Have you ever seen a missing person TikTok? As an emerging platform, TikTok has already become a sensation, allowing creators everywhere to spread short content quickly to get likes, views, and subscribers. In recent years, TikTok’s wide audience and ability to share information fast has allowed its creators to also use it for the wide spread of information. In this way, the platform has become an ideal way to quickly circulate information about missing persons.
In 2002, Tiktok user Alicia Kozak was groomed online and subsequently kidnaped by a predator who held her for four days before she was finally recovered. She was 13 years old at the time, and believed the person she was speaking to online to be a boy her own age. In reality, it was a 38 year-old man named Scott Tyree. He groomed her over a year before luring her to meet him. He coerced her into his vehicle, then drover her across state lines from Pennsylvania to Virginia. An anonymous tip came into law enforcement about Alicia’s location. The FBI were able to locate Tyree’s IP address and thus his physical address where they successfully recovered Alicia.
Alica’s story was one of the first high-profile stories on the dangers of the internet and grooming behavior. Predators slide into chatrooms and private messages, ingratiating themselves to minors with the intention of luring them from the safety of their homes and into their captivity, taking kidnapping plots to an entirely different level. It’s a danger that not many parents were aware of at the time, and as a survivor, Alicia saw an opportunity to educate the public about internet safety. She started the Alicia Project, an advocacy group that toured around the nation, speaking to children in schools about remaining safe online.
Since the beginning of her advocacy, Alicia has moved her message online, using the power of the social media algorithm to raise awareness for other missing person cases. By its very nature, TikTok provides concentrated content in a finite amount of time, which can be ideal conditions for spreading awareness about a problem or a cause. A missing person TikTok has the potential to reach thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of people. When someone goes missing, a focused and strategic effort to share their face and story can go miles towards finding answers in their disappearance. You can learn more about using social media to locate missing persons here.
Authorities and investigators in Texas have renewed vigor in their search for four-year-old Maleah in Texas, following allegations the prime suspect knew of “a good place to dump a body.”
After chasing down multiple leads with search teams, Texas EquuSearch announced this week they would be suspending their search for Maleah Davis until they could refocus their investigation. Maleah has been missing since April.
Surveillance footage provided investigators with an insidious picture of the hours before and after Maleah’s disappearance. On the morning of April 30, 2019, a surveillance photo shows Maleah walking with her mother’s former fiancé, Derion Vence, through the backyard of their Houston apartment. Sources in the Houston Police Department told a local Houston paper it’s the last known image of Maleah before she disappeared.
An hour later, surveillance footage shows Vence returning to his vehicle, with no sign of Maleah. Surveillance footage from May 3rd shows Vence making several trips out of the apartment, carrying things like a trash bag in a laundry basket and a bottle of bleach.
Vence would later give a statement that on May 3rd, they left in the evening—Himself, Maleah, and Maleah’s young brother—to collect Maleah’s mother from the airport. They were en route when Vence claimed he pulled over to examine a damaged tire, and was ambushed by three men who knocked him unconscious and stole the Nissan Altima he was driving with Maleah inside.
Police finally located the vehicle in the parking lot of a nearby shopping mall. Vence was soon arrested for tampering with evidence after investigators found blood in his apartment that matched DNA taken from Maleah’s toothbrush. Scent dogs alerted on decomposing material found on some of the objects Vence carried out of the apartment on May 3rd. While the motive to cover up his actions remains unclear, there have been rumors it may have something to do with abuse allegations made against Maleah’s birth mother and father in August of 2018.
Now, in tandem with investigators, Equusearch will be searching an area along a mail route Vence used to work, after receiving intel that Vence allegedly once told his mother-in-law, “If I ever murder someone, I can dump a body in Rosharon that will never be found.” Vence remains in the Harris County Jail on a $45,000 bond while police continue to investigate discrepancies in his story with the help of the surveillance footage taken from the security cams.
