Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lost, then gone — Turbulent years led up to Soldotna woman’s disappearance

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Kim Kline thought it was a little odd, but encouraging, when her daughter, Michele Pecora, drove off with a friend the evening of Oct. 12.

Michele had been in a downward spiral of depression that made her avoid social interaction, even with her family. So when Michele called one of her few friends and he came to pick her up at the family’s home in Soldotna, Kline thought it was a good sign, figuring her daughter would hang out for a while, maybe spend the night, maybe even do something she hadn’t in a long while — have a good time.

When Michele didn’t come home the next day, Kline started getting concerned. A few days more without any contact from her daughter and panic set in.

It’s been two months, and Kline still hasn’t seen or heard from Michele. She’s talked to all Michele’s friends, filed a missing person’s report with Soldotna police, and Kline’s friends have hung up posters with Michele’s photo and description all over the central Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, Homer and even Fairbanks — all with no response.

“We’ve had no contact. Nothing. I talked to everyone possible that I know that she was connected with,” Kline said.

On Oct. 12, Michele’s friend picked her up at home. He dropped her off with another friend, who was housesitting, while he went to run an errand. He returned about a half hour later, and Michele was gone. The friend at the house said Michele had called someone and asked the person to pick her up and take her to Anchorage. She drove off in a green car. Kline hasn’t found anyone who can tell her who that person was, or who had even seen the green car before or since.

Police have contacted Michele’s ex-boyfriend in Anchorage, to no avail. Kline doesn’t know of anyone else Michele may know in Anchorage, or any reason she may have wanted to go there. Michele didn’t take any money, extra clothes or her ID with her, so Kline doesn’t think she’s left the state. Beyond that, she doesn’t know what to think.

“I think it’s possible that it’s someone she knew somewhat that came and picked her up. Whether she ever made it to Anchorage, I don’t know. I asked all her friends, no one can figure it out,” Kline said.

Michele’s disappearance comes after two years of increasingly worrisome behavior. Kline attributes much of it to low self-esteem and depression that likely resulted from a nasty custody dispute.

Kline is from the central peninsula, and moved back here after getting a divorce in California. She intended to have her two daughters in Alaska with her, but when she sent Michele for a visit to her father in California, he filed papers with the court in California seeking custody of her, and was awarded it.

Kline spent the next six years traveling to California as often as she could, she said, filing motions until she finally won Michele back. Michele moved to Soldotna when she was 14. She grew up with her older sister and three stepsiblings.

“In her early years, Michele was an ideal, perfect, angelic child. She’d do anything to please anyone. She got great grades,” Kline said.

Around 16 things started to change. Kline thinks the custody dispute was part of it.
“She was drug into court to make decisions. It was really ugly,” Kline said.

After Michele moved to Alaska, her father didn’t maintain a relationship with her, Kline said.

“He sent her up here to me. He didn’t keep in close contact with her at all, he pretty much abandoned her,” she said. “She would just be in tears. That would definitely be one of the factors that led to her low self-esteem and depression.”

Kline said Michele started getting a little rebellious. She was oppositional and defiant at home, had some run-ins with police over traffic tickets, which eventually resulted in an arrest and license suspensions, and she dropped out of Soldotna High School in the 11th grade.

But she also got her GED, held jobs at Taco Bell and Pizza Boys, at one point lived with a boyfriend, and maintained a small circle of friends.

Two years ago things really started to change.

“I took notice there was something really, really different,” Kline said. “Mentally, the way that she was talking and interacting with me and her friends had changed suddenly. That’s about when I start noticing things really slipping drastically, taking a downward spiral.”

Kline thinks it may have been drugs. She’s familiar with signs of drug use, since she’s been in recovery for addiction for 20 years and has been around other recovering addicts for that long. She knew Michele had experimented with marijuana, but the new behavior she was developing wasn’t consistent with pot use. After doing some research and asking around among her friends, she concluded Michele might have been on meth.

“She developed these behaviors, she’d get these little OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) behaviors. She was washing her hands all the time, thinking things were on her or there was something in her body,” Kline said.

Michele would shower multiple times a day, then a few months ago her hygiene dropped off and she refused to use any sort of anti-bacterial cleansing products. She started having difficulty remembering things, like phone numbers. She became defiant and oppositional at home and lost all interest in social contact with her family or friends.

“She became anti-social. The handful of friends she did have didn’t want anything to do with her and she didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Her tolerance level was just gone,” Kline said.

She doesn’t think Michele was a habitual meth user, but that she was significantly affected by the times she did experiment with it.

“I’m thinking that she used it a few times and she had long-term effects. I don’t see that happening with everyone, but you see that happening with a certain amount of meth-addicted people. I was sure that she was not (using regularly), because she was right there under my foot, literally,” Kline said.

Kline said she tried talking to her daughter about it. Michele admitted she had tried meth once, but wasn’t willing to talk about what was going on in her life. Kline tried getting her to go to counseling and having tests done to seek a diagnosis and treatment, but it became a battle to get Michele to go to appointments.

“There’s depression in my family, I’m familiar with the signs. Unfortunately, one of the things that goes along with people who are depressed is their denial and unwillingness to have treatment,” Kline said.

Michele would talk about wanting to get out of her mom’s house and do something different. Kline said she’d encourage Michele to figure out what she wanted, whether it was going to college or getting a place of her own, and she’d help her with it. She said she tried contacting Michele’s dad every couple of months to encourage him to reach out to their daughter, but he said he didn’t have time.

“Some kids from broken homes and those kinds of issues, become rebellious early on. She really didn’t. From 16 it was a very slow rebellion, very subtle, but she’d still do things around the house. I thought I could bring her back. In two years, you’re thinking, ‘well, there’s healing time,’ you know, but it just wasn’t seeming to work with her.”

Despite all the unanswered questions, Kline is optimistic. She tries to stay busy so she can she can keep functioning, and friends and family have been a big support in dealing with police, hanging up posters and spreading the word, she said. Her older daughter put up the Christmas tree this year, when she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

The holidays are tough with all the memories of better times. But in a way Kline looks forward to Christmas, hoping she’ll hear something from Michele.

Hoping for another chance to get her angelic little girl back from the demons that have taken over her life.

“I just want her home and safe,” Kline said. “I’ll get her all the help she needs. If she needs help, if she’s having long-term effects from whatever this is, if it’s emotional or chemical, those kinds of things can be fixed when you’re willing. I’m just waiting for her to walk through the door or pick up the phone.”

Editor’s note: Soldotna police did not return calls seeking information for this story.

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