The search for a six-year-old girl from South Carolina is
over after police identified the remains of missing Faye Swetlik, who
disappeared while she played in her family’s front yard. After viewing the
coroner’s report, authorities have announced that they are treating Faye’s
death as a homicide—no arrests have yet been made.
The Cayce Department of Public Safety’s director, Byron
told the media, “As this community has been working hard to find Faye and
bring her home safely, we wanted to let you know as soon as possible.
Snellgrove went on to say, “We also need to inform you that during the course
of our investigation, a deceased male was located in the Churchill Heights
neighborhood. That investigation has just begun.” It is unclear at this point
whether or not the aforementioned deceased male is in any way related to Faye
Swetlik’s missing persons case.
The investigation only began 5 days ago, when Faye disappeared from her family’s front yard shortly after returning home from school. Faye’s mother was home at the time of the disappearance. Friends and family were shocked to hear of Faye’s disappearance, and Ruth Collins, her grandmother, told the local television station WTVD, “I want my baby back. We gotta find her.”
An Amber Alert was never issued for Faye, because
authorities had no reason to believe the girl had been kidnapped, as opposed to
walking out of her yard of her own accord, or other circumstances. Investigators
assigned to Faye’s missing person case have released photos of two vehicles who
were in the area of the Churchill Heights neighborhood subdivision, denoting
that the drivers may have crucial information about the case.
The case has garnered national
media attention, with FBI officials going door to door to canvass the
neighborhood in search of answers. On the day Faye’s remains were discovered in
her neighborhood, Vice President Mike Pence was also in South Carolina, having
stopped in the Midlands. When he addressed cadets at The Citadel in Charleston,
he stated the following, “And as your Vice President, and as a father, let me
say, we were deeply saddened to receive word this afternoon that the remains of
Faye Swetlik, a six-year-old girl who went missing from her parents’ front
yard, just three days ago, has been found.”
Pence went on to say that he’d spoken with the FBI’s Director,
Christopher Wray, and the governor of South Carolina, Henry McMaster, to ensure
them that the full arsenal of resources held by the federal government would be
made available to investigators in pursuit of answers. “But I would just urge
everyone in South Carolina, “ Pence said, “hug your kids today. And keep this little
girl and her family and her community in your prayers.”
The case is not over for investigators and the Faye Swetlik
hotline is still open for anyone with information that could be useful in the homicide
investigation. Authorities are asking that anyone with information call (803)
Tragedies can affect communities and
society as a whole. Sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference
that impacts us all.
It was 24 years ago, on June 9, 1995,
that a little girl vanished at a Little League baseball game in the small town
of Alma, Ark., within the River Valley at the edge of the majestic Ozark
Mountains. Beautiful Morgan Chauntel Nick, age 6, with
long blonde hair and blue eyes has not been seen since.
Morgan Nick is the eldest of three other children. She
loved cats and according to her mother Colleen Nick, she was a shy little girl.
A Girl Scout, Morgan loved bubble gum and said she wanted to be a doctor or a
circus performer when she grew up.
The evening of her disappearance, a friend of the Nick
family had invited them to a baseball game about 30 minutes away. Colleen told
Dateline; the game started late at approximately 9:00 p.m. that night.
Morgan sat in the bleachers with her mom nearly the
entirety of the game but towards the end, two kids, a boy and a girl, a few
years older than Morgan, asked if Morgan could go catch fireflies with them.
Colleen recalls initially telling Morgan no, but other
parents told the worried mother that the kids play in the parking lot all of
the time and would be safe.
Colleen ended up telling Morgan she could go play with
the other children. “She threw her arms around my neck, kissed my cheek, then
the kids all ran out to the parking lot,” said Colleen. “I could turn my head
and see she was right there in sight. I checked on them three or four times.”
At the end of the baseball game, Colleen watched as
the team walked off the field, momentarily looking away from Morgan who was
playing behind the bleachers. When she turned around, she could see the two
other children, but Morgan was no longer with them.
