One year and still missing: Search continues for Mary Denise Lands
Shelly Sulser
Chronicle Editor

Authorities are no closer to finding Mary Marshall Lands than they were one year ago when they learned the 39-year-old was missing from her Walden Ponds townhouse.
“We’ve taken the investigation from start to finish, not once but a number of times, looking for anything we might have missed the first time,” said Marshall Public Safety Chief Mike Olson Thursday. “We’ve tracked and retracked our steps to make sure there’s nothing we’ve missed.”
Tracking dogs, volunteer and professional search teams, the major crimes task force, local police, the FBI and family members who have tried in earnest to find Mary since she disappeared one year ago, March 12, 2004 have been unsuccessful.
A reward fund that remained at $9,000 for most of the past year was boosted by $10,000 last month. It has generated a handful of new leads, said Mary’s father, Clifford Marshall.
“They got another hot tip the other day,” said Marshall. “They’ve gotten about five since then.”
Two searches conducted inside her apartment – the latest stemmed from a December search warrant – yielded some possible crime scene evidence.
In January, Olson, lead investigator Sgt. Scott McDonald who is assigned full time to the case, and members of the Calhoun County Major Crimes Task Force met with Michigan State Police East Lansing Crime Laboratory personnel to review the evidence gathered so far.
Olson said then that they were encouraged by their discoveries but last week noted some evidence is still being examined.
Working with McDonald is Michigan State Police detective, Sgt. Mike Scott, of the White Pigeon post and Det. Mike Salmen of the Battle Creek Post.
“We continue to be as committed to this today as we were from the very start,” said Olson last week. “That’s evidenced by the commitment by Sgt. McDonald and the two Michigan State Police detectives plus the availability of the Major Crimes Task Force any time they’re needed.
“It’s been nearly a year now,” he continued. “A lot of folks out there ask me ‘what’s new in the missing person case?’ My response is and continues to be: ‘We are actively and aggressively pursuing it.’”
McDonald has been working full time on the investigation for the past seven months and will continue to do so, “indefinitely,” said Olson, “until we reach a point that we make an arrest.”
Mary and her boyfriend Christopher Pratt had moved into the apartment just weeks before her disappearance after living in a rural home, according to Lands’ family.
In the days leading up to her Friday night disappearance, Mary’s mother, Anita, and father prepared to make a move to “their second home,” California where they were looking forward to spending Clifford’s retirement years and being close to siblings, their three other children and eight of their 10 grandchildren.
They sold their belongings and, along with youngest child, Mike and his wife, Betsy, and two children, booked their flights to start a new life on the west coast.
It was March 7 when they last saw her and said their goodbyes.
“We all went to lunch and she had three, Long Island iced teas which is a little unusual since they’re pretty strong but I followed her home,” Anita said in May. “She was fine.”
Their daughter was not known to be a heavy drinker but they felt she was feeling down about their departure.
“We left on Tuesday morning,” said Clifford. “Anita transferred her job to the Roseville (California) Kohl’s. Betsy flew out on Thursday. That was it, when we left. We didn’t have anymore contact with her but Betsy did.”
After her plane touched down, Betsy received a call from Mary the next night, March 12 at about 9:30 p.m., to make sure Betsy’s flight had gone without a hitch and to say she loved and missed her.
On Sunday, Mike got a call from Pratt saying Mary had been missing since Friday night.
“He said, ‘I’m going to wait until Tuesday,’” said Anita. “He said she’s supposed to clean a doctor’s house on Monday and go to work on Tuesday. He was going to wait to see if she showed up at work.’ But the doctor had called and canceled the house cleaning. Mary didn’t know it. She was already gone.”
Police responded Sunday night to the apartment after receiving Mike’s call from California about Mary’s disappearance.
According to Pratt’s account of the evening, Mary stopped and bought some alcohol on her way home from work and the two of them went tanning early in the evening.
They later reportedly argued over his child custody issues with his ex-wife and Pratt said he last saw her walking around the carport where he thought she just went to walk off the frustration over the argument.
