Year after year, thousands of families are rocked by a sudden void in their lives when a loved one goes missing. Many are lucky when their loved one is found within a few hours or a few days, but many go weeks, months, often years without any answers. But for the families and loved ones of those aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared without a trace more than seven years ago in March of 2014, answers may never come.
It sounds like the plot of a television show—Manifest from NBC to be exact—in which the passengers and crew of a commercial airline completely vanish out of the sky. While the passengers on the plane in that show reappeared mysteriously after five years, the occupants of Flight 370 were never heard from again. More than 200 families are still waiting for an explanation as to how an entire commercial airliner could disappear without a trace in the real world.
227 passengers and 12 crew members onboard the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were the subject of what was called an “unprecedented” search by both sea and air when the plane vanished. Even more cryptic, there was no indication that the flight would not go as planned prior to take-off. The Boeing 777 bound for Beijing departed on time from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Following a change-over in air-traffic control systems, the plane appeared to divert from its planned route, flying back over the Malaysian Peninsula and headed towards the Indian Ocean. After passing over the Gulf of Thailand, Flight 370 completely vanished from radar screen. There was never any evidence of a crash, nor any communications of complications. Some believe that Flight 370 simply fell into the ocean and the debris fell into a trench, the same theory under which many suspect Amelia Earhart’s plane disappeared. However, this is highly unlikely, unless the plane hit the ocean at a verticle angle, which would prevent the plane from smashing into identifiable debris.
The plausible theories that have been put forward as an explanation for the disappearance of Flight 370 span from technical to hijacking. There are a myriad of theories under which the flight might have been hijacked, including remotely with the use of cyberattacks. Other theories include a fire in the cockpit, vertical entry into the sea, and being shot down. On March 9, 2014, Chinese news outlets got a letter from the Chinese Martyrs Brigade—previously unheard-of group—claiming responsibility for the loss of Flight 370. The letter was eventually dismissed as fraudulent.
Whatever the cause of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappearing into thin air, one thing remains certain: Without answers to these troubling disappearances, there be families left twisting in the disappearance of their missing loved one.
Many true crime fans are familiar with the sad stories of famous missing persons such as Madeline McCan, or Natalee Holloway, both of whom went missing while travelling overseas. However, few true crime fans are as familiar with the story of the first missing person in recorded American History—a tale that has not only piqued the interests of the true crime world, but also that of supernaturalists across the United States.
When learning about the birth of American in school, many children are taught about the Pilgrims and their transatlantic journey on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. However, very rarely is there such a deep dive on one of the first ever attempts to settle in America. In 1585, acting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I, Ralph Lane sought to establish the first colony in what is now the United States. Lane established a colony on Roanoke Island in what is now Dare County, North Carolina. After that colony went under, a second colony was sent to the same island in 1587—what has become known in history as the Lost Colony.
Virginia Dare is on record as being the first baby born in the United States to English settlers. Her birth was a momentous event for the colony as they attempted to put down strong roots in their new settlement. News of her birth rang out through the new world and in the old, and Virginia’s name became synonymous with early American colonialism. Many municipalities and sites across America bear Virginia Dare’s name in honor of the first missing child known to American history.
The Lost Colony
The Lost Colony was far from self-sustaining, as a lack of supplies and a hostile relationship with the indigenous peoples of the area shook the foundations of the colony. Virginia Dare’s grandfather, John White, sought to mitigate this instability by making a supply to England and return with supplies for the colony. However, while he was abroad, the Anglo-Spanish War prevented White from returning to the Roanoke colony when he had intended. When he was finally able to return in 1589, White discovered that the entire population of the Roanoke settlement—around 112 settlers—had completely vanished, including Virginia Dare. There were no burial grounds or remains found, and the only infamous, cryptic clue to the whereabouts of the missing colonists was a single word carved into the fence around the settlement: CROATOAN. This led White to believe that the colonists might have resettled on nearby Croatoan Island. However, before he was able to follow this lead to his missing settlers, the ship he was travelling on was forced to return to England.
Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists around the world have speculated what might have happened to Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony. Some speculate that the colony succumbed to either disease or starvation due to their lack of resources. Some say that they ran afoul of indigenous peoples of the area. Others say that they were victims of Spanish hostiles during the course of the Anglo-Spanish War. However, in 2020, these researchers believe they might have finally found an answer.
