Who would fake their own death? While we may find it hard to believe, it’s actually more common than we think.
To fake your death is also called pseudocide or a staged death is a case which an individual leaves evidence to suggest that they are missing or dead to mislead others. There could be a variety of reasons someone might choose to fake their death such as fraud to collect insurance money, those facing financial ruin, those wanting to evade police, or those who want out of a relationship. They all want to start a new life.
Pseudocide has been committed for centuries. Those who attempt this façade come from all walks of life, from ordinary citizens to authors, and even those in the corporate world. However, people that attempt pseudocide lack comprehension of the consequences, and lack knowledge of how to successfully carry their plan out.
To fake your death is not a crime, however, it is almost impossible to do it without breaking laws.
In 2014, Raymond Roth was sentenced for faking his own drowning at Jones Beach in a life insurance scheme and pretending to be a cop while attempting to lure a woman in Nassau County, New York.
He was sentenced to 2 to 7 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $36,000 in restitution to the Coast Guard and Nassau County Police.
On July 28, 2012, prosecutors said Roth was reported missing by his 22-year-old son Jonathan Roth who frantically called 911, saying his father had disappeared in the waters off of Jones Beach.
The 911 call triggered an intense water and air search costing thousands of dollars. No one witnessed Roth swim away and he was initually presumed dead due to drowning.
Prosecutors said in court that the father and son schemed to fake Roth’s death in hopes of cashing in over $400,000 in life insurance policies. The plan was Jonathan would file an insurance claim right away.
The plot was discovered when Roth’s wife, Evana, found emails between the father and son discussing the details of their plan.
Roth initially fled to Florida to hide out but was pulled over for speeding in South Carolina. In March of 2013, Roth plead guilty to conspiracy charges in the life insurance plot.
(Jonathan Roth was sentenced to a year in jail for helping his father fake his own death in Massapequa, New York.)
Roth’s son, Jonathan, apologized in court but was sentenced to a year in jail.
“Pseudocide isn’t inherently a crime,” said James Quiggle, director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud in Washington, D.C. “But it involves so many built in frauds that it’s virtually impossible to legally fake your own drowning. Frankly, you’ll only be drowing in fraud.”
“You may be stealing life insurance,” Quiggle continued. “Or your spouse is part of the con and files a false police report. You’re also avoiding a large variety of taxes, and defrauding lenders of your home and car. Then when you resurface with a new identity, you’re defrauding every government agency that processes your new identity—and old identity. And you’re defrauding new lenders if you buy a house or car under your new identity.”
Buying a “Death Kit” in the Philippines
As reported by Annabel Fenwick Elliott at Traveller.com, for $630 travelers can purchase a “death kit” complete with documents that “prove” your death. The process involves buying an unclaimed corpse from a morgue in the Phillipines.
One has to wonder if it is even possible to disappear anymore. Our every move is monitored by the National Security Agency, closed-circuit TV, phones transmitting our location, drones, even friend tagging us on Facebook.
Elizabeth Greenwood, an American author of “Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud,” was one of those people. In 2013, Greenwood was 27 years old and burdened with a six-figure student debt.
Greenwood initially went to a man named Franki Ahearn. Ahearn resembled a biker and has the word “Freedom” tattooed across his shoulders. Mr. Ahearn told Greenwood that he helps people disappear, not fake their own death because it is illegal to file official paperwork about a fictitious death, but legal to disappear.
In 2013, Greenwood “died” in the Philippines as a tourist. Several people witnessed her crash in a rental car into another vehicle in Manilla on a busy road. Doctors at the hospital there pronounced Greenwood dead on arrival. At least that’s what her death certificate says.
In reality, Greenwood is alive and living in New York working as a journalist.
“I’m dead on paper, but still kicking in Brooklyn,” Greenwood said.
Why did she do it?
Greenwood began thinking about making herself disappear after she had told a friend about her school debt and they responded in jest that she should just disappear.
“I began poking around online and discovered that death fraud truly is an industry with a whole host of experts and c onsultants to help you go through with it,” said Greenwood. “And there are far more people than you might imagine who had done it themselves, with varying degrees of success,” she added.
She decided she wanted to research the subject.
Why they do it in the Philippines
“In my early research, I dug up a 1986 Wall Street Journal article that quoted a representatives from Equifax insurance saying, ‘In one Southeast Asian country, there’s a private morgue that picks up dead derilicts, freezes the bodies, and sells them for insurance puposes.’ I found this totally intriguing , bizarre, and macabre,” Greenwood told Traveller.com.
Greenwood decided to work with two private investigators who consult for life insurance companies.
“Again and again, they named the Philippines as a hotbed for the kind of theatrical death fraud that involves false corpses,” Greenwood said. “They snigg out life insurance fraud all over the globe—it is attempted everywhere—but they told me some memorable stories about cases they’s worked on in the Philippines, so I wanted to checki it out myself.”
What is the cost?
The cost can vary widely. Generally it costs anywhere from $180 to $630, but it can cost some up to $36,000 to hire a professional fixer to have a professional fixer erase their past and create a new identity.
What does the cost include?
Greenwood stayed in the Philippines for a week, and while there, found some locals who obtained her death certificate from an infiltrator who worked in a government agency.
Greenwood never broke any law by filing the documents with the US Embassy.
Do they need a body to pull this off?
“If you are trying to cash in on a life insurance policy—obviously you’d need an accomplise to make the claim for you—you need a body, since without one most companies will wait seven years before paying out the claim,” Greenwood tell Traveller.com.
In black market morgues, one would need a death certificate, autopsy repport, police reports, a medical report and witness testimony.
Some may go as far as having a funeral for their decedent and filming it to submit to the insurance company, but unessesary.
What if a person just wants to disappear?
“If you’re not committing life insurance fraud, you needen’t go through all the extra trouble, Greewood said. “Staging a more open-ended, elegant excape, like disappearing while on a hike, usually looks more believable to investigators.”
Petra Pazsitka was presumed dead since 1985, and missing for twenty years without ever breaking any laws. German authorities discovered her alive in 2015. The only thing she was penalized for was failing to register herself alive.
