Mysterious missing person cases are not hard to come by, and high profile missing person cases stay with us as a nation. Despite lapses in coverage, when we see their photo again, we are reminded of the details we know about the case, our personal feelings based entirely in speculation, and remember all over again that there is still a family waiting for them to come home. The more mysterious the circumstances, the more we stare in horror, watching their family’s world fall apart. Here are ten of the most fascinating and mysterious missing persons cases in recent history.
The night before she disappeared, Karlie Gusé
was seen at a party with friends in a neighborhood not far from her home in Chalfant
Valley, CA. She called her stepmother in a panic, saying she needed to be
picked up from the party. Melissa Gusé
picked Karlie up from the party, and later stated that she seemed disoriented
and exhibited paranoid behavior. Once home, it took hours to get Karlie calmed
down enough to sleep. When Melissa awoke the next morning, October 13, 2018,
Karlie was asleep in bed, but when she checked on her a second time around 7AM,
Karlie was nowhere to be found. Law enforcement canvassed the neighborhood and
turned up two witnesses who said they saw Karlie walking towards Highway 6 with
a piece of paper in her hand. All of Karlie’s belongings, including her cell
phone, were found at her home. Karlie had been experiencing problems prior to
disappearing. Her father and stepmother acknowledged Karlie’s history of
experimenting with drugs and attending alternative education in order to
improve her grades. Despite these factors, there appeared to be nothing that would
have prompted Karlie to leave the house that morning. Investigators, both in
law enforcement and independent firms continue to search for Karlie, while her father,
stepmother, biological mother, and the rest of her family wait anxiously for
Karlie to come home.
9: Teresa Butler
Teresa Butler’s husband came home on January 25, 2006 to
find his wife gone, their two young children unsupervised. At the time, the
family was living in Risco, Missouri. There were no signs of a struggle, nor
forced entry, but there were a series of valuable items missing from the home
such as a gaming console, camcorder, stereo, and Teresa’s cell phone and purse.
Her car was still in the driveway, and her wedding bands were also at the
residence. Investigators were stymied by this mixed bag of a scene. Was it a
crime scene? Or had Teresa simply left of her own accord—and if so, for what
reason? More whirlwind revelations came when investigators realized that Teresa’s
cell phone made two calls after she had vanished. Both calls were to unfamiliar
numbers, in two different Missouri towns. The owners of those numbers both
claimed that they had no idea who Teresa was, and did not speak to her. Thirteen
years later, there are still no answers in her disappearance.
8: Laureen Rahn
In 1980, Laureen Rahn was living with her mother in an
apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire. She was last seen on April 26 at that apartment
in the company of two friends. When her mother returned home that evening, she
had to grope for the door because all of the lightbulbs in the hallway had been
unscrewed. When she entered the apartment, she checked Laureen’s room, and she
appeared to be asleep in her bed. The next morning, she realized the body she’d
seen asleep in the bed was actually one of Laureen’s friends, and that friend was
clueless as to Laureen’s whereabouts. Authorities treated Laureen’s case as a
runaway, but details that emerged in October of that year cast a different
light on the case. Her mother, Judith, noticed three calls to a California
number on her phone bill that she knew she didn’t make. One was to a sexual
assistance call line for teenagers, helmed by a doctor’s wife who took in
runaways—could Laureen be with her? The second number was to a motel run by a child
pornographer by the pseudonym “Dr. Z.” But unfortunately authorities were
unable to connect the 14-year-old’s disappearance to either of these persons of
interest. To this day, what became of Laureen Rahn remains a mystery.
7: Lauren Spierer
The Lauren Spierer case is one of the most mysterious missing person cases. Many Hoosiers are familiar with the cautionary tale of Lauren Spierer, an Indiana University Student who disappeared on June 3, 2011 after a night out partying with friends in Bloomington, Indiana. After leaving her apartment around 2:30 in the morning, she walked around the corner and was never seen again. It wasn’t until her boyfriend, Jesse Wolf, realized that Lauren had been separated from her phone that something was wrong. When he sent her a text message two hours later, one of the employees at Kilroy’s bar responded. Wolf reported Lauren missing. Witnesses who had seen Lauren that night reported that she was highly intoxicated, which might explain why she left both her cell phone and shoes behind at Kilroy’s. Her observed level of inebriation has led to speculation that Lauren might have been drugged while at the bar, possibly with a drug like GHB, also known as “the date-rape drug.” Her family has remained suspicious of the men she was reportedly hanging out with that night, claiming that they know something about their daughter’s disappearance. That being said, investigators also spoke to friends of Lauren’s who informed them she was known to use drugs when she partied as well as alcohol. As of January 28, 2016—when FBI and other investigating bodies searched a property in Martinsville for signs of Lauren with no success—Lauren still remains missing.
6: Cynthia Anderson
The disappearance of Cynthia Anderson is regarded as
stranger than fiction. She vanished on August 4, 1981 from the law office where
she worked as a secretary. Her personal belongings were missing, but her
vehicle remained parked in the lot. While investigating her disappearance, authorities
discovered an open romance novel. In an eerie coincidence, Cynthia had stopped
reading during a scene in which the main character is abducted. Police were
already investigating Cynthia’s disappearance with the possibility of foul
play, but this gave them pause. Could she have faked her own abduction to
disappear and start over? There were anonymous tips months after her
disappearance that she was being held captive in the basement of a remote
residence, but authorities were unable to corroborate this statement. The wildest
theory about her whereabouts came when a lawyer from her firm was arrested for
drug trafficking. There was speculation that Cynthia might have known too much
about some illegal dealings going through the law firm, and met a violent end
as a consequence. But that’s all it is: a theory.