The First Colony Foundation is a North Carolina nonprofit that is dedicated to researching and documenting the history of the Lost Colony. Among many documents they have reviewed include John White’s own writings in which he claimed the colonists had plans to move should the settlement become inhospitable. In 2012, researchers with the First Colony Foundation found the answer while studying a map at the British Museum that John White had painted himself. They discovered that White had made a few marks in invisible ink, likely to hide the information from the Spanish. He’d outlined two forts both about 50 miles away from the Roanoke settlement, which coincided with the distance the colonists had purportedly planned to travel should they ever have to leave the island.
What They Found in the Ground
Upon investigation of the sites that were marked on White’s map, the First Colony Foundation found shards of broken pottery that they believe to be remnants of pottery owned by the lost colonists. Researchers are confident that these are not the remnants of pots owned by Jamestown residents in the 17th century because of the lack of English pipes found in the dig sites—a very popular item amongst Jamestown settlers. This has lead researchers in the First Colony Foundation to speculate that the Lost Colony may have actually splintered into smaller groups to survive and assimilated with the indigenous population in the areas proposed on White’s map.
However, some scholars remain skeptical that the pottery remains are an indicator of the Lost Colony’s presence on these secret, marked locations. Charles Ewen, an archeologist at East Carolina University told National Geographic, “They are looking to prove rather than seeking to disprove their theory, which is the scientific way.”
While few internationally missing person cases remain fresh within the collective consciousness over the course of decades, the case of Amelia Earhart continues to captivate and mystify new minds as each year passes. Earhart was a pioneer of aviation and an inspiration to countless women of her generation. Her disappearance on July 2nd 1937, alongside her navigator Fred Noonan, has never been explained. Here, we will explore what still makes Earhart such a compelling character, and the circumstances that led up to her vanishing.
The Courage and Conviction of Amelia Earhart
Kansas native Amelia Earhart was working as a nurse’s aide near Toronto during World War I when she first fell in love with airplanes. After volunteering during the 1918 flu pandemic, Earhart moved to California and began taking flying lessons. By 1922, her accomplishments had already earned her a women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet and the epithet aviatrix. Earhart studied health and medicine at Columbia University and worked as a social worker in Boston—all the while continuing her flight training, doing aerial stunts for charity, and becoming the only female member of her local pilots association.
Following Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo flight across the Atlantic, Earhart became the first woman to complete the feat in 1928. Now notorious for her skill in the skies, Earhart began writing and lecturing on her adventures, and even launched her own fashion line. Engaging in shaping women’s career paths at Purdue University, Earhart inspired many female students to take a bold leap away from studying home economics and into the fields of engineering and economics.
A Fateful Final Journey
Having enthralled the world with all sorts of aerial pursuits, in 1937 at the tender age of 39 Earhart announced that she would undertake one final voyage before retiring from flying. Never one to be unambitious, her vision was to circumnavigate the globe in its entirety. Recruiting the assistance of navigator Fred Noonan, Earhart took off on June 1st 1937. Over the course of the next month, she and Noonan successfully reported their progress to the U.S. Media. However, on July 2nd, all contact ceased. Estimations of their progress placed the daring duo above the central Pacific Ocean at the time of the disappearance.
The U.S. Navy soon began a search of unprecedented scale, recruiting several ships and a substantial fleet of airplanes—reported running up costs of as much as $250,000 a day. Finally, while the Coast Guard continued to complain of hoax radio reports, the chances of finding Earhart and her navigator were deemed one in a million. As the official search drew to a close, conspiracy theories began to spring up, including accusations that Earhart had been kidnapped by the Japanese, or that she had gone undercover on a spy mission for President Roosevelt.
Continuing Interest in the Amelia Earhart Case
While Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5th 1939, investigations into her mysterious disappearance are periodically reawakened. In 1991 the FBI reported an aluminum map case found on an atoll 420 miles southeast of Howland Island, considered to be a possible clue. If the map case were indeed Earhart and Noonan’s, extreme temperatures and a lack of fresh water would have likely sealed the adventurers’ fates.
In 2009 a robotic search of the ocean floor was undertaken, and in 2018, a further expedition to the area was launched following the discovery of human remains—however no conclusive evidence pointing to Earhart was uncovered. While a photograph was thought to have identified Earhart and Noonan alive and well on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the image was later found to have been two years too old to have captured the pair. A 1989 article in TIME magazine declared that Earhart had “vanished into legend”, and for now at least this appears to be true. However, among the many who continue to discover the story of Amelia Earhart, it seems that hope remains alive. Thomas Lauth and his team at Missing Persons Investigations Worldwide offer the highest caliber of assistance to those with a loved one missing overseas. They also aim to elevate global awareness of people missing abroad, while sharing their insights as experts in recovering missing children and adults. If you require support from international private investigator Thomas Lauth in locating a missing person, contact his team today.
