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Person Of Interest

The Fbi Finally Has A Top Suspect In The Amy Mihaljevic Murder. We Got To Him First.

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At 2:10 p.m., on October 27, 1989, classes end for the fifth graders of Bay Village Middle. The school doors open, and here comes Amy Mihaljevic, dressed in green pants and a pale green shirt with lavender trim. Her dirty-blonde hair hangs, a little disheveled, over her earrings - turquoise horse heads, mounted on gold studs. She lugs a blue-denim book bag with red piping. Amy passes her blue antique bicycle, which she peddled to school that morning, and heads east on Wolf Road. She jogs a little to catch up with Olivia Masiak.

Earlier that day, Amy and Olivia had sat together at a school assembly and listened to a rookie policeman named Mark Spaetzel give a "meet your friendly local officer" presentation. Spaetzel also discussed the dangers of strangers.

"Can I walk with you?" asks Amy.

"You never walk this way," says Olivia.

"I'm meeting someone," says Amy. "I'm meeting a friend."

They walk together until they reach the shopping plaza a quarter mile down the road. "This is where I'm at," says Amy, and walks alone across the nearly empty parking lot toward Baskin-Robbins. She waits outside, standing on a bench, twirling around a pole, her head down.

A group of fifth-grade boys congregates at the corner of the plaza, by Bay Lanes. One of them spots the girl spinning around the pole, seemingly without a care in the world. "Amy!" he shouts.

Amy ignores him. Another girl, Maddie, sees this and thinks the boy might be picking on Amy, so she keeps an eye on both of them to make sure nothing happens. And then Maddie sees the man.

He wears a beige windbreaker with plaid lining, front-pressed khakis and a button-up shirt. His hair is thick and bushy above his eyes. She watches as he walks up to Amy and puts a hand on her back. He leans down to whisper something in her ear. Then the man puts an arm around Amy's shoulders and leads her away.

Maddie assumes it's Amy's dad, picking her up after school, but only because she had never met Amy's father. Three and a half months later, Amy's body was found near New London, Ohio.

In the years since Amy's abduction, Maddie (not her real name) has been shown hundreds of photos of suspects. Only a few times has she told investigators that the man in the photo could be the same one who led Amy away. Recently, she saw a suspect's photo on the blog I've maintained since publishing a book about the unsolved case. "There have not been many [photos] that have been this close," she says. "I would definitely tell them to investigate this guy."

Investigators from Bay Village and the FBI know of this man. At one time, they even seemed close to arresting him. But he remains free, managing a restaurant in Florida. Last weekend, I paid him a visit. His denials of involvement in her abduction and murder notwithstanding, no other suspect has ever matched the facts of the case as closely as Dean Runkle.

There have been hundreds of suspects in this case - men, mostly, with shady pasts and weak alibis, vague connections to Bay Village or New London, histories of sexual misadventures. Many were just look-alikes, men who resembled the sketch circulated by police but who otherwise could not be linked to the crime.

Others included odd people who lived near the Mihaljevics; parents of Amy's closest friends; convicted sex offenders who were not yet in prison at the time of her abduction. Many of these men have no alibis for the afternoon of October 27, 1989. But only a handful crossed paths with each of the girls the abductor attempted to seduce over the phone before successfully luring Amy to the shopping center that day - the clue upon which the entire case hinges, the one way in which the killer was careless.

Sometime that week, a man had called Amy at home, after school, when she was there alone. I work with your mother, he told her. She just got a promotion. If you meet me at the plaza after school, I'll take you shopping to pick out a present for her. But don't tell her what we're doing. We want it to be a surprise.

But Amy told her brother, Jason, and her friend, Kristy Balas, about the phone calls. Investigators would later figure out that Amy was not the only girl who had received such phone calls around the same time. There were at least three others.

These other girls went to school in North Olmsted and were roughly the same age as Amy, about 10 or 11. In the weeks leading up to Amy's abduction, a man called them at home, after school, and pretended to be a co-worker of either their mother's or father's. He told them he needed their help to pick out a present and asked them to come with him to the store. None took the bait. But with each attempt the killer refined his pitch, until, finally, he called Amy and she agreed to meet.

How did Amy's life cross paths with the lives of three girls from North Olmsted she had never met? At that intersection is her killer.

For 19 years, the FBI and the Bay Village Police Department kept the identity of these other girls a secret. None had ever talked to a reporter, until they found me in 2006.