“She was upset when she left but I don’t think there was any big fight,” said Marshall’s Deputy Police Chief Bruce Elzinga March 17 of last year. “She left on foot. She took her purse but she didn’t take her keys and she didn’t take her cell phone.”
Police have found no activity on her bank account since her disappearance and in September, police changed her status from “missing” to “victim of foul play.”
“In my opinion, my worst of nightmares has come true or else somebody’s holding her against her will,” Mary’s long time friend, Sue Burkwalt said during that first week. “Her family means the world to her.”
Speaking with The Chronicle six days after her disappearance, Pratt said Mary left her engagement ring behind and he put it away, thinking she had removed it before they both went tanning at about 6 p.m. Friday evening. She also left her necklace behind, he said.
“She was definitely tipsy,” Pratt had said.
He said the argument also involved issues regarding a family friend who had been at the apartment earlier in the evening to share her problems with Mary.
“She (Mary) was venting all her problems to me. She was just getting heated up,” he said, “over problems at work with my (custody issues) and she was getting caught up in (friend’s) drama.”
Pratt became irritated and told her not to get caught up in the “drama” and that over the course of the evening, Mary had drank six to seven “low carb Michelobs” and “a couple of mixes,” he said in the interview last Spring.
She was unhappy and tired of being responsible for everybody, Pratt said.
Pratt said the last thing Lands said to him before leaving the apartment on foot was “I don’t need the keys, the truck or anything else in this sh** hole (apartment.)”
As she headed for the door, “I said, ‘now, where are you going? You’re not going without the keys and you’ve been drinking.’ We don’t let each other drink and drive, we never do that.’”
Pratt said Lands left her cell phone behind and walked out with her purse, wearing the scrubs she wore to work at Day One Family Health Care in Battle Creek that day and a leather coat.
“I can see her wanting to take a walk but I can’t see her taking off,” he had said.
Pratt said on Sunday, he received calls from Lands’ family in California and that they then contacted authorities.
Police searched his apartment, his closet, the bedrooms and “made me account for all of my weapons,” Pratt said last year, adding “I thought, ‘these cats are on the wrong trail.’”
Lands was not having mental problems and did not indicate any extreme stress, according to investigators.
Police said early on that a lack of activity on her bank account was cause for concern.
Within two weeks, Mary’s family quit their newly acquired jobs and swiftly returned to Marshall where they have remained while awaiting either Mary’s return or a conclusion to her case.
While they wait for answers, their lives have been on hold. Mike accepted a job as a drywall installer in the Lansing area.
Anita got her old job back at Kohl’s in Battle Creek but lost her longevity. Clifford, instead of enjoying his retirement on the golf course with his older brother, Wilbur, in California, is managing a local mobile home community in Marshall.
In her absence, her daughter turned 17, her mother turned 60 and her first grandchild was born.
At the Day One Health Care center where she worked as a billing clerk, a single, yellow rose is kept on display awaiting her return.
“We’re all hurting bad now,” he said of the one year anniversary of Mary’s disappearance. “The family’s all upset. It’s been a year on the 12th. They’ve told us that if you don’t hear from her in a year, you’ve almost got to know she’s gone.”
Clifford has been a member of the East Sacramento Moose Lodge for 23 years and was looking forward to achieving is long time goal – to become governor (leader) of the lodge. Now, he doesn’t know when or even if he’ll be able to follow through with his goals.
“I don’t know what we’ll do, whether we’ll go back,” he said. “We haven’t talked about it. It’s been a solid year of hurt. It’s definitely changed the family, how we feel about each other. There’s more hugging, more ‘I love you,’ being said.”
Clifford could hardly find the words to describe the loss of his child in a way that can’t explained.
“The hole in the heart – it hurts,” he said. “Missing one kid makes you feel like you’ve got a big family that is half what it was. It’s hard to try to explain to people the way I feel with Mary gone. You can say a piece of your heart is missing.”

 


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