If you watch true crime media, it’s very likely you’ve seen a piece about child abduction before. In the last few weeks, the nation has been captivated by the story of 13 year-old Jayme Closs, the Wisconsin teen who went missing from her home in October of 2018. Law enforcement and other investigators poured numerous resources into the search over a period of three months with little to no progress in the case. Then earlier this month, as if by magic, she turned up on a neighborhood street roughly 80 miles from her home, having escaped her captor. It’s the perfect news story, with a harrowing beginning, a tense middle, and a thrilling, yet satisfying conclusion. But Jayme Closs’s story is not solitary in the true-crime world. Here are the stories of five other cases of child abduction where the child was eventually located alive, months—sometimes decades later.
Child abduction is horrific enough when it happens once, but what about when it happens more than once to the same child? The abduction(s) of Jan Broberg have recently returned to the American true-crime lexicon with the release of a Netflix Original documentary entitled Abducted in Plain Sight, receiving a fresh influx of media coverage and discussion in the true-crime media. In 1974, Jan was only 12 years old when she was abducted by Robert “B” Berchtold, a close family friend and neighbor. According to the documentary, it was not uncommon for Berchtold to dote on Jan more than her siblings, so her parents suspected nothing when he told them he wanted to take Jan horseback riding. When they did not return from their excursion, it took Jan’s parents days to fully intellectualize what had happened. After her parents finally filed a missing person’s report, a nation-wide investigation was launched for Jan and Berchtold helmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The present-day fascination with this case comes from the bizarre details associated with Jan’s first abduction. Through extensive pageantry, Berchtold was able to convince Jan they had both been abducted by UFOs, and it was their mission as humans to procreate in the interest of precluding the human race from extinction. It was 45 days before the FBI were finally able to locate Berchtold in Mexico, but not before he had married the twelve year-old girl. In a move that defied belief to modern audiences, the family let Berchtold back into the girl’s life after he had only served a 45-day sentence—which was subsequently reduced to 10 days—for her kidnapping. Two years later in 1976, Berchtold kidnapped her again, this time leaving a trail that would cause law enforcement to conclude she had run away of her own accord. He posed as her father and enrolled her in a Catholic girls’ school, all the while maintaining contact with her parents so he could cover his tracks. It wasn’t until three months later, after the FBI had tapped the Broberg’s phone lines, they were able to locate and apprehend Berchtold, recovering Jan safely.
Steven Stayner’s child abduction occurred near the beginning of a culture awareness now known as “stranger danger.” It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that American parents were beginning to educate themselves on the prospect of strangers abducting children from public places. Steven was abducted while walking home from school in his hometown of Merced, California, by two men, Ervin Murphy and Kenneth Parnell. After the men convinced Steven to get into their white Buick, he was driven to a remote cabin where he was held in captivity. When he begged to go home, Parnell managed to convince Steven his parents had given him up willingly, because they already had too many children to parent. Steven entered puberty while in captivity, and Parnell began searching for younger boys to abduct. Eventually, Parnell abducted a five-year-old boy named Timothy White. In an attempt to spare White the distress he had experienced due to his own kidnapping, Steven and White escaped while Parnell was working. The pair ended up in a police station where they explained to investigators what had happened. The case was the groundwork for California legislation that would allow the courts to sentence child molesters to consecutive prison terms under similar circumstances.
Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping is arguably the most high-profile missing persons case in present-day America. It was the beginning of another culture phenomenon in media coverage, commonly known as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee on June 5th, 2002. Mitchell was known by the name “Emmanuel” to the Smart family. He took her from the bedroom she shared with her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine. Mitchell left very little physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, which stalled the investigation significantly. Elizabeth was driven to a remote cabin where she was held for 9 months. She accompanied her captors on public outings numerous times throughout her captivity, disguised in religious garb that concealed her appearance, fooling law enforcement and private citizens alike. It wasn’t until Mary Katherine realized all those months later the man she had seen take her sister from their bedroom was the man they knew as “Emmanuel”. She gave a physical description of Emmanuel to a sketch artist, and the image was broadcast across the country. Mitchell’s family recognized the sketch and provided law enforcement with photos of him. This eventually led to Mitchell being recognized in public in Sandy, Utah. At the time of his arrest, he was accompanied by two women, Barzee and Smart. Smart was returned to her family, and continues to be an advocate for children who have survived sex trafficking.
