Half a century after Georgia girl vanished, an old keepsake arrives out of the blue

Sister of Macon girl who disappeared without a trace in 1972 receives stunning memento from a stranger in Florida
A photograph of Carlene Tengelsen sits a bookshelf in her sister's house. She went missing in 1972 at age 16 and was never seen by her family again. Photo by Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A photograph of Carlene Tengelsen sits a bookshelf in her sister's house. She went missing in 1972 at age 16 and was never seen by her family again. Photo by Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

MACON — Life on Easy Street changed forever that first summer day in 1972. Carlene Tengelsen went to pick up her kid sister across town and never came back.

Carlene had turned 16 the month before. It was her first time wheeling out of the driveway alone, riding away in her family’s 1963 Pontiac. She had talked about nicknaming that frumpy white station wagon something cool, maybe “Hendrix” or “Joplin.”

On her way into the heart of Macon to fetch her younger sister Joanette, 14, from a day camp at Mercer University, Carlene in all likelihood stopped by the decade-old Westgate Shopping Center. The place had been Georgia’s first air-conditioned mall and was a regional retail mecca.

Some boys playing pinball there later recalled seeing someone who might have been Carlene, but they noticed nothing unusual. No one else did either.

As the afternoon faded and night fell on June 21, 1972, Carlene never retrieved her sister. Carlene’s family, frantic, began searching. It wasn’t until the wee hours of the next morning that the Tengelsen family station wagon was discovered in the mall parking lot, just across the street from a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop.

All traces of Carlene end there. No sign of her ever surfaced. Not a clue. Detectives today shake their heads in disappointment at how her disappearance was barely investigated. Carlene’s father, who died in 2004, had to beg a policeman to dust the station wagon for fingerprints.

In that era of hippies and flower children, the cops on the case, now long deceased, did little to look for Carlene. One officer made a big deal of finding a bottle of pills in her bedroom. (They were aspirin.) Despite zero evidence to suggest it, the detectives wrote her off as a runaway.

Her parents knew better.

As her mother Joan, who died in 2016 at age 83, once put it, “You don’t run away when you have braces.”

An imprint of Carlene’s lives on at the end of her old driveway — her childhood handprint pressed in the concrete above her first name. The indentation, there for anyone to see, was formed when cement was poured to smooth the driveway’s dip at the edge of Easy Street.

It is a perfect fossil.

What her family didn’t know was that her hand had produced another keepsake, one that would take more than half a century to make its way home.

A family photo of the Tengelsens when Carlene, in the front row on the left, was younger.

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‘A terrible, terrible time’

After Carlene disappeared, Joan Tengelsen gave up her job as a second-grade teacher. She passed the days stationed at her kitchen table, guarding the telephone, afraid of missing a single call because … it might be Carlene.

Carlene’s father was the Connecticut-born son of a Norwegian fisherman. He and Carlene’s mother had met at the University of Miami.

After marrying, they settled in Clearwater, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and had four children: Arnelle, Carlene, Joanette and Thomas.

In the mid-1960s, they moved to Macon so that Arnold Tengelsen could better crisscross the Southeast managing a chain of three dozen fabric stores.

The Tengelsen home on Easy Street, a split-level with brick and siding, had a carport and a sloped front yard in middle-class west Macon, about a mile and a half from the newly built I-475. Charismatic and controversial Mayor “Machine Gun” Ronnie Thompson lived across the way, three doors down. On occasion, Thompson borrowed tools from Arnold Tengelsen. Sometimes, as the family’s running joke went, the mayor returned the tools.

Eleven months after Carlene went missing, her parents decided to move to North Carolina to run a Western Sizzlin’ steakhouse. Carlene’s mother could no longer bear living in the place that, as she later explained, Carlene had not come home to.

Even so, the Tengelsens never cut ties with Macon.

When they moved to North Carolina, they left behind a telephone. The phone was one of those cube-like models that, long ago, sat on desktops or tables. But on this phone’s face, where a rotary dial would typically be, there was no dial. You couldn’t call out. Calls could only come in.

If, on the off chance someone with knowledge of Carlene’s whereabouts, or if Carlene herself dialed her family’s Macon phone number, that phone would ring.

The Tengelsens had the phone line connected to the home of neighbors, the Hutchinsons, who lived behind them on the next street over. The Hutchinson and Tengelsen children played together. Carlene and the Hutchinsons’ daughter, Lynn, were close.

Joanne Hutchinson, 91, said recently that the summer of 1972 took an emotional toll on the neighborhood.

“It was,” she said, “a terrible, terrible time. … Absolutely horrible.”

Her late husband, Culas, and Arnold Tengelsen had, to no avail, gone out every night searching for Carlene.

“Joan, the mother, was a fantastic mother. She lived for her children,” Joanne Hutchinson said. “A great family.”

When the Tengelsens asked about hooking up the phone line, Joanne Hutchinson said it was the least her family could do.

“Carlene lived at our house just about as much as Lynn lived over there,” she said. “You know how teenage girls are.”

She knew it was nonsense to suggest that Carlene ran away. But if Carlene had disappeared by choice, the teenager might need to have her braces taken off and, someday, call home.

Joanne Hutchinson said her husband built a small shelf in one of their hall closets and sat the phone there.

“We prayed it would ring,” she said.

Only a few people ever called. When the phone’s bells did toll, they sent a jolt of anticipation through the house. “Fear and excitement,” Joanne Hutchinson recalled. But it was always a wrong number. That or someone selling something.