Colleen asked the children where Morgan was, and they
told her Morgan was at her car emptying sand out of her shoes. “Already, when I
couldn’t see Morgan, my heart started beating really fast,” Colleen said in a
Dateline interview. “We were somewhere we hadn’t been before. She wouldn’t go
anywhere by herself, and there wasn’t even anywhere to go,” Colleen said.
“There was no concession stands, no bathrooms.”
Confusion and panic set in for Colleen.
Within minutes a spectator called the police to report
Morgan missing. Police responded within six minutes.
Chief Russell White of the Alma Police Department told
Dateline that the initial officer on the scene immediately suspected “we might
have a bigger problem.” “They did have a lot of manpower or resources, but they
did a whole lot right that first night,” Colleen said.
“The other two kids that were playing with Morgan
separately told the police about a creepy man in a red pick-up truck with a
white camper shell on the back,” Colleen said.
Authorities immediately began an intensive
“We reached out for help from local agencies, the
state police, the FBI,” Chief White said. “We were running a pretty big crew.
The FBI brought in lots of extra people and resources and we did not have, like
a computer system that could handle this kind of case, which helped
According to Colleen, Morgan’s case files fill up an
entire room at the police department. “We have tons of tips coming in every
week,” Chief White said. “It’s very unusual for a 24-year-old case to still
have so many leads.”
Despite the thousands of leads received in Morgan’s
case, she remains missing.
A Mother Fights Back
“She’s not a number. She’s not a statistic. She’s not
a case file. She is a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, a friend. And she is
someone worth fighting for,” Colleen told Dateline. “If you’re not on the front
line fighting for your daughter, no one else will. So, it is my job to make
sure she never gets lost. Until someone can prove to me that Morgan is not
coming home, then I am going to fight for her.”
In the years following Morgan’s disappearance, Colleen
started the Morgan
Nick Foundation to help prevent other families from going
through what she has experienced, to raise awareness of other missing children,
and educate the public on safety for children. The foundation also provides
crucial support to other families of missing children.
Over the years Colleen has received a countless number
of recognitions and awards from the FBI, state of Arkansas, to the
International Homicide Investigator’s Association, for her work throughout the
state of Arkansas throughout the country.
“When something so tragic happens to your child, there
is a need to do something of great value,” said Colleen. “We are trying to fill
the gap that wasn’t filled when we needed it the most.”
24 years later, Colleen
continues to selflessly work within her community and nationwide to the benefit
of families and children throughout the country.
The National Impact of John Walsh
We often forget there is a personal story behind many
monumental efforts in this nation and John Walsh is certainly the epitome.
Adam Walsh, age 6, was a little boy whose
disappearance and murder changed the way society looked at missing children.
On the afternoon of July 27, 1981, Adam’s mother took
him shopping at a local mall in Hollywood, Fla. Reve Walsh had wanted to
inquire about the price of a lamp at the Sears department store.
Momentarily, Reve left Adam at an Atari video game
display where several other little boys were taking turns playing on the
display. When Reve returned, she couldn’t find Adam or the other boys and was
told by the store manager that the security guard had asked them all to leave
Adam was paged over the intercom as his mother
searched the store and mall for about an hour. She then called the Hollywood
Police Department at approximately 1:55 p.m. to report Adam missing.
Tragically, on August 10, 1981, a severed head of a
child was found in a drainage canal alongside the Florida Turnpike in Vero
Beach, about 130 miles from Hollywood. It was confirmed it was Adam. His body
has never been found.
Early on, Adam’s parents John and Reve Walsh were
critical of the police investigation which led to John’s anti-crime activism
and the creation of America’s Most Wanted which he is well known for.
Lesser known is his impact on laws and organizations
for missing children. During the 1980s, John and other child advocates lobbied Congress
to pass a law that would protect missing children and educate the public on the
importance of child safety resulting in the Missing Children’s Assistance Act
and the first national clearinghouse of information for missing children.
Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, NCMEC has
regional office in California, Florida, New York and Texas.
According to NCMEC, in 2018 there were 424,066 entries
of missing children in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
35 years later, NCMEC provides support to thousands of
families of missing children each year, missing children’s case management,
provides training to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and
offers numerous educational programs that fight child exploitation, sex
trafficking, and provides critical information to keep our children safe.