Maleah has black hair and brown eyes, stands at about 3 feet tall and weighs approximately 30 to 40 pounds. If you have any information about her disappearance, call 713-308-3600.
There are many different types of missing persons—adults with mental illness, homeless individuals, children, and runaways. Each type of case deserves to be treated with a special approach, with careful regard given to the circumstances of each case. Perhaps the type of case that deserves the most particular care and approach is the case of a missing/abducted infant.
In good hands
The presumption behind any missing infant case, because they cannot take of themselves, is they were abducted by an adult. When an infant’s whereabouts cannot be accounted for, it leaves investigators with a very polarizing theory of the case: The baby is with a caregiver or something tragic has occurred. In March 2019, the Indianapolis Police Department found themselves in the middle of a search for 8-month old Amiah Robertson. The infant was last seen on March 9th on the west side of the city in the custody of her mother’s boyfriend, Robert Lyons. He left the residence he was at with the infant, and returned empty-handed around 10 PM. Lyons assured authorities Amiah was in good hands, but because police could not verify the baby’s whereabouts, they officially classified the investigation as a homicide. Now, Robert Lyons has been named a suspect by IMPD in the infants disappearance, while Amber Robertson, Amiah’s mother, remains cooperative with authorities.
Familial vs. stranger abductions
In cases of missing children, familial abductions, or abductions by a party close to the child’s family, are the most common. But the data on missing infants indicates the odds of being abducted by a stranger are nearly half. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists the number of infants abducted in the United States since 1965 as 325 where 138 of those children were taken from their homes, and another 140 were taken from health care facilities. Only 47 were abducted from other locations. Women who take babies from health care facilities are generally of childbearing age who may appear pregnant, or express they have lost a child or are unable to have a child. They often live in the vicinity of the abduction and impersonate health care personnel in order to gain access at a facility. They rely heavily on deception and manipulation in order to carefully plan the abduction, but usually not with any particular focus on a single infant. These are crimes of opportunity, which is why such a woman would have lots of detailed questions for hospital staff about the layout of the building and procedures following birth.
Just last June, Gloria Williams was sentenced to 18 years for abducting a baby girl from a hospital in Florida and subsequently raising the child as her own into adulthood. On July 10, 1998, Williams posed as a nurse in order to kidnap Kamiyah Mobley, when she was only hours old. She used fraudulent documents to raise the baby under a different name. It wasn’t until investigators followed a tip made to NCMEC about claims Kamiyah made that she was kidnapped from a Jacksonville hospital the day she was born.
How to protect your newborn
Despite this narrative continuing to terrify expectant parents, the FBI assures us this cloak and dagger scenario is far less common today. Ashli-Jade Douglas, an FBI intelligence analyst working in the Crimes Against Children Unit, credits this decline in abductions to new developments in security technology. Hospitals across the nation are implementing the use of security bracelets on babies, so if they make an unauthorized exit from the building, alarms immediately go off. This security measure, however, has a dark consequence. Douglas says, “Now, women who desperately want a child—and are willing to go to extreme lengths to get one—have to gain direct contact with their victims, and that’s when things can turn violent.”
The FBI advises “exercising good sense online and in the home.” On the internet, don’t be an over-sharer when it comes to personal details, and always have your security settings restricted. Any law enforcement official or private investigator will tell you it’s easy to use this information to plan the abduction. “We have seen several recent cases involving social networking sites,” Douglas explains, “and we see how easy it is to use these websites to gain access to targets.” The FBI also cautions against displaying any exterior decorations, such as pink or blue balloons, indicating there is a new baby in the home.
The disappearance of Madeline McCann is arguably the most internationally famous missing child case since the Lindbergh baby vanished in 1932. The story received an unprecedented amount of media attention throughout the globe due to the international nature of the case and the public relations campaign that struggled to keep the child’s face out there in the public eye. Now, in 2019, Netflix has released an eight-episode docuseries, The Disappearance of Madeline McCann, about the case, taking a hard look at the investigation and media coverage surrounding the case since Madeline disappeared 11 years ago.