In 1977, four years after saying farewell to Macon, the Tengelsens moved back. All of their children eventually settled there.

Today, Joanette Barnes, the sibling Carlene had gone to pick up the day she disappeared, lives in the home that Joan and Arnold Tengelsen moved into when they returned to Macon. Not the place on Easy Street, but a house in a cul-de-sac maybe five minutes away.

In the two decades or so that they spent there, Arnold sometimes crafted model boats. He sold suits at JCPenney. Joan, some days, wrote condolence cards to the mothers of missing children: “I know what you’re going through.” And every day Joan prayed for many of Middle Georgia’s lost girls by name.

Joanette recently said of her parents, “I don’t know how they made it through.”

Photographs of Carlene Tengelsen, who disappeared in 1972. She was never found.

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‘How’d this get here?’

Late last summer, Joanette received word that a tipster had come forward.

The tipster, a Macon-area woman, had seen a social media post or article online about Carlene’s disappearance. It jogged the woman’s memory, or so it seemed.

The woman went to the cops claiming to have suppressed knowledge of the fatal disappearance or abduction of an unknown local girl, possibly Carlene. “She knows something, she thinks,” Joanette, 66, said at the time.

Though law enforcement officials never publicly divulged the tip, in September they quietly searched for human remains, meticulously digging and sifting soil in a neighborhood 5 miles south of the mall where Carlene was last seen.

Nothing the investigators unearthed proved fruitful. No known signs of Carlene or anyone were found.

Then, in December, came a wholly unrelated development. A woman in Tampa, Florida, near Clearwater where the Tengelsens once lived, got in touch with a private police consultant familiar with Carlene’s disappearance.

The consultant has in the past worked closely with police in Macon and other Georgia cities. After learning of Carlene’s vanishing through newspaper articles 25 years ago, the consultant befriended Joanette and volunteered her services.

The Florida woman explained how she had been given, 15 years or so prior, a storybook as a gift from a neighbor who collected books. “From the Tower Window” was published in 1921 and is roughly the size of a collegiate dictionary. It is an anthology of children’s literature full of nursery rhymes, fables, folk tales and a little Shakespeare. A man and woman on horseback grace its cover.

Jennifer Robinson said she never looked closely at the book until around 2021.

Peeking inside the front cover, she noticed a handwritten scrawl that looked as if someone had been learning to write their name.

It was a girl’s name. She had an unusual last name.

Robinson was curious.

She Googled the name and saw that Carlene Tengelsen had been missing for nearly 50 years.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” she recalled. “I kind of freaked out a little bit, too.”

She wondered, “How’d this get here?”

‘That’s her handwriting’

Robinson didn’t know that the missing girl had once lived in Clearwater.

She tried to get in touch with a missing-persons network. She left messages but never heard back. Assuming no one was looking into the case, she let it go.

But late last year, Robinson heard about a cold case being solved in Florida. She told a co-worker about Carlene’s book.

“You’ve got to get ahold of somebody,” the co-worker said.

Two months ago, Robinson got in touch with the police consultant steeped in Carlene’s case.

The consultant asked Robinson to mail the book to her so that it could be examined. It was a long shot that the book bore any connection to Carlene’s vanishing, but the consultant wanted to inspect it.

After looking it over, the consultant mailed the book to Carlene’s sister Joanette in early February.

The book arrived in a postal pouch.

Carlene Tengelsen's handwritten name on the inside flap of a century-old storybook that a Florida woman was given as a gift about 15 years ago. Shown here, the book was recently mailed to Carlene's sister, Joanette Barnes, in Middle Georgia. Photo by Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

On a rainy afternoon, in a kitchen that overlooks the living room where Joan Tengelsen had prayed for Carlene and for those lost children she never knew, Joanette grabbed some scissors.

She snipped open one end of the postal pouch and reached inside.

She picked up the 100-year-old book, wrapped in clear plastic, and stared at its cover. She glanced at its spine and sobbed.

Peeling away the last of the plastic, she gripped the brown book in both hands. “It’s really old, isn’t it?”

As she opened it, her thumb landed inside of the front cover, just beneath the initials “C.S.T.”

The letters penciled above them, the name they stood for, were in the careful hand of a child: “Carlene Sessions Tengelsen.”

Sessions was Joan Tengelsen’s maiden name.

“Yep,” Joanette said, “that’s her handwriting.”

A lifetime of not knowing what had become of her sister came gushing back. This was the childhood signature of her own flesh and blood. A schoolgirl had left her mark in pencil, as if to say, “Carlene was here.” In that instant, she had, via graphite portal, made her way home.

Joanette, choking back tears, said, “I feel like it’s 1972 again. It’s not 52 years ago.”

She wondered if she had ever allowed herself to grieve, that maybe grieving meant abandoning hope.

She stared down at the collection of stories that now, if you think about it, included Carlene’s.

Joanette held out the tome like an offering.

Then she pulled it close in an embrace and patted it as if it were a newborn, hugging it hard.

“This is Carlene,” the kid sister said. “She’s right here with me.”

Editor’s note: In 1999, reporter Joe Kovac Jr. learned of the long-cold, unsolved 1972 disappearance of a Middle Georgia teen. Feature stories by Kovac, then a staff writer for The Macon Telegraph, led the authorities to reexamine the teen’s all-but-forgotten case. They created a new record of her disappearance, a file that had itself gone missing. Her family’s DNA has been entered into a national database and might render a match if her remains ever turn up.