Six years after the disappearance of her only son, De’Anna McKnight-Bell still finds herself taking detours home through new neighborhoods to look for him. She stops beneath bridges to check homeless encampments and scans the faces of people walking down the sidewalk.
“I’m constantly looking to see if that’s my son. … I’m never going to give up,” she says.
Her son, Michael Darnell Bell, was last seen after 3 a.m. on Sept. 17, 2011 southwest of Mendota along Interstate 5 in Fresno County. California Highway Patrol officers found Bell sitting in his vehicle, out of gas, and gave him a lift to a nearby service station on Panoche Road.
“Someone told me he vanished without a trace,” McKnight-Bell says. “I just can’t accept that.”
As his mother, I’m never going to give up.
On the anniversary of his disappearance, she’s asking the public again for help. She hopes to receive any new details that could shed light on where Bell may be or what may have happened to him.
“It would bring clarity to all this confusion in my head. It would be a lead that I can follow-up on.”
Missing without a trace
There have been few clues to track. Bell, who was living in Los Angeles, didn’t tell family where he was going the day he went missing. His mother knows only what CHP officers who picked him up said he told them – that he had left a religious service he didn’t like. Bell owned a Church of Scientology book and was studying that faith, McKnight-Bell says, but she wasn’t aware of her son regularly attending any church.
Bell left his apartment without his cell phone and with food still sitting in the microwave. He ran out of gas around four hours north of Los Angeles.
“Who leaves everything to contact people and just goes driving? That wasn’t like him, that’s all I can say,” McKnight-Bell says.
Detective Samuel Soto with the Los Angeles Police Department says Bell’s case remains open, although there’s been no new information since he disappeared. Detectives from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, who helped investigate, said the same. Cases like Bell’s are unfortunately “not necessarily rare,” Soto says, although most missing people are found unharmed soon after being reported missing. Less than 1 percent of missing people are murdered, Soto says.
California Department of Justice data show more than 1,000 adults and around 4,000 children were reported missing in Fresno County last year.
McKnight-Bell says she talked with her son often and knew something was wrong when he stopped responding to her text messages. She made a missing person report later that week. Authorities took a swab of her cheek to gather DNA to help identify him if he was found dead.
“That’s when everything came to me: My son is really missing.”
It would mean the world to me if someone came forth.
McKnight-Bell describes her son as outgoing, funny, good-hearted and giving. He was in the process of starting a nonprofit organization to establish group homes around the country to help homeless children and was planning to fly to his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, several days after he went missing for a meeting with his board members. Bell was a former Michigan State football player and the father of a young son. His mother shares his story with everyone she can.
“I never want him to be forgotten.”
Holding on with hope
McKnight-Bell now lives in Las Vegas, but used to to live in Cleveland, not far from the home of kidnapper Ariel Castro, who kept three girls captive in his home for a decade. McKnight-Bell often thinks of the mother of one of the kidnapped girls who died before her daughter was found and rescued.
My whole life exploded and I’m trying to pick up the pieces. Still, I have to keep going.
Her son’s disappearance is far from the family’s only tragedy. Bell’s father was found murdered in his car years earlier in Cleveland. She says the motive for the murder and his killer remain unknown.
McKnight-Bell says her faith in God helps her keep going, as does her drive to keep searching for her son and support her daughters, grandchildren, and students she teaches as a substitute teacher.
“My whole life exploded and I’m trying to pick up the pieces. Still, I have to keep going.”
On the sixth anniversary of Bell’s disappearance, she’s holding to the hope someone will bring her another piece of the puzzle.
How to help
Description: Michael Darnell Bell would be 31 years old. The black man is described as 6 feet tall, with black hair and brown eyes. He had several tattoos: “Mike” on one arm and “Bell” on the other, along with a list of his father’s accomplishments, Michael Darnell Bell Sr. The names of his sisters, Ashawnta and Shekinah, were on the top of his wrists. He weighed approximately 190 pounds. CHP officers found him along Interstate 5 near Russell Avenue, southwest of Mendota, around 3:15 a.m. Sept. 17, 2011 and took him to a nearby gas station on Panoche Road.
Report tips: Anyone with information about Bell or where he may be is asked to contact the Los Angeles Police Department’s Missing Persons Unit at 213-996-1800 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Bell’s case number is 1111-18099. Tips can also be made anonymously at 1-877-527-3247 or via Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.