Paige Renkoski left her home in DeWitt Township, Michigan on the morning of Thursday, May 24, 1990 and headed for her mother’s home in nearby Okemos, Michigan. Her mother, Ardis, was flying to Atlanta to spend Memorial Day weekend with one of Paige’s sisters, and Paige had agreed to drop her off at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The drive took about 90 minutes, and Paige spent most of it excitedly telling her mother about plans for her November wedding. It was around 11:30 am when they arrived at the airport and said their goodbyes. As Ardis watched her daughter pull away, she had no idea she would never see her again.
Paige’s fiancé, Steve DeBrabander, was the first to realize that something was wrong. He had expected to see his 30-year-old bride-to-be at his softball game that afternoon but she failed to show up. There was no sign of her at the home the couple shared, and there was no answer at her mother’s house. It was extremely uncharacteristic of Paige to be out of contact with her loved ones, and Steve grew increasingly frantic as time passed with no word from her. Eventually, he decided to drive to her mother’s home to see if she was there.
Paige’s little red sports car was parked outside her mother’s home, but the house was dark and quiet and no one answered Steve’s repeated knocks at the front door. Worried that something might have happened to his fiancée, Steve finally decided to break into the house. No one was inside, but the light on the answering machine was blinking. Hoping it might be a message from Paige, Steve hit the play button. He was shocked at what he heard.
The message was from the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department. They had found Ardis’s car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, on the side of Interstate 96 close to the Fowlerville, Michigan exit. Assuming the car had been abandoned, they had it towed to the sheriff’s department property yard and were calling to let Ardis know it was there so she could pick it up.
Steve immediately realized that Paige must have decided to drive her mother’s car to the airport as it was much roomier than her tiny sports car. He was certain she never would have willingly left the car on the side of the road; if the car had been found without Paige, something had to be terribly wrong. After calling Ardis in Atlanta to let her know what was going on, Steve called the police and reported Paige missing.
Ardis and her daughter, Michele, immediately realized that the situation was serious and wanted to get back to Michigan as quickly as possible. It was the start of Memorial Day weekend, however, and they were unable to find any available flights. Luckily, Paige’s sister Tami, who lived in Chicago, was able to get her boss to send his private plane to Atlanta to pick up Ardis and Michele. Soon, the entire family had gathered in Okemos, determined to find Paige.
Paige was the second of four daughters born to Carl and Ardis Renkoski. She and her sisters had spent their early childhood years in Haslett, Michigan; Paige had been in middle school when the family moved to Okemos. Ardis described Paige as being the family clown, always able to make people laugh. She had a smile that could light up a room and a friendly personality that ensured she always had a lot of friends.
Paige had done some modeling as a teenager, but her first love had always been children. She had been known as the neighborhood babysitter and spoke often of how she wanted to eventually get married and have a family. She had earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education and worked as a substitute teacher at the Educational Child Care Center in Lansing.
Paige had met Steve in 1988 and knew instantly that he was the man she was going to marry. She moved into his DeWitt Township home after they got engaged in early 1990 and they were planning to have a November wedding. Paige intended to run a daycare center from the home after they were married and had already started the process of getting the required permits. Her mother told investigators that Paige had been extremely excited about the future and never would have voluntarily disappeared.
After speaking with Ardis, police learned that Paige planned to meet up with a female friend in Canton Township on Thursday afternoon. The friend confirmed that Paige had arrived at her home about a half hour after she had dropped her mother off at the airport. The two of them had spent the afternoon at Griffin Park with the friend’s two children; Paige had left Canton Township around 2:20 pm to head back home.
A man driving down I-96 first saw Paige’s car pulled over on the shoulder around 3:30 pm. He didn’t think anything of it until he drove through the area again at 8:00 pm and saw that the car hadn’t moved; at this point, he decided to call police to let them know about the seemingly abandoned vehicle. A police officer arrived to check on the car and discovered that the engine was running and the car’s headlights were on. Since the car had been in the same spot for at least 5 hours, the decision was made to have it towed to the sheriff’s department property yard. Unfortunately, the area surrounding where the car was found was not searched at this time.
Once Paige was reported missing, investigators realized that the Oldsmobile was a potential crime scene and went to the property yard to secure the car. Inside, they found Paige’s purse; her wallet, identification and money appeared to be untouched. Oddly, the white sneakers she had been wearing were found partially under the driver’s seat, as if she had taken them off while driving and pushed them back out of her way. A partially consumed bottle of beer was also found in the car.
Detectives learned that Paige had stopped by the Cracker Barrel Party Store in Canton Township shortly after she left her friend’s house. The clerk at the store recalled waiting on Paige around 2:30 pm; she had purchased a single 40-ounce bottle of Miller Lite beer. The clerk remembered the sale because she had carded Paige, noting that she looked much younger than she actually was. She had also been wearing a very distinctive necklace, and the clerk told her how much she liked it.
After Paige left the store, detectives assumed that she got onto I-96 and was headed in the direction of Okemos when something — or someone — made her pull over onto the side of the road. They determined that there was nothing mechanically wrong with the Oldsmobile; when it was found, it was in perfect working order. It had gas in the tank and there were no dents or marks on the car to suggest that it had been in any kind of accident.