Madeline McCann was just three years old in May 2003, when she accompanied her family—mother Kate, father Gerry, and a set of younger twin siblings—on a family vacation to Praia da Luz, Portugal. During the course of their stay at a resort community, it became regular practice for Kate and Gerry to put the children down for the night before travelling less than 200 feet away from their apartment to a tapas restaurant where they had dinner with friends. The parents were not worried for their children’s safety because—according to the McCanns and their friends—the window to their apartment was in full view of their regular table at the tapas restaurant. According to statements from the McCanns and their party, the parents would walk back over to the apartment hourly to check on their children. After checking the children several times, it wasn’t until 10:00 PM that Kate McCann realized her daughter was missing, and immediately raised the alarm.
The documentary chronicles the roller coaster of investigative measures and leads over the course of the investigation. Over the years, there have been multiple leads in the case that appeared promising, such as a famous sighting by one of the McCann’s party of a man walking in the vicinity of the McCann’s apartment carrying a sleeping child. Praia de Luz local, Robert Murat, was a suspect early on in the investigation due to his inexplicable special interest in assisting law enforcement and his continued insertion of himself in their investigation. He was eventually cleared by Portugal authorities. Many angles in the investigation concern the likelihood that Madeline was abducted from her bed by a predator who had been casing the apartment during the McCann’s stay at the resort. The docuseries, The Disappearance of Madline McCann, goes into heavy detail about how simple it would be for a predator to abduct Madeline, and then—within a window of less than 2 hours—have been able to smuggle her out of the country to jump jurisdictional lines and cover their tracks, all in the interest of introducing the child into the dark world of sex trafficking.
While support for the McCann family has remained in the years since Madeline went missing, the vitriol that Kate and Gerry McCann have endured comes from allegations that they themselves might have played a role in their daughter’s disappearance. Law enforcement in Praia de Luz made note that the two smaller children sleeping in Madeline’s room remained asleep during their time in the apartment at the onset of the investigation. Despite a great deal of commotion and adults moving from room to room as they searched for Madeline, the set of young twins did not wake or stir at any time. This led to suspicions that the children might have been drugged in order to ensure they would not wake while the parents were across the way at dinner. Both Kate and Gerry McCann were physicians at the time of Madeline’s disappearance, with Kate having reportedly specialized in anesthetics before moving into private practice.
The docuseries makes a point to highlight the importance that media coverage can play in any missing persons case. It was a subject of note that the McCanns hired public relations representatives to help keep the campaign to find Madeline alive in the media, with high saturation of her name in the UK, Portugal, and throughout the globe. Of the thousands of missing child cases that are currently open throughout the world, Madeline’s face is one of the most famous—along with Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, two young girls who were abducted, were kept captive, and were eventually reunited with their families following a successful, albeit years-long investigation. Talking heads in the series note that although Madeline’s case was an extreme example of media coverage, the question remains how other missing children’s cases would have benefited from the same amount of attention the McCann case received. Despite hundreds of tips and leads that have surfaced over the years, the truth of what happened to Madeline McCann still remains a mystery.
Carie McMichael is the Media and Communication Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on private investigation and missing persons topics. For more information, please visit our website.
If you watch true crime media, it’s very likely you’ve seen a piece about child abduction before. In the last few weeks, the nation has been captivated by the story of 13 year-old Jayme Closs, the Wisconsin teen who went missing from her home in October of 2018. Law enforcement and other investigators poured numerous resources into the search over a period of three months with little to no progress in the case. Then earlier this month, as if by magic, she turned up on a neighborhood street roughly 80 miles from her home, having escaped her captor. It’s the perfect news story, with a harrowing beginning, a tense middle, and a thrilling, yet satisfying conclusion. But Jayme Closs’s story is not solitary in the true-crime world. Here are the stories of five other cases of child abduction where the child was eventually located alive, months—sometimes decades later.
