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Kipper Lacey, age-progressed composite by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and featured on the group’s website.

“Joy.”

After more than 40 years of searching for her son, Kipper Lacey, and finally learning he still was alive, Joretta McFadden said that is what she felt.

“I always hoped,” she said. “Never gave up and it’s a miracle. It’s a God thing.”

In the 44 years it took to find her son, McFadden had been down paths that twisted and turned.

When her 2-year-old son was picked up from her sister’s Bethany home in 1968, she never thought it would take decades to reunite with him.

Today, McFadden, known as Joretta Sharp Lacey when her son was taken, asks for privacy for her and her son.

“Both of us would like to be as private as possible,” she said. “Both of us have been discovering each other.”

It’s been two years since DNA testing confirmed John Randall, living in Eugene, Ore., was the boy she knew as Kipper.

“It’s been great,” McFadden said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time.”

McFadden said she did not wish to discuss anything further, out of respect for her son’s wishes.

“He doesn’t want a lot of publicity and I am honoring his wishes.”

Background

The disappearance of Kipper Lacey occurred on a Friday evening in June 1968.

McFadden answered the door of her sister’s home in Bethany to find her mother-in-law, Dorothy Lacey Groseclose Wills. McFadden was expecting her estranged husband, Mike Lacey, who was living in Dallas after they separated.

Wills told McFadden she was picking up Kipper for Mike and taking the boy to Enid, where she lived. Mike was to join them and spend the weekend in Enid.

When Sunday evening came, and Mike and Kipper never appeared back in Bethany, McFadden called Wills in Enid to find out where they were.

“Dorothy said she had no idea, and that they should be there any minute,” McFadden told the Enid News & Eagle in a 2009 interview.

The pair never arrived. It would be 44 years until McFadden saw her son again.

In 1968, it was not a crime to take your own child, and McFadden and Mike’s divorce was not final. When Mike didn’t return Kipper, McFadden tried to track down the pair herself. She began with Wills.

Wills lived at 1105 W. Maine in Enid. She was employed by Pillsbury Co. in Enid.

McFadden was working at a Bethany bank at the time. She didn’t have a lot of time or money to take off to go find her son. She kept calling, and Wills kept telling her she didn’t know where Mike was, but he probably took the boy to Dallas or on vacation.

“She was just sure that Kip was fine,” McFadden said in 2009.

McFadden tried contacting Mike in Dallas, but she couldn’t reach him. She and her sister saved enough money to travel to Dallas and look for the pair.

The two had disappeared. Mike had left everything at a friend’s apartment when he and McFadden separated. Mike never returned to the apartment after the weekend Wills picked up Kipper in Bethany.

There was no help from police in Oklahoma City or Dallas.

 “The police said it was a domestic issue, and they didn’t step in for domestic issues,” McFadden said in 2009.

About two months after Kipper and Mike disappeared, McFadden finally heard from Wills, who said she was moving away from Enid.

“She said, ‘I don’t want you to worry, I’ve sold my house and rented an apartment. If you can’t get hold of me, don’t worry.’”

Wills then disappeared.

According to a private investigator’s report done nearly 20 years later, Wills voluntarily terminated her employment with Pillsbury. She walked away from retirement benefits and never made any claim for them.

According to the investigator’s report, Wills told other family members and Pillsbury employees she was going away with Mike to help raise Kipper and they would never see or hear from her again.

In the following decades, several searches were conducted to find Mike and Kipper, but none were successful. McFadden sought help from a popular talk show, but there was not enough interest. She listed her son’s case on the Internet, but got responses seeking money from her, not tips on Kipper’s whereabouts.

“I kind of lost hope,” McFadden told the News & Eagle in 2009. “I have never given up.”

McFadden moved on and made a life for herself, remarrying after finalizing her divorce with Mike.

Kunkel connection

In 2008, McFadden would learn of a man in Enid with a special talent for finding people. Her cousin knew Jerry Kunkel from the Enid High School Alumni Association, and when Kunkel heard of the case he took an immediate interest.

Kunkel was a classmate of Mike Lacey’s at Enid High, and remembered the young man who used to sit behind him in class.

While searching Enid for clues of the whereabouts of Mike and Kipper, Kunkel came across a retired IRS agent who had purchased Wills’ Enid home. He, too, became interested in the case.

“I can find people,” Kunkel said. “It’s not that hard to do, it’s just that nobody wants to work that hard.”

Kunkel had been a radio and broadcast reporter for many years, and his most notable assignment was his involvement in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

About the only information Kunkel had to go on was Mike Lacey had lived in Dallas when he and Wills took off with the boy. Kunkel began making contact with people he knew there, including an investigative reporter with the Dallas Morning News.

He also met with McFadden’s cousin and gathered her information. Kunkel believed the best way to find the two was to talk to everyone possible who had any connection with the Laceys.

Kunkel followed each lead he found. He made thousands of phone calls, scoured public records and even managed to have a photograph of 2-year-old Kipper age progressed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and featured on the group’s site.

The story of Kipper’s disappearance was featured twice in the Enid New & Eagle and The Oklahoman.

“We looked, looked and we looked,” Kunkel said. “There were no sightings. No leads.”

It was a dead end. All trails had gone cold. There was nothing left to pursue.

Then Kunkel got a call from a local woman interested in genealogy, who read a story in the News & Eagle about the missing boy and saw the age-progressed photo.

Kunkel said the woman had run a genealogy search on Wills after seeing Kipper’s story. She found a woman with the same date of birth of Wills had been cremated a couple years earlier on the West Coast.

“She tried to find out who the woman was that died that had the same date of birth,” Kunkel said. “She ran a genealogy search on Dorothy and found she had died a few years ago in Atherton, Calif.”

The woman called the funeral home, got some information and then contacted Kunkel. Kunkel then went back to work on Kipper’s case.

“I called the funeral home, and they looked up the records for me,” he said.

He said the funeral home told him the woman had a son who was his age and a grandson who was Kipper’s age.

And after more than 40 years, Kunkel had found Mike Lacey — now John W. Randall — and where he worked. Kunkel contacted Mike immediately.

“First of all, I called Mike and said, ‘This is Jerry Kunkel, and we knew each other in high school,’” he said. “Well, he hung up.”

The next step was to contact Kipper, now also known as John W. Randall.

Kunkel said after he made contact with Kipper, now in his early 40s, he was skeptical of the situation. He said Kipper told him he thought it was some sort of scam.

Kunkel eventually was able to earn enough trust for Kipper to provide a DNA sample for comparison with McFadden.

The first two tests came back as flawed. It would take about a year before a test was successfully done and showed Kipper was in fact McFadden’s long lost son.

Kunkel said the Bethany Police Department, which had jurisdiction over the case, informed McFadden of the results.

“That was the longest running parental abduction case in the United States where homicide was not suspected,” Kunkel said.

Messages left at a number for Kipper were not returned. Mike Lacey could not be reached for comment.

McFadden said she always would remain grateful to Kunkel for the role he played in finding her son.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “It’s a wonderful Mother’s Day gift to me.”

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