up their shoes and hit the pavement in anticipation of the ice-cream truck making its rounds in their neighborhood. 
The ditty seemed to come in waves, though, making it hard to place the truck’s location. Surely, the children thought, it would make its way to their corner, near Gilbert Road and Southern Avenue, where they played as they waited.
But the shadows grew longer as the sun started to set on the winter day. Mothers beckoned for their children to come in for dinner. Slowly, reluctantly, all but two returned home. 
The 11-year-old blond, hazel-eyed girl was determined to wait as she rode her younger sister’s bike in big circles at the road’s T-intersection.
The 9-year-old watched, holding onto their dog’s leash, until she became too cold. She was going inside to grab a coat, she said. She’d be back. 
The girl could count the steps to her door and the four front yards that were in between.
When she got home, she told her mother, who was talking with a visiting relative, that she was tired of waiting for the ice-cream truck.
“Go get your sister. Tell her it’s getting dark outside,” her mom responded.
The girl hollered her sister’s name as she walked out to the sidewalk and peered down the street.
“It’s time to come in. Mom said so!” she said. 
She got back no response. 
Her sister wasn’t there and the bike was strewn on the street, closer to their house, laying on its side. 
The girl was mad. She thought, how could her sister just leave the bike she had let her borrow in the middle of the road before running off?  
The wheels on the white bike with painted purple-pink ribbons still spun as she approached. Light bounced off the clips that she had placed on the spokes.
The two quarters given to her sister by their mother, which surely were going to be spent on her favorite gumball Popsicle, was spotted nearby.
The girl had vanished.
It’s been 18 years since Mikelle Biggs disappeared Jan. 2, 1999. Her sister, Kimber Biggs, was the last person to see her.
Mikelle is one of Arizona’s 59 missing children in the National Institute of Justice’s Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a database under the U.S. Department of Justice.
Photos: Missing Arizona children
Her case officially remains open today. 
Her body never has been found.
No suspect ever has been identified.
No firm evidence of what happened to her has been uncovered. 
There are theories — and they have run the gamut, sending detectives chasing tips from Pennsylvania to Mexico. Theories of drug smugglers taking Mikelle to Mexico. Speculation that the ice-cream truck finally arrived on the block but accidentally hit her. Suppositions that a sexual predator, a neighbor, snatched her.
But they are only theories.
Mikelle’s disappearance drew national attention almost from the moment Tracy Biggs reported her daughter, the oldest of the family’s four children, missing. It generated what is known as the most intense investigation in the Mesa Police Department’s history, with more than 800 pieces of evidence collected and more than 10,000 tips received.
The response by Mesa police and neighbors alike was swift. Within 30 minutes, a helicopter was in the air with officers on a loudspeaker announcing that they were in search of a child. 
Police conducted door-to door searches and volunteers passed out fliers of Mikelle’s photo from Lindbergh Elementary School, where she was an honor-roll student. The area became saturated as the desperate hunt continued. 
It was a face that could be recognized by nearly everyone at the time: Mikelle flashing a toothy grin and wearing a headband to pull her hair, which was finally growing out of a perm, out of her face.
The image of the girl against a pale blue background was plastered in store window fronts, car dashboards and on freeway billboards where space had been donated.
The outpouring of support was immediate and overwhelming, Kimber said to The Republic in a recent interview. 
 Strangers, weeping, strolled up to the Biggs’ front porch bringing food for the dazed family.
Their refrigerator door became hard to close as the inside was jammed with pots of homemade chicken soup with noodles; potato casserole; cake; and a 20-pound ham. Neighbors started storing food in their own freezers for the family, she said.
The National Missing Children Organization told The Republic in a 1999 interview that the response after Mikelle’s disappearance was one of the biggest the organization has seen for a missing-child case. 
A few weeks later as men, women and children marched down Mesa’s downtown to celebrate the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they used the occasion to spotlight Mikelle. 
Amid the procession was the poster-size image of the girl.
“We love you Mikelle,” the sign read in a parade photo taken by a Republic photographer. 
Marchers stopped to say a prayer for the little Mormon girl.
There was power to the gesture, which came a few years after the Mormon community had fought hard against a Mesa city holiday to honor King, established in 1996, and a statewide King holiday, approved earlier that decade. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had prohibited blacks from full church participation until 1978. 
But the black community wasn’t dwelling on the past as they focused on the fair-skinned child who couldn’t be found.