Child abduction is horrific enough when it happens once, but what about when it happens more than once to the same child? The abduction(s) of Jan Broberg have recently returned to the American true-crime lexicon with the release of a Netflix Original documentary entitled Abducted in Plain Sight, receiving a fresh influx of media coverage and discussion in the true-crime media. In 1974, Jan was only 12 years old when she was abducted by Robert “B” Berchtold, a close family friend and neighbor. According to the documentary, it was not uncommon for Berchtold to dote on Jan more than her siblings, so her parents suspected nothing when he told them he wanted to take Jan horseback riding. When they did not return from their excursion, it took Jan’s parents days to fully intellectualize what had happened. After her parents finally filed a missing person’s report, a nation-wide investigation was launched for Jan and Berchtold helmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The present-day fascination with this case comes from the bizarre details associated with Jan’s first abduction. Through extensive pageantry, Berchtold was able to convince Jan they had both been abducted by UFOs, and it was their mission as humans to procreate in the interest of precluding the human race from extinction. It was 45 days before the FBI were finally able to locate Berchtold in Mexico, but not before he had married the twelve year-old girl. In a move that defied belief to modern audiences, the family let Berchtold back into the girl’s life after he had only served a 45-day sentence—which was subsequently reduced to 10 days—for her kidnapping. Two years later in 1976, Berchtold kidnapped her again, this time leaving a trail that would cause law enforcement to conclude she had run away of her own accord. He posed as her father and enrolled her in a Catholic girls’ school, all the while maintaining contact with her parents so he could cover his tracks. It wasn’t until three months later, after the FBI had tapped the Broberg’s phone lines, they were able to locate and apprehend Berchtold, recovering Jan safely.
Steven Stayner’s child abduction occurred near the beginning of a culture awareness now known as “stranger danger.” It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that American parents were beginning to educate themselves on the prospect of strangers abducting children from public places. Steven was abducted while walking home from school in his hometown of Merced, California, by two men, Ervin Murphy and Kenneth Parnell. After the men convinced Steven to get into their white Buick, he was driven to a remote cabin where he was held in captivity. When he begged to go home, Parnell managed to convince Steven his parents had given him up willingly, because they already had too many children to parent. Steven entered puberty while in captivity, and Parnell began searching for younger boys to abduct. Eventually, Parnell abducted a five-year-old boy named Timothy White. In an attempt to spare White the distress he had experienced due to his own kidnapping, Steven and White escaped while Parnell was working. The pair ended up in a police station where they explained to investigators what had happened. The case was the groundwork for California legislation that would allow the courts to sentence child molesters to consecutive prison terms under similar circumstances.
Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping is arguably the most high-profile missing persons case in present-day America. It was the beginning of another culture phenomenon in media coverage, commonly known as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee on June 5th, 2002. Mitchell was known by the name “Emmanuel” to the Smart family. He took her from the bedroom she shared with her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine. Mitchell left very little physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, which stalled the investigation significantly. Elizabeth was driven to a remote cabin where she was held for 9 months. She accompanied her captors on public outings numerous times throughout her captivity, disguised in religious garb that concealed her appearance, fooling law enforcement and private citizens alike. It wasn’t until Mary Katherine realized all those months later the man she had seen take her sister from their bedroom was the man they knew as “Emmanuel”. She gave a physical description of Emmanuel to a sketch artist, and the image was broadcast across the country. Mitchell’s family recognized the sketch and provided law enforcement with photos of him. This eventually led to Mitchell being recognized in public in Sandy, Utah. At the time of his arrest, he was accompanied by two women, Barzee and Smart. Smart was returned to her family, and continues to be an advocate for children who have survived sex trafficking.
