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Anguished Mother Attends Trial in Daughter’s Kidnapping

March 17, 1991 GMT

MADISON, Neb. (AP) _ Joyce Cutshall wonders why she is not filled with hatred as she sits daily in the front row of a courtroom listening to testimony against the man accused of kidnapping her missing daughter.

″Why don’t I have what I think I should have, this enormous animosity and hate, and wanting him to be in pain for a year, daily, minute by minute?″ Ms. Cutshall said.

But the woman who collected enough signatures on a petition to force a grand jury investigation that led to the indictment of 27-year-old David Phelps last year is determined to let the judicial process run its course.

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Police had questioned Phelps but didn’t charge him.

Ms. Cutshall said she counsels people who have offered to take action outside the law, ″You cannot do this. It has to go through the judicial system.″

Phelps has pleaded innocent. His trial began March 5, and is expected to go to the jury Tuesday. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Jill Cutshall, then 9, disappeared Aug. 13, 1987. She was last seen sitting on the front porch of her baby sitter’s home in nearby Norfolk, a northeast Nebraska prairie city about 110 miles northwest of Omaha.

No memorial service has been held.

″I can’t do that. It would be like giving up. I need to find her. I need to bring her home,″ Ms. Cutshall said, tears welling in her eyes.

For now, she sits in the front row of a room in Madison County District Court intently listening to the sometimes graphic details of Phelps’ trial.

Prosecution witness Larry Pennybacker testified he once heard Phelps talk about what it would be like to kidnap, rape and kill a child. Defense witnesses have included two men who said they were former homosexual lovers of Phelps, now married and the father of a daughter.

One of the men, Kermit Baumgartner, 64, of Lodi, Calif., testified that he is an alcoholic who spent much of his time drinking with Phelps.

In a videotaped statement played in court, Phelps accused Baumgartner of participating in Jill’s abduction and sexual molestation. Phelps has said the statement was a lie coerced by a private investigator.

Baumgartner has not been charged, and has denied that he had anything to do with the girl’s disappearance.

Ms. Cutshall listens to this from her seat about 20 feet from where the lean, dark-haired Phelps sits with his back to the jury. Occasionally Phelps looks around the room, his eyes darting from the 20 or so spectators to the jury to the witness stand to Ms. Cutshall. Phelps has not testified.

She must sit motionless as defense attormey David Domina flourishes the lavender blouse, the little jeans and panties Jill wore the morning she disappeared. The clothes, found in a wildlife area three months after her daughter’s disappearance, are kept in a box in front of the judge’s bench.

″The way he stuffs those clothes back into that box - it’s like he’s stuffing Jill in that box,″ Ms. Cutshall said in an interview at her mobile home on the edge of Norfolk.

Three portraits of Jill are on a shelf in the living room next to three portraits of her brother Jeff, 15, who is living with a friend away from Norfolk and Madison during the trial. ″He’s been through so much,″ Ms. Cutshall said.

Sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom from Ms. Cutshall is Phelps’ wife, Kim, and his mother, Connie Jo, who declined to talk to a reporter.

The defense said whoever took the girl hopes that Phelps will be convicted.

″Somebody out there has his fingers crossed that you send David Phelps to jail so that the file is closed,″ Domina told the jury in his opening statement.

Part of the defense’s job is to convince the jury that there is a chance Jill might still be alive, the very thing Ms. Cutshall wants more than anything to believe.

Domina has presented witnesses who say they saw girls matching Jill’s description - blonde, blue-eyed - after the time she allegedly was abducted.

Ms. Cutshall says she’s heard from hundreds of people who say they saw blonde, blue-eyed little girls after Jill disappeared. It always stings her with a painful bit of hope.

And it keeps happening.

In the parking lot outside the courthouse last week, a stranger approached Ms. Cutshall.

″After your daughter was taken, I saw a little girl in Omaha. She was on a street corner,″ she said, shuffling her feet, staring at the pavement.

The stranger described the child she saw.

″It doesn’t sound like Jill. But thank you,″ Ms. Cutshall said.