Investigators scoured the road near where Paige’s car had been abandoned but found nothing to indicate that any sort of struggle had taken place. Detectives didn’t believe Paige would have willingly walked away from the car without taking her shoes and purse, but were unable to find any signs of foul play. The Livingston County Sheriff noted that it was as if Paige had simply fallen into a black hole and disappeared without a trace.
For Paige’s family, finding her alive was their number one priority. Ardis’s home was turned into a makeshift command center for the search and dozens of neighbors stopped by to offer their assistance. Desperate to get the word out about Paige’s disappearance, the family printed thousands of missing fliers and distributed them throughout the area. They knew that traffic on I-96 had been heavy that Thursday due to the upcoming holiday weekend, and they made several public appeals for motorists who might have seen something to contact investigators with any information.
Over the next week or so, close to a dozen people called police to report seeing Paige standing near her Oldsmobile on I-96 around 3:15 pm that Thursday. According to these witnesses, a dark red or maroon minivan was pulled in behind Paige and she was talking to a black male, 20 to 30 years of age, who appeared to have been the driver of the van. He was well-groomed, of medium build, and about 6 feet tall. Some of the people believed there had been a second male inside the van, though they were unable to provide investigators with his description. None of the witnesses saw any kind of struggle between Paige and this man, nor did anyone see her get into the van.
During the course of their investigation, detectives received various reports from motorists who believed they saw Paige that day. At least one person claimed to have seen Paige speeding down I-96 while another car appeared to be following her, while another claimed he saw her on the side of the road talking to a man who was leading her by her elbow towards his vehicle. Yet another believed he saw Paige was throwing her arms up in the air while talking to a man who then put his hand on her shoulder. None of these reports could be confirmed.
Family members said they didn’t believe Paige knew anyone who matched the description of this man or who drove a red minivan, and they were adamant that Paige would not have willingly stopped for someone she didn’t know. One neighbor recalled that when Paige babysat for her daughters, she lectured them about never getting into a car with a stranger. Friends wondered if Paige might have been pulled over by someone impersonating a police officer, but investigators found no evidence to support or dismiss this idea.
Unable to sit at home while Paige was still missing, Steve and several of his friends spent hours parked along the side of I-96, carefully writing down the license plate number of every dark red or maroon minivan that drove past them. They gave their findings to detectives, who followed up on each van but were unable to connect any of them to Paige’s disappearance.
The Tuesday after Paige vanished, nine teams of tracking dogs combed through a 500-acre area surrounding the spot where her car had been found, while a police helicopter scanned the area from above. Their search came up empty, and the toll of missing Paige started to catch up with her loved ones. Following the news of the fruitless search, her father, Carl, suffered a seizure and had to be hospitalized, while another close friend fainted.
Desperate to keep Paige’s disappearance in the public eye, her friends and family expanded their search efforts. Worried that Paige might try to call the house only to get a busy signal, a second phone line was installed to handle the volume of calls Ardis was getting. Dozens of people who didn’t even know the family volunteered to help distribute posters, and by the end of the week Paige’s face could be seen throughout Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Minnesota.
The family announced that they were offering a $6,000 reward for information leading to the safe return of Paige, and tips flooded in. A total of 12 different agencies, including the FBI, were involved in the investigation; during the first week, they followed up on more than 300 potential leads. Two of the witnesses were hypnotized to see if they could recall any additional information that might help identify the maroon minivan, and Paige’s family even consulted with a psychic to see if she could provide any help. Unfortunately, none of these efforts led investigators any closer to Paige.
Ten days after Paige’s disappearance, the reward for information was increased to $25,000. Federal, state, and local agencies continued to follow up on every tip that they received, but the number of calls began to dwindle and they admitted that they hadn’t been able to develop any solid leads. Although publicly investigators stated that they were still hoping Paige would turn up somewhere, privately they admitted that the chance of her still being alive was slim.
In an effort to keep the case alive, a Lansing advertisement company donated 20 billboards so that Paige’s missing poster and the reward information could be displayed along major highways throughout Detroit, Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Flint. The increased publicity brought in dozens of tips, but none of them helped to find Paige.
In July, more than 1,000 churches across Michigan held a special service for Paige, offering prayers that she would be found safely. While thousands of people might have been praying for Paige, investigators admitted that no new tips had been coming in and they were still baffled as to what had happened to the missing woman.
At the end of August, three Lansing-area movie theaters started showing Paige’s picture and reward information before each movie; 19 Detroit movie theaters soon followed suit. It was the first time theaters had done something like this, and officials were hopeful that the extensive exposure would bring in new information.
The case got a much-needed boost in October when it was featured on “Missing/Reward”, a national television program. A film crew created a reenactment of the day Paige went missing, filming scenes in Canton Township’s Griffin Park, the Cracker Barrel Party Store, and along Interstate 96. Soon, Paige’s face was familiar to people across the United States, but her fate remained a mystery.
