It was 2:20 a.m. in July 1965, and the bell at the Great Plains Motel in Kansas City did ring. Dorothy Reynolds, the night manager, woke up to let a young man in who had dark hair and “very blue eyes.” He had “well-formed, handsome features,” she would say later, and spoke in a soft voice. She thought it was just a normal customer check-in. He was thinking about something else. “Don’t say anything.” “Just give me the money,” he said, pulling out a gun with a long barrel.
People would have forgotten about the theft a long time ago if the man had only taken $246 from the motel register. Reynolds did what she was told. But he got away with something much more valuable that morning: Denise Sue Clinton, Reynolds’ 9-year-old granddaughter. The girl from Independence was never seen alive again by her family and friends. Two years later, her bones were found by two cowboys riding through a pine forest near Sundance, Wyoming.
The k*idnapper was never caught by the police. Wednesday is the anniversary of the day Denise was taken away. Most of the police officers who worked long hours to find her k*iller are now de*ad, as well as her parents. But a lot of her childhood friends will never forget how much the crime hurt them and their playmate. Gail Lackland Gargotta, who lived across the street from Denise, said, “Life got a lot bigger for me.” “You have to grow up a lot faster when you lose your best friend at such a young age and in those conditions.” In the western Independence neighborhood where Denise lived with her parents and little sister Diana in the summer of 1965, there was a baby boom.
A few blocks apart, there were dozens of kids living together. Most of them went to Three Trails Elementary School, which was close by. Denise had just finished third grade there. Her hair was cut short and reddish-blonde. Denise was tall for her age. She was very neat and well-behaved, and she was sensitive and wise beyond her years. She seemed so much older than she was, even when she was a little girl, said her sister Diana Clinton White, who was 6 years old when she was taken. “She always did the right thing.” Kids were free to go from yard to yard.
They played games like tag and Simon says while riding their bikes everywhere. Denise and Gail laughed as they talked about which Beatle they thought was the cutest. “Their street was like Mayberry USA,” said Graham, who grew up on a street next door. “Those were the good old days.” In early July, Denise and her family got back from a two-week trip to California. Denise spent the night with her grandparents on July 7 at the motel they ran on U.S. 71, which is about a mile south of where Kansas City International Airport is now. The motel and the bar and restaurant next door were right off the highway, and there were no other buildings or businesses nearby. Dorothy Reynolds and her husband Chelcie Reynolds were the only ones who saw the thief. He led Dorothy Reynolds to the back bedroom where her husband was sleeping after getting the money.
As they walked by, Denise was sleeping on the daybed. The thief tied the grandparents up with a roll of tape and put rags over their mouths to stop them from talking. Then he turned around and walked away. They heard a car starting up and making its way across the gravel parking lot. They also heard the door to the motel open and close. It only took them a short time to get away and call the police. Dorothy Reynolds found something very scary when she went to check on Denise. Denise was not there. Diana, her little sister, woke up to find Gail’s sister Cathy Lackland in bed with her. Cathy is a neighbor and friend of Diana. There was talk in the kitchen from Cathy’s mother.
She asked, “Why are you here?” Cathy, who is now known as Cathy Lackland Burnam, said that her mother told her not to tell anyone. Diana, who is now Diana Clinton White, didn’t give up. Cathy promised not to say where she heard it. Cathy told her, “Denise was taken.” For Diana, that word didn’t really mean anything. She knew it was bad because her sister had been through it. The two girls began to cry. She should stop and act like she didn’t know, Cathy told her. After calming down, they went to the kitchen, where Cathy’s mom was making breakfast.
They pretended everything was fine as they sat down at the table. Then the news on the radio blared that Denise had been taken. Diana cried and ran to her room. She thinks of it as the time she stopped being innocent like a child. She said, “That day I learned how bad men could be.” But for a little girl who looked up to her big sister, that day was the start of a terrible nightmare. Diana was crying in her room, and Gail and her mother watched the sun rise from the big picture window in the Clintons’ living room. Gail said, “We got down on our knees and prayed that everything would be okay.” The police responded quickly and in large numbers to the ki*dnapping.
Twenty minutes after the first call, there were traffic jams on U.S. 71. But police could only look for a little girl with reddish-blonde hair and a checkered nightgown on because they didn’t know what kind of car she was driving. Diana was being watched by a neighbor while Denise’s parents drove to the motel and met with Clarence Kelley, the chief of police in Kansas City. They were told that everything was being done to find Denise.