“Our community has been torn apart by somebody taking little Mikelle Biggs,” a person in the crowd said, according to the 1999 article. “In all tragedies, people do unite.” 
Confused, Kimber picked up her bike at the end of Toltec Road and looked around for her sister, calling out her name.
She walked back home to tell her mother that Mikelle was no longer where she had last seen her.
A part of the little girl might have been “tattle-telling” on her older sister who had dropped her bike in the street before taking off, acknowledged Kimber, now 27.
But a part of her sensed something eerie about the scene she had come upon, she said. 
“It was almost like the twilight zone. I remember feeling numb, not feeling anything.”
Not looking up from her conversation with her cousin who was in town with her children, Tracy told her daughter to check at the Millers, who were neighbors and friends of the family.
When she went knocking on their door, Mikelle wasn’t there and the Millers had sat down to eat dinner, Kimber said. 
Mikelle was outside making the circles on the bike, family members said, adding they had just seen her out their kitchen window before they had started to eat.
The oldest son was sent outside to help look with Kimber. He knelt down by where she had found her bike, she said.
He was the one who spotted the spilled change, Kimber said. He slowly got back up and said in a serious voice, “Go home and tell your mom you can’t find her.”
Kimber said it was in that moment she knew Mikelle wasn’t playing a joke and that something was wrong. 
When she told her mom again that her sister wasn’t outside, her face dropped, she recalled. 
Tracy picked up the phone and called police. She called her husband, Darien Biggs, who said he would come home right away from work.
After that, it became a blur, Kimber said. 
Yellow police tape blocked off the area where Mikelle was last seen. She had been wearing bell-bottom jeans, a red T-shirt with her school’s name written across it, and a necklace with little charms. 
Police scoured garbage containers, canvassed hundreds of homes and questioned neighbors. Family, friends and strangers stood by, mouthing prayers. 
Officers who worked with Kimber to retrace her steps estimated she had been away from her sister for about 90 seconds.
A nightmare had begun for the family, Kimber said.
For her father, Darien, that horror was compounded by the fact that he was not just a grieving father but a potential suspect to the detectives.
Two lead detectives were assigned to the case, Butch Gates and Jerry Gissel. 
Soon, they began to look to Darien for answers, a common step in missing-children cases, in which authorities say family members are found responsible more than 90 percent of time. 
Gissel told media that a red flag had been raised when detectives discovered that Darien had lied about where he was when his eldest daughter went missing. He had told the police he had been at work when Tracy called him that night to say Mikelle was gone. But it would turn out, he was at a friend’s.
It would publicly unfold that he had revealed to his wife a month before that he been having an affair.
Darien failed a voluntary lie detector test about the disappearance, but detectives told The Republic in 1999 that his emotional state over his daughter’s case may have affected the results of the FBI-administered test. 
Told that the test results were inconclusive, Darien said to reporters at the time, “That doesn’t surprise me. I figured it would be, because they said I was too angry.”
At the time, Kimber couldn’t understand why police were turning to her father, rather than looking for the bad person who had taken her older sister and best friend. She recalled how her father quickly changed during that period, describing him as an “angry zombie.”
“He was so frustrated because he was being blamed and felt like it was a waste of time,” she said. “We were all frustrated with them. When you know your father or husband isn’t guilty … it’s frustrating.”
After a year’s of surveillance, Darien was no longer under the detectives’ suspicion.
Gissel described how they had traced his known steps that night, calculating that it would have been impossible for him to hide her body in the time before he showed up at their home to join the search. 
And given their good relationship, Darien would have had no reason to abduct his daughter off her bike. And Mikelle wouldn’t thrown her quarters on the street at the sight of her father. 
“She was running from somebody, based on the evidence that we do have,” said Gissel in an 2009 interview with ABC News. “It wasn’t somebody that she knew or wanted to be with. She dropped the bike, she was running toward home, she dropped quarters, and it was swift. And somebody grabbed her and, I believe, abducted her in a car and drove away with her.”
Despite the humiliation and finger-pointing, Darien never retained a lawyer and fully cooperated with police. 
MORE: A decade later, sense of loss still felt in case of missing girl
“I didn’t hide,” Darien said to The Republic in a 2009 interview.
By late December 1999 when nearly a year had passed since his daughter vanished, Darien said he may never be able to appreciate the long hours investigators spent on the case. 
“It’s a real comfort to us to know that the Mesa Police Department will not slow down.”