As for risks Greenwood took to research her book, “In my case, I wanted to go through the motions to see what it felt like to obtain these documents,” she said. “Filing would’ve been illegal. Obtaining them? I’m not sure, and I’m glad I never found out. But I’m not going to lie, I was definitely nervous flying back to the States with my own death certificate in my backpack.”
Is faking one’s death happening more frequently?
Fraudulently dying happens frequently and Greenwood saw an increase in cases in 2008, when the United States suffered a financial collapse.
“I think it will always happen. People will always look for a way out,” Greenwood told Traveller.com.
It may be easier now because there are more ways such as buying documents on the Philippines or finding a source on the deep dark web, or finding a pravicacy consultant to help.
“But the reason people get caught is time-proof and universal. They just can’t cut ties to their old lives.
Modern day Sherlock Holmes
Thomas Lauth, the CEO of Lauth Investigations International, is a modern day Sherlock Holmes. A private investigator since 1994, Lauth specializes in finding missing persons.
(Thomas Lauth has been a private investigator for over 25 years and works with his team o0f private eyes to solve missing person cases.)
“Sometimes people want to commit pseudocide to reboot their life,” Lauth said.
The work private investigators do is very different than what is depicted on television. It is often 90% routine and can be very boring, but the remaining 10% is filled with surveillance and work in the field making up for that, many investigators say.
Lauth has worked on hundreds of missing person cases due to foul play, homeless due to mental illness or drug addiction, people with dementia, missing children and human trafficking cases, and those Lauth refers to as maliciously missing, who disappear on their own accord.
“People who commit pseudocide or go maliciously missing, are mostly men but I’ve seen an increase in cases that involve women who are primarily escaping violence in their relationship,” Lauth says.
After accepting a case of a missing person, Lauth assigns an investigative team to work closely with the family of the missing person, develop theories, physical search site logistics, create comprehensive data on the missing person, flyer and press release creation, along with a social media presence to help raise awareness of the missing person.
The Lauth Investigations team works collaboratively with NGO’s, government social service agencies, local, state and federal law enforcement, and the local community.
Lauth has worked on over 30 cases of malicious missing or pseudocide cases during his career. “In my 25 years of conducting missing persons cases a number of my cases have been malicious missing adults. Adults who chose to change their life for various reasons from abusive spouse to wanting leave family and kids behind. Its unfortunate individuals choose this route as it can put families in so much pain missing their loved ones and thinking instead they are deceased.”
It’s not uncommon for women to jog alone. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon for women to go missing while jogging or exercising.
Millions of women exercise daily while alone, and most come home safe. However, imagine your friend goes out for a jog or bicycle ride and is never seen again. Women who go missing while jogging are not an isolated event. It may be hard to comprehend, but sadly, stories like this are becoming more common in today’s society.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), there are approximately 100,000 people missing in the United States right now. As of May 31, 2018, there were 19,183 women over the age of eighteen listed as missing in NCIC. Many of them go missing while jogging or exercising.
Stories like Molly Tibbets, who was abducted and murdered, make national news headlines, creating fear throughout the country. Women being attacked or kidnapped, or going missing while jogging is a nightmare we cannot run away from and one that continues to haunt families of the missing.
The Disappearance of Rachel Cooke
Our first woman who went missing while jogging is Rachel Cooke. Rachel Cooke, 19, was visiting her parents in Georgetown, Texas, during her winter break from college. No one knew that would be her last trip home. On January 10, 2002, at approximately 9:30 a.m., Rachel went out for her four-mile daily run and was last seen 200 yards from her family home. Somewhere in that short distance, the beautiful young college student with a smile that could light up the Texas plains—vanished.(Northlake subdivision in Georgetown, Texas, where Rachel Cooke vanished while taking a morning run.)
Northlake subdivision is a quiet place, about 45 minutes from Austin, where streets are named after Native American tribes and the only people there are residents and their visitors. The houses are set back on several acres of property with expansive drives. The serenity is rarely disturbed by strangers, making it a perfect storm of cirumcstances to go missing while jogging.
224 Navajo Trail was the Cooke family’s dream home, and they loved its spaciousness and tranquility. Robert and Janet Cooke raised Rachel and her little sister Joann there while Janet taught English at a nearby high school. Robert was a long-time software engineer for IBM and commuted daily to Austin. It was a place where people felt safe going outside alone and kidnapping did not happen—until Rachel.
The Cooke family’s idyllic life came to an end that fateful Thursday, but the day started like any other. Robert and Janet left early to work, and Joann went to her classes at the local high school. Rachel was enjoying her winter break as a freshman at Mesa Junior College San Diego, and her family let her sleep in.
(Rachel Cooke was last seen at her parent’s home in Georgetown, Texas on January 10, 2002.)
When the family left that morning, Rachel was asleep on the living room sofa. Her mother kissed her goodbye.
Authorities believe Rachel got up and left the home at approximately 9:30 a.m. for her morning run. She went missing while jogging that morning.
When Robert got home at 5:00 p.m., Rachel was still not there and had no contact with anyone in the family the entire day. At first, Robert was not that concerned thinking Rachel was out with her friend Shannon, who she had plans with that evening. But, as time went by, Robert began to worry. He called Wildfire, a local restaurant, Rachel sometimes worked at while visiting. To the worried father’s relief, they told him Rachel had worked a shift that evening. However, morning came and there was still no sign of Rachel, so Robert called the restaurant again. To his horror, they told him, in fact, it was another Rachel that had worked the previous night shift.
Rachel was missing—and a sinking feeling overcame her father.
In the days following Rachel’s disappearance, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office conducted a search with help from hundreds of volunteers. After the initial search efforts concluded, Robert and Janet continued to organize searches on weekends.
“We carried on for nine months, but at some point, we thought we’ve done our best,” Robert told the Guardian. “If they took her 12 miles, there is no reason why they wouldn’t take her 15 miles. We could search the entire state of Texas and still not find her.”
Robert Cooke passed away in November 2014, never knowing what happened to his daughter.
(The FBI erected billboards of Rachel Cooke in the state of Texas offering a $100,000 reward for information.)