At that time, they told me that on the week of St. Patrick's Day in 2005, a retired FBI agent who worked on Amy's case contacted each of the girls from North Olmsted. He seemed excited about a new lead. He asked each of them if they remembered visiting the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Bay Village. The center had been one of Amy's favorite places. It was only then, in 2005, that investigators first learned that each of them had gone to the nature center in the weeks leading up to the abduction. He asked them if they remembered writing their names and home numbers in a logbook by the front doors. A couple thought they had. He gave them the name of a suspect and asked if it sounded familiar. It didn't.

By the time these women sought me out in 2006, they had forgotten the name. From conversations with the nature center's staff (I had donated some of the book's profits to the organization, in memory of Amy, and so had reason to talk to them occasionally), I learned that Bay Village Det. Mark Spaetzel and a retired FBI agent had interviewed employees about a man who might have volunteered there in 1989. Again, no one remembered the name. Then, in August 2008, a man named Tony Perchinsky called to tell me that he'd heard from a local cop that the man who'd been Perchinsky's eighth-grade science teacher in 1991, Dean Runkle, was a suspect in Amy's case. "And here's the weird thing," said Perchinsky. "He used to tell us about the science center he volunteered at. And I realized the nature center was in Bay Village."

I requested Runkle's personnel file from Nord Junior High School and ran his name through a search of newspaper articles. I quickly began to see why this man was on the FBI's list of priorities.

Runkle was born in New London and grew up in a farmhouse just a couple miles from where Amy's body was dumped, along County Road 1181. This desolate stretch of cracked pavement is not a place you'd likely happen on by chance, and detectives had long theorized that whoever had dumped her body there must have been familiar with the area.

Runkle was a twin, but his sister died in 1950, when they were 6. It was a tragic year for the Runkles; the family's first home burned to the ground too. After high school, he went to Bowling Green, where he majored in education with a focus in biology. He got a job teaching seventh-grade science at Sailorway Middle School in Vermilion in 1967. Two years later, he earned a Young Educator of the Year award for starting a science fair at the school.

He was an eccentric teacher from the beginning. He often filmed his students in class, cutting together the film later at home. He also photographed his students regularly, developing the negatives himself. He kept a cot in a side room and sometimes slept there overnight. When he couldn't find a textbook up to his standards, he wrote his own and passed it out to the kids.

He was an accomplished ragtime piano player and played in the Red Garter Saloon at Cedar Point during the summers. In 1971, he quit teaching for two years to play ragtime at Disneyland. After he returned, Runkle began building his own nature center inside his classroom. By 1982, he had collected a 9-foot-long boa constrictor, a prairie dog named Susie, a tank of piranhas, a ferret, and countless hamsters, gerbils and mice. He called some students his assistants, and they were allowed to stay with Runkle after school and on weekends to help clean the cages and feed the animals. "When I went to school, there was this wall - student on this side, teacher over here," he said in an interview that ran in the Lorain Morning Journal that year. "I've been able to tear down this wall. That way I really get to know the kids and they get to know me, and we understand each other that way."

But something happened in 1987. Runkle resigned abruptly, explaining he had to leave for "health reasons." He told different stories to administrators and students, everything from eating bad food while on safari in Africa to contracting a blood disease after cutting his hand on coral. Whatever the reason, Runkle moved back in with his parents in New London and got a job working at a pet store. The store bred pet mice, but when the mice population exploded, Runkle began giving the mice away to local nature centers, says the store's former owner, Oneta McCarthy. She says he "probably" gave some to the Lake Erie Nature Center.

In the fall of 1989, Runkle applied for a teaching position at Nord Junior High in Amherst and was hired on the glowing recommendations of former administrators from Vermilion. He promptly began building a new zoo and inviting kids to help with the animals after school. Then Runkle suddenly quit again, in 2003, according to his personnel file; he gave no reason, declined to apply for a sabbatical that would have allowed him to reach retirement, and didn't even complete the paperwork necessary to collect his pension.

In August, after hearing from Perchinsky, I sent more than 500 e-mails to former students of Runkle's through MySpace and Facebook. Most of the 100 or so who replied remembered his fondness for Dr. Pepper and disdain for yawning in his class or saying "yeah" instead of "yes." They recalled seeing him eating at Rax on Route 58 every night, sometimes with his classroom assistants. When Rax became a different fast-food restaurant, he continued frequenting the place as if nothing had changed. Some credit him for inspiring them to become veterinarians or biologists. But others remember a darker side.

Jen Crouch says Runkle liked to tell her about pranks he played on friends. One such prank supposedly involved dipping a cat in liquid nitrogen and then smashing the frozen carcass to bits on the floor.