5: Maura Murray
Some mysterious missing person cases get so big they invite a great deal of media attention. Mara Murray is perhaps one of the most famous mysterious missing person cases in recent history. The University of Massachusetts Amherst student disappeared on February 9, 2004. In the days leading up to her disappearance, Maura told university staff and her professors that she would be taking a week’s hiatus from school to handle a family emergency. Around 7:30 that night, a car crash on Route 112 was reported to 911. When first responders arrived, the driver, Maura, was nowhere to be found. During the investigation, law enforcement turned up a witness who had passed Maura following the crash. When asked if she needed help, she said no, that she had called roadside assistance. In a window of less than 15 minutes, something happened to Maura Murray. What’s most puzzling about Maura’s disappearance is that her story about a family emergency could not be corroborated by her family. So the question remains: Why was Maura taking a week off from her education? What could have been so important? Maura Murray’s disappearance is regarded as the first missing person case of the social media age, having disappeared the week that Facebook launched. Her story has spawned many true-crime specials, documentaries, and a highly popular podcast called Missing Maura Murray.
4: Asha Degree
Asha degree was just nine years old when she left her house
on the morning she disappeared, Valentine’s Day, 2000. Inexplicably, she had
packed her school backpack and left the house in the early morning hours, after
which she was sighed walking along North Carolina Highway 18, just a little
over a mile from her home. When approached by passing motorists who noticed
her, Asha reportedly ran into a wooded area just off the highway. At first, it
appeared to investigators that Asha had run away from home. After interviewing
family members, they learned that the child had bene reading a fantasy series
about children who have spectacular adventures while the adults are asleep.
While it’s unclear whether or not Asha intended to return home, early search
efforts for her proved fruitless. Belongings of hers, including a pencil,
marker, and Mickey Mouse hair bow were found near a shed behind a business that
sat parallel to the highway. About 18 months later, Asha’s bookbag also turned
up at a construction site, curiously double-bagged, leading investigators to
think someone other than Asha had left it there. In October 2018, investigators were appealing to
the public for information regarding two key pieces of evidence—a children’s
book that was borrowed from the Fallston Middle School library in 2000, and a
New Kids on the Block shirt. Asha Degree remains missing to this day.
3: Annette Sagers
Eight-year-old Annette Sagers went missing on her way to
school in October of 1988. Less than a year earlier, her mother, Korinna Lynne
Sagers Malinoski had gone missing. There was little evidence to paint a picture
for investigators, except that her car was found parked in front of their home.
When Korinna’s daughter went missing as well, they searched the bus stop where
she should have been picked up for school. Investigators found a cryptic note
that placed her mother’s disappearance in a whole new context: “Dad, momma come
back. Give the boys a hug.” Authorities weren’t sure what to make of the note
at first, as they suspected someone may have forced Annette to write. After
careful examination, handwriting experts did determine that Annette likely
wrote the note. This looks like Korinna could have disappeared of her own
accord a year prior, and had returned to reclaim her daughter before vanishing
again. What could not be explained was that Korinna had left behind two boys
when she disappeared in 1987. Despite anonymous tips that claimed burial locations
for Annette’s remains, the mystery of the missing mother and daughter remains
2: Tara Calico
The case of Tara Calico continues to haunt the true-crime world, with both investigators and armchair detectives alike speculate to the circumstances surrounding this bizarre case and its sensational clues. Like Annette Sagers, Tara Calico disappeared in 1988 after leaving her home in Belen New Mexico to being a bike ride along Highway 47. Tara was never seen again. In the search for Tara, pieces of her Walkman were found along Highway 47. The bike was never recovered. Leads in the case dried up and it went cold until a year later when a disturbing piece of evidence emerged that has become famous throughout the internet. In Port St. Joe, Florida, a woman reported that she had found a Polaroid outside in the parking lot of a local convenience store. The Poloaroid featured a boy and a young woman, both bound and gagged, propped up against pillows in what appears to be the cargo area of a panel van. The witness told authorities that a white van had previously been parked in that spot, driven by a white man with a mustache. There is still speculation to this day about whether or not the woman in the photo is actually Tara Calico. The book lying next to the young woman in the photo is V.C. Andrews’ My Sweet Audrina, which was allegedly one of Tara’s favorite books. While no official cause for Tara’s disappearance has ever been established, the sheriff of Valencia County offered his theory: He claimed that boys who knew Tara were involved in some kind of accident along Highway 47, involving Tara’s bicycle and the boys’ truck. However, without a body, law enforcement were unable to make a case.
1: Diane Augat
In 1998, 30-year-old Diane Augat of Odessa, Florida walked out of her home and vanished without a trace. About ten years prior to her disappearance, Diane received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a mental illness that causes massive mood swings between periods of intense emotional euphoria, or highs, and deep depressive lows. Her case was so severe that it led to losing custody of her children and her husband divorcing her in 1991. She self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. On April 10, 1998, Diane left her home and was never seen again. What followed was a series of strange events that amount to the plot of a Hollywood movie. Just three days after she vanished, her answering machine received a chilling message, “Help, help, let me out,” followed by “Hey, gimme that.” It sounded as though there was a struggle over the phone in the background. The caller ID said Starlight, but when Diane’s mother called back, there was no answer. Two days after that, the severed tip of Diane’s right middle finger was found. Two weeks later, in perhaps one of the most bizarre events in any missing person case, a bag of her clothing was found in the freezer of a local convenience store. Despite the details reflecting that of a Hollywood blockbuster thriller, there has never been any satisfying resolution in her case.