The most important thing was to find out what had happened to Mikelle, he said.
Darien would come home after hours of questioning, upset, and would close Mikelle’s untouched room. He wasn’t able to handle the emotions of seeing her belongings that would make him ache for his daughter. 
The two had been close, Mikelle’s name even deriving from Michael, Darien’s first name. 
Tracy, though, found solace in the girl’s bedroom, where a list of Mikelle’s weekly chores and a picture of the face of Jesus Christ was pinned on her bulletin board. 
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She would spend hours in the room, sifting through pictures Mikelle had drawn of Disney characters. 
Open. Closed. Open. Closed. It was an endless cycle, Kimber said. 
She didn’t like the door closed, she said. When her parents weren’t home, she would go inside and read at the end of her sister’s bed, just like she had done before Mikelle went missing.
“It was almost like I didn’t want them to see me upset about it,” Kimber said. 
But then, it would become too much for her to stay.
“It was almost like denial. I pretended she was in there … then I would get upset because she wasn’t,” she said. “But more often than not, I found her room comforting.”
Authorities were desperate to find a break in the case. They interviewed nearly 500 psychics, tracked every known ice-cream vendor in the state and dug through 35 abandoned mine shafts in the San Tan Mountains.
They pored over information they obtained from motorists they had stopped at roadblocks the night Mikelle went missing, and from the 20 sex offenders they interviewed that lived around east-central Mesa.
But there were no clues. Even what they thought to be clues would turn out to be nothing.
Someone had seen a copper-colored Jeep with a light top shortly before Mikelle had vanished. But the driver would be cleared. 
A tipster called to tell them to look for Mikelle at a Motorola plant, leading to an exhaustive search of the business and its grounds. But it would turn out to be a hoax.
An email arrived from someone claiming he had taken Mikelle, sending police to assemble a SWAT team outside a Phoenix house where they tracked the location of the sender. But it would turn out to be a 12-year-old kid, messing around on the internet.
Pig farms in Queen Creek. Mountain ranges. Desert landscapes. Police crisscrossed all of Arizona and beyond. 
But then, something happened in the tidy Mesa neighborhood that had already been going through so much. A neighbor would be brutally beaten, raped and left for dead — and another neighbor would be found responsible.
Dee Blalock lived two blocks from the Biggses. He was known as the neighborhood drunk, causing harmless ruckus on occasion. 
After Mikelle disappeared without a trace, families in the area launched block-watch meetings. Caught on a local newscast at the time, Blalock is seen as an outspoken advocate for safety and keeping an eye on strangers.
“If you’re my neighbor, and I see that you’re living next to me, and I see something suspicious going on, I guarantee you I’ll be calling 911,” he is heard saying. 
He also appeared at several of the Mikelle’s vigils, Darien told the The Republic. 
Then a few months later, on Sept. 27, 1999, terror would strike the area again.
A woman who lived near the Biggs house came home to find Blalock hiding behind her refrigerator with his pants unzipped, according to court records. 
He advanced on her, breaking her neck and putting her in a chokehold, causing her to faint. He brutally beat her, assaulting her as she went unconscious. 
Blalock left her for dead, lighting her house on fire to burn the evidence. But the woman regained consciousness and called for help, records state. 
As she was rushed to the hospital, she had a revelation in the back of the ambulance.
“Mikelle Biggs. The girl that’s missing. He took Mikelle Biggs. You have to get him,” she said. 
Mikelle was smart and creative, a talented young musician who loved to play the clarinet and piano, Kimber said.
The girl took piano lessons from a neighbor who lived nearby — a neighbor who lived across the street from Blalock. 
Blalock had three former convictions in three states for sexual assault, kidnapping and child molestation. But Arizona laws at this time didn’t make that information known to his neighbors.
Arizona Department of Corrections records show Blalock was released from prison in August 1995 after serving nearly six years on Gila County charges of false imprisonment and failure to register as a sex offender. 
Blalock knew of Mikelle and had seen her before, Gissel said in 2009, referencing the piano lessons she took across the street from his house, where he lived with his wife and three kids. 
Police said Blalock was questioned in the hours after Mikelle’s disappearance, along with the other 19 registered sex offenders in the area.
But he had an alibi: He was home in his garage watching the Arizona Cardinals play and tinkering with a lawn mower he was fixing. His wife confirmed it as well, they said.