In May 2019, the FBI erected billboards throughout Texas offering a $100,000 reward for any information about the whereabouts of Rachel.
As drivers passed Rachel’s smiling face along I-35, it read “Missing but not forgotten,” and placed there on Rachel’s 37th birthday. Janet Cook saw it as a Mother’s Day gift as well. Time has not lessened the mother’s hope of finding her daughter—and at least knowing what happened.
(In 2020, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office released two suspect composites in the disappearance of Rachel Cooke.)
In 2020, for Rachel’s 38th birthday, deputies met with Rachel’s mother Janet and released two new composite sketches of potential suspects in the case.
Her mother had a remembrance ceremony at the campus of Georgetown High School where they planted a tree in memory of Rachel. Sheriff Robert Chody spoke at the ceremony to remind the public his investigators are still working the case.
Janet Cooke, who also spoke, said she is just “seeking closure” on the case. “At this point I just want Rachel and to be able to tell her sister it’s over,” she told the Statesman.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Rachel Cooke, please call the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office at 512-943-5204 or email email@example.com.
(Suzanne Morphew is missing from the small community in Maysville, Colorado, approximately 120 miles from Colorado Springs.)
An avid cyclist, Suzanne was biking near her home in Maysville, a small community in Chaffee County, approximately 120 miles southwest of Colorado Springs. Her disappearance has spurred nationwide press coverage and a Facebook page with over 16,315 followers.
There have been reports that Suzanne’s bicycle was found just west of County Road 225 and West U.S. Highway 50. However, the Sheriff’s Office has only publicly confirmed a “personal item” was found that they believe belonged to the missing biker.
(Barry Morphew, Suzanne’s husband, made an emotional plea to the public offering a $200,000 reward for his wife’s safe return. Photo courtesy of Inside Edition)
Suzanne’s husband, Barry Morphew made a dramatic plea offering a $200,000 reward for the safe return of his wife. “No questions asked,” said Barry. “However much they want. I will do whatever it takes to get you back. I love you and I want you back so bad.” Barry, a volunteer firefighter is said to have been 150 miles away in Denver when Suzanne vanished.
(Suzanne Morphew has been missing from Maysville, Colorado, since May 10, 2020.)
Suzanne is a mother of two daughters and a cancer survivor. A former English teacher, Suzanne is described as “happy and active” who was always at the gym, hiking, or biking. She is loved in her community, and fliers dot the windows in the local businesses. Hundreds of volunteers have helped with the search efforts, organized by her nephew Trevor Noel, who has also become the family spokesperson.
“As time goes by, it gives us concern, but we are searching as if she is still alive and we think she could still be alive,” Sheriff John Spezze of the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office told Inside Edition. In an earlier interview, the sheriff also said they are not ruling out foul play.
Initially, authorities had seized the Morphew home but confirmed on May 26, 2020, that the house has been released back to the family. Investigators have also searched a local home construction site in Salida, approximately 11 miles east of Maysville, spurring rumors that Suzanne Morphew had been located and the husband arrested. The sheriff’s office issued a press release in response to the speculation.
“In response to the widespread rumors, the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office relays that Ms. Morphew has not been located and there have been no arrests in the investigation,” the release said.
Authorities say they have received over 400 tips and continue to encourage the public to call in with leads.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Suzanne Morphew, please contact the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office at 719-312-7530.
The Disappearance of Amy Bechtel
Amy Wroe Bechtel, 24, vanished on July 24, 1997, while jogging in the Wind River Mountains approximately 15 miles south of Lander, Wyoming.
(Amy Wroe Bechtel vanished on July 24, 1997, while jogging in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming.)
Amy Bechtel went missing while jogging in a little hamlet of middle America. Lander, Wyoming is located in Fremont County with a population of under 8,000 people. A popular tourist destination with guest ranches, it is located just below the Wind River Mountains where people go hiking, rock climbing, and backpacking.
That Thursday morning of July 24, Amy told her husband, Steve Bechtel, that she was planning on running several errands in town after teaching a children’s weightlifting class at the Wind River Fitness Center. Steve planned to drive with his yellow lab, Jonz, to Dubois, 75 miles north, to meet his friend Sam Lightner, and scout some possible new climbing areas at Cartridge Creek.
After teaching class, Amy stopped at the Camera Connection, a photo store near her home in Lander, and then stopped by Gallery 331, where she spoke to the business owner about submitting her photographs into a competition. Amy was an amateur photographer, an avid runner, and a marathon hopeful who loved the outdoors and pristine beauty of Wyoming.
(A quaint mountain town, Lander is located in Central Wyoming just south of the Wind River Indian Reservation.)
Steve and Amy lived on Lucky Lane, a hipster community where many rock climbers live, drawn by some of the most difficult mountain walls in the United States. Lander is a quirky town with funky shops and art galleries, old school watering holes, and small home-town restaurants. Steve and Amy both worked part-time at Wild Iris Mountain Sports, a local outdoor equipment store.
The couple had just closed on a new house and were busy planning a move. Amy was also organizing a 10k hill climb scheduled for September 7. She planned that the runners would climb a series of mountain switchbacks not far from town, then jump into the Frye Lake and finish with a picnic. On the day she vanished, Amy’s “to do” list included a run and lifting, recycling, get photo mounted, get more boxes, mow the lawn, and get flyers.
John Strom, the owner of Camera Connection remembers Amy wearing a yellow shirt, black shorts, and running shoes that day. He said she seemed busy and cheerful when she left at about 2:30 p.m.
After completing several of her afternoon chores and leaving the camera shop—Amy’s life becomes that of speculation.
(Steve and Amy Bechtel with their dog Jonz.)
Steve returned from his day out with his friend at about 4:30 p.m. and found the house empty. He had returned earlier than planned and was not concerned but at about 10 p.m. he called her parents to see if Amy had driven to their house on the spur of the moment. She had not.
By 11 p.m. Steve had called the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office who sent two deputies to the house. They alerted the following shift who began to organize a search and rescue team to head out at daybreak. Steve and his neighbor Todd Skinner went to look for Amy’s car on Loop Road, a 30-mile road through the Shoshone National Forest.