The police had even told the FBI. There were dozens of police officers, federal agents, and sheriff’s deputies working on the case by the end of the day. Tom Thomas was one of the first Kansas City police officers to arrive at the motel and started looking for evidence. He saw a part of the k*idnapper’s fingerprint on the roll of tape that was used to tie the Reynolds family up. It was clean and about the size of a pencil eraser.
Thomas, who later became the sheriff of Platte County, thought it could help find the ki*dnapper. The Reynolds family was taken to police headquarters so that they could look through pages of photos of people who had been booked as criminals. Investigators woke everyone up and questioned everyone in the motel. They also asked the staff of the bar next door, which had closed an hour before the ki*dnapping, how many people they had served that night. Some workers said they saw a cream-colored 1962 Ford in the parking lot, but it drove off before the police arrived.
All of the police departments in Kansas and Missouri were told to keep an eye out for the car. Over a mile of fields and woods were searched by people on foot, horses, and with dogs. A salesman who had stayed at the motel the night before came back late in the afternoon after hearing about the ki*dnapping. He told the police that the car in the parking lot was really an Oldsmobile that was white and from 1959 or 1960. When the police made him look at brochures, he chose a 1959 four-door model as the one he saw. Soon, the police sent out a call for that car to be picked up.
Police said late that first night that no ransom calls had come in and no one had seen Denise. Eight years later, Kelley would become director of the FBI. He told reporters that the waiting “grinds on you.” A police chief said that his tired officers wouldn’t go home and insisted on working all night. The police gave the media a composite sketch of the thief. Investigators looked into a lot of reported sightings but couldn’t find any. At the time, Col. Don Bishop was the chief of detectives for the Kansas City Police Department. He said, “It’s like the earth has swallowed her up.” There were days, weeks, and then months. Russ and Betty Clinton did everything they could to keep their daughter Diana’s life as normal as possible.
There were FBI agents in the basement, waiting with a phone that had been tapped for a ransom call that never came. It wasn’t easy. A $10,000 reward had not been claimed. The FBI found and talked to every owner of a white 1959 Oldsmobile in Kansas and Missouri—more than 2,000 of them. This was one of the most impressive parts of the investigation. Their phone number wasn’t changed because Denise knew it. Every day, dozens of calls came in from all over the country. Some of them came from kind people who wanted to help. “What happened to Denise touched a lot of good people,” her uncle Don Reynolds said. Some people were mean.
One man called often to say disgusting sexual things. Teenage pranksters called and laughed as they said things like, “Mommy and Daddy, please help me.” Family stayed together through it all because Betty Clinton was a strong person and had a strong religious faith. Diana White said, “My mother never gave up.” Diana’s mother picked her up early from school one day in September 1967. In a “very controlled voice,” she told everyone in the car that Denise had been found. Diana was very excited to ask if they could visit her at home. “She’s not at home,” Clinton said. “She’s in high heaven.” My daughter Diana started to cry, and her mom told her not to.
She said, “Denise is now with Jesus.” While it was the worst news they could have heard, White thinks that her mother at least no longer had to worry that Denise was in pain. White said, “After that, they finally started building their life.” White knew how painful it was for her parents to lose their daughter, but she didn’t fully understand until she had children of her own. White said, “I don’t understand how they did it.” It makes me think I would have gone crazy. For the most part, White’s mother was always positive, but there were times when she looked away with a certain look in her eyes. White said, “I could see the pain in her face.” “I will never forget that look.” In 1985, White’s dad passed away. In 2006, her mother passed away. For White, the 50 years haven’t filled the hole in her heart or made her trust individuals she meets for the first time. White said, “I miss her and don’t know her husband or her kids.” “I feel sad about all the things we missed.”
The feelings are always close at hand, especially when she hears that another child was taken from somewhere. She said, “I go back to being that little 6-year-old girl.” In February 2014, a little girl was kid*napped and ki*lled in Springfield, Missouri. This caused many people who remember Denise to get back in touch. Graham made a Facebook page called Remembering Denise Clinton. It quickly gained more than 100 members who wrote about how they knew Denise.
To remember Denise, the group is going to release balloons on the playground at Three Trails Elementary School in Independence on Wednesday. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. White was shocked by how many people remembered her sister and how she had changed their lives. White said, “It warms my heart to see so many people outside the family who still have such strong memories of her.” There was a time when she thought she would never find out who ki*lled her sister. She doesn’t think she would want to know now, even if she could. And she said, “It won’t bring her back or change how it changed our lives.” “Let it rest and let God handle it.”