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Keeping memory alive: Grand Rapids residents use art to spark interest in decades-old disappearance

A group of former classmates is using art to try to solve one of Michigan’s most high profile missing person cases.

February 5th 1981 14-year-old Deanie Peters and her mom were watching a wrestling match. It was at a middle school in a suburb outside of Grand Rapids.

Peters told her mom she had to use the restroom before they headed home. 'I’ll be right back,' she said.

But Peters never returned.

Thirty-one years later police still haven’t made an arrest or found her body. Deanie’s little brother Will Peters was six-years-old when she disappeared.

"I just didn’t get it," said Peters. "You know? And I didn’t finally really understand it until I was about 8 years old."

Peters says that’s when he realized his older sister who looked after him, taught him to be brave… she was never coming back.

A few years later the Peters moved out of Michigan.

And more than two decades went by before a new cold case team started investigating her disappearance from scratch.

"It’s probably the most high profile, well known case in Michigan," said Sergeant Sally Wolter who leads the Kent County Metro Cold Case Team.  

"A young 14 year old girl that’s with her mother that vanishes from her school," Wolter said. "And it’s just so uncommon, so unheard of, especially back in 1981."

The cold case team methodically checked facts. They dug behind an old school house and drained someone’s backyard pond looking for Deanie’s body.  Nothing.

Wolter says they have a good idea of what happened to Peters. But she can’t say what that is because the case is still open.

Dell Todd sat right behind Deanie Peters in class the year she disappeared.

"Every few days there’d be an update; nothing much to report, people were looking, and she was still missing," said Todd. "And in many ways that’s kind of where we still are.

Todd is part of a group of Peters’ friends and former classmates, who are taking a new approach to solve the case. They got enough money together to open up an art exhibit at a small gallery in downtown Grand Rapids to keep people thinking about the case.

During the exhibit's opening Deanie Peters’ little brother Will – now in his late thirties – steps  in front of a microphone.  It's the first time he's returned to Grand Rapids since his family moved away.

Peters says it’s incredible to him that people around here still care about her.  

"I thought that when we moved away her memory would go with it and that everything that involved her would be forgotten," Peters says.

Behind him long white sheets cover a series of ten picture frames. After a few words Peters pulls away the sheets revealing a mosaic image of the smiling 14 year old Deanie Peters frozen in 1981.

Next to each of the ten images there’s some sort of document, a news article from when she disappeared, her death certificate, a letter to her father. 

A person entering the gallery with no idea who Deanie Peters was would probably understand her story when they left.  

David Thompson, another of Peters' friends, says the group hopes the exhibit will keep her case alive.

"We know that there’s somebody in this community who knows where Deanie is," Thompson said. "And who would gain from us ending this. And we want to make it very easy for them to send an anonymous note, send an anonymous email, leave a note on my windshield, whatever it takes just to make it go away. And I’m more optimistic everyday that that goal can be achieved.

Sergeant Sally Wolter says the cold case team still gets a tip about the Peters case at least every other day.

None of those tips have led to her remains, yet.

More information about the exhibit, which runs through at least August 1st, is here

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.