(Amy Bechtel’s car was found alongside the road in Burnt Gulch, about 45 minutes from town.)
At approximately 1:00 a.m., Steve received a call that Amy’s white Toyota Tercel station wagon was found alongside the road at Burnt Gulch, about 45 minutes from town in the mountains, so he headed there immediately. Her car unlocked, the keys under her “to do” list on the front passenger seat, along with her sunglasses.
Steve and a small group began searching the woods with flashlights, calling Amy’s name. By the time the official search party arrived, a dozen people were searching for Amy and the site had not been preserved for evidence. Thinking Amy was just lost, no one could have imagined the site might be a crime scene,
For years, evidence remained elusive, and over the last two decades, law enforcement has only developed theories about what happened to her. They believe Amy left the camera shop and then went to scout the location for the 10k.
In recent years, national television and media interest in the case has waned and generated little leads that have been useful to authorities. A $25,000 reward went untouched and was eventually converted into two college scholarship funds in Amy’s name.
Fremont County Sheriff Sgt. Roger Rizor has been the lead investigator and told the Billings Gazette in 2007, that Amy’s case was cold, but it is still an open case. “I believe it was a homicide, and I believe that’s what happened on the day she disappeared.”
(Jo Anne Wroe wanders in the meadows of her log home above Red Lodge to feel close to her missing daughter Amy Wroe Bechtel. Photo courtesy of the Billings Gazette.)
As years passed, Jo Anne stopped marking the anniversaries of Amy’s disappearance with yellow ribbons. She does not have a grave to visit so she loves to meander near the mountain creek among the aspen trees and wildflowers to feel close to her missing daughter.
Amy’s disappearance has deeply affected every facet of Jo Anne’s life and that of her three other children.
“A part of me is realistic, and I’m aware that she is probably not alive,” she said. “I have learned to live with the fact that Amy is gone. But I have not accepted it, and I will not until I know what happened.”
If you have any information about the disappearance of Amy Wroe Bechtel, please call the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office at 307-332-5611.
Kym served as CEO of the National Center for Missing Adults from 1994 to 2010 and advocating for missing persons and their families for over 25 years.
Kym has worked with national media to raise awareness and featured on Anderson Cooper Live, Greta Van Susteren, Montel Williams, the John Walsh Show, CNN, BBC, FOX, L. A. Times, People Magazine, Ladies Home Journal.
An arrest has been made in the disappearance of Colorado missing boy Gannon Stauch.
Letecia “Tecia” Stauch has been arrested on first-degree murder charges in the disappearance of her stepson Gannon Stauch. It has been nearly five weeks since Gannon was reported missing.
According to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office at a press conference, the arrest occurred on the morning of March 2, 2020, in Horry County, South Carolina. El Paso County Sheriff’s Office detectives, FBI agents, and members of the El Paso County 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office made the arrest of Letecia Stauch without incident.
Letecia will be held without bail in the Horry County Jail on the charges of Murder in the First Degree of a Child Under Twelve, Child Abuse Resulting in Death, a charge of Tampering with a Deceased Body, and Tampering with Physical Evidence. She is currently awaiting extradition back to El Paso County, Colorado.
Gannon, 11, was reported missing by Letecia Stauch on January 27, 2020, claiming Gannon had gone to a friend’s home in the Lorson Ranch neighborhood and failed to come home.
Initially, authorities called Gannon a runaway when they first asked the public to help find the little boy. But the sheriff’s office announced January 30 that Gannon was considered a missing endangered child because of his age, the time he had been gone, and his reliance on medication.
The search that was supposed to take place last Friday in the area of Highway 105 and Highway 83 was postponed and authorities announced a major development in the investigation that would be released during the press conference held at noon.
During the press conference, investigators said they believe Gannon is no longer alive and they have yet to locate him. They reiterated search efforts to locate Gannon’s remains would continue.
“Today I got the worst news and the best news,” said Gannon’s biological mother Landen Hiott had been holding out hope her son was still alive. “Obviously we know what the worst news is. The best news is that justice will be served. And I’ll make sure that justice is served because my boy did not deserve any of this that happened.”
Authorities said the affidavit has been sealed and remains tight-lipped on the evidence that led them to arrest Letecia.
“Just hold on to questions until we know that this person, this stepmom that I even trusted, that she will pay 100 percent for this heinous thing she done,” said Landen. “And I know that’s what will be done.”
Al Stauch, Gannon’s father did not speak at the press conference, but a sheriff’s department spokesperson held back tears as her voice cracked while reading Al’s statement.
“The person who committed this heinous horrible crime is the one that I gave more to than anyone else on this planet and that is a burden that I will carry with me for a very long time,” Al said.
He writes that his heart stopped on the day that Gannon was born on September 29, 2008, coming way too early and weighing only one pound six ounces–and again on March 2, 2020, when he learned his little boy would never be coming home.
“I’d been looking forward to his teenage years, and the fun we had ahead of us as he became a young man,” Al said. “My little boy is not coming home. We will never play Nintendo again. No more Taco Tuesdays. No more smooth looking haircuts. No more “Big Bubba” for my Lana. And no more G Man for the world.”
“While we have not yet found Gannon, information has been developed that is helping us narrow our search, said Lieutenant Mitch Mihalko of the sheriff’s office.
Since Gannon vanished, crews have been scouring dozens of acres of southern Douglas County, in search of the missing boy’s body.
“As you can see from the arrest sadly, we do not believe Gannon is alive. Our work is just beginning, and you will continue to see many law enforcement officials in El Paso County over the coming weeks and possibly months as we continue our relentless pursuit of justice for Gannon and his family.”
Prior to the arrest, Letecia had been obsessively posting on various social media sites, professing her innocence and offering explanations as to what happened to Gannon, even developing a timeline she posted on Facebook.
Letecia claimed she was harassed online and should be offered an apology from everyone who suspected she could have ever hurt her stepson.
However, Gannon’s family has continuously urged the public to call in with any information to contact law enforcement so that they may be able to give Gannon a proper burial.
