For more than 30 years, Tate Kamsch has wondered what happened to his older sister, the pretty girl whose stellar report cards put his to shame.
His family always told him she had abruptly run away. He kept a picture of her near his bedside anyway, hoping one day she might let someone know how she was doing.
But when a recent Internet search produced no indication that authorities were looking into her disappearance, the 44-year-old contacted police. What he heard troubled him: They had no record that Karen Beth Kamsch was ever reported missing.
Yesterday, Anne Arundel County police disclosed that they are investigating what could prove to be a dark family secret - that she might have been killed. Detectives have identified a "person of interest," whom they described as a close associate or family member.
A week after local police agencies and an FBI evidence collection team searched the Pasadena home where 14- year-old Karen Kamsch used to live with her grandmother, homicide detectives are asking the public to come forward with any information that could help to explain her disappearance in the winter of 1976.
"This one is unusual," said Sgt. Rich Alban, a county homicide detective. "To have someone come forward, 31 years later, and ask us where his sister is and there's nothing to indicate she was ever missing - it's like she fell off the face of the Earth."
Karen Kamsch grew up in Brooklyn Park but was living with her grandmother, Olga Kamsch, on Wishing Rock Road in Pasadena at the time of her disappearance. She was described as a straight-A student, so sharp that she skipped sixth grade, and interested in art. But police alleged yesterday that she was also the victim of abuse.
No one answer at a Glen Burnie home listed as the most recent address for her father, George Kamsch. Karen's mother, whom police identified as Jean Diane Lee, lives in Henderson in Caroline County and could not be reached for comment. Olga Kamsch died in 1999.
Lt. David Waltemeyer, assistant commander of the agency's criminal investigations division, said some family members are cooperating "and some are not."
"We have a person of interest we've spoken to and will speak further to," Waltemeyer said. "We think there's definitely a person out there who knows what happened and is living with a secret. If Karen's out there, she needs to be laid to rest."
On an unknown day in late 1976, school officials apparently notified Olga Kamsch that her granddaughter had not come to school. Personal belongings such as a winter coat were still in her bedroom. Though police say they were recently told that Kamsch's grandmother and her father called authorities and filed a missing-person report, no report could be found.
About 14,000 juveniles are reported missing every year in Maryland, the majority of whom are runaways. They are more likely to be female, ages 14 to 17. But only about 150 cases have been open for five years or longer, said Carla Proudfoot, director of the Maryland State Police Center for Missing Children.
When Kamsch vanished, many of the databases that investigators use today did not exist, and police were not required to file missing-persons reports. The state missing children's center was created by legislation in 1985.
"As you have police officers retiring and cases getting passed off, it's very possible that something could have fallen through the cracks," Proudfoot said.
Jerry Nance, supervisor of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's forensic assistance unit, said there are about a half-dozen cases each year in which authorities become aware of a long-missing child whose initial disappearance went unreported.
"And it usually starts the same way: A family member makes an inquiry," Nance said. "Some of them actually have some solvability factors. Just the fact that this has laid dormant for 30-some years doesn't mean that the police can't have a successful outcome to it."
Karen Kamsch apparently had run away several times, and the family assumed she had taken off for good. Neighbor Beatrice Hasenei, 84, said she remembers seeing a large number of cars parked outside the Kamsch home one day in the late 1970s. She said Olga Kamsch appeared to be crying.
"I said, 'Do you need any help? Is something wrong?' and she told me that Karen ran away from home," Hasenei said in an interview last week. "But it seemed like there was no big deal made out of it at the time."
Over the years, Hasenei said, she grew close to Olga Kamsch and occasionally asked about Karen.
"She just said, 'No one has heard from her.' There was nothing to elaborate on, I guess," Hasenei said.
On Aug. 29, the Anne Arundel County Police Department executed a search warrant at the home on Wishing Rock Road, a secluded street between busy Routes 2 and 10. Five feet of debris were sucked out of a 20-foot well, and forensic anthropologists are reviewing the contents to determine whether there are human remains.
"After 30 years, we would not expect to find obvious human remains," Waltemeyer said. He declined to elaborate on "other items" that were found among the debris.
While he said police have evidence suggesting that she was killed, police and family members are still holding out hope that Karen Kamsch is alive.
"I just really want to know what happened to my sister. I hope she's still living and just wanted to get away from the whole situation," said Tate Kamsch, who lives in Ridgely, Caroline County. "It's always been in the back of my mind, but it's been like, nobody mentions it."
Asked by reporters whether he believes a relative knows what happened, Kamsch paused for several seconds.
"More than likely," he said.