Black & Missing Foundation
Tamika Huston vanished into thin air on or around May
27, 2004, from Spartanburg, S.C. and subsequently found murdered.
Spartanburg was Derrica Wilson’s hometown and she recalls
watching as Tamika’s family struggled to gain any media coverage on a local or
national level while Tamika was missing. A few months later, Natalee Holloway –
a white woman – went missing and dominated news headlines, becoming a household
“It was heartbreaking to see the difference in the
media attention these two cases were getting,” Derrica told Jet Magazine.
Derrica and her sister-in-law Natalie decided to team
up to ensure other families did not face the obscurity that Tamika’s family had
experienced. “We combined our professional backgrounds – mine in law
enforcement and Natalie’s in media – to create an organization that joins the
very important elements in the field of missing persons,” said Derrica.
Founded in 2008, a veteran law enforcement official
and a public relations specialist began channeling their skills for a greater
Eleven years later, Black and Missing
Foundation has become the primary voice for minority missing
providing a platform of hope for the overwhelming number of missing persons of
On the afternoon of January 13, 1996, 9-year-old Amber
Hagerman was last seen riding her bike in a parking lot near her home in
Arlington, Texas. A witness reported seeing a man in a black, flat-bed truck
snatch Amber from her bicycle.
Four days later, Amber’s body was found in a creek
approximately 3.2 miles from her home. Her murder remains unsolved.
Area residents were outraged and began calling radio
and television stations to vent their anger and to also offer suggestions to
prevent such crimes in the future. One resident, Diana Simone suggested
utilizing the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to notify the public when a child
has been abducted so the public could also assist in the search. Simone
followed up with a letter, with her only request to ensure the program would be
dedicated to Amber Hagerman.
The program was eventually taken to NCMEC with a
request to implement a national initiative that would eventually become known
as the AMBER Alert.
What began as a local effort in the area of the Dallas-Fort Worth area has
grown into a seamless system used by every state in the country. Since the
inception of the program in 1996, through December 31, 2018, 956 children have
been safely recovered specifically as a result of an AMBER Alert being issued.
so tragic happens to your child, there is a need to do something of great
value,” as Colleen said. “We are trying to fill the gap that wasn’t filled when
we needed it the most.” Most certainly, the advancements made in the last 35
years are proof the efforts of one person can make a difference.
Most Americans have never and will never experience the devastation that occurs in the aftermath of war on their homeland. It is hard to quantify the scale of missing persons in conflict, but available statistics reflect a vast number have gone missing due to conflict, migration and disaster.
Kosovo refugees in the aftermath of war. Photo courtesy of Euromaidan Press.
Over 20 years have passed since the armed conflict in Kosovo but as many as 1,647 families still await answers about the whereabouts of their loved ones in connection with the 1998-1999 events and the aftermath.
Families of the missing are left with ambiguity, not knowing what has really happened to their loved ones, unable to give them a dignified funeral, and unable to go on with the lives.
To help family members find information about the fate of their missing loved ones, Belgrade and Pristina adopted the Procedures on the Handover of Human Remains in 2018. The session was chaired by the ICRC along with families of the missing and international community.
Treated as a humanitarian effort, ICRC is concerned about the snail pace rate of progress. According the Chairman of the group, Fabien Bourdier of ICRC, “Only seven cases were resolved in 2018.”
Hasiba Zlatarac has been searching for her son, husband and brother since 1992 in Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
According to Balkan Transitional Justice, Hasiba Zlatarac , who lives in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, is still searching for the remains of her son Nedzad, 22, when he disappeared during the war, along with her husband Huso, 53, and her brother Fikret who was 42.
All three men were taken by Bosnian Serb forces and held at the Planjina Kuca detention facility in Vogosca during the spring of 1992.
“In June 1992, they were taken from Planjina Kuca . . . I don’t know where to” said Zlatarac. Nobody knows . . . up to this day, I’ve not heard a rumor, a trace . . . nothing.”