“I know where my son’s at without a shadow of a doubt, said Landen. “I want to leave this earth knowing justice was served for my boy.”
Prosecutors and the sheriff’s office are still asking for information from the public to help bring their promise for justice to fruition.
“One, we still want to bring Gannon home so that he can have a proper burial and his family can get the closure they need,” said Deputy District Attorney Michael Allen. “But we also want to hold the person we are charging, Letecia Stauch accountable for what she did.”
Anyone with information about the whereabouts of Gannon Stauch, please call the El Paso County Sheriff at 719-520-6666 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Shortly after midnight on May 14, 2008, Brandon Swanson mysteriously vanished in Marshall, Minnesota. Brandon had been celebrating the end of the spring semester with friends from Minnesota West Community and Technical College’s Canby campus.
Between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m., Brandon left the celebration and drove to another friend’s home in Canby to say goodbye to a classmate that was also having a party. Friends say Brandon did not appear intoxicated when he left shortly after midnight to go home. Canby is approximately 45 minutes away from Marshall where Brandon lived with his parents.
Brandon’s parents received a call from Brandon at approximately 1:54 a.m. telling them he had gotten stuck in a ditch on a back road that ran north of Highway 68, the main road he would normally take to get home. He told them he was not injured but needed help to get home.
Why Brandon chose to turn off Highway 68 and take gravel back roads home is but one of the mysteries in this story.
Unsure of his exact location, Brian told his parents he thought he was near Lynd, a small town in Lyon County with a population of only 445 people.
Brandon’s parents, Brian and Annette Swanson, decided to go get him and went to the location but were unable to find him or his car.
The road was dark and the area remote. Annette called Brandon on his cell phone and they both agreed to flash their lights to let each other know they were in the area. On the phone, Annette could hear Brandon flashing his car lights and told him, “We are flashing our lights” We are flashing our lights!” Brandon replied. “Don’t you see me?” They never did see him.
Frustrated, Brandon hung up on his mother. She quickly called back, and they both apologized to each other for becoming annoyed.
Brandon said he would leave the car and walk toward Lynd and they agreed to meet him at the Lynd Tavern parking lot.
While talking to his father, Brandon described seeing lights in the distance and continued to walk down the gravel road. He described hearing rushing water and saw two fence lines, all the while continuing to talk to his dad.
The call lasted 47 minutes when suddenly Brian yelled, “Oh shit!” and the call disconnected. His parents tried to call him back numerous times, but the phone rang each time until the following day when calls went straight to voicemail.
The Search for Brian
At 6:30 a.m. the following day, Brian’s parents called the police to report him missing. To their dismay, the police told them to wait as it was not unlike a young man Brian’s age, to disappear for a bit.
Later that day, cell phone records showed Brandon was near Porter, Minnesota, not Lynd when he called them. Porter is between Canby and Marshall along Highway 68.
A search began and at approximately 12:30 p.m., Brandon’s Chevrolet Lumina was found about a mile and a half north of Taunton, right on the border between Yellow Medicine, Lincoln and Lyon Counties.
According to True Crime Files, the car was found with no physical damage and no evidence of physical injury.
“It was off the side of a field approach, and the vehicle was hung up,” Lincoln County Sheriff Jack Vizecky told CNN. “It’s sort of a sharp incline, nothing major but enough that the car would get hung up, so the wheels are too high off the ground to gain traction.”
In the months following Brandon’s disappearance, law enforcement, volunteers, and emergency personnel search the area by ground, horseback, and all-terrain vehicles to search all three counties in the vicinity of where Brandon disappeared and the Yellow Medicine River.
Authorities believed Brandon may have fallen into the river and drowned, but canines followed his scent to the river’s edge but did not signal and continued walking on. To the police, this suggested Brandon may have fallen into the water but managed to get out and continued walking. However, the temperature that evening was around 39 degrees, and he could have succumbed to hypothermia.
Cadaver dogs picked up the scent of human remains during several searches, in the area of Porter near Mud Creek, but a body was ever found.
Police do not have any evidence of foul play and believe Brandon’s body would be found within a 122 square-mile search area.
“It’s by far the biggest search I’ve ever been involved in terms of length of time, the number of missions and number of searchers involved said Jeff Hasse, founder of Midwest Technical Training Associates.
Porch Light is Still On
Brian and Annette turned on their porch light on May 14, 2008 – the night Brandon vanished.
The light remains on every night. “There’s no reason to turn it off now,” Brian said. “I’m pretty sure we’re not going to find him alive, but I still want to believe that we will find him. That’s probably a stretch, but I still want to believe that.”
One positive thing has come out of Brandon’s disappearance. Brian and Annette spearheaded legislation that was signed into law in 2009. Brandon’s Law requires police to make a report whenever a person of any age, is reported missing and investigation must ensue. It also clarifies jurisdiction.
The Swansons face a life of ambiguity, never really being able to move forward, no way to gain closure. “They call it ambiguous loss,” Annette said. “It’s that state in your life – in our case it’s the loss of our son – without knowing what happened. It’s extremely challenging. It’s really hard to grapple with and to come to terms with. I think for Brandon’s father and I, and for his sister, we’ve kind of figured out how to live in that gray area. But it’s really not someplace you want to live.”
Anyone with information about the disappearance of Brandon Swanson, please contact the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office at 507-537-7666.
On New Year’s Eve, vandals defaced a billboard of KIMT anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit, from Mason City, Iowa.
The billboard is among three in Mason City, that shows a picture of the beautiful Iowa news anchor, asking the question “Someone knows something, is it you?”
The cryptic words sprayed in bright yellow paint say, “Frank Stearns Machine Shed” across the bottom half of the billboard. Frank Stearns was a longtime detective with Mason City Police Department who diligently worked Jodi’s case. Now retired, Stearns is now a city death scene investigator.
In 2011, in a bizarre twist of events, the Globe Gazette reported that former Mason City police officer Maria Ohl accused two Mason City police officers and a retired Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agent of being involved in the abduction and potential murder of Jodi.