Many individuals who lived through natural disaster in the year 2018 lost loved ones to violent forces of nature. National news has been inundated, not only with updated death totals, but also long lists of names belonging to individuals who went missing during the disaster. The initial report in a missing persons case is a springboard for many complicated processes and procedures conducted by law enforcement and private investigators. Every relevant piece of information about the missing person must be collected, their last known whereabouts searched. If law enforcement determines the person is in immediate danger, or if they’re a minor, search teams are dispatched to the surrounding areas. The family makes themselves sick with worry. Spreading like a crack in a dam, the web of processes that stem from the first report can cause a cacophony of confusion. Now imagine that multiplied by five, or ten times. Or 1,276 times.
At its peak, that was the highest estimated number of missing persons during the coverage of California’s Camp Fire. Often, stories about mass groups of people vanishing are couched in mystery, intrigue, or even the paranormal, like the disappearance of the infamous Roanoke Colony that vanished off the coast of present-day North Carolina. Or Flight 370 of Malaysia Airlines, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew to Beijing when it mysteriously went missing over the South China Sea in 2014. In 2018, however, instances of long lists of missing persons following a single event have been instigated by tragedy—not intrigue.
State officials addressing this number have assured the public this number is an overestimation. One of the most complicated aspects of searching for missing persons during and after a natural disaster is the major breakdown in communication. During a natural disaster, individuals will often report loved ones missing when they are unable to contact, which could be for a myriad of reasons (downed power lines, lack of Wi-Fi, displacement, injury, etc.) After a few days, the loved one is able to establish a lifeline and is able to reach out to their family and friends. State officials claim the reporting individuals often do not call to follow up with emergency operations teams to let them know their loved one has been located.
Like in cases of individuals going missing, survivors of Hurricane Michael have had to turn to crowdsourcing in order to track down missing loved ones, an effort crippled by a devastated infrastructure and incapacitated communication systems. Police departments have become inundated with missing persons reports and individuals are turning to multiple entities in order to get answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones—individuals like Tracey Stinson of Fort Walton Beach. Her father lived in Youngstown at the time of the hurricane, and had not heard from him in many days. “I actually tried calling a store he shops at that’s near his home that was gone. So I was unable to reach them so then the next step was contact the sheriff’s office. I just kept calling every several hours to see if I could catch them with a phone line that was operating and there was no luck.”
Desperate parents and loved ones also combed Facebook for news or tips, and implored others for any information they might have about missing loved ones. Despite a classification of a Category 4 storm, there were many in the panhandle who doubled down inside their homesteads, rather than evacuate.
One of these people was Nicholas Sines, who lived in Panama City. His mother, Kristine Wright, begged him to go to a shelter before the storm ripped through the city. But Nicholas was steadfast, “I’m staying here.” Kristine went six days without hearing from her son before she took to Facebook, imploring other users to share any information they might have. “I’m not sleeping, I’m not eating,” she told The New York Times. “As his mother, my heart hurts.” It goes beyond earnest timeline posts and comments, however.
In 2014, following the terrorist attacks on Paris that claimed 129 lives, Facebook launched what’s known as its Safety Check Feature. The Safety Check Feature is turned on by Facebook administrators in the wake of any type of displacement disaster, whether it be natural or at the hands of man. The system sends out a notification to users in the effected area, prompting users to mark themselves as “safe,” if they are able. This action places an item in the user’s feed that will alert others on their friends list that they are okay.
Social media is not the only recourse for those desperate to get in touch with a missing loved one in the wake of a natural disaster. Platforms like CrowdSource Rescue have been connecting concerned individuals with their loved ones living in areas effected by natural disasters. It allows citizens to file a report for a missing person, which places their data on a map that directs rescue teams to the most affected areas. Company co-founder, Matthew Marchetti, told NPR, “We’re like a ride share company for disasters.”
Unfortunately, hurricanes were not the only natural disaster erasing entire communities in 2018. In a gross irony, the town of Paradise, California was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble after it was consumed by a behemoth wildfire. The pictures of the devastation are truly haunting, evoking scenes from post-apocalyptic Hollywood films. Before the blaze erupted, Paradise was a town of around 27,000 people. It’s beautiful sights and small-community atmosphere made it a popular place for retirees to begin the third act of their lives. As such, a majority of the remains pulled from the debris and wreckage were found to be retirement age or older.
The California Camp Fire will go down in the history books as the deadliest and most devastating wildfire the nation has ever seen. Officials have only recently announced the fire has been 100% contained with fire-lines. It burned 150,000 acres (ten times the size of Manhattan), claimed the lives of 85 Californians, and left thousands displaced and homeless in tent cities. In the chaos, 200 people are still unaccounted for. In the past few weeks some reports listed the number of missing as high as 1,276 on November 17th, but just like the circumstances during Hurricane Michael, that number dropped dramatically once displaced Californians were able to find a line of communication to their families.
Investigators have been working for months attempting to identify the source of the California Campfire, but no single cause has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, rescue officials are still sifting through the rubble. Kory Honea of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department told the Huffington Post that they could not say with certainty how long the search will take, “My sincere hope is the majority of people on that list…will be accounted for.”