Zlatarac accused Bosnian authorities and politicians of “forgetting” the families of missing persons.
“I am bitter. I am angry at the government and all of them . . . It’s been 22 years since the end of the war, and they can’t even tell us where the bodies are, so we can find our loved ones and lay them to rest. Then I could also rest,” Zlatarac explained.
According to the country’s Missing Persons Institute, more than 30,000 people were considered missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the end of the conflict, and the remains of more than 7,000 of them remain missing.
Halil Ujkani in searching for his three sons, Shaip, Nahit, and Nazmi since 1999. Photo courtesy of BIRN/Serbeze Haxhiaj.
Halil Ujkani prays he will live to learn the fate of his three sons. The eldest, 29, and the youngest only 19.
On the evening of April 16, 1999, Ujkani’s three sons, Shaip, Nahit and Nazmi, left the house to travel to Montenegro to try to survive the war in Kosovo.
For three days, they stayed in villages near the Kosovo-Serbia border before they were stopped by Serbian armed forces.
“The Serbian military caught them the evening of April 19 in the village of Dreth which was Serb occupied. Ujkani told the Balkan Investigative Network (BIRN), “An old Serb woman who was taking care of her cows said that she witnessed the moment when they were stopped by the military. There was no shooting of killings that day,” Ujkani added.
Three days later, two of the 24 people who were stopped by Serbian forces, along with his sons, came back to Mitrovica after getting lost in mountain roads. They had lost contact with the rest of the group, never making it to Montenegro territory.
“On April 22, my Serb neighbors in north Mitrovica saw my son and some other while Serbian military took them in a military truck,” said Ujkani. “My neighbor Bogoljub Aleksic heard that they were taking them to Pozarevac [in Serbia].”
Ujkani, 84, is a former mine worker, said he has spent 19 years searching for his sons in what has become the most painful chapter of his life.
In addition to his three sons, two of his nephews are among the group who went missing.
“I have searched for them both among the living and the dead, said Ujkani. “Everyday I imagine that I’m finding them.”
The number of those disappeared during the communism in Albania is impossible to know, some experts believe the number to be close to 5,000 people killed that still await proper burial.
The families know the clock is ticking while living with the torture of doubt about the fate of those who vanished and were never heard from again.
Bodies Mistakenly Identified
Unknown graves at a southern Kosovo cemetery. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch/Fred Abrahams.
On March 26, 1999, two days after North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched air strikes against Yugoslavia, Serbian forces killed Halim Hajdari. His son Flurim Hajdari recollects that day when they killed his father and five brothers, the youngest only 12 years old, along with 108 other Albanian citizens.
About half of the victims were found in a nearby river, the other are still missing.
In July 1999, Hague experts invited Flurim Hajdari to a makeshift morgue in the Kosovo town of Rahovec/Orahovac where he hoped to find the bodies of his father and brothers.
Flurim Hajdari awaiting word of the fate of his missing father and five brothers. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
Personal belongings and clothing found in the graves was put on display in the same building as the improvised morgue, so family members of the missing may be able to identify the items.
By 2003, when the ICMP signed an agreement to use DNA to identify bodies, thousands of victims had already been identified by sight.
“This traditional method of identification carried significant risk of error,” the ICMP told BIRN media. The ICMP is lobbying to reverse the identifications made without using DNA.
Like efforts here in the United States, ICMP proposes collecting genetic reference samples from family members whose loved ones were already identified without the use of DNA.
In 2015, Flurim Hajdari was notified by neighbors that the graves at the Pristina mortuary were being dug up again.
A forensic team was able to identify the remains of two of his brothers, Salajdin and Rasim.
“When I showed them identification documents issued by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), they took them from my hands and gave me some with the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) stamp, without further explanations,” said Flurim Hajdari.
EULEX stated that it “held a number of meetings with those affected to explain why the exhumations were needed.”
Since then, the ICMP has issued 2,466 DNA identification reports. The exhumations were a direct result of EULEX’s efforts through forensics work and the advancement of DNA aimed at rectifying the mistakes made in the past. However, the remains of 400 people at the Pristina morgue do not match with any DNA reference samples of families of missing people.
