The prosecutor alleges that the defendant, the mother, took part in four decades of deception. She allegedly lied to various relatives over the years when asked about the whereabouts of her daughter; those alleged lies ranged from Michelle, the missing daughter, being cared for by other relatives, to Michelle studying in Canada in high school and doing well. Investigators say there's no trace that Michelle existed after 1969.
Donna Prentice, in court Monday, looked at the last-known photo taken of her daughter, Michelle Pulsifer, before the 3-year-old disappeared nearly 40 years ago. Prosecutors allege the 61-year-old and her boyfriend, Mike Kent, murdered the little girl around July 4, 1969.
"The defendant, from 1969 on, told a lot of lies," said prosecutor Larry Yellin.
Prosecutors allege that days after her disappearance, the couple left Huntington Beach for Illinois. They packed up their two boys, their family pets, and allegedly told the children there wasn't enough room in the car for Michelle. She had been left with relatives in California.
For years, the prosecutor alleges, Prentice lied to relatives who asked about Michelle. Michelle's brother will testify about the last time he saw her, in July 1969, when he was 6 years old.
"The door opens and in comes his sister Michelle," said prosecutor Yellin. "And she's trying to climb up in his bed, and she's saying, 'Hide me, hide me.' And Richie says that his mother, the defendant, came in, took Michelle out of there."
Michelle's father, Richard Pulsifer, eventually hired a private investigator. The Orange County District Attorney's Office then reviewed the case, filing charges against Kent and Prentice in 2004.
While in jail, Kent called his son Jamie. "He told him that he buried Michelle's body -- he buried that little girl -- in Williams Canyon here in Orange County," said Yellin in court Monday.
Kent died of natural causes before the first trial, which ended with a hung jury in 2007.
"That statement -- 'I buried her in the canyon' -- did not come from her mouth," said defense attorney Ken Norelli. "Donna Prentice did not have anything to do with the disappearance of that child."
The defense told jurors Prentice was a loving, nurturing mother under the control of an extremely abusive man, and paralyzed by fear.
"This case will be all about whether or not she should have not gone and had the courage and the strength to find out where her daughter was, because she didn't," said Norelli. "And that does not make her a murderer of her child."
Prentice faces a maximum of five years to life in prison if convicted, following sentencing guidelines that were in place in the 1960s when Michelle disappeared.
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