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Reminder of how near peril can lie

The Baltimore Sun

When Karen Kamsch, then 14 years old, started having problems at home, she took the not uncommon route of going to live with a grandmother. Now, about 30 years after she vanished without the proverbial trace, it looks as if she didn't move far enough away.

Police are focusing on "a person of interest" in what now seems not a disappearance but a homicide, a person whom they won't identify beyond saying that he or she isn't a random stranger.

"It's someone close to her," said Anne Arundel County police Lt. David Waltemeyer, "a close associate or a family member."

At a time of Jessica's Law and Amber Alerts - named after girls who were abducted and killed by strangers - the mysterious and almost surely tragic case of Karen Kamsch is a reminder that danger doesn't always come in the form of a roving predator who swoops in from nowhere and snatches a child from the safe confines of home. Sometimes, the danger comes from within rather than without the family.

And, in fact, that is the more common threat to a young girl, said Elaine A. Anderson, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park who teaches a course on family violence.

"I usually say to my students, particularly women, you think you're most in danger by the unknown stranger," said Anderson, a professor of family science. "In reality, you're much more likely to sustain physical injury from someone you know than from a stranger."

Those, though, are not the kinds of missing-girl stories that tend to percolate into wider consciousness. Rather, you hear of girls such as Polly Klaas or Jessica Lunsford, whose deaths at the hands of convicted sex offenders led to legislative changes and a greater awareness of those who prey on young children. And not without reason: This week, a Dundalk man found a man hiding in the bedroom of his 9-year-old son, who apparently had been drugged with some kind of chemical.

Last week's search for evidence at the Pasadena home of Karen's grandmother - Olga Kamsch, who died in 1999 - might have looked like the typical search after a child disappears, with dogs sniffing around the 11-acre property and crews digging on the grounds. Except in this case, Karen had been missing for 30 years.

Of the many disturbing aspects of the case, perhaps the most troubling is that no one might have reported the girl missing when she failed to show up at school one day during the winter of 1976. A 14-year-old girl vanishes, and no one - not her parents, her extended family, her friends or her teachers - contacts authorities?

Family members say now that they were told that Karen's father and grandmother reported her disappearance at the time, but Waltemeyer said there is no evidence that that ever happened.

"In 1976, Karen Kamsch disappeared and fell off the face of the earth," Arundel homicide Detective Rich Alban said.

The police began investigating Karen's disappearance only this May, when her brother, Tate, called them. A year younger than Karen, he said he had always been told that his sister ran away and that police investigated but were never able to find her. When an Internet search revealed no sign of any investigation, Tate Kamsch decided to call Anne Arundel police.

At a news conference called by the police Wednesday, Kamsch stood next to a blown-up school picture of his sister, who had dark eyes like his. He spoke little, and haltingly, but said a lot.

"I hope she's still living," he said at one point, "and just wanted to get away from the whole situation and live her life."

What that "whole situation" was is unclear, but Waltemeyer said Karen Kamsch "may have suffered abuse at the time" while declining to say whether it was physical or sexual. He also made a point of saying certain family members are not cooperating with the police investigation.

As the years pass, he and Tate Kamsch said, time grows shorter; if a dark family secret is to be revealed, it needs to be now.

"Everybody in my family is getting older," Kamsch said. "They're going to die soon."

The fact that someone can simply vanish without a trace seems unimaginable today, what with the increased awareness of missing children and the popularity of shows such as America's Most Wanted that are able to rally an entire country to find someone.

And yet, people do vanish - on their own or by foul play - and the safety net has considerable holes.

As Anderson of the University of Maryland noted, the "milk carton" phenomenon of people mobilizing to find a missing child is still relatively new, having increased substantially in the years since Karen Kamsch's disappearance.

And, of course, no matter how many television shows and tracking mechanisms exist, they work only if someone triggers them in the first place by reporting that a child has vanished.

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