Kushtrim Gara of the government’s missing person commission expressed concern about mistaken identifications.
“This has happened in the aftermath of the war when those responsible for these issues were international institutions and identifications were made with the traditional method,” Gara said.
Victims have been exhumed and reburied at least twice by Serb forces before hidden mass graves were discovered causing some body parts to become mixed up. At times only parts of remains were found.
“There was also mixing of the remains during the handing over of human remains,” Gara sharing her concern that there was also a problem after DNA matching started to be used.
Another problem is convincing the victims’ families to cooperate with a slow and painful process.
EULEX emphasized that the key factors for proper identifications are “the provision of accurate information as well as of complete blood references in order to carry out essential DNA testing.”
Arsim Gerxaliu, the head of the Kosovo Institute of Forensics said that the identification process must now involve talking to every family to get blood samples for DNA matching.
“Based on tests so far, around 20 percent of the cases are incorrect burials,” said Gerxaliu.
Depoliticizing the Search for Missing Persons
On the National Day of the Disappeared, the families of missing persons gather to memorialize the graves of their loved ones. Photo courtesy of ICRC/Jetmir Duraku.
On July 18, after eight years of negotiations, Albania signed an agreement to find remains of missing persons with the help of the International Committee on Missing Persons.
In September, parliament is expected to ratify the agreement to open the way to begin exhumations.
International Day of the Disappeared, on August 30, marks the day that the International Commission on Missing Persons will be launching a website to exchange information with the public about missing persons.
“We take this opportunity to once again pay tribute to the families who struggle with despair of not knowing what happened to their loved ones,” said Agim Gashi, head of the ICRC in Kosovo. “On their behalf, we urge authorities to increase their efforts in solving this humanitarian problem that continues to affect Kosovo even two decades down the line.”
Under international humanitarian law, the former parties to the conflict are responsible to provide answers about the whereabouts of people who have vanished on territories under their control.
Meanwhile, families await justice and information two decades after conflict.
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.
How easy would it be to kidnap a child in a crowded place? Maybe the park, walking home from school or even sleeping in their own bedroom. Over again, we see parents of missing children making pleas for the safe return of their children on the news. We see the Amber Alerts and Facebook posts and immediately picture our own children’s faces, thinking “What if it happened to me?” A common reaction to something so traumatic. This is the reaction child predators elicit from their victims families every day.
A young child becoming the victim of a predator is every parent’s worst nightmare, but the fact is, it is happening every day to parents throughout the country and our own fears do not wane just because our children are getting older.
I am a parent of four grown children and a mother who has worked in the field of missing persons for over 25 years. Every day I interacted with parents who were desperately searching for their missing child. Their pain unimaginable. Very quickly I realized the crime of abduction does not discriminate based upon a child’s age.
Commonly, we think of small children when we hear the word kidnapping and we think as our children age, they are safer, but the fact is, they can become even more vulnerable as they approach adulthood. The fact is that chlid predators can predate at any age.
While teenagers are venturing out, without the protective eye of a parent, there is even more chance they can cross paths with a potential kidnapper. It is our responsibility as parents to guide our children throughout their lives and hopefully provide them with some tools that will keep them safe.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. That number accounts for nearly 2,000 per day.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates a relatively small number, approximately 115 of those missing children are abducted by strangers and listed as an “involuntary” abduction in the national database of missing children. However, this number does not account for children (to include teens), who are listed in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in various categories such as “Endangered Missing,” “Runaways” or “Other.” Many of these disappearances are considered “long-term” with more than a year having passed with no resolution or explanation as to how or why the child disappeared. The fact is, we just don’t know, therefor accurate statistics impossible.
One thing we all can do as parents is prepare our children. Much of the following information and tools have proven to save lives.
Communicate with your children
Predators do not look like the “Boogieman.” Strangers look like everyone else. Children need to understand that everyone is a stranger, even women and seniors. It is not about being unsociable, explaining this is about being cautious.