Ohl, a ten-year veteran, said she received credible information from an informant in 2007, and again in 2009, who implicated Lt. Frank Stearns, Lt. Ron Vande Weerd and Bill Basler in the abduction. Ohl said she told her superiors but heard only crickets.
Ohl says she was terminated due to her handling of Jodi’s case information.
“It’s horrifically disturbing. They’re still working on the taxpayers’ dollar – the whistleblower was put on administrative leave and terminated.”
Joshua Benson, an evening anchor at an Orlando ABC affiliate who founded FindJodi.com, said Ohl had also confided in him but he could not find any information that would corroborate her claims.
In fact, at the time the complaint was filed, an official investigation also found no validity in Ohl’s claims.
Cold Case investigator Steve Ridge told KIMT that he knows how and when the billboard was vandalized. He says two individuals dressed in black parked in the rear alley behind a tattoo parlor and erected an aluminum ladder against the wall at 11:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
While one held the ladder, the other spray-painted “Frank Stearns” in large letters and “Machine Shed” in smaller print below. Ridge said the parking lot of the nearby bar was full, as dozens of cars passed right below the billboard while the individuals were vandalizing it.
Ridge spoke to Frank Steans at his residence on January 3, 2020. His residence in a rural community does have a detached building on the premises, however, Stearns lived elsewhere in 1995. While the billboard vandals surely meant to dredge up old wounds and accusations, Stearns remains a respected member of the community and says he hopes they are found and punished.
Jodi, 27, vanished from the outside of her downtown apartment in Mason City on Tuesday, June 27, 1995. The day before, Jodi had played in the local Chamber of Commerce golf tournament. According to friend John Vansice, afterward, Jodi went to his house to view a videotape of a birthday celebration that he had set up for her earlier in the month.
Jodi went home and called a friend before going to bed. She usually left for work at 3:00 a.m. to anchor the morning show at KIMT. At approximately 4:00 a.m. KIMT producer Amy Kuns noticed that Jodi had not shown up to work. “I called her twice. I talked to her and woke her up the first time,” Kuns told WFLA news anchor Josh Benson. “The second time it just rang and rang. I don’t remember the times. I had obviously woken her up. She asked what time it was. I told her. She said she would be right in.”
Jodi was usually prompt and never missed work, so by 7:00 a.m. KIMT staff had called the Mason City Police Department to conduct a welfare check.
The Police Investigation
When police arrived at Jodi’s apartment, shortly after 7:00 a.m., her red Mazda Miata was in the parking lot. Officers found a pair of red women’s pumps, a bottle of hairspray, blower dryer and earrings, along with a bent car key, strewn around the car reflecting a struggle had taken place at the vehicle.
A search was conducted of Jodi’s apartment, the parking lot, and the nearby Winnebago River.
Early on, the then Mason City Police Chief Jack Schlieper said he suspected foul play. Investigators from the Iowa DCI and the Federal Bureau of Investigation would eventually join the search. It was later reported that investigators had lifted an unidentified palm print off her car.
By that Wednesday, as Jodi’s desk sat empty, police continued their extensive search for the young news anchor. Schlieper told reporters at a news conference that police and K-9 units were continuing to search along a two-mile area of the Winnebago River that runs through a park near Jodi’s apartment on North Kentucky Avenue.
Police did discover items of clothing along the riverbanks but at the time could not determine if they were Jodi’s.
Police confirmed that some residents heard noises that sounded like an animal or animal noises the morning Jodi vanished. We now know she screamed as she was dragged back down the center of the parking bumpers by her car, as her heel marks were left in the dirt on the pavement.
Neighbors also reported seeing a white van in the parking lot with its parking lights on that evening.
Eventually, there would be questions about whether the crime scene was correctly processed. In hindsight, the answer would be no. For instance, a friend of Jodi’s said police didn’t immediately tape off the crime scene which could have resulted in contamination or evidence being overlooked. In addition, Jodi’s car was released to her parents shortly after the disappearance instead of being kept as evidence.
Current Chief of Police Jeff Brinkley was asked by 48 Hours if he thought the car was released in haste. He replied, “Maybe.”
“We don’t have it,” Brinkley said. “But we just have to live with what we got, and –and try to do as good as we can with that.”
Brinkley is the fourth police chief to have Jodi’s case under his command.
“Basically, all my free time is following up on this case,” said Mason City Police Officer Terrance Prochaska, who took over the case in 2010.
“What caused her to sleep in that day? What caused her to answer the phone and rush to work? What was she doing the night before? We all want to know the fine details. We know where she was at. She was golfing. She had driven home and made a phone call to her friend. Those are facts. But it’s that gray area in between we don’t understand.”
Person of Interest
It is known after work; Jodi attended the gold tournament. While at the tournament, she told some of her friends that she had been receiving prank phone calls and was thinking of going to the police and changing her number.
Afterward, John Vansice, who was 22 years older than Jodi, was the last person to have seen her. They watched a video he had shot at the surprise birthday party he had arranged for her.
“She was like a daughter to me, she was like my own child,” Vansice said to KIMT in 1995. “I treated her like my own child.”
Though Vansice has long been suspected by friends of Jodi to have been involved in her abduction, a friend of Vansice named LaDonna Woodford says there is no way, because she had called him at 6:00 a.m. that morning wanting to go for a walk. When they walked, she says he didn’t seem anxious or out of sorts in any way.
Vansice also passed a polygraph in 1995 and never named an official suspect. However, in March 2017, search warrants were issued for the GPS records of Vansice’s 1999 Honda Civic and 2013 GMC 1500. It was the most substantial break in the case in decades. However, nothing of importance was ever recovered.
“We have never closed the case,” Chief Brinkley told 48 Hours. “It’s never been a closed case for us. It’s been an active investigation since it happened.”
“I’m not ready to quit yet,” Brinkley added.
JoAnn Nathe also told 48 Hours that she was once suspicious of John, but “we have to be objective; we have to have an open mind. It could be somebody we least expect.”
It has already been reported that Jodi had gone water skiing with John Vansice and a couple of friends the weekend before she vanished.
