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The legal notice in Tuesday's La Crosse Tribune read much like the other legal notices - dry and dusty and hardly interesting to the casual reader.

But there it was in black and white:

"In the matter of receivership for: Evelyn Hartley, an Absentee."

Evelyn Hartley.

Her disappearance and suspected murder was never solved, and the city was turned upside down in a frantic search that turned up few clues. For 50 years, La Crosse has puzzled over, wondered and guessed at Evelyn Hartley's fate.

She was baby-sitting Oct. 24, 1953, for University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor Viggo Rasmussen when she disappeared from the home on Hoeschler Drive. Worried when Evelyn didn't call home at her usual time, her father, Richard Hartley, also a UW-L professor, drove over to check on her. What he found was the 20-month-old baby Evelyn was supposed to be watching. But Evelyn was gone.

What followed was an intensive search on foot, by boat and from the air. College and high school students searched. Parents searched. As many as 2,000 people searched in the first few days after her disappearance. But the only thing found were Evelyn's glasses, her shoes and some blood on the ground outside the house where she was baby-sitting.

Capt. Michael Brohmer, head of the investigate division for the La Crosse Police Department, said La Crosse will likely never see another search like that for Hartley. People were stopped and asked to show what was in their trunks and in the back of their cars. When asked, most people allowed their vehicles to be searched.

That would be unlikely to happen today, Brohmer said.

"First of all, people would have to give voluntary consent" for the search of their vehicle, he said, "and I doubt they would. People are a little more private now. There'd be certain people who wouldn't for Constitutional reasons."

There hasn't been a clue in many years, Brohmer said.

"Some murder cases go for years. In this particular case, it's still a missing person case because no body was ever recovered."

"On reading and filing the Petition for Appointment of Receiver Carolyn Hartley Landsverk, sister of the absentee: IT IS ORDERED: That this petition will be heard at 10:30 a.m. on the first day of April, 2003, in the La Crosse County Courthouse, and that unless there is an objection thereto, Carolyn Hartley Landsverk will be appointed receiver to take charge of Evelyn Hartley's estate."

Carolyn Hartley Landsverk is Evelyn's sister. She was 6 when Evelyn disappeared. And because Evelyn was never found, "It's been a life sentence for her," said her attorney Tom Sleik, who was also a schoolmate of Carolyn.

He can't actually explain what the legal notice is about because that's between him and Landsverk. What he can say is that Evelyn has never been officially declared dead.

"There's never been anything done legally declaring her dead," Sleik said, so whenever anything comes up legally that might involve Evelyn's estate, they have to go to court.

"It's just so sad for the family. It's the worst heartache in the world," Sleik said.

It must have been especially bittersweet for the family last week when the news broke that Elizabeth Smart, the missing teen from Salt Lake City, had been safely returned to her family. The Hartleys never got that happy ending.

They never got any ending at all.

Instead, they live with the memories of bloodhound hunts and foot searches through open fields near Hoeschler Drive, which was then near the edge of the city limits. Squirrel and deer hunters were asked to stay alert as they hunted. Farmers were urged to search their property for signs of the missing girl.

National Guard, Civil Air Patrol and Air Force pilots went over the city in planes and helicopters.

And cars were searched. The goal was to inspect the rear seat and trunk of every car in the county for blood stains or other suspicious signs. Cars that were checked and found to be clean were given a sticker that read, "MY CAR IS OK."

Sheriff Ivan A. Wright was one of the leaders in the search for Evelyn Hartley. Wright died in February 1954, less than four months after Evelyn's disappearance. In his obituary, the physician attributed his fatal heart attack to the strenuous work he did on the Hartley case.

The search went on without Wright, but investigators had no better luck than Wright did. By the first anniversary of Evelyn's disappearance, Sheriff Robert Scullin reported his department had questioned more than 1,200 people. But they were no closer to finding Evelyn Hartley.

Nearly 50 years later, the one thing we know about Evelyn Hartley's disappearance is that her body was never found.

You can reach Geri Parlin at gparlin@lacrossetribune.com or (608) 791-8225.

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