The dramatic drop in the number of missing is not unlike that of the Sonoma County Tubbs Fire in 2017. The number of missing during the Tubbs Fire was almost double that of the Camp Fire, but dropped to just 22 as individuals were located or found deceased. However, during the Tubbs Fire, search and rescue officials opted not to publish the names of those feared missing under caution during a disaster that was constantly in flux. Kory Honea had a different mindset: Publishing the list meant drawing out information from the public that could help officials whittle the list of missing from a sequoia down to a splinter. When questioned about whether or not possible inaccuracies on the list might cause issues, Honea said, “I can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. It is important for us to get the information out so we can get started identifying these individuals.”
Identification of the remains found is a grueling process, not only for officials involved in Camp Fire, but any natural disaster in the United States. Officials in paradise have collected DNA samples from those who tragically perished in the inferno, but are left with little recourse to identify them without help from the public. Jim Davis, the Chief Federal Officer of ANDE told ABC, “The only way we can identify those people is to have family members submit reference samples so we can match the two.” At the Family Assistance Center in Paradise, ANDE collected 68 family donor samples, but it’s nowhere near enough. Hundreds of family samples will be needed in order to confirm victims’ identities. Davis attributes the community’s hesitance towards this identification measure to the bleak confirmation of their loved one’s tragic demise, “As we’ve collected samples from people, you know we see this emotion that comes with accepting the possibility that their loved ones are gone.”
Since the development of DNA forensic technology, mass collection and catalog of DNA samples has been the subject of privacy debate. While everyone has a right to privacy, there are monumental benefits to a large database of DNA samples that go beyond victim identification. As such, legal professionals at Fordham University issued a report proposing principles that find the middle in the DNA privacy debate. The abstract reads:
Rescue officials have the monumental task of containing a natural disaster, searching the effected area for victims of its fatal destruction, and finally giving names to the remains—a process that can take weeks or even months. Meanwhile, Americans across the nation wait with bated breath for information about their loved ones living in or around Paradise, California. Relief organizations from FEMA to the Red Cross have online resources with steps private citizens can take to find information about missing persons after a natural disaster. While the reality of submitting one’s DNA for identification purposes might impose an emotional toll that’s too great for some, it is one of the most effective way to get definitive answers. Families can find closure in knowing the fate of their lost relative or friend.
The Red Cross offers many tips and strategies for locating and reaching out to loved ones that go beyond the straightforward. In addition to calling other family members and utilizing social media tools, individuals are also encouraged to call or visit places their loved one was known to frequent, like Tracey Stinson did when she asked around at her missing father’s usual grocery store. Resources also recommend calling during off-peak hours to increase their chances of getting through to an operator or official.
Following Camp Fire, many families and single individuals spent their Thanksgiving in warehouses, shelters, and tent cities in grocery store parking lots, with everything they own in a few small suitcases. For many, there is no home to return to when the natural destruction is finally snuffed out. According to relief organizations throughout the United States, the name of the game now is reunification—doing whatever is possible to reconnect those displaced by tragedy to their remaining loved ones. For example, one of the many reunification resources offered by FEMA is a collaborative effort with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, supporting all measures to return minors under the age of 21 to their parents or guardians. The American Red Cross has a similar database project called Safe and Well, which is an online database designed to help reunited families. Regardless of the scale of the disaster, Safe and Well is administered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and works closely with the local Red Cross Chapter of the area in question. While many will experience the miracle of reunification, the terrible reality is that so many more will be left with unanswered questions.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. She regularly writes on investigation and missing persons topics. For more information, please visit our website.
Elaine Park went missing on January 28, 2017 in Calabasas, Calif.
It’s every parent’s worst fear their child may be harmed while venturing into the world on their own. But, what parent could imagine “not knowing” where her only child is for nearly two years. That is the nightmare, Susan Park, the mother of missing actress Elaine Park is living.
Elaine Park, now 22, vanished on January 28, 2017, after she was last seen leaving her boyfriend’s home in Calabasas, Calif.
Her unlocked charcoal-gray 2015 Honda Civic was found at Corral Beach in Malibu, parked on the shoulder of Pacific Coast Highway, with keys still in the ignition. Inside the car was her cell phone, backpack and a laptop inside, makeup, and money.
Prior to her disappearance, Elaine looked forward to attending Los Angeles Pierce College and continuing to pursue her acting career. She loved performing in dance companies and musical theater. She had already appeared in small parts on E.R., Mad TV, Desperate Housewives, Crazy Stupid Love and Role Models.
The night Elaine went missing, her boyfriend Divine “Div” Compere told police he and Elaine had gone to a movie and returned home by Uber at approximately 1 a.m. that evening. His story was later confirmed on surveillance camera.
Div Compere is the son of Hollywood businessman Shakim Compere who co-owns Flavor Unit Entertainment with Queen Latifah.
Compere also told authorities that Elaine abruptly woke up at about 4 a.m., shaking and singing which he said was probably due to a panic attack. Surveillance captures Elaine walking to her car two hours later at 6 a.m., not appearing distressed. Then the camera shows Elaine’s vehicle leaving the Compere Compound, a large secured property near the 2600 block of Delphine Lane in the rugged Coldwater Canyon of Calabasas, Calif.
Elaine Park’s vehicle was found along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu
A resident of La Crescenta, a good 30-minute drive northeast of Cold Water Canyon to her home, Elaine’s car was found 20-minutes southwest at a Corral Canyon Beach pull out.
Police conducted an intensive ground search of the area with canines but found nothing. No information has surfaced to explain why Elaine would have driven in this direction.