"He would stare at me in class," says Kim Raeburn. "It was more than creepy; it felt like an animal noticing you walk into a room. He had a few girls he was extra close to, like the girl who sat in front of me. I'd watch him put his left hand on her back and bend down to whisper in her ear. It seems inappropriate now, the way he treated some of the girls." Runkle liked to tell boys sexual jokes, says Derek Chase. He talked about the blow-up dolls he kept at home and the way the dashboard of his Grand Prix looked like breasts. "Whenever I was in his car, he'd say, 'There are my breasts, these are my double-D's,'" recalls Chase. Sometimes he talked about how his father beat him if he didn't finish dinner when he was younger. And he talked about how he liked kids who hadn't reached puberty yet, because "I was a runt too."

A female student from his 1989 class says she noticed the similarities between Runkle and the composite sketch of Amy's abductor. When she learned he was also living in New London, not far from where they found Amy, she called the Amherst police and then confronted Runkle directly. "I said, 'I know you're the one who killed Amy,'" she recalls. "His eyes popped out of his head. He didn't say anything, just walked past me.

In 1994, Christina Adkins says she overheard Runkle say something that shocked her. She says Runkle and another teacher were discussing the pregnancy of an eighth-grader and which boy might have been the father. "Wish it was me," said Runkle, according to Adkins.

"He's one of those men who makes you feel uncomfortable when you're alone with them," she says. "He made comments about girls' outfits. I remember when he saw one girl with a skirt that was way too short, he said, 'That's not appropriate, but I'm glad you wore it to my class.' In lab, he would stand behind me and push his chest against me. He was very touchy." Adkins says she and other young girls were questioned about Runkle's behavior by the superintendent in 1995. No mention of that investigation was contained in his personnel file.

Also not in his personnel file were the occasions when Runkle was caught alone with students in his gold-colored Grand Prix, by both the principal and a policeman, who let him go with a warning.

Gold-colored fibers were found on Amy's body, according to the Ashland County coroner's file on the case.

Runkle sold his gold Grand Prix in 1991. I attempted to locate it in hopes of taking a sample of carpet that could be compared to the gold fibers found on Amy. I tracked it to a junkyard in rural West Virginia, but when I got there in September, I was told it had been scrapped long ago. Several students say they were invited back to Runkle's apartment after school. But the only student they know who went inside was a boy named Dan, who attended Sailorway Middle School.

Today, Dan is living in a rundown apartment complex in Vermilion. When reached at home, he admits to being Runkle's "favorite" for a while. He says that after he left for high school, Runkle used to write him letters. Over time the letters became sexual in nature. Dan says their relationship was never physical. In 1987, Runkle set a few thousand dollars aside in a trust for Dan, according to Dan's mother. But Runkle eventually asked for the money back. It appears Dan stopped hanging out with Runkle in the fall of 1989.

Ken Lanning dislikes the word "profiler" and seldom uses it, but that's what most people would call him. Lanning helped create the Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, where FBI agents are trained. He worked for the bureau for 30 years, the last 20 devoted to crimes against children. Today, he's a consultant for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I spoke to him last week to better understand the mind and behavior of the man who killed Amy Mihaljevic. Lanning has weighed in on the case before.

"When you're dealing with human behavior," warns Lanning, "you're not dealing in absolutes. Anything is possible." But Lanning can extrapolate some ideas about the man who killed Amy.

"The younger the age of the victim, the more likely the perpetrator would not have a gender preference," he says. "At that age, there's not a lot of difference between boys and girls. Puberty seems to be a very significant issue for many of these serial offenders."

Amy was 10 and had not yet reached puberty.

"Also, preference does not mean exclusivity. There may be circumstances or reasons that may lead him to have sex with others outside his preferred age/sex demographic." Lanning cites Ted Bundy, who is best known for raping college-aged women even though his last victim was 12 years old. Most child molesters don't abduct and kill their victims, he notes. Most "groom" and "seduce" their victims into going along with their plans, a salesman-like approach that allows them to believe the children are willing participants. But when that approach doesn't work, they may resort to violence, "because they can't figure out another way to get the child to have sex with them."

And though most victims of child abuse know their attackers, when a child is killed, often it's at the hands of a stranger who has gone outside his safe zone. "If you do become a violent guy, you better be victimizing strangers," explains Lanning. "And it better be someone who cannot be linked to you, because when a child is abducted and murdered in this country, trouble will rain down upon you. … Most of these killers are not stupid. They know this."