Child abduction is a horrible crime that can leave its victims scarred for years, and the case of Ariel Castro is no different. Between 2002 and 2004, Ariel Castro kidnapped three young women, and held them against their will in his Cleveland home. They were Gina DeJesus, 14, Amanda Berry, 17, and Michelle Knight 21. During their captivity, the young women were subjected to forced sexual contact, starvation, and other hellacious forms of physical and emotional abuse. After being rescued, Michelle told law enforcement Castro had impregnated her at least half a dozen times, inducing miscarriages through beatings with dumbbells, and throwing her against walls. It was reported she would need facial reconstruction surgery to repair the damage Castro had done, and she almost lost her hearing entirely in one ear. Michelle was forced to help deliver Amanda Berry’s child, resuscitating it when it stopped breathing. Despite multiple reports of strange behavior from neighbors, and one visit to the house by police on an unrelated matter, the women were not rescued until May 6th, 2013 when Castro left one of the exits unsecured, allowing Amanda Berry to communicate with neighbors through a screen door. With the help of two male neighbors, Amanda was able to escape through a hole that had been kicked through the door and the neighbors called 911, leading to the rescue of Michelle and Gina. Since her rescue, Michelle has legally changed her name to Lilly. While she was in captivity, her son was placed in foster care, and was subsequently adopted by his foster parents. She told People magazine, while she misses her son terribly, she has no desire to bring him into the aftermath of her abduction.
One of the most hopeful stories of child abduction is that of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped by Phillip Garrido with the help of his wife, Nancy, on June 10, 1991 in Meyers, California. She was eleven years old at the time. Her case captured the horror of the nation because it occurred in full view of the girl’s stepfather. Carl Probyn was watching Jaycee walk from the front door of their house to the bus stop at the end of the street when a gray car pulled up next to Jaycee. She approached the car, assuming the couple in the car would ask for directions. In a matter of a few seconds, Jaycee was incapacitated with a stun gun and pulled into the car. Probyn gave chase on his mountain bike, ultimately losing the car. Jaycee was held in Antioch, California, in makeshift domiciles like tents and sheds behind the Garrido’s property for eighteen long years. Like many of the aforementioned cases, Jaycee’s name, face, and information were broadcast on America’s Most Wanted. During her captivity, Jaycee was subjected to repeated assaults, rape, and manipulation at the hands of Garrido. Despite best efforts, law enforcement missed nearly a half-dozen opportunities to rescue Jaycee. For example, Garrido had a parole officer, and due to lack of communication between police and the parole office, there were multiple complaints against Garrido that might have triggered a search of his property by his parole officer. In 2009, after Jaycee was rescued, the California Office of the Inspector General would issue a report detailing the failures of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that contributed to Jaycee’s continued captivity.
If you watch a lot of crime dramas, either on television or on the silver screen, you might have heard a law enforcement character say something to the effect of, “You must wait 24 hours before reporting a person missing.” It surprises many Americans that this is a myth perpetuated by mainstream media to cover narrative plot-holes. In fact, waiting even a few hours can compromise a missing persons investigation, as the first 72 hours are the most important when investigators begin searching for a missing person.
Close your eyes and try to remember what you had for breakfast three days ago. If you have a repetitive routine, this might be easy for you. Unfortunately, when it comes to interviewing witnesses, investigators just aren’t that lucky. Dr. Bryanna Fox recently told ABC news, in an interview regarding the importance of time in any investigation, “The information that law enforcement gets tends to be a little more accurate, and they are able to act on the information and hopefully get that person who is missing quicker.” The passage of time is one of investigators’ greatest obstacles when it comes to missing person cases. Not only does time hinder a witness’s memory, but evidence is also lost and cannot be properly secured. Leads go cold as time is lost, and the trail slips through investigators fingers.
