In the mid-1990s, shortly after joining the staff of The Honolulu Advertiser, I developed a good working relationship with a group of people – some official, some not – that sought to locate Hawaii’s missing children.
This story grew out of that relationship and, in an example that Hawaii is a small place, introduced me to a machinist I had often seen during a college job years earlier at the Institute for Astronomy – David Kempton. Kempton reluctantly shared his sad story, which was originally published on Aug. 9, 1995.
It would become the first of two stories that told a tale of hope and a love that would not go away.
Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer
The girl in the birthday photo has a cherub’s smile, the cheeky kind that a daughter gives her father.
David Kempton stared at the image he had taken exactly 42 years ago yesterday. It’s the most precious photo — perhaps possession — that he owns.
Donna Rae Kempton, age 4, a blonde with bangs that fall to her eyes and a kitten in her arms.
A girl missing now for 42 years. Abducted by her mother after a custody dispute.
Not a day has passed that Kempton, a University of Hawaii machinist, hasn’t pondered the child’s fate. On Monday, the day Donna would have turned 46 — perhaps did turn 46 — he got a remarkable hint: an artist’s computer-assisted rendering of the way his daughter might look as a grown woman.
His case is being handled by the Hawaii State Clearinghouse on Missing Children, which has recovered 19 children since it opened in January. But it’s never tried to find someone missing this long.
The woman in the rendering — which was prepared by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia — has a mane of dark hair with a streak of gray. She looks like her older brother, the boy posing beside her in the old photograph.
“She doesn’t look familiar,” Kempton said. “Somehow, I always expected to see some resemblance to that person.”
He tapped the old photo.
Here in his one-man machine shop beneath Bilger Hall, he chain-smokes cigarettes in the pale fluorescent light. A thin coil of smoke piled above him like a mushroom.
At 73, nearly all his memories of Donna have drifted beyond some mental horizon.
“I can’t imagine her voice. I can’t remember. I can’t remember her trotting around.”
He tapped the photo again.
“That is the only mental image I have of her.”
Kempton is a private man. Talking about this is embarrassing.
But the rendering is the first lead he’s had since his daughter was taken. He is a father buoyed by hope for the first time.
His ex-wife was a war bride from Burma. They met in Calcutta at the end of World War II and were married in 1946. Afterward, they moved to Cleveland, Ohio.
The marriage ended on New Year’s Eve 1952. She had fallen in love with another man, an itinerant factory worker.
Ultimately, Kempton was given custody of his children. But on the first weekend of a scheduled visitation in September 1953, she only wanted Donna.
Kempton dropped off the child on a Friday and never saw her, or her mother, again.
Investigators had nothing to go on because his wife had no relatives in the United States. And Kempton knew nothing about her new beau.
“That’s where it ended,” Kempton said. “I went on and made a life.”
He married again, this time to a woman with two children. They had another child and brought the family to Hawaii in 1970.
Still, he’s thought about Donna almost every day. All it takes to stir him is to hear the name.
In 1991, Kempton started searching again. He got nowhere, even after hiring a California firm that specializes in finding people.
His last shot was a call in mid-April to Hawaii clearinghouse coordinator Anne Clarkin.
“It is a stretch,” Clarkin said. “There is no question that I would take this case. This is the worst thing that can happen to anyone.”
Now she plans to send the rendering to missing person agencies in California and Ohio. The image can be faxed or sent through the Internet.
The new image was created by Glenn Miller, an age-progression specialist with the national clearinghouse. It took two days.
The center has done 350 age-progression renderings since 1991, recovering 60 children with the images.
The key is having photographs of parents and siblings at the age the missing child would be now. All are scanned into a computer.
“We can stretch the photograph to approximate normal cranial facial growth,” Miller said. “Once we do that, we can merge the stretched image with either the mother or the father.”
Miller spent a lot of time comparing Donna’s face with her brother’s. He looked for subtle things that a person retains through life, then airbrushed these features onto his stretched photo.
He used David Kempton’s eyes and smile lines because they seemed to show up prominently in a recent photo of his son.
“I even adjusted the mouth in a slightly upward position, trying to look at family likenesses, subtleties and uniquenesses,” Miller said.
He’s confident the image is Donna Rae Kempton.
David Kempton isn’t sure. But maybe it will bring her back.
“There’s a big hole in my life that I would like to resolve,” he said. “I wonder what she looks like.”