It was 2:20 a.m. that July day in 1965 when the bell rang in the lobby of Kansas City’s Great Plains Motel.
Night manager Dorothy Reynolds stirred from her sleep to let in a young man with dark hair and “very blue eyes.”
He spoke in a soft voice and had “well-formed, handsome features,” she later would say.
She considered it just a routine customer check-in. He had something else in mind.
“Don’t say nothing. Just give me the money,” he said, pulling out a long-barreled revolver.
Reynolds did as she was told, and the robbery would have been long forgotten if all the man had taken was the $246 from the motel register.
But he got away that morning with something far more more precious: Reynolds’ 9-year-old granddaughter, Denise Sue Clinton.
Her friends and family never saw the Independence girl alive again.
Two years later, a pair of cowboys riding through a pine forest near Sundance, Wyo., came across her skeletal remains.
Authorities never caught the kidnapper.
Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Denise’s abduction. Her parents and most of the lawmen who worked countless hours to find her killer are dead.
But many of her childhood friends never have forgotten their playmate and how the crime devastated their lives.
“Life for me became much more serious,” said Gail Lackland Gargotta, who lived across the street from Denise. “When you lose your best friend at such a young age and in those circumstances, you have to grow up a lot faster.”
In the summer of 1965, the baby boom definitely was booming in the western Independence neighborhood where Denise lived with her parents and little sister Diana. Dozens of children resided within a few blocks of one another. Most attended nearby Three Trails Elementary School, where Denise had just finished third grade.
Tall for her age, Denise wore her reddish-blond hair in a pixie cut. Meticulously neat and well mannered, she possessed a sensitivity and wisdom beyond her years.
“Even as a small child she seemed so much older than she was,” said her sister, Diana Clinton White, who was 6 when the kidnapping happened. “She was the one who always did the right thing.”
Children roamed freely from yard to yard. They rode bikes everywhere and played games like tag and Simon says. Denise and Gail shared giggling conversations about who they thought was the cutest Beatle.
“Their street was like Mayberry USA,” said Shere Alexander Graham, who grew up on a neighboring street. “It really was a simpler time.”
Denise and her family returned from a two-week trip to California in early July.
On July 7, Denise went to spend the night with her grandparents at the motel they managed on what was then U.S. 71, about a mile south of where Kansas City International Airport is today.
The motel and an adjoining bar and restaurant sat just off the highway with no houses or businesses nearby.
Only Dorothy Reynolds and her husband, Chelcie Reynolds, saw the robber.
After gathering the money, he herded Dorothy Reynolds to the back bedroom where her husband was sleeping. They walked past the daybed where Denise slumbered.
The robber bound the grandparents with a roll of tape and gagged their mouths with rags before turning and walking away.
They heard the motel’s door open and close and the sound of a car starting and crunching its way across the gravel parking lot.
It took a few minutes for them to work themselves free and call police. When Dorothy Reynolds went to check on Denise, she made a terrifying discovery.
Denise was gone.
Her little sister, Diana, woke up and found her friend and neighbor Cathy Lackland, Gail’s sister, in bed with her. She could hear Cathy’s mother talking in the kitchen.
“Why are you here?” Diana asked.
Her mother told her not to tell, answered Cathy, now Cathy Lackland Burnam.
But Diana, now Diana Clinton White, persisted. Cathy made her promise not to say where she heard it.
“Denise got kidnapped,” Cathy told her.
Diana had no real understanding of what that word meant. But she knew it was bad and it happened to her sister.
The two girls started crying. Cathy told her to stop and act like she didn’t know. They composed themselves and went to the kitchen, where Cathy’s mother was making breakfast.
They sat down at the table, trying to pretend everything was OK. Then a radio news bulletin blared the news of Denise’s kidnapping.
Diana ran to her bedroom crying. She counts it as the moment she lost her childhood innocence.
“On that day I found out how terrible man could be,” she said.
But that day only started the nightmare for a little girl who idolized her big sister.
As Diana cried in her room, Gail and her mother stood at the large picture window in the Clintons’ front room and watched the rising sun.
“We knelt and prayed that everything would turn out OK,” Gail said.
Police responded to the kidnapping quickly and massively.
Within 20 minutes of the first call, they had roadblocks up along U.S. 71. But without a car description, officers could look only for a small girl with reddish-blond hair and wearing a checkered nightgown.
With their neighbor watching Diana, Denise’s parents drove to the motel and met with Kansas City Police Chief Clarence Kelley. He assured them everything was being done to find Denise. Police even had notified the FBI.
By the end of the day, the investigation included dozens of police officers, federal agents and sheriff’s deputies.