They searched his home at the time and came up with nothing, police said. However, a trailer sat in his backyard. They wouldn’t be able to search it without a warrant. But when detectives came back with a warrant, it was gone. 
“That was the biggest hangup for my family and the detectives,” Kimber said. “The trailer was gone.”
Kimber said her parents, Tracy and Darien, believe Mikelle was in the trailer. 
“Whether she was alive or not, that was our only hope,” she said. “That was one of the hardest things to deal with.” 
The trailer disappearing meant a chance of finding out what had happened was taken away, she said.
Blalock was sentenced to 187 years for the brutal attack on the woman. Tracy and Darien wrote a letter to him while he was in state prison in Florence, Kimber said. 
“He (her dad) asked him flat out if he did it,” she said. “And he responded that he wanted to make things right with us and agreed to a visit.”
The three met, separated by a bulletproof glass in the visiting room, talking over a telephone. Police recorded the conversation.
“I said, ‘Did you have anything to do with my daughter’s disappearance?’ ” Darien said to The Republic in 2009, recalling how he faced the sex offender.
“I didn’t have a damn thing to do with that,” Blalock said.
“I think you did,” Darien said.
The exchange went on for a while. Blalock never got up to leave. 
On the way home, Darien said he asked his wife to count the number of times she thought the man had lied. She estimated it was 30 to 35 times.
Kimber said her parents described Blalock’s eyes and how they gave him away as someone who was guilty. 
“I sat 3 feet away from the guy who killed my daughter, and I couldn’t do a thing about it,” Darien said in 2009. “I wouldn’t have any problem with them letting him out as long as I was there to meet him.”
On the fifth anniversary of Mikelle’s disappearance, in January 2004, her family held a memorial service, burying an empty casket. It gave the family some peace, although they still never have been able to find closure.
Darien and Tracy separated. They moved from the Mesa neighborhood where their oldest child went missing. They both live in Utah and have chosen to stay out of the media after their final interview with ABC News in 2009. 
 Detective Gissel is now chief of the Office of Child Welfare Investigations at the Arizona Department of Economic Security. He did not respond to a request for an interview with The Republic.   Detective Gates died of cancer.
Now Kimber handles the media. She continues to take on responsibilities, just as she did when she, only a little girl herself, was forced to grow up quickly and watch over her brother, 4, and sister, 1, when Mikelle was gone and her parents were busy looking for her. 
“I would lay at my bed at night and sit there and pray, I guess,” she said. “I would beg her to come back. I hoped that she would.”
She struggled for years, she admitted in a soft voice, blaming herself for what had happened — for leaving her sister out there by herself. 
Kimber would constantly make sure her siblings stayed close to her day after day, afraid that if she took her eyes off them, they, too, would go missing. 
But now she knows it wasn’t her fault, she said. There wasn’t anything she could have done as a child to stop whoever had snatched Mikelle just steps from their home. 
As for Blalock, she wants to make up her own mind about him, she said. 
“I want to say he is guilty, from my parents’ experience and the information about the case. But that’s not something I’ve found out for myself. That is why I would like to go see him.”
Kimber said she hopes to prepare for that meeting.
“What would I say?” she asked. “I’ve imagined different scenarios. I don’t know honestly what I would say to him. I want to go in powerful as ever and ask him questions and get some answers, but I don’t know I would do that. I need to know I can do that before I go in there.”
For now, she plans to continue to keep her sister’s case in the public’s eye and to speak with other families who have been affected by a missing loved one. 
She also wants to make sure that her young son, 4-year-old Tayven, knows who his aunt is. 
“He calls her an angel. His guardian angel,” Kimber said as she watched her son ran around in her front yard, jumping off the big rocks. “He knows she’s not here. I’m pretty honest with him. … He knows that a bad person took her when she was really little.”
Together, the two go to her gravesite to visit the only place they can to be close to her. 
“I feel awkward because she’s not really there,” she said. “I like to think she can hear me. I tell her about me, about Tayven. I don’t say a whole lot. I sit there and think and bring that CD and listen to music.”
The CD Kimber mentions is one that was created with Mikelle’s favorite songs as a little girl. Especially the Bobby McFerrin tune she would hum and whistle in her Mesa bedroom as she played with her sister. 
Don’t worry, it will soon pass
Whatever it is
Don’t worry, be happy.
Reach the reporter at yjeong@arizonarepublic.com or follow her on Twitter @yihyun_jeong.


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