Although Paige’s loved ones continued to do everything they could to keep the case alive, by November it was clear the investigation had stalled. Knowing that the opening of deer season meant that more than 700,000 hunters would be traipsing through the Michigan woods, officials asked them to keep an eye out for anything suspicious that might be related to Paige’s disappearance. It was a tacit admission that they no longer expected to find Paige alive.
The case made headlines again briefly as the one-year anniversary of the disappearance approached, and Paige’s family held a news conference to remind the public that they were still looking for the missing woman. Over the past 12 months, a 20-person task force had followed up on more than 700 leads but had been unable to make any progress in determining what had happened to Paige. A spokesperson for the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department told reporters that they still considered the case to be a kidnapping but did not have any new investigative leads.Paige (Photo credit: charleyproject.org)
Ardis admitted to reporters that it had been the longest year of her life, though the pain of missing Paige was as fresh as if it had just happened. Steve noted that while having a loved one die was traumatic, having one disappear was even worse. “You can’t start to recover because you don’t know what to recover from.”
Paige’s father admitted he was no longer optimistic. A retired law enforcement officer, he knew that the case was not likely to have a happy ending, telling a reporter that he believed his daughter was “in an abandoned old barn, in a shallow grave, or under the ice.” He wished for any sort of progress, noting that even getting a ransom note would be better than nothing.
Although investigators continued to follow up on the few leads they received, little progress was made on the case for nearly a decade. In May 1999, a task force called “New Hope” was created to take a fresh look at high-profile cold cases in Livingston County, and Paige’s disappearance was at the top of their list. Almost immediately, the task force received several new tips about the case; although they refused to provide specific details, investigators stated that the new information indicated that Paige had been murd*ered.
One of the biggest things hindering investigators was the complete lack of physical evidence. They believed that the only way they were going to be able to solve the case was with help from the public. They were certain that there were people who knew exactly what had happened to Paige, and they made a nationwide appeal for anyone with information to contact the task force.
Hoping to finally bring some closure to the case, the cold case team started the arduous process of reinvestigating each of the nearly 1,000 tips that had been received over the years, looking for anything that might have been missed or overlooked during the initial investigation. In May 2001 they announced that they had a suspect in the case, but released no information about him other than that he was currently in jail on unrelated charges.
In June 2002, investigators announced that the man was still considered a suspect but they did not have enough information to make an arrest. They also indicated that there was a second person involved in Paige’s disappearance, believed to be in the Detroit area. Information they had gathered indicated that Paige’s abduction and presumed m*urder appeared to be a random act, and they released sketches of the two men believed to be involved.
Although detectives had seemed confident that they were about to solve the case, by 2003 they admitted that they still didn’t know what had happened to Paige and the case had once again gone cold. For the next several years, they continued to make sporadic appeals to the public for information, but still didn’t have enough evidence to name any suspects.
In 2009, detectives announced that they now believed Paige was last seen on the side of I-96 around 4:10 pm, not before 3:30 pm as they had previously indicated. They told reporters that they had a list of six potential suspects, one of whom had been mur*dered in Detroit in 1999. They did not release his name, but noted that he did once have a burgundy minivan similar to the one witnesses reported seeing on the day Paige disappeared.
Investigators also stated that they had received an anonymous letter that included a very detailed map indicating that Paige’s body was buried in the Sober Road area of Conway Township. The location was within a 100-acre area that included wooded areas as well as swamps, and they noted that they would need to use special equipment before they would be able to narrow down their search area.
In February 2011, investigators announced that they were following tips that suggested Paige’s body might be buried on one of three Livingston County properties and planned to use sonar equipment to help them determine where to dig first.
In May 2011, investigators began using ground penetrating radar at one of the sites where they believed Paige might be buried. Although the search turned up empty, detectives were undeterred. Over the next several months, they continued to investigate possible burial sites, determined to finally bring Paige home. Using cadaver dogs, they believed they identified a possible location in November 2011 in Fowlerville; they were so confident that they obtained a warrant to dig in that location.
Investigators began digging on November 18, 2011. Their optimism was contagious, and Paige’s family members were hopeful that they were finally going to learn what had happened to their loved one. Everyone was shocked when the dig yielded absolutely nothing. Ardis summed up the general feeling of all involved, telling a reporter, “Stunned is the word that applies the most. I know the detectives. I feel for them as much as I do for us.” Still, she admitted that she believed that Paige was at peace and that gave her some comfort.
Although investigators were still determined to find Paige, it wasn’t long before the case went cold once more. Detectives have never been able to formally name any suspects in Paige’s disappearance and no charges have ever been filed. While they are certain that Paige was abducted and ki*lled, they are still waiting for someone to contact them with the information they need to finally bring closure to this case.
Ardis, who became a fervent missing person advocate after her daughter’s disappearance, died in 2017 without ever knowing what had happened to Paige. Her sisters and other family members are still actively searching for answers.
Paige Marie Renkoski was 30 years old when she went missing in 1990. She has blonde hair and blue eyes, and at the time of her disappearance she was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 125 pounds. She was last seen wearing multicolored silk pants, a white blouse, and a green beaded necklace. If you have any information about Paige, please contact the Livingston County Sheriff’s Department at 517–546–2440.