Corral Canyon Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu Calif.)
“It’s suspicious in the way that we found her car, her cell phone and things, in the manner we did,” Glendale Police Sgt., Robert William told Dateline. “We can’t rule foul play in or out because plain and simple, we don’t have any evidence to do so.”
Elaine Park’s gray Honda Civic founded unattended alongside Pacific Coast Highway SR 1.
Days and months have passed with no sign of Elaine. Now, nearly two years without her daughter, “As days go by, my hope finding her gets cloudy and losing hope,” says Susan Park. “It is very difficult to be in the same house with her shadow lingering with her laughter and my visual memories.”
Park has worked tirelessly to remind the public her daughter is missing, raising reward money and working with private investigators.
To date, Park is uncertain if investigating agency Glendale Police Department has et to “unlock” Elaine’s cell phone. The private investigator initially hired is no longer working the case.
Though Compere was ruled out as a suspect early on, Park is not satisfied that he has no knowledge of her daughter’s disappearance as he stated to detectives.
In a saddened tone and only the heartbreak a mother of a missing person would know, “There are no new developments except the $140K reward has been extended until the end of this year,” said Park.
Humboldt County, in picturesque northern California, is the home of the majestic Coastal Redwood forests with about 110 miles of breathtaking coastline along Pacific Coast Highway 101. Approximately 250 miles north of San Francisco, Humboldt is approximately 2.3 million acres of combined dense forests and public land with a population of only 134,623 people according to the 2010 census.
Formed in 1853, rural Humboldt County has a rich pioneer history and once solely inhabited by the Wiyot Indian tribe dating back to around 900 BCE. It borders the scarcely populated and heavily forested Trinity County with the rugged Klamath Mountains running north into Oregon.
Traveling through, one can quickly be taken back in time to a life of living off the land and part of the allure for many seeking a simpler way of life.
Dotted with hundreds of beautifully ornate historic Victorian homes, Eureka is Humboldt’s largest town. Also known as “Best Small Art Town in America”, an estimated 8,000 artists call it home along with students attending College of the Redwoods main campus. The well-known smaller college town of Arcata is about a 7.5-mile drive north past the magnificent Arcata Bay.
Neighboring Trinity County is 3,179 square miles of rugged terrain and the Klamath Mountains occupying most of the county and a popular area for backpacking, camping, and fishing.
Trinity is a place of splendid and inspiring scenery where there are no traffic lights, parking meters and local drugstore in the historic California Gold Rush town of Weaverville has been filling prescriptions since 1852.
Humboldt’s dark past
Known as “Bigfoot Country” where hundreds of sightings have occurred and people from around the world tell stories of the large, hairy, human-like creature lurking in remote regions of the northern California forests, stories of murder and missing persons have also been told for decades.
Long gone are the days’ hippies hitchhiked from across the country promoting love and peace in Humboldt County. Urban refugees and long-time residents can tell you the innocence of Humboldt is now gone, replaced by increasing violence, unexplained disappearances, and missing person fliers.
Emerald Triangle and Murder Mountain
Known as a Stoner’s paradise since the 1960’s, small business owners, students, artists, people seeking inner peace and those wanting to live off the grid, have been drawn to the beauty of Humboldt County.
Emerald Triangle, consisting of the Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties, is a mountainous and heavily forested area where marijuana growers cultivate California’s number one cash crop. In fact, much of the estimated 104 billion nationwide sales of marijuana is grown there.
This is where Humboldt County and the surrounding area become downright dangerous, even deadly. Old timers say Humboldt is no longer the home of the peaceful hippies and quiet homestead marijuana growers. Instead, Humboldt has become home for those wanting to make a fast buck trimming pot plants, bringing drifters and even the Bulgarian cartel to town. “It is a modern day green rush,” says Detective Chandler Baird the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.
While many are moving in, others are moving out. A once colorful mural on the side of the Co-op building located on E Street in Eureka is now fading along with the feeling of safety within the community. Known for strange disappearances, northern California has even been identified as the trolling ground of serial killers dating back decades, tourists are often warned not to venture too far out on their own. The beautiful, yet ominous fog covered forest has kept many secrets over the years.
Murder Mountain is one of those not so secret . . . secrets, approximately 84 miles south of Eureka, in southern Humboldt County. During the early 1980’s, the area got its name, in part, after serial killer couple James and Suzan Carson confessed to killing and dismembering a co-worker on a marijuana farm. The couple was charged with three homicides but remain suspects in as many as 10 more. Numerous disappearances and unsolved homicides have haunted the area.
Murder Mountain in Alderpoint, has a population of 186 residents but concern grows throughout Humboldt as homicides and disappearances appear to be expanding throughout the county.
In fact, a self-proclaimed vigilante group known as the “Alderpoint 8” have become community heroes after reportedly obtaining a confession from a person of interest and leading authorities to a gravesite of Garrett Rodriquez who had vanished in late December 2012 and creating a presence of order though some citizens feel the local group of men are using intimidation and committing crimes too.
Whether the threat is external or community members “on the inside” the threat to resident’s and visitor’s safety appears real. Either way, for every missing person and unsolved homicide, there is a family holding on to hope and waiting.
Numbers don’t lie
According to the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC), there were 87,180 active missing person cases in the U.S. as of September 30, 2017. In addition, there were 8,589 active Unidentified persons entered into the national database, most deceased.
