From: The New York Daily News

From: News and Views | City Beat |
Sunday, June 18, 2000

At Dewey HS, a Reunion —
And 27-Yr. Mystery

Daily News Staff Writer

here was a reunion at a Brooklyn high school yesterday, with a mystery as its central theme.

Twenty-seven years ago, two teenagers from John Dewey High School headed off to a huge, Woodstock-like music festival in Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Bonita (Bonnie) Bickwit and Mitchel Weiser vanished and have not been seen since.

There was speculation that the young couple had eloped or joined a commune. Maybe even joined a cult. But as days turned to weeks and months, people began to fear the worst.

Yesterday, 100 members of the Class of 1975 gathered at Dewey High School on Avenue X to celebrate a reunion and to plant an 8-foot red maple tree in the missing couple's names.

The tree ceremony was "a dedication, not a memorial," because nobody knows if they're alive or dead, said Bonnie Shipper, a classmate who now lives in Mountain View, Calif.

It was four years after Woodstock when Bonnie and Mitchel left a camp in upstate Narrowsburg on July 27, 1973, and headed for Watkins Glen.

Bonnie, then 15, of Borough Park, and Mitchel, then 16, of Midwood — both from stable, middle-class Jewish families — set out with backpacks and sleeping bags to hitchhike the 75 miles to Watkins Glen.

For their close friends, it was as if the pair — neither the radical hippie type — vanished off the face of the Earth. They never called, they never wrote, and when school started again in September, they didn't show up.

For their families, it was the beginning of 27 years of pain — the pain of wondering without knowing, of searching without finding, of trying not to think about horrible possibilities involving serial killers.

That summer, Bonnie had been working at Camp Wel-Met, sponsored by the UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in Narrowsburg, 90 miles north of the city.

"Bonnie was my best friend in high school," said Michelle Festa, valedictorian of the Class of 1974. "I went to Europe for the summer, and we had written letters to each other. She was working at Camp Wel-Met for a month, and Mitchel went up to pick her up, and they were going to go to the concert."

At first, everyone assumed the two — who had secretly exchanged wedding rings that summer — had run off to be together. But when there was no call or no letter, thoughts turned darker, to fatal accident, to murder.

"I could have been that little Jewish girl in the peasant skirt and the earth shoes," Shipper said with a shiver. "The whole thing is just heartbreaking."

Police were notified, but after investigations the families describe as perfunctory, the case went nowhere.

"They didn't do anything," Festa said. "We want to get the attorney general involved."

"There's a lot of different ways you can go," Mitchel's sister, Susan Liebegott of Brooklyn, said yesterday. "Maybe he got sick and was hospitalized. Maybe they got taken by a cult."

She recalled a day in 1985, when she was pregnant and thinking about her brother, then missing more than a decade, when the thought that he had been murdered flashed into her mind.

"I felt like a knife going through my chest," she said yesterday morning. And when she spoke at the dedication of the maple tree, with 100 members of Bonnie's class listening, she choked up. "I've always felt strongly that my brother would come home alive, but now it doesn't look like it," she said.

But then there were other incidents that brought hope.

"Years ago, when my parents were in Arizona, the phone rang and the operator asked my father if he would accept the charges on a collect call from Bonnie," she said. "He got all excited and said yes, but the operator told him, 'I'm sorry, she hung up.'"

No one called back. But the Weiser family has kept a phone listing in the Brooklyn directory since 1973, just in case Mitchel or Bonnie should ever call again.


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