It’s lunch time and I am making some more research phone calls. Called Berrien County and spoke with Melanie in the Clerks office, no woman with the last name Abbott, first name starting with V has died in the county in the last few years.
Called Allegan County, Sue in the clerks office said no woman with the last name Abbott, first name starting with V has ever died in the county.
Called Cass County, Heather in the clerks office said computers were down, call later.
Called St. Joseph County and spoke with Jackie in the Clerks office, no woman with the last name Abbott, first name starting with V has ever died in the county.
Called Branch County and spoke with woman in the Clerks office, no woman with the last name Abbott, first name starting with V has ever died in the county.
Called Barry County and spoke with Delana in the Clerks office, no woman with the last name Abbott, first name starting with V has died in the county in the last few years.
Delana was the first county employee interested in why I was searching with such skeletal information. I related the situation to her and asked if she could suggest any other places I might try. Delana suggested that I try county police to see if any case details sound familiar to them. She said “After all, the state police may not have had to get involved.”
Aha, thank God for Delana. I never called Kalamazoo police because the businesses and residences in the area around Oshtemo are unincorporated and covered by county or state authorities. And I did call the Michigan State Police for help. Since I could find no local death certificate, I ruled out local authorities. Now when I think about it, it makes perfect sense. Since she and I use the same dry cleaners, I made the assumption that Ms. Abbott lived in the Oshtemo Township area. I thought the state police had jurisdiction for unincorporated areas, that’s why I started there. I called the Oshtemo Township offices on (State Route) M43. The Oshtemo Township office referred me to the Kalamazoo County Sheriff.
Calling the Sheriff. When I explained to the Sheriff’s office why I was calling I could hear the receptionist typing. Then she said this was a current case and referred me to Detective Sgt. David Johnson. I about jumped out of my chair. I had conflicted feelings at that moment. I felt elated that I may actually be on the track to find out more about Ms. Abbott. At the same time, I felt embarrassed at feeling so elated at the possibility of learning details of her life, and death. Left Detective Sgt. David Johnson a message.
I called the Paw Paw Area 51 Michigan State Police post and spoke to Sgt. McNally. She said she had been working in this area for for the last couple years and did not recall their post handling a case with the details or names I provided.
At her suggestion, I called the public affairs department at MSP in Lansing and left message. Tiffany, a MSP Public Affairs representative, returned my call. When I told her what I was looking for and what I had tried already, she said that it was virtually everything she would have suggested I try. She did suggest I check with other area MSP posts and ask them, as one post might not know the cases others had worked.
Tiffany also gave me the number to MSP Freedom Of Information Act office, in the event I wanted to try to find information that way. She cautioned me that the FOIA could get quite costly as I really had few details. I think I’ll hold the FOIA option in reserve for when I win the lottery or something.
Picked up the wedding dress from Westwood Cleaners. The minute I walked through the door, Betty, a staff member at the cleaners, asked me if I had learned anything else. I gave the broad and empty results total to her. She suggested that I might try calling the funeral homes and asking them about Ms. Abbott. She suggested a couple that she knew served the African American community.
I called Harpers Funeral Home and they said they would check their records for any Abbotts in the last year or so and get back to me. They didn’t call back.
The assistant store manager at David’s Bridal referred me to corporate for my request for assistance. I called David’s Bridal corporate offices to see if I could get someone in PR to help me identify the dress owner, or wedding date- anything that might lead me to a marriage license, birth certificate or death certificate. Not surprisingly they are a bit skiddish about my request for help.
Charly Rok, David’s Bridal PR, would like a written request for assistance that she can take to legal. I understand they have a lot at stake in protecting their good name and their customers. Likely they will not want to get tangled up in linking one of their wedding dresses with a tragic homicide and an art exhibition about the deceased’s life. Not likely they will approve my request to photograph the dress on a dress frame in their store either. Dropping the David’s Bridal aspect of any further research.
Tomorrow I will call the state police and see if they can help point me to other resources.
Called Calhoun County, no woman with the last name Abbott, first name starting with V has ever died in the county. Called Van Buren County. No woman with the last name Abbott, first name starting with V has ever died in the county.
The Kalamazoo Gazette crime reporter called me back. The homicide he recalled happened in 2009. Couldn’t find any thing about Abbott. He had hit a wall. He advised me to try the State of Michigan and to let him know what I find. The idea of this deceased woman’s wedding dress was sadly compelling to him as well.
Called the State of Michigan Vital Records. They can’t go back in the files and search without a full name and date of death. I think that they only have hard copies – nothing in databases. I am so spoiled by technology.
Went back to the cleaners to get pictures of the dress and any tags inside. Started thinking that I should be documenting this process with video. Yes, there was a David’s Bridal tag inside the dress with size and model information.
Called David’s Bridal in Portage, Michigan, unfortunately, right before closing, on the chance that they might have some record of a sale to V. Abbott, if it was even purchased at that location. I asked for a manager and when the staff member asked why, I told her. Could they tell me if a V. Abbott had purchased this dress model? I mean, how many size 14 ivory dresses in this model had they sold to women named Abbott? She immediately looked up Abbott in her customer database and said she found a number of customers whose first names started with V. She said she could not search by model number. Sounds like they might be willing to help.
I will talk to a store manager tomorrow.
I called the Kalamazoo County Vital Records department. No woman with the last name Abbott, first name starting with V has ever died in the county – at least since they started keeping records, in what, 1865?
Called Elaine to let her know what I had learned so far and that I was working on it even if she didn’t hear from me for a few days.
