Buried secrets: 40 years since Deanie Peters disappeared

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The former leader of the cold case team that investigated the disappearance of Deanie Peters says witnesses are still holding closely to secrets that could solve the mystery.

She hopes those secrets won’t die with them.

The 14-year-old girl disappeared from Forest Hills Central Middle School on Feb. 5, 1981 — 40 years ago.

“There is no doubt that there are individuals who have chosen to remain silent for whatever reason and not tell what they know about this case,” retired Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Sally Wolter said. “The unfortunate part about that is evil doesn’t have a conscience.”

Deanie, an eighth grader at Forest Hills Central Middle School, was at her brother’s wrestling practice. She told her mom, “I’ll be right back,” and was never seen again.

“I’m 74 years old,” her mom Mary Peters told Target 8 this week from her home in Arizona. “How many more years do I have left before they find something, or are they never going to find something? I’m running out of time.”

Mary Peters was 34 when Deanie disappeared. She made a televised plea for her return.

Deanie would be 54 now.

“We missed eighth grade graduation, we missed dances, we missed prom, we missed high school, maybe we missed a wedding,” her mom said. “Maybe we missed her going to college and graduating from college. Who knows what would have happened?

“I know right now I sound kind of cold. I don’t mean to but sometimes I have to put a shield up so I don’t just break down and cry.”

SUSPECT APPARENTLY CONFESSED TO SEVERAL PEOPLE

Detectives originally focused on the school janitor, suspecting he had burned Deanie’s body in the incinerator, but he was cleared.

But there was one suspect they couldn’t clear despite his denials: Bruce Bunch, then 17, and living in Lowell. The Kent Metro Cold Case team, which started working on it in 2008, couldn’t clear Bunch either.

Over four years, the team interviewed more than 200 people, searched up to 15 possible burial sites. The case has since gone cold again.

“We could never eliminate Bruce Bunch, and I believe that we actually uncovered some proof that Bruce had some involvement in this along with others and our focus then went to those people,” Wolter said.

One theory: that Bunch knew a girl who had fought with Deanie, that he drove at Deanie to scare her outside the middle school, that his car slid on ice and that he hit her. The theory ends with Bunch hiding her body in brush before burying it later.

“That’s one of the theories that we’ve heard as well and I can’t disprove that,” Wolter said.

Bunch, who became an alcoholic, died in Somerset, Kentucky, in February 2008 — before the cold case team could reach him.

But, Wolter said, he didn’t die with his secret.

“He told 20 to 30 of his friends during that time and none of them believed him,” Wolter said.

He later told his first and second wives, she said, but only that he killed “the girl from Forest Hills.”

“Everybody that was involved in the Bruce Bunch group has been interviewed multiple times by the cold case team, and we had exhausted our efforts, but it certainly wasn’t a lack of trying,” Wolter said.

THE QUESTION REMAINS: WHERE IS DEANIE?

Wolter believes at least two people know exactly what happened. Perhaps, she hopes, they’ll find religion or perhaps they’ll face their own mortality.

She said they wouldn’t face prosecution unless they helped kill Deanie.

“There would be no prosecution, and we’ve explained that time and time (again); we even turned the table a little bit to say you could become a hero, especially to the Peters family, if you could just tell us where Deanie is,” Wolter said.

Ken Kleinheksel, the original detective on the case, kept working on it even into retirement, vowing to find Deanie. But he died in 2018.

Wolter, who ran the Kent Metro Cold Case Team, retired recently. She now hosts a true crime TV show.

“Every homicide detective really is proud of the cases that they’ve solved,” she said. “But the cases that they didn’t are the ones that keep them up at night and this case, Deanie Peters, is the one that does that for me.

“All you have to do is look at Mary Peters, and you’ll never get that look out of your mind. That’s a broken woman who’s lived with this tragedy for over 40 years.”

Mary Peters said she hasn’t heard from detectives in years, and doesn’t expect to — unless somebody comes forward.

“What would I say to that person who knows something?” she said. “Just give me peace of mind. I don’t care; I would not prosecute you. I would not hope you spend the rest of your life in prison. All I’m saying is, just come forward and give me peace of mind. Let me know where she is.”

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