Lost Bride Research Day 17!

I called Det. Johnson at 4 p.m. He said he left a message for the mother last night and again this morning but she has not called him back as yet. As it might be possible that Valerie Abbott never returns Detective Johnson’s call, I asked him to confirm some basic information. He confirmed the decedents name as “Shayna Swann.” She died in Kalamazoo County on March 20th of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. She had been in a car accident several years ago and suffered a closed head injury. Her prescription meds were to deal with the fall out from the accident. This was not the first time she had accidentally overdosed.

I asked Det. Johnson if he knew where she worked or went to high school. He hesitated and said that even before this incident and other accidental overdoses, Shayna “was not unknown to them.” Det. Johnson said since this was a closed case, if I wanted a copy of the report I could just come in to their offices on Lake St. and request a copy. I’m sure I’ll need to submit a FOIA form for any reports.

I checked the Kalamazoo Public Library Local History Room records on-line. They index the Kalamazoo Gazette. I figured with a date of death I might find a notice. When I searched Shayna Swann this is what I found:

Title: Public Notice: neglect petition

Wow. Named in a neglect petition when she was 5 years old. That is a tough start to life.

Title: 17-year-old sought in alleged scam
1)KG 04/17/2002 B, 004:5 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

Title: Alleged scammer turns herself in
1)KG 04/19/2002 B, 004:5 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

Title: Girl gets five-month jail term for health-care scam
1)KG 05/29/2002 B, 003:1 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

Title: Birth of a daughter
1)KG 09/30/2002 D, 008:1 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

So, if a 17 year old gets a five-month jail term while pregnant, not likely that she actually finished high school. Incarcerated and pregnant . . . It’s like a bad reality show.

Title: Circuit Court Sentence
1)KG 01/14/2003 B, 002:1 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

Title: Birth of a daughter
1)KG 04/19/2004 E, 008:1 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

Title: Circuit Court Sentence
1)KG 11/23/2004 B, 002:1 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

Title: Driver critical after car strikes I-94 guardrail

Title: Wanted
1)KG 04/30/2007 A, 006:5 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

Title: Birth of a son
1)KG 10/28/2009 B, 012:5 NEWS 1 MICROFORM TECHCENTER

I’ll go get copies of these articles from the local history room and swing by the Sheriff for a copy of the police report. Hopefully there will be a picture of her from police records or the newspaper articles. Maybe a mug shot will have to do instead of a yearbook picture.

I wonder if the local history records are up to date. They showed no mention of any notice of her death. If she had 3 kids, where are they now?

Lost Bride Research Day 12-16

I called the Kalamazoo County Sheriff’s office again to speak with Detective Sgt. David Johnson about V. Abbott. I left message again. At 3 p.m. I called and left another  message.

I decided to call Detective Sgt. David Johnson really early today so that I might catch him before he went out for his days events. Left message again.

Jeez, ya’d think the Sheriff’s office could knock off from fighting crime and battling the forces of evil in West Michigan long enough to return my call.

I finally reached Detective Sgt. David Johnson just before lunch. When I laid out the information I had, he seemed to think that he was not working on the same case I was interested in. His case involving a V. Abbott was the accidental overdose death of Shanna Swan, (I need to check the spelling here) a female who died in her apartment. The Valerie Abbott that was involved was a witness in the case and the young woman’s mother. Det. Johnson said Shanna lived with her boyfriend and had for some time, but there was no marriage being discussed. He said he was going to meet the boyfriend, Riley, this afternoon to return Shanna’s property and he would ask him about the dress to see if this was the same case.

Detective Sgt. Johnson called back to say that Riley and Shanna had In fact discussed marriage but he said that they had not bought a dress yet so Johnson thought this was not the woman I was looking for.

Humm. Detective, really? All I could think was that there are just too many coincidences for this case and the dress not to be linked:
V. Abbott name on the wedding dress ticket at the cleaners,
Woman saying she was mother answering phone for V. Abbott,
Woman dies in her apartment, mother named V. Abbott,
Woman was discussing marriage with boyfriend.

I explained that since all my info was received indirectly from the mother, could he get a message to her to see if she wanted to speak to me. After all, the boyfriend/groom may not know about a dress that was under the mothers name.

Elaine from Westwood Cleaners said the dress had been used. Maybe Shanna and her mom got the dress second hand and were having it cleaned for her to use when she was ready. Maybe they put it under her mom’s name because she didn’t want her boyfriend to know about the dress just yet.

Would it be possible for Det. Johnson to get Valerie Abbott a message that I wanted to talk to her? Johnson said he would call the mother tomorrow and lay out the situation to see if the dress was her daughters and if the mom wanted my number, he’d give it to her. Fair enough. Waiting.

Checking records in Kalamzoo County again tomorrow for “Shanna Swan”.

Research! Day 11

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.

Research! Day 10

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.

Research! Day 9

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.

Research! Day 8

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.

Lost Bride Research – Day 3

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.

Research! Day 2


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.

David's Bridal Ivory Satin V3189 Feminine Wedding Dress Size 4 (S)David's Bridal Ivory Satin V3189 Feminine Wedding Dress Size 4 (S)

The Lost Bride- research Day 1

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…

The Lost Bride

David's Bridal Ivory Satin V3189 Feminine Wedding Dress Size 4 (S)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?