Agree to a code word
Strangers have no business asking a child for directions or a lost pet. Many times, a predator will try to coerce a child into coming with them voluntarily without causing a scene by telling them they were sent by their parents to pick the child up. Agree to a simple “code word” like “Giraffe” or “Cheetos” that your child can remember and tell them to only trust an adult who knows the code word.
Children should be taught to trust their instincts and walk away if a stranger approaches them. Though not all people are dangerous, it is always more important to be safe than being polite.
Don’t put your child’s name on personal items
Children will tend to trust others who know their name. Never put your child’s name on personal items such as clothing or backpacks.
If approached, children should be taught to scream and run. This will scare away child predators. Reassure your child the likelihood of being approached by a stranger is minimal but should it happen, to scream “This is not my dad” or “Fire” while running away.
The stakes are high when a child becomes the target of a predator. It really is a matter of life or death. According to the FBI, statistically when a child is abducted by a stranger, the likelihood of recovering them alive diminishes with each hour that passes.
When a predator has targeted its prey, survival depends upon fighting back. For example, if approached with a knife or gun and told to get in a car, statistically the child or teen have more of a chance surviving if they fight back at the initial crime scene. Survival rates drop when a child is transported to a second crime scene.
As children get older and spend more time away from parents, it is important to communicate openly with them. They need to know the dangers and reality of abduction without feeling fear which can be paralyzing.
Children should never answer the door when home alone or answer the phone and tell the caller their parent is not home.
Use the “Buddy System” and teens should always inform their parents where they are going and with who. No compromises.
Children should avoid shortcuts through empty parks, fields, and alleys. It is better to always remain in a well populated area to be safe.
Use a GPS on their phone. There are free Apps such as Life 360. The App can be loaded on both the child’s phone and the parent’s phone and track location. Personally, my children are all grown with their own families now but my daughter and I both use Life 360 to keep tabs on each other. Though teens may demand their space, their safety trumps the right to privacy.
Remember, promote a home atmosphere that is open so kids can let you know what is going on in their lives. Child predators have been known to use distrust between parents and children in order to manipulate them. It is important to help them to have an understanding and confidence you want the best for them. Thomas Lauth has been in the private investigation industry for over 30 years, and in the cases of missing children, he stresses the importance of communication between parent and child, “We often get calls for missing children and teens. Once located and reunited with their families, we often educate parents or caregivers on tenets that would prevent this from occurring again. Regardless of circumstances, the most important thing is communication. Not only open and honest communication between parent and child, but communication safety concerning things like social media. In a world where young people are glued to their devices, it’s paramount that they remember to have awareness of their surroundings. Communicate, Educate, Communicate.”
Teaching children techniques to avoid an abduction and child predators
The window of opportunity to save oneself from danger might be seconds and children need to feel confident enough to make a split-second decision. Child predators are depending on a child’s fear to overpower and subdue them. In addition to coercion, abductors use intimidation. There are some techniques you can practice at home to build their self-confidence should they ever be face to face with a kidnapper.
Practice yelling “Stop, Stranger” or “Fire” to draw attention and yell as loud as they can.
Practice the Windmill technique which means rotating arms in a big circle so a potential attacker can’t get a good grip.
Practice the Velcro technique by having your child grab and hold onto something, not letting go. They should also learn to scream while doing this.
If a child is abducted and somehow placed in a vehicle, they should know they need to take any opportunity they can to escape while trying to keep a cool head. Child predators depend on hysteria to allow them to escape.
Children should be taught not to be passive but proactive.
Try to open the passenger side door quickly or jump in the back seat and try to escape through the rear doors.
If placed in a trunk, they should be taught not to panic but to look for the “release” that opens the trunk upon pulling on it. Tear all the wires to the tail lights and brakes if possible.
I know this is a very serious and scary topic and just the thought of having to explain to an innocent child that some people are out to hurt them is incredibly uncomfortable, but when teaching others about fire safety, Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It applies throughout life.
Kym Pasqualini is the founder of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults and worked with law enforcement and families of missing persons for over 25 years. Kym continues to work with media nationwide to raise awareness of missing children and adults.