Seven-year-old Janice Pockett vanished only a tenth of a mile away from her family's home on Anthony Road nearly 40 years ago, but Tolland has not forgotten the missing child.
Members of Tolland's 300th Anniversary Committee are working hard to commemorate Pockett, who disappeared in 1973, with a memorial bench at Cross Farms Recreation Center, close to the spot where she was last seen.
According to committee member Sharon Hiller, the group is hoping to raise $1,500 so that the bench can be installed in time for the 40th anniversary of Pockett's disappearance, on July 26, 2013.
Pockett's only sibling, Manchester resident Mary Engelbrecht, said she is grateful that her sister has not been forgotten.
"People really do remember her," Engelbrecht said. Both the proposed bench memorial and the support she has received from Tolland residents on a Facebook page dedicated to her sister mean a lot to her, she said.
"Any way I can get Janice's name out there is best," Engelbrecht said. "I don't want people to forget."
The Day Janice Disappeared
Engelbrecht remembers that she and her sister were fighting on the day that she vanished without a trace.
"I remember we had gone grocery shopping with my mom, who had bought us toothbrushes. We had a very big fight about whose was whose," she recalled. Engelbrecht was six years old on the day Pockett disappeared: July 26, 1973.
Soon after the fight, Engelbrecht said, Pockett asked her mother if she could go down the street and pick up a dead butterfly that she had left under a rock on an earlier family walk.
It was unusual for the girls to go out without a parent, Engelbrecht added, and the rock where Pockett had stored the eye-catching black and yellow butterfly was practically visible from her family home when standing in the middle of the road.
According to police, Engelbrecht explained, a woman drove by Pockett's propped up bicycle and slowed down, concerned that a child might pop into the road. But the girl was nowhere to be seen. About a minute and a half later, a man drove by traveling in the opposite direction, and saw the bike on its side.
The bike is one of the only traces of Pockett that police found.
"During that minute and a half, something must have happened," Engelbrecht said. A common theory is that Pockett was pulled into a car, since no trace of her has been found in the area.
"It's almost like she vanished into thin air."
The Search for Janice
Tolland's former Assistant Fire Chief Richard Symonds recalls that the search for Pockett was one of the largest in the state's history.
He estimates that 800 personnel, from the Tolland Fire Department, state police, FBI, Civil Air Patrol and more gathered at the Merrow Road fire station for three weeks to carry out an intensive search.
The searchers systematically combed the area where Pockett disappeared, as well as other likely areas and those identified by tips, in hopes of finding the 7-year-old.
"It was a logistical nightmare," Symonds recalled, as participants were bussed in and town resources were stretched to the limits.
However, he noted that the town also pulled together. Residents donated food, effort, time and money to help the responders bring Pockett back.
"At the time, it brought a lot of community spirit," he said.
Symonds estimated that the full-blown search for Pockett lasted about three weeks, but noted that certain areas were meticulously searched again as tips came in or when several different convicted felons took responsibility for Pockett's abduction.
Hartford Courant articles on these searches, including stories on a search triggered by the confession of carnival worker and convicted murderer Charles Pierce, can be found on Engelbrecht's Facebook page for Pockett.
Engelbrecht said that Pockett's disappearance has been grouped in with other abductions and murders from the time period. In particular, the case of 13-year-old Mystic girl Debra Spickler, who vanished from Rockville's Henry Park in 1968, was linked to Pockett's in several articles.
However, Pierce has since passed away, and Pockett's case is still unsolved, Engelbrecht said.
"In the last few years, I've been making an effort to keep her story alive," Engelbrecht said. She has attended and spoken at several vigils for missing people.
"I do it for my sister," she said, "And I want to get her name out there. I hope that there is somebody out there who knows something. I still have hope that the investigation will fall into place."
Engelbrecht has also filmed a segment about Pockett for the Investigation Discovery show, 'Dark Minds,' which will air some time after March.
However, Engelbrecht doesn't believe her sister will show up alive one day. Rather, she hopes more than anything that her sister can be brought home and laid to rest. Engelbrecht's mother and father, Kathryn and Ronald Pockett, passed away in the last several years.
And even though Engelbrecht only knew her sister for six years, she still has fond memories of the "take-charge" girl who was heading into third grade.
"She was definitely the leader at home," Engelbrecht remembered.
While her parents shielded her from much of the tragedy, Engelbrecht said her sister's absence was felt immediately in everyday life.
"I remember that I didn't want to go to school without her," she said. As a first-grader, Engelbrecht had been depending on her big sister to calm her fears riding the school bus. "I couldn't do it without my big sister."
There were fights, Engelbrecht said, but also fun nights sneaking into each other's bedroom after lights out.
'I'm so grateful that the committee is doing this," Engelbrecht said. Her sister may be gone, but her memories of their few years together will always remain.
The bench memorializing Janice may possibly be made out of black granite with Pockett's face etched into it, according to the 300th Anniversary Committee.
To make a donation for the bench, checks can be made out to the Town of Tolland, with "Janice Pockett Fund" in the memo line. They can be sent to The Janice Pockett Fund, P.O. Box 225, Tolland, CT, 06084.
Call Sharon Hiller at 860-870-9687 for more information.