Struggling through stagnant days of anticipation has become the norm for Shawn Hargrove since his children, Indigo, 11, and Donovan, 5, were kidnapped by their mother Valerie Dunkle in March. Hope comes in bursts: a ringing cell phone, a tip from Seattle, a supposed Carolina Beach sighting. Those are the best moments. But the worst moments quickly follow: “I can’t help it. I try not to get too excited, but your hopes just spike, ‘This is it. We’ve found them.’ And then they come back, and it’s the worst thing to hear, the worst low, when they say, ‘I’m sorry, Shawn.’”
The first big lead in the case – and biggest disappointment – came in April two weeks after the kidnapping, more than 1,700 miles from Kalispell. Arkansas State Police were alerted when someone tried to get a replacement for a lost vehicle title. The vehicle’s registered owner was Valerie Dunkle.
Arkansas police discovered Dunkle was renting an apartment in Diamond City under the alias of Lina Johnson. But, according to Kalispell Police Detective Sgt. Scott Warnell, officers found the apartment empty and without signs of the kids. Dunkle had left before police found the apartment, leaving a note there saying she had gone on vacation.
“That was the worst. I thought it was over. I thought we had found them,” Hargrove said.
The case has remained largely inactive since April. There’s been the occasional tip, usually generated from posters placed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in stores like Wal-Mart nationwide. A sighting from Seattle reported the kids with a person missing both a leg and an arm. This month, someone said they saw them in Carolina Beach. None of the tips have panned out.
“There’s not a lot we can do sitting in Montana knowing that she’s probably nowhere near here,” Warnell said. “It’s a waiting game. I believe she’ll be caught sometime soon; it’s just a matter of time, waiting on leads and then doing everything we can to follow up on those.”
But, Hargrove is hopeful again. There’s new cause to check the cell phone he sleeps with and rarely turns off. He sold his house last week, moved into a small apartment and is using the money to pay a private investigator from Arkansas to pick up the lead there.
“Right now everything is vibrant; just the idea that we’re on the trail again, that something new might happen, makes me feel alive,” Hargrove said. “Between those periods the world just seems gray and dull.”
Hargrove and Dunkle were nearing the end of a lengthy divorce process in March and sharing custody, when Dunkle failed to show up for a mediation meeting. Hargrove became suspicious – Dunkle’s family hadn’t heard from her, nor had customers for the day care service she ran out of her home. But Hargrove couldn’t file a missing children’s report because his turn to have the kids was two weeks away. The system’s loophole gave Dunkle a 12-day lead.
“At first, I just threw myself into work,” Hargrove, an employee at Teletech, said. “I thought she couldn’t carry this on for more than a few weeks.” Initially, Hargrove thought the kidnapping was retaliation because he initiated the divorce and she didn’t want to share custody. Then in July, Hargrove found Dunkle’s journal, where she wrote about killing herself. “I went cold reading it,” Hargrove said. “My worry for the kids safety went to a whole new level. It’s hard because a lot of times people tell me, ‘Well, at least they’re with their mother.’ That doesn’t mean they’re safe. She’s not safe.”
Hargrove suspects Dunkle had help when she first left Kalispell. Items too big for her car are missing from her home and there were signs someone else had been in the house after she left. He hopes that if someone helped Dunkle they “would realize they aren’t doing her or the kids any good. They need to come home and she needs help. They can make an anonymous call if they have any information.”
On Aug. 18, Hargrove gathered with his parents, a few friends and family to celebrate Indigo’s 11th birthday. Hargrove had promised her crab legs – her favorite meal ¬– for her birthday, so the group feasted on “the biggest crab legs I could find.” Donovan’s birthday is Nov. 3.
“I was really lost (around the time of Indigo’s birthday),” Hargrove said. “The idea of Donovan’s coming up almost makes me not want to celebrate. Hopefully, they’re home by then so we can celebrate together.”
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