In Jodi’s June 25, 1995, entry in her journal she wrote, “Got home from a weekend trip to Iowa City — oh we had fun! It was wild, partying and water skiing. We skied at the Coralville Res. I’m improving on the skis — hips up, lean, etc. John’s son Trent gave me some great ski tip advice.”
In November 2019, Cold Case Investigator Steve Ridge revealed that Jodi also boarded the Mastercraft ski boat of two younger men she had met the same weekend.
Ridge told KWWL News that he spoke to witnesses who were at the lake that Saturday in 1995, who said Vansice was not enthused she had left to spend time with younger men, but he did not overreact or cause a scene, as some said Vansice was inclined to do.
Ridge said that once Jodi and a female friend boarded the boat, they were seen drinking and dancing on the boat. Ridge said the owner of the boat took a video of them which was given to Mason City Police investigators.
Ridge said he was still investigating whether one or both of the young men may have visited Jodi, or attempted to visit her the next day, or Monday, the night she was abducted.
Ridge believes it is conceivable that a confrontation could have occurred that would shed light on a motive for Jodi’s abduction. “A lot of unfortunate things came together in a relatively short period of time just before Jodi went missing,” claims Ridge.
Ridge continues to work with authorities though he is an independent investigator.
Jodi was born June 5, 1968, and raised in Long Prairie, Minnesota, a small town of less than 3,500 in 2010. She was the youngest daughter of Maurice Huisentruit and her mother Imogene “Jane” Anderson.
In high school, Jodi excelled at golf and was considered to have amazing talent at the game. Her team won the Class A tournament in 1985 and 1986.
After high school, Jodi went to St. Cloud University, where she studied speech and mass communications, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1990.
Though she wanted to be a reporter, after graduating, Jodi’s first job was with Northwest Airlines. She began her broadcasting career with KGAN in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as the station’s bureau chief. She then returned to Minnesota for a job with KSAX in Alexandria before returning to Iowa for the position as a news anchor with KIMT.
“She wanted to be famous,” her childhood friend Kim Feist told 48 Hours.
Jodi was driven but she also was very close to her mom. In a late January 1994 diary entry, it said “improve my career, make more money, communicate, have more impact on a larger audience. Get the Huisentruit name out. Make Mom proud.”
“I couldn’t have had a better kid sister,” said Jodi’s sister JoAnn Nathe told WOWT in Omaha. “She tried to motivate me. What are your goals? That makes me stronger. It’s a nightmare not knowing where she is. We thought we would find her in the first few months.”
Their mother, Imogene, passed away in December 2014 at age 91, not knowing where her daughter was. “She so wanted to find Jodi,” Nathe said.
As time passes, it doesn’t get easier for families. Memories fade and tips wane, but the hope to bring Jodi home for a proper burial still burns bright in the hearts of those that loved her.
When a child or a loved one goes missing, immediately life changes as you know it, your entire world seems to fall apart. You feel isolated, confused and desperate and may feel you have nowhere to turn for help and support.
Life becomes an emotional roller coaster for those left behind, leaving you emotionally vulnerable. Feelings of sadness, loss, guilt and anger are normal but leave you feeling emotionally drained.
Longing for direction, most families who have experienced a child or loved one missing say they wished they had a handbook to tell them what to do, what to expect, and how to respond.
(Statement by Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan Nick, missing since June 9, 1995. Photo courtesy of OJJDP.)
The Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) created a handbook “When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide” providing direction to parents of missing children. It is an invaluable resource for families. However, since it was created, there have been many advancements in methods to distribute fliers and raise public awareness of missing persons.
With a missing person, it is imperative to gain public attention. Experts agree, every time you share information with the public, it creates the potential to generate that one lead law enforcement needs to bring that person home safe.
Much of the time, creating public awareness is a cooperative effort between the families of the missing person, media, and law enforcement. However, getting each to work cohesively with the other is sometimes difficult and much of the burden of creating social awareness falls on the family.
Social Media’s Role in Finding Missing Persons
Government agencies and police are increasingly using social media to help find missing persons. In fact, New York City Police Department launched a social media campaign to include the public in ongoing investigations, to both find missing persons and catch criminals.
“If a person goes missing, commands make initial notifications on social media. Then, posters are made,” said Zachary Tumin, deputy commissioner for strategic initiatives and leader of the NYPD’s social media efforts. “As that information gets retweeted by police and the public, word spreads very quickly to be on the lookout for that missing person.”
(NYPD actively utilizes Facebook and Twitter to search for missing persons.)
NYPD’s Facebook page currently has “822,054 Likes” with no sign of slowing down.
Prior to social media, distribution of information was always limited by limited geographic outreach, with missing person pages commonly only posted within the community the person went missing.
With social media platforms, it changed the landscape of searching for missing persons. Facebook has 2.37 billion users in 2019, Twitter 126 million daily users, and Instagram over 800 million, making it the ideal place to generate leads for law enforcement.
Mystery and misery linger in a missing person case. Many think the number of missing persons has risen in missing person cases, but experts say it is thanks to social media, not an actual increase in cases. “Missing persons have always been there, of course, but due to social media, the cases are more widespread,” said Ray Wagner, Director of Relations for Crimestoppers.
(Missing in Arizona’s post on Facebook for Elizabeth Breck who vanished from Tucson, Arizona, on January 13, 2019.)
Nothing compares to sharing information using social media platforms. The information posted is immediately available throughout the country, and the world.
Combining Social Media with News Media
Working with local and national media is also a critical component of searching for a missing person as news stories also have the long-time been proven to generate leads.
Here are some guidelines to follow when working with news media when a person is missing:
It is important to always speak to the investigating law enforcement agency prior to doing a news interview so as not to compromise an investigation. It is common for law enforcement to request minimal information about an investigation be shared in a news interview to protect their case, especially if a nonfamily abduction is suspected.
Consider using a public relations firm. Sometimes costly, they do have expertise in constructing press releases and attracting media interest. Try obtaining services pro bono. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Appoint a family spokesperson, someone capable of speaking publicly and comfortable being in the public eye.
Keeping the media interested requires pulling at “heart strings” so plan on doing interviews on birthdays, anniversary dates, and holidays.
Remember, just because they ask a question, doesn’t mean you have to answer it.
