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    Mystery deepens as birthday passes

    The missing boy is 9 today, but investigators can give no solace to his family. Is he alive or dead?


    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000

    CLEARWATER -- It's an annual tradition that on a day near Christmas, Carole Bernhardt's 15 grandchildren gather for a family holiday party.

    Bernhardt's daughters and their children exchange gifts. The younger kids scream and play.

    The grandchildren gathered again Sunday. But one child was not there.

    That child received no gifts from his aunts, uncles and cousins; he ate no cake and ice cream to celebrate his ninth birthday, which is today.

    That little boy, Zachary Bernhardt, has been missing since Sept. 11, when he vanished from his Savannah Trace apartment in Clearwater.

    Police say they are stumped. They don't know whether Zachary was abducted or ran away, whether he is alive or dead.

    Family members say they are just as puzzled. The mystery adds to their woe.

    "I try to figure it out, to make sense of something that doesn't make sense," said Denal Donnelly, Zachary's aunt. "I think it's more the uncertainty, the not knowing."

    Another family member also wasn't expected at the party Sunday.

    Zachary's mother, Leah Hackett, hasn't ventured into public much since her son's disappearance. Hackett reported that she went for a 15-minute walk around the complex at about 4 a.m. When she returned, her boy was gone.

    She quakes and cries when she sees little boys, particularly ones with sandy blond hair like Zachary's. To pick up her children at a dance once, Donnelly said, she took Hackett, who broke down upon seeing the crowd of children.

    "I can make it sometimes a day without crying, but I don't think she can make it a day without crying," said her mother, Carole Bernhardt. "She misses him.

    "It will be 99 days (today)," she said.

    The ordeal has left the family in limbo. How can a little boy simply disappear? Where is he? Is he okay?

    "When it's cold or it rains, I wonder if he's in shelter or in the rain," Donnelly said.

    Every bite she takes, every drink she swallows and every smile she can manage to crack makes her wonder whether Zachary can do the same.

    "When you get a drink of water, you think, "Does he have one?' " she said. "You're afraid to laugh."

    A team of six detectives continues to work full time on the search for Zachary. Initially, 50 investigators were assigned to the case. The current contingent is a fresh batch of officers who are retracing the steps of the investigation, searching for holes or new leads.

    Almost 700 tips and leads have been chased. A segment about Zachary that appeared on America's Most Wanted last month generated only a handful of leads, none of them useful.

    The investigator in charge of the search, Lt. Mark Teunis, declined an interview request last week. He also declined to disclose additional information about the search other than what already has been released, said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor.

    Family members, who compliment the investigators, said that for the most part, they have been left in the dark. Donnelly and Bernhardt said they understand that the police must keep some information secret from everyone.

    Zachary's family also has avoided the spotlight. Some say they haven't appreciated media reports that have thrown suspicion on Zachary's mother.

    Shelor said Hackett has talked with detectives every time they have asked.

    "We maintain a constant dialogue with Leah Hackett," Shelor said.

    There were no signs of a struggle in the apartment the morning Zachary disappeared. None of his belongings had been packed or taken.

    Clearwater police launched a massive search of the surrounding area. Nine agencies, including search teams from the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, pitched in. Helicopters, boats and dogs were used. Nothing was found.

    Bernhardt said Hackett is living in Hillsborough County. She works at times as a food server and receives support from her mother. Family members said Hackett, who goes to weekly counseling sessions, declined to comment.

    Though posters and fliers with Zachary's photo once adorned the area around Savannah Trace Apartments, there are few now. In an investigative effort designed to fan the embers, police planned to place an electronic sign near the apartment complex reminding people that Zachary still is missing.

    Shelor said there are no suspects in the case because there is no evidence of a crime. There has been no ransom demand. None of the clothes Zachary was wearing that morning -- a T-shirt and boxer shorts -- have shown up.

    "They're frustrated," Shelor said of the investigators."They flat don't know. They absolutely don't know where Zachary is or what happened to him."

    Still, Shelor said detectives are keeping active. They chase sightings on the beach and at malls from here to Ocala.

    "It's not like they have nowhere to go," he said. "They still have avenues to follow. Since we don't know what has happened to Zachary, nothing has been ruled out."

    Bernhardt said she does not feel anyone in her family -- including Zachary's mother -- had anything to do with his disappearance. She also doesn't think Zachary ran away. She said she thinks someone abducted him, though she does not know whom.

    "Every hope in my heart thinks he's alive," Bernhardt said. "He would never run away or walk away. So somebody had to take him. Zachary would never leave his mother. And if things ever got rough enough . . . he would come to his grandma or to his aunt. I think someone definitely took him."

    Donnelly tries to talk of Zachary in the present tense. She clings to hope, but also feels a sense of doom. She says half of her thinks Zachary is fine, the other half thinks he is not.

    "Quite honestly, as each day goes on, you start to question it," she said. "But you hold onto the hope that you'll get him back. Is it a false hope? Yeah. But there's that chance. I don't ever want to give up on that hope. It's such an emotional roller coaster. The only thing certain is that an 8-year-old boy, soon to be 9, is out there. And we have to find out where he is."

    Zachary's 19-year-old cousin, Aimee Simpkins, said 75 percent of her thinks Zachary is fine.

    "That's what gets me through the day," she said.

    Bernhardt said if Zachary "is being treated mean, I pray to God he's dead. But it's easier not to think on that line. I pray to God he'll walk down the street tomorrow. So the easiest thing to say is, it's in God's hands and that God is taking care of him no matter where he is."

    Simpkins said she planned to celebrate his birthday.

    "He's missing. He's not gone," she said. "And I think we should celebrate it in some way."

    But Bernhardt says the family didn't plan on celebrating his birthday Sunday because it would be too wrenching.

    "It's going to be quite an experience this year. Everyone has mixed emotions," Bernhardt said on Friday. "There won't be Zachary around to play with and tease. We really don't know what to do because it is so hard. The kids want to go and buy him a present and everything. But the adults aren't sure. If I had my way, I would go to bed and stay there.

    "We decided that at our Christmas party, Zachary would not want us crying," she added. "So we're going to do our best to have a happy day for Zachary."

    Donnelly said she will keep a birthday cake in her freezer. Even if she doesn't unthaw it for Sunday, she hopes to present it to Zachary soon.

    "And when we get him back, I can say: "Here's your cake, Zachary,' " Donnelly said.

    - Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 445- 4156.

    Call with any tips

    Anyone with information about the disappearance of Zachary Bernhardt can call Clearwater police at 562-4422.

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