Those who report a person missing will be one of law enforcement’s greatest assets as a person closest to them, but the pool of human resources doesn’t end with their friends and family. As those close to the missing person begin to fill law enforcement in on their routine, investigators take that information and use it to piece together their movements in the hours before they disappeared. They interview members of the public who are affiliated with the person’s routine, such as their neighbors, coworkers, employees of the grocery store they frequent, hair stylists, mechanics, etc. Locating these witnesses as soon as possible is paramount to providing accurate accounts of what they saw, heard, or noticed during this crucial time frame. It’s important investigators retrace the missing person’s steps as soon as possible in order to gather any physical evidence that might lead to their whereabouts. Take a familiar scenario, for instance: A young woman leaving her job late at night is attacked and abducted between the business and her vehicle. The vicinity of this abduction is the initial crime scene. Time (and weather, if outdoors) can erode evidence of a struggle. Scientific methods and investigation procedures become less effective when technicians are unable to observe the crime scene in the same condition at the time of the abduction. Another common issue with the passage of time is securing video footage. Surveillance technology has become so ubiquitous in the United States many investigators, especially those in large municipalities may be able to track a perpetrator’s movements street to street, creating a partial road map to the missing person’s whereabouts. However, depending on the quality of this surveillance equipment, these devices may automatically recycle valuable footage before it can be preserved by investigators, thereby resulting in a dead end.
It’s not uncommon for a person to go missing on their own terms. Perhaps they want a fresh start, or they’re running from law enforcement. Adults are free to disappear, if that’s what they wish, but loved ones should still remain concerned. The first 72 hours of a missing person investigation can be the difference between life and death, as the missing person might be in danger. When law enforcement believe a missing person might not have vanished of their own accord, they classify the person as “missing endangered.” This classification is often reserved for minors under 18, or senior citizens over 65, but definitions vary from state to state. In Indiana, endangered missing persons bulletins are often accompanied by a Silver Alert, which applies to senior citizens and adults who might be imminently harmed. Indiana recently began issuing Silver Alerts when children are reported missing as well to instantly distinguish the circumstances of their disappearance. For instance, a child who is abducted by a custodial parent or family member are often not in immediate danger, qualifying them for an Amber Alert. When there is evidence to the contrary, however, law enforcement in Indiana can issue a Silver Alert to classify the child as endangered missing. Dr. Michelle Jeanis, a criminology professor at the University of Louisiana, describes a horrifying reality that sends fretful parents into a tailspin. In the rare case of a stranger abduction, children are killed only a short time after they’ve been taken. Senior citizens and adults who may have disabilities, mental illnesses, or who are otherwise unable to take care of themselves are also at high risk. Consequently, time is of the essence when it comes to reporting these individuals missing so investigators can jump on their trail to ensure they are reunited with their families safe and sound.
Social media platforms and mainstream media coverage are two of the greatest assets for investigators working on a missing persons case. In tandem with their efforts to follow the trail, the media can publish press releases with the missing person’s picture, identifying information, and the circumstances of their disappearance. As smart devices continue to climb in ubiquity, this means members of the public can have all this crucial info in their hands in seconds. A woman having her hair set in a stylist’s chair may check her social media timeline to see an alert from local law enforcement about a runaway teenager they recognize from the bus stop on their commute. She can alert authorities so investigators can immediately follow that lead. This increases the chances the teen may be found safe and returned to their family. By the same token, members of the public may recognize composite sketches of abductors or other persons of interest.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding a person’s disappearance, time is of the essence when it comes to an investigation. When reporting a friend or loved one missing, it’s important you are armed with all possible information for investigators. Deductive reasoning will allow them to shape viable leads to follow in pursuit of their trail. Any knowledge about their personal relationships, routine, and habits will prove more useful than expected. This information allows investigators to make the most of that crucial first 72 hours, increasing the chances the missing person will be found safe and reunited with their loved ones.
It is said, ambiguous loss is the most traumatic of human experiences, and when someone you love goes missing, it is a trauma unlike any other.
Ambiguous loss occurs without understanding or closure, leaving a person searching for answers. Ambiguous loss confounds the process of grieving, leaving a person with prolonged unresolved grief and deep emotional trauma.
Ambiguous loss can be classified in two categories, psychological and physical. Psychological and physical loss differ in terms of what and why exactly the person is grieving.
Physical ambiguous loss means the body of a loved is no longer present, such as a missing person or unrecovered body, resulting from war, a catastrophe such as 9/11 or kidnapping, but the person is still remembered psychologically because there is still a chance the person may return. Such is the case with a missing person. This type of loss results in trauma and can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Psychological Loss is a type of loss that is a result of a loved one still physically present, but psychologically absent. Psychological loss can occur when the brain of a loved one is affected, such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease.