Utilization of Social Media Platforms
Working with law enforcement cannot be over-emphasized. While using social media platforms gives you instant ability to mass communicate, and can be a source of significant support, it can also be a place where you may be scrutinized or asked many questions. Aside from being time consuming, the public has a tendency to ask questions, and it is important for you to only stick with the facts of an investigation without leaking tidbits of information by identifying a perpetrator or details of the investigation.
Utilizing any social network platform can be emotionally taxing, but worth utilizing when a family member is missing, and life may hang in the balance.
There are several social media platforms that can help you widen your search, stay organized and reach various audiences.
Facebook helps raise social awareness, fundraise, organize events and keep your social network apprised of any new developments.
YouTube can help keep news coverage organized and a quick and effective way to post your media on other network platforms, involving people in your efforts.
Twitter can reach very large audiences to include politicians, celebrities and news stations.
Instagram can help with sharing photographs and “behind the scenes” images, while connecting with a younger audience that is very socially aware and involved.
Blogger or any blogging platform, can help by giving you a place to vent your everyday frustrations and emotions while sharing progress with readers.
Setting up Storage
When a love one is missing you can find yourself being asked over and over again for the same information and photographs of your loved one.
It is advisable to use a cloud content storage like Dropbox or Google Documents where you can create different folders or files such as press releases, letters, and high-quality photographs that media and other organizations can use to help raise public awareness. Also, utilizing “content storage” saves time and frustration when trying to email high resolution images.
Dropbox is free and offers up to 2GB of storage and Google Documents is free and offers 15GB of storage (to include emails and attachments).
Appoint a trusted Administrator(s) to help you with the page.
Set up a “Page” in Facebook and choose a name consistent with the purpose such as “FIND BRYCE LASPISA” or “MISSING SARAH GALLOWAY.” Choose something and use both first and last name of the missing person.
Use high-quality photographs when possible and use a picture of the missing person as a profile picture.
Include a brief description of the missing person to include where they were last seen, along with law enforcement’s contact number or hotline.
Communicate clearly and succinctly in all posts.
Post at times the most people are going to see your posts, not in the middle of the night. According to a Buffer study, the best times of post on Facebook is between 1-3 p.m. during the week and on Saturdays, with Thursdays and Fridays having the most engagement.
Post consistently and frequently with “Calls to Action” such as asking people to share your post (and ask their friends to share), or ask they use a photo of the missing person flier as their profile picture for a week.
Always try to stay positive. The tone of your post matters.
Provides updates when possible and post any media interviews or links to television shows that may have profiled the missing person.
Don’t feel obligated to respond to any comment or message.
With social media, comes the potential for negative comments, messages or posts from users. Never feel the need to respond to negative correspondence or comments, just delete or hide negative comments as soon as you can.
Lastly, you can also pay for advertising on Facebook.
Advertising on Facebook
Everyone’s Facebook account comes with the ability to run ads. With Facebook Advertising, you can target specific locations the missing person may be most likely to be in, to include entire cities to just parts of a city. You can also target specific age groups and should be done as quickly as possible if you are able to afford it.
Choose your objective. These four categories can help you in the search for a missing loved one.
Promote your page
Boost your posts
Increase your reach
Raise attendance at your events
Define your audience.
Location. Start with country and state.
Age. Choose an age range. It is advisable to keep this broad to reach people of all ages (18-65+).
Language. Choose English if in the United States.
Define your budget.
Daily: a daily budget is the maximum amount your will spend per day during the timespan of your ad.
Lifetime: a longer-term budget you will spend during the lifetime of the ad.
Create new ad.
Choose your ad format (above).
You get 90 characters of text to concisely share your message.
Use only high-quality images or video.
Use a name like “Have You Seen This Missing Person” or similar.
Recommended image size: 1200 x 628 pixels
Image ratio: 1.91:1
To maximize ad delivery, use an image that contains little or no overlaid text.
Format: .MOV or .MP4 files
Resolution: at least 720p
File size: 2.3 GB max.
Recommended aspect ratio: widescreen (16:9)
Facebook: 60 minutes max.
Most importantly, when using Facebook or any social media platform, check your messages and comments frequently so if someone contacts you with information you can forward it to law enforcement immediately.
Twitter is a great social media platform to reach masses of people. There are more than 500 million Tweets per day on Twitter.
Set up a new account.
Like Facebook, choose a name consistent with the purpose.
Use a photograph of the missing person as a profile picture.
Tweet links to news coverage, interviews, and articles.
Use hash tags such as #Missing #State #Missing Person’s Name
Tweet to local and national media.
Tweet to celebrities, both local and national.
Keep your tweets brief.
Respond when someone tweets to you.
Follow similar pages.
Like Facebook and all social media platforms, it matters when you post on Twitter.
According to American Marketing Association, the best time to post on Twitter is Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m., with most consistent engagement occurring Mon-Friday 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Other studies have shown Mon-Friday between 12-3 p.m. is the best time. Saturday is the worst day to post and has least engagement.
While building followers and social media presence takes time, there are strategies and techniques you can use to increase your engagement and get more clicks.
Twitter engagement is when someone engages with the content that you post such as favoriting your tweet, retweeting your tweet, responding to your tweet or mentioning you in a separate tweet.
It is also important that you engage with other users’ content with likes, comments and retweets. When you engage with another user’s content, they will be more likely to pay attention to what you are posting too. This works across all social media platforms.
In addition, leverage other feeds and encourage your followers on Facebook and other platforms to follow you on Twitter and visa versa.
Using social network platforms to find missing persons is still relatively new and is no doubt a learning process. One only needs to look at the numbers in order to gauge the success.
It is advisable to follow other families who have missing persons, advocacy agencies, and shows like In Pursuit with John Walsh or Vanished to gain ideas for successful posts and make valuable connections.
Again, try not to be discouraged as you try to grow your social networks and don’t let running the various platforms consume you. Again, it is recommended you share these tasks with other family members or friends that can assist you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
As said before, using social media is a learning experience, but rest assured you will get better as you go along. Remember HOPE is the most important thing to hold onto.