Child abduction is a horrible crime that can leave its victims scarred for years, and the case of Ariel Castro is no different. Between 2002 and 2004, Ariel Castro kidnapped three young women, and held them against their will in his Cleveland home. They were Gina DeJesus, 14, Amanda Berry, 17, and Michelle Knight 21. During their captivity, the young women were subjected to forced sexual contact, starvation, and other hellacious forms of physical and emotional abuse. After being rescued, Michelle told law enforcement Castro had impregnated her at least half a dozen times, inducing miscarriages through beatings with dumbbells, and throwing her against walls. It was reported she would need facial reconstruction surgery to repair the damage Castro had done, and she almost lost her hearing entirely in one ear. Michelle was forced to help deliver Amanda Berry’s child, resuscitating it when it stopped breathing. Despite multiple reports of strange behavior from neighbors, and one visit to the house by police on an unrelated matter, the women were not rescued until May 6th, 2013 when Castro left one of the exits unsecured, allowing Amanda Berry to communicate with neighbors through a screen door. With the help of two male neighbors, Amanda was able to escape through a hole that had been kicked through the door and the neighbors called 911, leading to the rescue of Michelle and Gina. Since her rescue, Michelle has legally changed her name to Lilly. While she was in captivity, her son was placed in foster care, and was subsequently adopted by his foster parents. She told People magazine, while she misses her son terribly, she has no desire to bring him into the aftermath of her abduction.
One of the most hopeful stories of child abduction is that of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped by Phillip Garrido with the help of his wife, Nancy, on June 10, 1991 in Meyers, California. She was eleven years old at the time. Her case captured the horror of the nation because it occurred in full view of the girl’s stepfather. Carl Probyn was watching Jaycee walk from the front door of their house to the bus stop at the end of the street when a gray car pulled up next to Jaycee. She approached the car, assuming the couple in the car would ask for directions. In a matter of a few seconds, Jaycee was incapacitated with a stun gun and pulled into the car. Probyn gave chase on his mountain bike, ultimately losing the car. Jaycee was held in Antioch, California, in makeshift domiciles like tents and sheds behind the Garrido’s property for eighteen long years. Like many of the aforementioned cases, Jaycee’s name, face, and information were broadcast on America’s Most Wanted. During her captivity, Jaycee was subjected to repeated assaults, rape, and manipulation at the hands of Garrido. Despite best efforts, law enforcement missed nearly a half-dozen opportunities to rescue Jaycee. For example, Garrido had a parole officer, and due to lack of communication between police and the parole office, there were multiple complaints against Garrido that might have triggered a search of his property by his parole officer. In 2009, after Jaycee was rescued, the California Office of the Inspector General would issue a report detailing the failures of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that contributed to Jaycee’s continued captivity.
Jayme Closs’s harrowing story of survival has captured the attention of the entire nation. The 13-year-old Wisconsin teen went missing almost three months ago on October 15,2018, after a cryptic phone call to 911 triggered a call from police to the Closs home where officers made a grisly discovery. Jayme’s parents, James and Denise Closs, were found shot dead and their 13-year-old daughter was nowhere to be found.
The slaying of her parents and evidence of a home invasion qualified the missing teenager for an Amber Alert by authorities, and search efforts immediately began for Jayme as investigators began to piece together what had happened in those fateful moments. 87 days passed as Jayme’s anxious family and concerned friends waited for updates in her case. Then on January 10, 2019, Jayme showed up on the street in the remote neighborhood of Gordon approximately 70 miles away, asking a passing dog walker for help. The woman grabbed Jayme and took her to a neighbor’s door, where she told the neighbor, “This is Jayme Closs, call 911!” Not too long after her reappearance, police were able to apprehend Jayme’s captor, 21-year-old Jake Thomas Patterson, who was found wandering the nearby neighborhood—likely searching for Jayme.