California leads the country in the number of missing person reports with 19,316 missing persons, compared to Texas that numbers 5,988, and Arizona with 2,281 active missing person reports.
Though California has captured national attention for the depravity of several serial killers throughout the decades, experts attribute the higher number of missing person reports is due, in part, to mandatory reporting requirements. California Penal Code 14205 states in part, all local police and sheriff’s departments shall accept any report, including telephonic reports of missing persons, including runaways, without delay and shall give priority to the handling of these reports over the handling of reports relating to crimes involving property.”
1993 Disappearance of Jennifer Wilmer
Many have gravitated to Northern California in pursuit of a new lifestyle in a climate where they can be the free spirits they are. Jennifer Wilmer, who went by the nickname Jade, was one of those bright free spirits who went searching for more in the redwoods of northern California, where she was last seen in 1993.
Born April 13, 1972, Jennifer grew up on the bustling east coast in Long Island, NY, and attended the privileged St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset. A hard-working student, Jennifer had earned a full scholarship to St. John’s University in N.Y.C. a private, Roman Catholic, research university located on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Dropping out after only one semester, Jennifer expressed to family and friends she wanted to pursue her own “utopia” and enroll for classes at the College of the Redwoods, in Eureka, California. In 1992, a bright and beautiful 20-year old arrived in the seaside community of Arcata on a journey into the hippie counterculture.
Arcata is a town where the vibrant old souls of Haight Ashbury seemed to preserve the 60’s. The intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets is located in San Francisco about 200 miles south of the seaside town of Arcata. A place where the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Mamas & the Papas and the Fuggs help create a psychedelic subculture where youth and young adults throughout the country flocked. Following the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary who coined the term, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”, that is exactly what some did, even decades later.
Upon arriving in Arcata, Jennifer told her family classes at College of the Redwoods were full for the semester, so she opted to find work as a local waitress and rented space in a house with several roommates located in Hawkins Bar in scenic Trinity County, approximately 50 miles east of Arcata on California State Route 299.
There are two opposing reports for the day Jennifer vanished on September 13, 1993. One person reported Jennifer was last seen leaving her Willow Creek residence to go to a travel agency to pick up a one-way return airline ticket to New York her mother Susan Wilmer had purchased for her. Her family was desperate for her return, but she never arrived at the travel agency to retrieve her ticket.
Another report indicates Jennifer had been seen hitchhiking in the vicinity of Hawkins Bar toward Willow Creek to inquire about a job opportunity at a local farm. The distance is approximately 9.5 miles northwest of her residence.
According to High Times journalist Elise McDonogh’s article, “Humboldt County: Murder Mayhem and Marijuana”, even as far back as the late 1970’s people looking for work as farm hands and marijuana trimmers were warned of the dangers of accepting rides from strangers and the strange disappearances around Murder Mountain. Of course, few could imagine such dark evil lurking in such picturesque surroundings.
The Vanishing of Karen Mitchell
Twenty years ago, sixteen-year-old Karen Mitchell vanished on Nov. 25, 1997. Known as one of Eureka’s long-lasting unsolved mysteries, Karen was only five days away from her seventieth birthday, a high school junior who vanished in broad daylight.
Karen moved from Southern California to live with her aunt and uncle, Bill and Annie Casper who were well-known in the community. Annie still owns “Annie’s Shoe Store” where Karen had visited her aunt before disappearing on Broadway, in downtown Eureka, on her way to the Coastal Family Development Center where she helped care for children.
When it was discovered Karen was missing, law enforcement and volunteers from the community conducted ground searches and went door to door. Police followed-up on thousands of leads but no information has ever lead to her whereabouts. Karen’s disappearance impacted the entire community and her family has never given up hope they will find out what happened to her that fateful day.
In a Eureka Times-Standard article in Dec. 2012, reporter Kaci Poor interviewed Dave Parris, then lead investigator of Karen’s case at Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. “I will never forget her short hair, her beautiful eyes, and cheeks,” Parris said. “I remember5 the jewelry that she wore and the clothes she had on. I have never met Karen Mitchell – to this day, I have never met her—but when you go into her bedroom, read her college applications, talk to her family . . . you begin to know her.”
The day Karen vanished she had been filling out college applications and had planned to attend Humboldt State University. Described as a liberal and opinionated young lady, she loved politics, the environment, and children. Parris said, “You could tell she was going to be successful. She was going to be a person who would make a real difference.”
Parris, who is now retired, says he still thinks about Karen’s case. Over the years, Karen’s disappearance has spurred many theories but the detectives now on the case have not received any new leads that have helped any progress on the case.
Initially, thousands of tips poured in that now take up over 30 volumes, that stand over six-feet high.
Parris recalls a tip he received from a former police officer. The officer had told detectives he had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting a light blue 1977 Ford Granada that had slowed down to talk to a young girl who closely resembled Karen the day of her disappearance.
Despite tracking down 1,200 vehicles scattered across the West Coast that matched the vehicle description, no solid leads were ever found.
In 1999, Wayne Allen Ford, a resident of a nearby trailer park, walked into the Eureka County Sheriff’s Office with a severed female breast in his pocket and proceeded to confess to authorities that he had murdered four women during 1997 and 1998. Detectives interviewed the 36-year old truck driver, but he could not be tied to Karen’s disappearance. Ford was eventually charged with four counts of first-degree murder unrelated to Karen’s case, sentenced to the death penalty and currently serving time in San Quentin prison.