OK, so I started the public record research for a woman named Abbott. I checked the Kalamazoo Gazette index for any homicides involving a woman named Abbott. Nothing.
Expanded the search to include surrounding counties. Nothing.
Called the crime reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette who does a round up at the end of every year on local homicides. He did not recognize the name but did recall an instance of a homicide involving a woman in her apartment. He asked if there could there be another name? I told him I only had second hand information and it was pretty thin at that. If another name was involved, I couldn’t know. He’d see what he could find out and get back to me. Might take a day or two.
I checked the only remaining White Pages we had that actually listed residential numbers. Who has landlines anymore? I found 17 Abbotts including one V. and one Valerie. The number for V. turned out to be a woman originally from Indiana with no relations here. The number for Valerie is now for Farm Bureau Insurance.
I started thinking that cold calling residences for information about a murdered woman is not the best strategy.
I called the cleaners and asked them if they had any more information on the dress. The staffer said I should talk to Elaine, one of the owners, she knows more.
Elaine called me back. She no longer had the ticket with the name and phone number but they remembered the woman’s name: V. Abbott, a strikingly beautiful African American woman.
Elaine had been calling the number on the ticket for a while. She said that when she reached Ms. Abbott the first time she was told Ms. Abbott still wanted the dress. No one came in for the dress.
Some time later Ms. Abbott came by the cleaners to ask if her dress was still there. Yes, it was. Ms. Abbott said she still wanted it but could not afford to pick it up right now. When Elaine commented that she had been trying to reach Ms. Abbott unsuccessfully for some time, Ms. Abbott replied that she “had to leave the state for a while.” Still, no one returned for the dress.
Elaine continued to try the number periodically. She finally reached Ms. Abbott for what turned out to be the last time. Elaine told Ms. Abbott that they really needed her to come in and retrieve her dress from the cleaners; they could not hang on to it any longer. Elaine told me that Ms. Abbott sounded unusually down during this call. Still, no one came for the dress.
Elaine kept calling the phone number on the ticket and finally got a hold of a woman identifying herself as Ms. Abbott’s mother. She was the one who told Elaine about the homicide and said to sell the dress for whatever she could get. The mother did not want it. Elaine told me she didn’t want to pry into so delicate a topic so she had no further information.
I told Elaine about my idea to create works of art using the wedding dress and that I’d like to find out more about Ms. Abbott. Would they be willing to donate the dress to the project? Elaine said she was sure they would but she would have to check with her husband and get back to me.
She asked me to keep her in the loop about what I found. I felt with my newspaper researcher background I could find what I needed.
The research begins…
I had been going to Westwood Cleaners in Oshtemo, Michigan for well over a decade. They almost always recognize me and occasionally we manage brief and pleasant conversations. For a couple months they had a wedding dress for sale. Ivory, halter style, asymmetrical pleats encrusted with beaded lace appliqués, size 14, David’s Bridal, $125.00. (Picture from David’s Bridal.)
A few weeks ago, I went in to pick up a tie my husband had dropped off and started talking about this dress: how amazed I was at the prices of some gowns-we watch “Say Yes to the Dress” and how reasonable this dress was. I assumed it had been used once.
I know that not everybody wants to keep their wedding dress. My sister for example had me make hers into two christening gowns when she found out she was having twins. She had bought her dress off the rack in Chicago for what I assumed was a great price and it would hold more emotion for her by giving it new life as the christening gowns.
I always figured that if you wanted that fairy tale experience, you got the white dress. After all isn’t the white dress the thing of most girls dreams? I didn’t have that traditional wedding event when I got married. Don’t misunderstand, I got exactly the wedding experience and ceremony I wanted: small wedding in the church where my husband grew up. I wore a blue suit, my husband – a very 70’s brown suit. No groomsmen or bridesmaids. The reception for our 11 or so guests – immediate family – was in our apartment a few towns away. Mom and Dad brought the booze and petite fours and we hung out – until my husband had to go to work. That night was one of his last midnight shifts supervising a loading dock at a trucking company. A week later he was in graduate school.
I asked who was selling their dress? The staff person hesitated. “Well, I guess since you’re not going to buy it I can tell you.” I was not really prepared for the answer.
The dress had been abandoned at the cleaners. They had had it for over a year now and when they finally got a hold of someone at the number on the ticket, they were told the woman “had been murdered in her apartment last year – maybe you had read about it in the paper?”
Wow. I wondered how many times this poor woman had dreamed over this dress, dreamed about her beloved, their wedding and the family they would have. How would they raise their kids, where would they like to live, whose relatives they would visit on which holidays? Where would they plant the vegetable garden? What were their plans for growing old together? Very sad to think about.
The next week, I worked a booth at the International Quilt Festival in Chicago, but when I got home, I again found myself thinking about how sad it was that someone’s dreams were hanging in the neighborhood dry cleaners for $125. Was this a fitting memorial for this woman? I didn’t know, but I felt I wanted to do something that might give another voice to this woman’s life through this dress. I could make her dress into a single – or even a series of art works.
Now, who was she?
A good friend was looking for someone to help her create custom bench cushions for her new home when the designer had quoted a pricey amount. I volunteered. It is not too often I have the opportunity to help a friend out so I was glad to do it.
Then life intervened and it has now been 4 months since I accepted the job. Between trying to get my studio back in order after quitting the bank, tons of physical therapy-that thankfully is helping, and the arrival of a 17 year old in the household, I have been spinning.
I am happy to report that I am back on track and finishing some really beautiful cushions for my friend. Check out this fabric…OK, so you can’t see the sparkle at all-but it is nice. Yes, my friend has good taste.