Amy's case, beginning with the phone calls from a stranger posing as a family friend, appears to have been a seduction gone wrong. Amy may have resisted and fought back - indeed, her fingernails were chipped, according to the coroner's report - causing her abductor to become violent in order to regain control.

Lanning doesn't assume to know enough about Runkle to offer an opinion of his behavior or his motivations. But he sees the death of Runkle's twin sister at such a young age as a traumatic event that may have had an impact on the rest of his life. "To me, that event is very significant," he says. But be careful not to try to fit a square peg in a round hole, he warns. "Statistical probabilities are always trumped by case specifics." For their part, Bay Village police detectives do not consider Runkle as the only suspect in the case and continue to work all leads.

In March, I learned that the FBI was planning to re-interview an intriguing suspect whom they'd been looking at since 2002 and had interviewed in '05. Then March became June, and June became November. During those delays, I learned that Runkle was that suspect.

On October 27, the 19th anniversary of Amy's abduction, I made the decision to go see him myself.

Last Friday, I flew to Miami, then drove to Key West, where Dean Runkle has been living since his abrupt departure from Ohio in 2003, which occurred as investigators began to question his relatives and co-workers. The first place I stopped was a chain restaurant that Runkle reportedly frequented in Ohio. It was dinnertime when I got there, and I quickly surveyed the room. No sign of him, of course. I thought about showing his picture to the managers, but then scolded myself for thinking it would be so easy. What a stupid idea - thinking I would walk into a random fast-food joint and find him. Nothing is that simple, I told myself.

That night and much of the next day I show Runkle's photo around town. Some recognize him as a piano player in local bars, but these tips don't get me any closer.

I begin focusing on the people I can tell are locals - the tanned man weaving palm-frond baskets, the musician strumming a guitar on a corner. A homeless man says he thinks he has seen Runkle at a soup kitchen on Flagler Avenue before, but that was years ago. As it happens, the soup kitchen is scheduled to serve free lunch in a half-hour.

Everyone standing in line at the Flagler soup kitchen wants to help. "What's the reward?" someone shouts. But no one knows Runkle. And that's when the old man with a Frisbee shows up. He walks over to see what we're talking about. I hand him the photo. "That's Dean!" he says. "Man, me and Dean are friends. He looked after me when we lived at the shelter together a couple years ago. He's not homeless anymore. He's doing OK. In fact, he's probably at work right now."

Where? I ask. He names the same restaurant that had been my first stop. Sure enough, all the employees there recognize Runkle's picture - he's a manager, but he's not working today. According to his co-workers, he lives just a mile from the restaurant, near a large apartment complex, but no one has his exact address.

Moments later, I pull up in front of the apartments, which are actually a dozen separate buildings surrounded by a chain-link fence. As I'm considering how to enter the compound, a man walks across the street in front of me. And though I've never seen him in person before, I recognize him immediately - not from the grainy 13-year-old newspaper photos but from the composite sketch of Amy's abductor. He looks more like the sketch than anyone I have seen before. I pull the car over and hop out. "Mr. Runkle!" I call.

He turns. "Yes," he says. "And you are?"

I shake his hand and introduce myself. He nods, unsurprised. "My sister told me about you," he says. "I don't have anything to say." He starts to leave.

I ask my questions anyway. Runkle stops and answers them for a while. "I didn't leave Ohio because of Amy," he says. "I left for health reasons." It's hard to tell what might be ailing Runkle, though, because, at 65, he could easily pass for 45. "I walk a lot," he says.

I ask him how so much circumstantial evidence could line up against one person. He shrugs. "I know I'm their top suspect. But I answered the FBI's questions, I took their lie detector test and they haven't done anything to me. I was always at school. When would I have had time to kill her? What history do I have of inappropriate behavior with kids? I was around kids all day."

I ask him about Dan and he quickly became emotional.

"Yeah, I wrote a lot of letters. He was like a son."

I ask him about the sexual nature of the letters and he looks away. "That was a difficult time in my life," he says. "We were close. Very close. But it was never inappropriate."

I asked him if he thought it was possible that a student of his could have showed me a picture of him volunteering at the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center.

"I wouldn't be surprised if I was in a picture at the Lake Erie Nature Center," he says. "But I'm telling the truth when I say I don't remember being there."

Runkle says he doesn't ever remember being physical with his female students, either.

When I ask him if he could have used the logbook at the nature center to gather phone numbers for girls in North Olmsted, he says he's done talking and begins to walk away. Turning the corner, he says, "I have nothing to confess to."

jrenner@clevescene.com Anyone with any information, call the FBI at 216.522.1400 or the Bay Village Police Department at 440.871.0773.

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