By JACQUELINE PRIMO | Reporter
Part I in a Series
The sun was high and the ground was hot beneath her feet as Rachel Hanna Ziselman, 11, left her home on the 1000 block of Monument Street in Pacific Palisades and headed for Hughes Market on an errand for her mother, Rosemarie.
It was a lazy Monday afternoon, the final day of a three-day holiday weekend – Labor Day, Sept. 5, 1977.
Rachel and her siblings Sam, 14, and Sarah, 7, had returned roughly 20 minutes earlier from their father’s apartment in Santa Monica where they had spent the afternoon swimming in the complex’s pool.
Rachel, who at the time was 4’8”, weighing 65 pounds with waist-length blonde hair and blue eyes, was last seen carrying a bag of groceries a block from her home.
She has never been seen since.
38 YEARS LATER: THE POST IN REVIEW
In January, 2015, Palisadian Aleksandar Pavlović, 23, who is studying psychology at California State University-Northridge, approached the Palisadian-Post with a request for access to the newspaper’s archives. He said he had been looking into the Ziselman case and was hoping to find relevant articles.
Pavlovic said he first heard about the Ziselman case when fellow Ralphs (formerly Hughes Market) co-worker Rick Brissen brought up the subject.
Palisadian Brissen had said he remembered Rachel from childhood.
“[Rachel] was a happy girl from what I remember and totally enjoyed life and laughed all the time when she was around us. She was outgoing. My sisters went swimming with her and she played at our house often,” Brissen said.
“I was fascinated when I learned Rachel’s disappearance took place down the street from my own house. Growing up in the Palisades, I never felt unsafe. I always believed this town had a quiet and peaceful history—and knowing I was wrong changed my perspective suddenly,” Pavlović told the Post.
“What was just a simple curiosity now turned into something much deeper when I attempted to analyze the crime scene—my own hometown—and come up with my own conclusions as to what may have happened,” Pavlović said.
The Post joined Pavlović and Brissen in their investigation and also began independently researching Rachel’s disappearance.
Hours of searching by Post staffers turned up six articles in the Post archives. Pavlović also pointed the Post to a potential treasure trove of articles in local and national publications that mentioned Rachel.
After spending hours conducting online searches, the Post ultimately downloaded about 30 articles relevant to Rachel’s disappearance.
The first media mentions found were in the Sept. 7, 1977 issues of The Bakersfield Californian, Press-Telegram (Long Beach), Redlands Daily and the Valley News (Van Nuys). Others followed in The Daily Independent (Corona), The Press-Courier (Oxnard), Star-News (Pasadena).
The first article in the Post regarding Rachel’s disappearance was published on Sept. 8, 1977—three days after she went missing.
Remarkably, it wasn’t the top story of the week. It appeared on page 3 below a story titled “Council receives Occidental application,” which detailed Occidental Petroleum Corporation’s request for the establishment of three urbanized oil drilling districts in Pacific Palisades.
The “Police continue search for Rachel Ziselman” article that week said that the day after Rachel disappeared, a command post was established at the Palisades Recreation Center where Rachel’s father John A. Ziselman, an actor who went by the name John Zee, stood watch. Her mother Rosemarie, meanwhile, was holding her breath at home. They both held out hope their daughter would return.
Rachel, who had recently completed sixth grade at Pacific Palisades School (now Palisades Elementary School), was set to begin at Paul Revere Middle School that fall. The 11-year-old was last seen wearing a checkered pink, blue and yellow swimsuit with a white t-shirt, according to witness testimonies.
“She simply vanished—because there is no shred of evidence,” one police officer was quoted as saying in the Post article, adding she was last seen by the Bay Theatre carrying a bag of groceries around 3 p.m. (Norris Hardware now stands where the Bay Theatre once did.)
Hughes market personnel remembered Rachel bought bread, hot dogs and cold drinks.
“During the late night hours Tuesday, the girl’s father stood vigil at the command post. Lights at the family home on Monument Street burned all night as the girl’s mother and the family’s two other children also awaited word,” the article said.
On Tuesday, Sept. 6, 15 LAPD officers, two helicopters and a bloodhound with its handler from the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team canvassed the area. Officers conducted a door-to-door search in the Ziselman’s neighborhood, and that night around 30 search and rescue volunteers combed the remote areas of the Santa Monica Mountains. County lifeguards joined in the effort by searching Will Rogers State Beach.
By the time night fell, Rachel had been missing for more than 24 hours.
“The bloodhound, a blind, five-year-old named Belle Starr, took off into Potrero Canyon, but no clues were found,” the Post article said.
A follow-up article by Post Associate Editor A. Thomas Homer called “Police continue investigation of missing girl” was published on Sept. 15, 1977, 10 days after Rachel disappeared. It said that more than 1,600 man hours had been spent looking for the girl, including volunteers who searched the mountains, canyons and beach areas.
Lieutenant George Tawes of West LAPD headed the investigative team.
“Search and rescue teams from Sierra Madre, Altadena, Santa Monica, Malibu and Pasadena worked through two nights during the search. A 32-member group of the California Community Alert Patrol also assisted in the search,” the Sept. 15 article states.
The search, while seemingly extensive with all-hands-on-deck, including the Boy Scouts, turned up no clues as to Rachel’s whereabouts and no sign of a struggle.