When a person goes missing, loved ones are left with more questions than answers, leaving them searching, not only for the missing person but for answers.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Pauline Boss is a pioneer who has studied ambiguous loss since 1973, and her decades of research have revealed those who suffer from ambiguous loss without finality, face a particularly difficult burden. Whether it is the experience of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, or someone awaiting the fate of a family member who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances or a disastrous event such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the loss is magnified because it is linked to lack of closure.
Those experiencing ambiguous loss find it difficult to understand, cope and almost impossible to move forward with their lives without professional counseling, love and support.
Experiencing grief is a vital part of healing, but ambiguous loss stalls the process of grieving, sometimes indefinitely. With the possibility a missing person may be alive, individuals are confounded as to how to cope.
Parents and family members of missing persons say there is no such thing as closure. Dr. Pauline Boss says the idea of closure can lead us astray – it’s a myth that needs to be set aside, like accepting the idea grief has five linear stages and we simply come out the other side and done with it.
Five Stages of Grief
It is widely accepted there are five stages of grief:
While many helpful programs are focused on these various stages, they are not necessarily experienced on order, nor are they inclusive to other issues that commonly arise, and they certainly do not include what a family experiences when a loved one goes missing.
In my nearly 30 years working with families of missing persons and unsolved homicides, I have witnessed all stages of grief and ambiguity, finding the profound effects of a loved one going missing is multi-generational and all encompassing.
Family members of missing persons must live with people’s misconception that the individual or family must move on. Like PTSD flashbacks, a missing loved one is a traumatic event that does not end, and each life event is a reminder the individual, is gone without a trace.
Those of us who have never experienced having a loved one disappear, tend to react to situations using our own experiences and may relate the disappearance of an individual to the death of someone we have loved passing away. The problem is, with a missing person there is no place to grieve, to visit, no physical body to mourn.
Constant daily uncertainty is a major source of stress, emotionally, physically, psychologically and with a missing person, the uncertainty does not dissipate. When others expect one to move on, they commonly do not understand circumstances simply do not allow it.
It is not uncommon for families to experience all phases of ambiguous loss taking a toll both physically and mentally. While I was there to help, I often found myself the one who was thankful as I was blessed to see and meet, the most amazing, strong, and courageous individuals. Getting to know these families made me face my own vulnerability and the fact this can happen to any family.
The most moving of my recollections is of a young mother who had gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Her mother had contacted me and knew something terrible had happened to her daughter, insistent police needed to investigate more aggressively.
She had been missing a year during Christmas of 2002. Her mother called me to discuss her daughter’s case and told me that her granddaughter had written a letter to Santa and wanted to read it to me.
The little girl wrote:
“Dear Santa, I am not writing you for toys this year. The only thing I want for Christmas is for my Mommy to come home.”
My heart broke for this little girl. Little did I know, fast forward fifteen years later, I would be having a conversation with the same child. She had grown into a beautiful young lady and miraculously living a normal life despite growing up without her mother who remains missing. Not all are so fortunate.
Sometimes we forget how many people are impacted when a loved one goes missing. Children of missing persons, siblings, grandparents, parents, and other family and friends. The impact is immeasurable on the family structure and one needing to be studied further. What we do know, is the trauma of ambiguous loss affects everyone differently and a family can quickly spiral out of control without immediate intervention.
When a person goes missing, children are displaced, families can suffer financially due to loss of income or assets becoming tied up in the legal process, siblings of missing persons, children especially, face numerous obstacles when being raised in a household where ongoing trauma is occurring and they must live in the shadow of someone no longer there.
With missing children, parents are faced with the “not knowing” on a day to day basis. When an adult child goes missing, parents are not only left with the “not knowing”, they also face the possibility of raising their grandchildren.
As with the young girl who I watched grow up, her grandmother somehow found the courage to raise her granddaughter while continuing to search for anything leading to her missing daughter. She had found a balance providing a healthy and loving environment for her granddaughter, while facing she may never see her own daughter again.
Though not the product of abstract academic research, it was written by parents of missing children, with the assistance of law enforcement and youth professionals, containing critical information, guidance and tools parents need to help find their missing child while making every effort to focus on staying healthy. The guide contains much information to simply help families make it through a day.
Many of the parents who helped write the handbook, I had the honor of working with over the course of decades. Following, we will summarize the first 48 hours a family must make it through when a loved one goes missing. While it is focused on families who have missing children, this handbook is an important resource for anyone with a missing person in their life, regardless of age.
