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.
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.