In fact, the search turned up nothing at all.
“It’s almost like she vanished off the face of the earth,” one policeman said in the article.
As of a Sept. 22, 1977 article, police were listing the case as a missing child.
After nearly three weeks, police conducted a search of Big Tujunga Canyon as a “longshot.” The remains of an 8-year-old Venice boy had been found there in May of the same year, according to a Sept. 25, 1977 article in the Post.
The article ran with the headline “Missing Girl: Search avails nothing.”
Come October, when Rachel had been missing for a month, local business owners started a reward fund for any information pertaining to the whereabouts of the girl, whose 12th birthday had passed by the time the Post ran a follow-up article on Oct. 6.
Palisades Letter Shop, which had been a local staple on Via de la Paz since Phyllis Genovese opened it with a $50 typewriter in 1947, printed some 5,000 pledge sheets featuring Rachel’s picture at no cost. They were distributed throughout the business center by Pacific Palisades Chamber of Commerce president Jim Stout. Pledges were logged by volunteers at Southern California Savings and Loan of the Palisades, where Rosemarie was employed.
By publication of the October 13 Post issue, more than $3,000 had been pledged for the Rachel Ziselman Fund.
“It’s very heartwarming,” Rosemarie was quoted as saying, regarding a large envelope of pledges sent from children and teachers at Pacific Palisades School.
AN ERRAND GONE AWRY
“As [Rachel] passed by me in the living room, she inquired if I wanted something. I asked her to get me a bag of potato chips. I also, briefly, gave some consideration to accompanying her to the supermarket. That I decided against it, and chose to nap instead, I am confident is easily among the five largest mistakes I have made to date,” said Rachel’s brother Sam Ziselman, now 52, in a March 24, 2015 interview with the Post.
“A couple hours later, my mother awoke me and seemed terribly concerned, almost panicky. She related that Rachel had been gone for an extended period of time and that she’d made a few phone calls to her friends, but no one had seen her. She asked me to check several locations. I don’t remember them all, but I specifically recall walking over to, and around, Palisades Park,” he added.
“That’s how the disappearance started,” Sam said, adding that his mother grew “increasingly frantic as time passed.”
Sam said his mother initially told the police Rachel was 12 – after all, her birthday was just a few weeks away on Sept. 30. However, because LAPD had a policy at the time that prevented them from searching for persons 12 or older until a certain period of time had lapsed, police were at first hesitant to respond. Rosemarie quickly corrected her error and told them Rachel was actually 11, but Sam said “it took some effort to get them [LAPD] to drag themselves out to our house promptly.”
Palisadian Brissen, who has been looking into Rachel’s disappearance with Pavlović, said, “On the day [Rachel] went missing my mother was called on the phone that evening by Rachel’s mother who asked, ‘Where is my daughter?’”
“I remember thinking somebody must have lost a pet,” said Palisadian Petrie Robie in a March 2015 interview with the Post. Robie said she remembers hearing Rachel’s name being called out that night over and over.
“It was so ominous to hear the next day a child had gone missing,” Robie said.
As the hours passed and night fell on day one, Rachel’s family was at a loss.
“I specifically recall waking up the next morning and being stunned to learn that Rachel was not back. The cops were there, everyone was searching, and I had just assumed when I awoke the next day my sister was going to have been located,” Sam told the Post.
“We all felt like we were living in Mayberry at the time,” said Thomas Nelson who was in Rachel’s sixth-grade class. He told the Post in March 2015 that he remembers the disappearance distinctively and that the news was shocking to Palisades families.
“This was kind of the fruition of parental nightmares,” Nelson added.
The first 1977 Post articles regarding the disappearance say Rachel was last seen wearing a checkered pink, blue and yellow swimsuit with white T-shirt over it.
An Oct. 6 article, however, writes that one of Rosemarie’s friends came to the home in search of an article of Rachel’s clothing to present to a psychic. The woman reportedly found the bikini bottom in the Ziselman home, and the article goes on to say the bikini top was on Rachel’s bed.
Sam’s account of the story may offer some insight and clarity into the matter.
“A couple days later [after Rachel disappeared], we discovered the bikini on the dresser in her bedroom,” Sam said in an interview with the Post. “In response, the LAPD gave lie detector tests to every member of my family except Sarah (who was seven years old at the time). I remember it quite well, because, as you can imagine, undergoing a polygraph test was terribly interesting to a 14-year-old kid.”
Sam added, “After much speculation, we concluded that Rachel must have changed clothes before leaving on her errand.”
What happened to 11-year-old Rachel Ziselman on Labor Day 1977? Who were the witnesses who reportedly last saw her in front of the Bay Theatre? How could she have disappeared within a block of her home and vanish without a trace?
Did she go willingly with somebody she knew or did she run away? Was she lured or dragged into a car and kidnapped? These were and continue to be some popular theories.
“Time continues to pass, and for the family and friends of the missing girl, the long waiting continues,” said a Sept. 15, 1977 Post article.
Little did anybody know the family would still be waiting for answers nearly four decades later.
Read Part Two of the series in an upcoming issue of the Post for a look at life in the Ziselman family after Rachel disappeared and an examination of some theories as to what happened to her.
If you have any information or stories pertaining to Rachel’s disappearance or any memories of Rachel you would like to share, please email MyPost@palipost.com.
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