Investigators say Jayme’s escape was one of the luckiest breaks they’ve ever seen in a missing person case. Jayme’s case is already being analyzed as atypical, due to the surfacing information that has investigators completely floored. When Jayme reappeared last week and told law enforcement about the details of her abduction and escape, many officials were surprised. Investigators told NBC 26, “Most abductions are committed by perpetrators who live within a couple miles of the victim.” Despite the distance from the Closs home, Barron County Sheriff Christopher Fitzgerald said he does not believe her kidnapper took her across state lines. With over 88 days’ worth of evidence to comb through, investigators will be attempting to track their movements since Jayme’s disappearance.
When asked about this gigantic body of evidence, Fitzgerald told CNN, “…we’re looking for receipts, where the suspect may have been over the last 88 days. Did he take things with her? Did she go with him to the store? Did he buy clothes for her? Did he buy food?” Investigators also told NBC only about 1% of abductions are committed by someone who is not a member of the victim’s family, nor geographically located near the victim. Much of the most pertinent information in any missing persons case is collected within the first 48 hours of the investigation. Captain David Poteat of the Brown County Sheriff’s Department said when it comes to the abduction of children, the window of time is even smaller. Because of the atypicality of her case, investigators are already proffering Jayme’s case will be studied by current and future members of law enforcement for “years to come.”
As they continue to sort through evidence, Fitzgerald said Patterson likely hid her from friends and visitors, offering no further explanation. “All I know is that she was able to get out of that house and get help and the people recognized her as Jayme Closs right away.” What Jayme eventually described to investigators was a crudely constructed makeshift cell. When Patterson was expecting friends or relatives, he forced Jayme to hide under his twin-sized bed in his room. He would stack laundry baskets and plastic totes around the bed with barbells sitting against them so Jayme could not get out. He also left music blaring in his room so Jayme could not hear what was going on throughout the house. One of the people who made a number of visits while Jayme was being held captive in the Gordon cabin where Jayme was held was Patterson’s father, Patrick Patterson. He told Jean Casarez of CNN, “All I care about right now is Jayme’s family. I want to get them a note.”
Investigators have also stated when it comes to questioning Jayme about her traumatic experience, they are taking it one day at a time, “When she wants information, we’ll give it to her; and when she wants to tell us things, we’ll take it from her.”
There were many theories about the circumstances behind Jayme’s disappearance in the weeks right after she went missing. Law enforcement and citizens alike proffered it might have been a home invasion gone terribly wrong, but as of this week, Fitzgerald has stated Jayme was the only target in this crime. Once questioned by police following his arrest, it became clear Patterson had been watching Jayme for a number of weeks before he took her, but was scared off on both prior occasions. Patterson targeted Jayme and took great pains to ensure he would not be found out. He shaved his head to avoid leaving his DNA at the crime scene. Once he abducted Jayme, he took her clothes and destroyed the evidence. The criminal complaint filed by the Barron County District Attorney said Patterson first saw Jayme getting on the bus to school when he was passing by on his way to work. Sections of the complaint are enough to make one’s arm hair stand at attention, “The defendant states when he saw (Jayme) he knew that was the girl he was going to take.” Jayme also told investigators after Patterson placed her in the trunk of his car, she heard police sirens close by not long after Patterson began driving. After Jayme was found alive, the responding officers noted on their way to the Closs home on October 15th, they passed only one vehicle.
The bottom line for investigators is this: If Jayme had not possessed the courage and fortitude to escape her captor, they would never have found her. On January 10th, she managed to push aside the totes and squeeze out of her makeshift cage. Jeanne Nutter was the dog walker she approached on the street, wearing no coat in the cold weather. Nutter took her to the door of her neighbors, Peter and Kristin Kasinskas. Law enforcement now has to decide what happens to the combined reward amount of $50,000—$25K from the FBI, and another $25K from the Jennie-O Turkey Store, where Jayme’s parents worked. Nutter helped Jayme to safety, and the Kasinskas called 911 to get her help, but they are saying they don’t want the reward. Peter Kasinskas was quoted in an interview by the Associated Press earlier this week saying the reward money should go to Jayme, “She got herself out.”