While the handbook contains steps to take to effectively work with law enforcement, media volunteers, how to disseminate fliers, and more – the most important part of the handbook is Chapter 7 focusing on maintaining health, preparing for the long term, the importance of not utilizing substances and medications to deal with the loss, and uniting with your remaining children focusing on their security and potential emotional issues.
“Hanging onto my sanity for a minute at a time often took all of my energy. I could not begin to look several days down the road,” said Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan who vanished June 9, 1995.
When your child is missing, you are overwhelmed with questions from police, neighbors, family and friends, and the media. At times, a parent may be faced with decisions they never thought they would have to make. One can begin to feel isolated, confused and utterly desperate with nowhere to go for support, but there is hope and it is found in the experience of other parents of missing persons who are courageous, and in my opinion, heroic.
The First 24 Hours (A Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide)
Request police issue a “Be On the Look Out” (BOLO) message.
Limit access to your home until police have arrived to collect evidence. It is important not to touch or remove anything from your child’s room.
Ask for the contact information of the law enforcement officer assigned to your case. Keep in a safe place.
Provide law enforcement with facts related to the disappearance of your child, including what has already been done to find the child.
Have a good photograph available of your child and include a detailed description of your child and what your child was wearing.
Make a list of friends, family and acquaintances and contact information for anyone who may have information about your child’s whereabouts. Include anyone who has moved in or out of the neighborhood within the last year.
Make copies of photographs of your child in both black and white and color to provide to law enforcement, NCMEC, and media.
Ask your law enforcement agency to organize a search for your child both foot patrol and canine.
Ask law enforcement to issue an AMBER ALERT if your child’s disappearance meets the criteria.
Ask law enforcement for guidance when working with media. It is important not to divulge information law enforcement does not want released to media possibly compromising the recovery efforts of your child.
Designate one individual to answer your phone notating and summarizing each phone call, complete with contact information for each person who has called in one notebook.
In addition, keep a notebook with you at all times to write down thoughts, questions, and important information, such as names, dates and telephone numbers.
Take good care of yourself and your family because your child needs you to be strong. Force yourself to eat, rest and talk to others about your feelings.
The Next 24 Hours
Ask for a meeting with your investigator to discuss steps being taken to find your child. Ensure your investigator has a copy of Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management. They can call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST to obtain a copy. In addition, ask them to contact the Crimes Against Children Coordinator in their local FBI Field Office to obtain a copy of the FBI’s Child Abduction Response Plan.
Expand your list of friends, acquaintances, extended family members, landscapers, delivery persons, babysitters and anyone who may have seen your child during or following their disappearance or abduction.
Look at personal calendars, newspapers and community events calendars to see if there may be any clues as to who may have been in the area and provide this information to law enforcement.
Understand you will be asked to take a polygraph. This is standard procedure.
Ask your law enforcement agency to request NCMEC issue a Broadcast Fax to law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
Work cooperatively with your law enforcement agency to issue press releases and media events.
Talk to law enforcement about the use of a reward.
Report all information and/or extortion attempts to law enforcement immediately.
Have a second telephone line installed with call forwarding, Caller ID and call waiting. If you do not have one, get a cell phone so you can receive calls when you are away from home and forward all calls to it.
Make a list of what volunteers can do for you and your family.
Contact your child’s doctor and dentist and request copies of medical records and x-rays to provide to police. Ask the doctor to expedite your request based upon the circumstances.
Take care of yourself and your family and do not be afraid to ask others to help take care of your physical and emotional needs. Your remaining children need to know you are also there for them while staying strong and healthy for them all.
The resounding message here is family members of missing persons must take care of themselves and include others in their journey to help them along when they are tiring.
It was June 9, 1995, on a beautiful evening in the small town of Alma, Arkansas. Alma is located along I-40 within the Arkansas River Valley at the edge of the Ozark Mountains with a population under 5,000 people.
That evening was the first time 6-year old Morgan Nick had gone to a baseball game. Her mother Colleen was attending the Rookie League game at the Alma ballpark and Morgan had whined about having to sit next to her mother in the bleachers. There was a nearby sand pile with other children playing and Morgan wanted to play. It was within eyesight and only seconds away, so Colleen consented.
Morgan Nick, age 6, vanished from Alma, Arkansas on June 9, 1995
Morgan ran to the sandpile, laughing with the other children while Colleen turned her head back to watch the Marlins and Pythons. A player whacked the ball and two runners tied the game, then a run was scored, and the Pythons won the game. The sound of the crowd cheering was deafening.