Another suspected serial killer and millionaire Robert Durst became the focus of authorities. A very private man, Durst is described as an enigma. Durst was known to love marijuana and his privacy, two things Trinidad and Eureka offer. Also known as the “Lost Coast”, a ghost-like Durst could live undetected. Though Durst had no financial worries of his own, he was known to hang out with transients, the down and out.
Reported in The Guardian, author of “A Deadly Secret” Matt Birkbeck writes in his book, that credit card receipts place Durst in Eureka the day Karen went missing and that Durst also resembles a police composite of a man who a witness claimed was seen trying to force a girl matching the description of Karen into a car. In addition, Durst was thought to frequent a homeless shelter where Karen may have volunteered and confirmed he was a customer at Annie Shoe Store.
Accused of killing his wife Kathie Durst in 1982 he was never charged. He was then suspected in the murder of friend Susan Berman in 2000 in Los Angeles, then later acquitted of the dismemberment murder of drifter Morris Black in 2001.
While Durst was thought to be in the area of Eureka at the time of Karen’s disappearance, police were not able to tie him to the disappearance of the young, bright girl who had her entire life in front of her. In fact, only more questions have arisen in recent years and speculation several Humboldt County disappearances and murders may be connected. But to who?
The Disappearance Sheila Franks and the murder of Danielle Bertolini
In 2013, beautiful 23-year old Danielle Bertollini moved to California from Bangor, Maine after the death of her infant son. She had hoped to start a new life in Fortuna approximately 17 miles south of Eureka.
Danielle talked to her mother Billie Jo Dick almost on a daily basis, so when she didn’t hear from her daughter, she filed a missing person report on Feb. 19, 2014. She immediately flew from Maine to California to search for her daughter, along with Deemi Search and Rescue where she was a volunteer. Danielle’s father Jon Bertollini who lives in Oregon also traveled to Fortuna to help search for his Danielle.
Danielle had last been seen getting into a car on the road leading to her house in the rural area known as Swains Flats, along Highway 36. A local, James Eugene Jones was questioned by police and admitted he had given Danielle a ride and was the last person to see her. Police soon connected Jones to the disappearance of another Fortuna woman Sheila Franks a week prior to Danielle’s disappearance. The connection between the two cases then raised questions as to other missing person investigations into disappearances of many missing women in the area.
Sheila Franks was a divorced mother and had been living with Jones prior to her disappearance. Jones claims on Feb. 2, 2014, he and Sheila were both at his house and Sheila had gone for a walk and didn’t return. Jones, a 43-year old sawmill worker, was now the focus of both investigations.
However, according to a 2016 Crime Watch Daily report, another connection had been discovered. Shelia’s sister Melisa Walstrom indicated Jones also knew Karen Mitchell. Melisa went to school with Jones and has known him all her life.
After Sheila’s disappearance, Melisa went through a storage unit where Jones had placed Sheila’s personal belongings. “In the storage unit I found my sister’s purse that had money, credit cards, it had a birth certificate, everything that my sister had that was important to her, she wouldn’t up and disappear and not take the money at least,” said Walstrom.
Upon making the discovery of her sister’s belongings in storage, it removed all doubt that Jones had to be responsible for Sheila’s mysterious disappearance.
A friend of Sheila’s confirmed there was trouble in her relationship with Jones and there were signs Sheila had been beaten by Jones a week prior to going missing. “She was like, “Well, Jimmy and I got into a fight and he punched me, gave me a black eye,” added Walstrom.
Police were no closer to answers, until Mar. 9, 2015 when a skull was found in a local riverbed along the Eel River. On May 25, 2015, Billie Jo Dick was notified the skull had been identified was that of her daughter Danielle’s.
Jones has had criminal charges for drugs and a conviction for domestic violence but despite compelling connections between the two women’s disappearances, no arrest has been made. While police say Jones is not a suspect, he does remain a person of interest.
We are still left with questions. Are these disappearances connected? And, is there a serial killer still operating in the shadows of Murder Mountain?
One person believes the theory of a serial killer has merit.
Indiana Private Investigator probes the dark side, another disappearance
Thomas Lauth, an Indiana private investigator who has spent over 20-years investigating missing person cases, has delved into the dark side of Humboldt County on several occasions.
Nov. 14, 2008, another young Wisconsin woman vanished during broad daylight in Eureka. Five months before her disappearance, 23-year old, Christine Walters had been attending college at the University of Wisconsin in Deerfield, and the future seemed bright.
Christine, a vivacious young woman, wanted to explore the world. In July 2008, Christine planned a 3-week summer trip to Portland, Ore. She had intended to continue her college studies upon returning to Wis., but instead, Christine decided to abruptly move to Humboldt County with friends she had met during her trip.
In a 2013, Times Standard article, Christine’s mother Anita Walters said, “I believe she was too trusting of the people she met in California. She didn’t know the people and didn’t understand the culture out there.” She added, “And I know there are a lot of young adults who go there to disappear and don’t want to be found. I honestly believe that is not the case for her. If she said that now, she would be totally brainwashed. Her and I were very close.”
Initially, upon moving to Calif., Christine’s calls were upbeat. She had made many friends and connected with individuals who were part of Green Life Evolutions, a group that has since been described as a potential cult and since disbanded. At the time, Green Life had two locations, one in Eureka, another in Blue Lake, approximately 16 miles northeast of Eureka.
Christine’s phone calls home went from happy and upbeat to concerning. On October 28, 2008, Anita recalled a phone call where she asked her daughter to return home for a while. Christine told her mother she wasn’t ready to return because she was on a “journey” and needed to follow her “path.”