Tom Thomas, one of the first Kansas City police officers to arrive at the motel, began processing the scene for evidence. He found a partial fingerprint on the roll of tape the kidnapper used to bind the Reynoldses. It was no bigger than the eraser on a pencil, but it was clean.
Thomas, who later would be elected Platte County sheriff, believed that it could help identify the kidnapper.
Police took the Reynoldses to police headquarters so they could look through pages of criminal booking photos.
Investigators awakened and questioned every occupant of the motel. They also asked the staff of the adjoining bar, which had closed an hour before the kidnapping, about customers served that night.
Some employees recalled seeing a 1962 cream-colored Ford in the parking lot that left before police arrived. Authorities alerted every law enforcement agency in Kansas and Missouri to be on the lookout for the car.
Searchers on foot and horseback and using dogs scoured the fields and woods for miles around the motel.
Late in the afternoon, a salesman who had stayed at the motel overnight returned after hearing of the kidnapping. He told police that the car in the parking lot actually had been a white 1959 or 1960 Oldsmobile. After investigators had him look at brochures, he picked out a 1959 four-door model as the kind he saw. Police soon broadcast a pickup order for that vehicle.
Late that first night, police announced that no ransom calls had arrived and no one had seen Denise. Kelley, who would become director of the FBI eight years later, described to reporters how the waiting “grinds on you.”
A police commander noted that his tired men refused to go home and insisted on working through the night.
Officials released a composite sketch of the robber to the media.
Investigators ran down numerous reported sightings without success.
“It’s as though she’s been swallowed up by the earth,” said Col. Don Bishop, then chief of detectives for the Kansas City Police Department.
As the days faded into weeks that faded into months, Russ and Betty Clinton tried their best to make life as normal as possible for their daughter Diana.
It wasn’t easy with FBI agents camped in the basement waiting next to a tapped telephone, hoping for a ransom call that never came. A $10,000 reward sat uncollected.
In one of the investigation’s most extraordinary efforts, the FBI tracked down every owner of a white 1959 Oldsmobile in Kansas and Missouri — more than 2,000 of them.
Because Denise knew her phone number, her parents did not change it. Dozens of calls came every day from around the country. Some were from sympathetic people trying to be helpful.
“So many good people were touched by what happened to Denise,” said her uncle Don Reynolds.
Others were cruel.
One man called regularly to say sexually vile things. Teenage pranksters called, saying things like, “Mommy, Daddy, please help me,” before hanging up laughing.
Through it all, Betty Clinton’s strength of character and religious faith kept the family together.
“My mother never gave up up,” Diana White recalled.
One day in September 1967, her mother picked Diana up from school early. In the car, in a “very controlled voice,” she announced that Denise had been found.
Diana eagerly asked if they could go home and see her.
“She’s not home,” Betty Clinton said. “She’s in heaven.”
When Diana started crying, her mother told her there was no need to cry.
“Denise is with Jesus now,” she said.
Although it was the worst news they could get, White thinks her mother at least felt that she no longer had to worry that Denise was suffering.
“They started finally building their life after that,” White said.
Though she felt the pain of losing her sister, it wasn’t until she became a parent that White understood the anguish her parents had endured.
“I don’t know how they did it,” White said. “I think I would have gone totally crazy.”
Though her mother had an extraordinary ability to remain positive, there were times that White could see her get a certain faraway look in her eyes.
“I could see it, the pain in her face,” White said. “It’s a look I’ll never forget.”
White’s father died in 1985. Her mother died in 2006.
As for White, the passage of 50 years has failed to heal the hole in her heart or ease the mistrust she feels whenever she meets someone new.
“I miss her and not knowing her husband or her children,” White said. “I think about all the things we didn’t get to have.”
The feelings always linger near the surface, especially when she hears of another child’s kidnapping somewhere.
“I go back to (being) that little 6-year-old girl,” she said.
The February 2014 kidnapping and killing of a little girl in Springfield, Mo., served as a catalyst for many of those who remember Denise to reconnect.
Graham started a Facebook group, Remembering Denise Clinton, that soon had more than 100 members who wrote about their connection to Denise.
The members plan to gather Wednesday to honor Denise’s memory by releasing balloons on the playground at Three Trails Elementary, 11801 E. 32nd St. in Independence. The event is at 6:30 p.m.
It amazed White to see how many people remembered her sister and how she touched their lives.
“It warms my heart to see so many outside the family who still have such vivid memories of her,” White said.
She long ago gave up the idea of ever finding out who took her sister’s life. Even if she could find out now, she doesn’t think she would want to know.
“It’s not going to bring her back or change the impact it had on our lives,” she said. “Let it lie and leave it in God’s hands.”