Nearly 40 years after her 3-year-old daughter went missing, a former Huntington Beach woman -- her gray hair pulled back in a ponytail -- listened as a prosecutor told jurors Monday that the 61-year-old mother spent decades covering up her daughter's murder, even as the child's father and brother searched futilely for answers.
Her own lawyers, though, said Donna Prentice was a loving mother who was abused by her then-boyfriend and forced to repeatedly change the story of what happened to her daughter.
Prentice, who left Huntington Beach in 1969 with her boyfriend after her daughter disappeared, is accused of helping to kill the girl. Prosecutors say Prentice's role in the crime was to bury the body in a canyon in south Orange County.
The body of the toddler, Michelle Pulsifer, has never been found. Prentice's ex-boyfriend, who had also been arrested in connection with the girl's alleged murder, has since died.
On Monday, Prentice listened in Orange County Superior Court as the prosecution and defense presented two different portraits of the woman: a calculating woman who helped kill her own child or a woman so "paralyzed" with fear that she couldn't bring herself to find out what had become of the girl.
"With her arrest, 35 years of lying about Michelle's whereabouts went up in smoke," Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Yellin said. "She got away with it for 35 years."
Prentice's attorney portrayed the woman's former boyfriend, James Michael Kent, as the probable killer. Kent had been charged with the girl's death but died in custody of kidney and liver failure at age 63 in 2005.
In a confession taped before he died, Kent denied killing Michelle, saying that the little girl was found lifeless in her bedroom after Prentice came out of the room. But he admitted to helping bury the toddler in Williams Canyon, deep in Orange County's backcountry.
The tape was played during Prentice's first murder trial in 2007, in which the jury deadlocked 10 to 2, leaning toward conviction.
After leaving Huntington Beach, Prentice broke up with Kent and remarried, starting her life anew in Wisconsin. Her husband, Noble Prentice, was in the courtroom Monday.
Prentice and Kent were arrested in 2004 after Michelle's father, Richard Pulsifer Sr., launched his own investigation, saying he had been unable to get straight answers from his former wife about their daughter's whereabouts.
Yellin said Monday it remains unclear how Michelle was killed.
In his opening statement Monday, he said the toddler had not been seen or heard from since Prentice and Kent abruptly left their Huntington Beach home and moved to Illinois in 1969, taking their two 6-year-old sons from other marriages with them, but not Michelle.
During Michelle's final moments in the Huntington Beach home, Yellin told jurors, the girl called out "Hide me. Hide me" to her brother, Richard Pulsifer Jr. Prentice came in and took her away, Yellin said, and it was the last time her brother saw her.
In the decades to come, Yellin argued, Prentice lied to her former husband, son and other family members about Michelle's whereabouts, saying first that she was being raised by her boyfriend's mother, and later that Michelle was happily finishing up high school in Canada.
Yellin contended that Prentice would not have gone with Kent to Illinois if she did not have anything to do with her daughter's murder.
"When you look at how these people are acting with the coverup and the leaving and going to Illinois, there is no way they could have done this alone," Yellin told reporters after his opening statement.
"If you are innocent, there is no way you are going to go back to someone who killed your child."
On Monday, defense attorney Ken Norelli told jurors that Prentice was a "loving, nurturing mother" and that Kent was a "violent, dangerous man with an exceptionally short fuse who was abusive to everyone in his family."
"Her abuse explains the events after the disappearance of the child," Norelli said.
Norelli said Prentice fell prey to Kent's manipulation when she went with him to Illinois, that she had nothing to do with her daughter's disappearance and did not try to find out what happened to her daughter because she was "paralyzed with fear."
"There was fear and shame that is associated with years of wondering what Mike Kent did or didn't do with Michelle," Norelli told jurors.
"She is a victim," Norelli said. "She is as much a victim as those children, and that included Michelle."
Prentice, who is being tried based on sentencing laws of 1969, faces five years to life in prison if convicted.