One-week prior to her daughter’s disappearance, on November 7, 2008, Christine had been part of a Ayahuasca tea ceremony, using a South American hallucinogen. There were approximately 20 individuals who participated in the cleansing ceremony, led by a Shaman named Tito Santana.
Cleansing ceremonies have been used for centuries. It is said William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg called it yage, but it goes by many names including hoasca, natem, shori, Vine of the Dead, Vine of the Soul, and Spirit Vine to name a few.
Participants describe the experience as mystical and a psycho-spiritual psychedelic trip that can bring visions, self-realization and commonly violent purging, or vomiting.
According to those at Green Life, after the ceremony, Christine stayed with other participants and rested but left by herself the evening of Nov. 11, 2008.
The following morning, a couple found Christine on their front porch on Tompkins Hills Rd., approximately 20 miles away from where she had been staying in Arcata/Blue Lakes. She was naked, cold, hungry, thirsty, with extensive briar scratches all over her body.
Christine was taken to St. Joseph Hospital. Humboldt County authorities interviewed her due to her injuries but found her evasive when recounting what had happened to her. Instead, she claimed she had “walked a long way” and claimed there were demons who could hear her and were trying to get her. Upon Christine’s release from the hospital, she went to the Red Lion Inn in Eureka and called her mother several times from the hotel expressing paranoia and fearfully expressing there were people that were going to find her no matter where she went.
On November 14, 2008, Anita Walters agrees to fax Christine a copy of her driver’s license and social security card, so Christine could go to DMV and access her bank account. At approximately 1 pm Christine dropped the hotel keys onto the front desk and walked out wearing her pajamas.
The owner of Copy Co. Printing at I Street in Eureka stated Christine arrived there at approximately 3:30 pm wearing her pajamas and slippers, hair disheveled, claiming she had lost her wallet but acting very paranoid and looking over her shoulder. She asked for directions to DMV located approximately 1 mile from the copy center and departed. She has never been seen again.
Her family has struggled, only wanting answers. “We want Christine to know we love her dearly and miss her very much, and we pray every day for an answer as to what happened to her. Someone must have seen her and certainly, there is one person that has the answer, so please help us,” said Anita Walters.
“This has been one of the most baffling cases I have seen in my twenty-years of investigating missing person cases throughout this country,” says Thomas Lauth of Lauth Investigations International headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind. “With the mysterious disappearances of so many women in Humboldt County, we can never rule out there may be a serial killer operating in the Humboldt County area, but we are always hopeful someone who knows something will come forward and provide these families some peace that only answers will bring.”
Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder of Nation’s Missing Children Organization in 1994 and National Center for Missing Adults in 2000, serving as CEO until 2010. Kym has spent 20 years working with government, law enforcement, advocates, private investigators, and national media, to include expert appearances on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, John Walsh, Lifetime, Montel, and Anderson Cooper.
A veteran (or dinosaur) in the field of missing persons, Kym is considered an expert in the field of crime victim advocacy and continues to work with media advocating for crime victims.
Mother of three disappeared after going for night walk in 2002
Almost eight years ago, Rhonda Wilson — a petite, black-haired, mother of three — left her North Kentville home on a hot summer night to go for a walk.
She’s never been seen since.
Now, RCMP hope that a reward of up to $150,000 might finally solve the mystery of what happened to the 31-year-old whose boyfriend reported her missing Aug. 10, 2002, three days after he said he last saw her.
“Our whole goal is to bring attention to this file, to say it’s still unsolved and to solicit the public’s help in generating tips and information that may help solve this crime,” said RCMP Sgt. Brigdit Leger.
“In the event there’s anyone out there who has any information who may not have come forward yet, we’re hoping that with this coming to the forefront again . . . maybe they’re at a different place in their life where they will share that information.”
Investigators say Wilson’s boyfriend told police Wilson left her Mee Road home to go for a walk at about 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 7.
At the time, Wilson was said to be carrying a purse with only a small amount of cash. Her bank accounts have never been touched.
“This investigation has been open the entire time,” Leger said. “Throughout the years, we’ve received various tips from the public. All these tips were followed up and absolutely exhausted.”
While there were reported sightings of the missing woman, “they’ve all been explored and nothing has been confirmed or verified,” Leger said.
Leger said the police continue to treat the investigation as a missing person’s case.
In the years following Wilson’s disappearance, her father, Ronald Corbin, continued to search the area, fearing his daughter had been murdered. He told The Chronicle Herald he didn’t believe that she would have left her close-knit family, including her children, who ranged in age from three to 10 years when their mother vanished.
No one from Wilson’s family could be reached Friday for comment.
Wilson’s disappearance is the 59th case to be included in the province’s Rewards for Major Unsolved Crimes Program.
Begun in 2006, the program offers cash for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the crimes.
“We urge anyone with any information related to Ms. Wilson’s disappearance to please come forward,” Justice Minister Ross Landry said in a news release.
“We all share a responsibility in terms of building safe communities and no information is too trivial.”
Wilson is described as four-foot-nine and 100 pounds, with shoulder-length straight black hair and hazel eyes.
At the time of her disappearance, she reportedly was wearing dark blue jeans with gold zippers on the pockets, a jean jacket with an embroidered emblem and black, high-heeled sandals.
Anyone with any information can call the Justice Department toll-free at 1-888-710-9090.
More information on this case and the other cases in the program can be found on the department’s website, www.gov.ns.ca/just.