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.