When Colleen stood up, she could see Morgan’s playmates walking down the hill away from the sandpile, but where was Morgan? It was approximately 10:30 p.m.
The children told Colleen, Morgan was pouring sand out of her shoe near her mother’s car parked nearby. Colleen frantically searched. Morgan was gone.
Later, the children would tell police they saw a man approach Morgan. Another abduction attempt had occurred in Alma the same day and police had a composite sketched based on witnesses of the other incident.
Thousands of leads later, numerous appearances on national news talk shows, even America’s Most Wanted, and Morgan’s mother is nowhere closer to knowing what happened to her daughter. Police have interviewed hundreds of persons of interest, searched homes and wells, and dug up slabs of concrete with backhoes, but Morgan remains missing 23 years later.
The stakes are high when a person vanishes involuntarily.
Morgan’s mother Colleen spent years keeping Morgan’s room the way it was when she vanished. She bought Christmas presents and a birthday present each year, hoping Morgan would someday return to open them.
The emotional toll is beyond words.
On Morgan’s Birthday, September 12, 2014, Colleen wrote an Open Letter to Morgan, posted on the NCMEC blog.
A Letter to Our Missing Daughter Morgan Nick
Today is your 26th birthday. Today marks twenty birthdays without you here. We miss you so desperately and our hearts are ragged with grief. We have searched for you every single day since the day you were kidnapped from us at the Little League Baseball field in Alma, Arkansas.
You were only 6 years old. We went with our friends to watch one of their children play in the game. You threw your arms around my neck in a bear hug, planted a kiss on my cheek, and ran to catch fireflies with your friends.
It is the last time that I saw you. There have been so many days since then of emptiness and heartache.
On this birthday I choose to think about your laughter, your smile, the twinkle in your sparkling blue eyes. I celebrate who you are and the deep and lasting joy that you bring to our family.
I smile today as I think about your 5th birthday. For that birthday, we took you to the Humane Society with the promise of adopting a kitten. You, my precious little girl with your big heart, took one look around the cat room and picked out the ugliest, scrawniest, most pitiful looking kitten in the entire place. Such a tiny little thing, that it was mostly all eyes.
Dad and I used our best parental powers of persuasion to get you to pick a different kitten, to look at the older cats, to choose any other feline besides that poor ugly kitty. It looked like someone had taken the worst leftover colors of mud, stirred them together, and used them to design a kitten.
You planted your five-year-old feet, looked us straight in the eye and declared that this was the kitten you were taking home. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. You would not budge, and you resolutely refused to take a second look at any other cat or kitten in the room. You had a fire of conviction in your heart.
The unexpected obstacle we faced was we were not able to adopt on that Saturday but had to wait until Monday to finalize. For the rest of the weekend and all-day Monday, you fretted and pouted and worried someone else would take “your” kitten home with them. We tried to assure you that no one else would want that cat. We didn’t want to say it was because it was so tiny, or so ugly, or so-nothing-at-all-but-eyes. You could see only beauty and you were in love.
Finally, Monday afternoon came, and dad brought it home with him after work. In that moment, your daddy was your biggest hero because he had saved your kitten.
You tenderly snuggled that little bit of fur into your arms and declared that her name was Emily. You adored your new kitten and she loved you right back. Emily gained some weight and filled out a bit. Her colors started to take shape. We began to see the same beauty in her that you had seen in that very first moment.
Where you went, Emily went. You played together. You ate together. You watched Barney together. You slept together.
Which brings me to the photo. It captures everything we love about you. I would slip into your room late at night and stand there, watching the two of you sleeping together, in awe of your sweetness, and my heart would squeeze a little tighter.
So many birthdays have passed since then. So many days since a stranger ripped you from our hearts.
My sweet girl, if you should happen to read this, we want you to know how very important and special you are to us. You are a blessing we cannot live without. We feel cheated by every day that goes by and we do not see your smile, hear your bubbly laughter, or listen to your thoughts and ideas. We have never stopped believing that we will find you. We are saving all our hugs and kisses for you.
Please be strong and brave, with a fire of conviction in your heart, just like the day you picked out your kitten!
On this birthday we promise you that we will always fight for you. We will bring you back home to our family where you belong. We will always love you! We will never give up.
Love Mom (Colleen Nick) & Dad
One cannot help but feel the Nick family’s loss. So many birthdays, so many Christmases, so many days wondering if Morgan is alive. How on earth have they done it?
Hope is incredibly important in life for health, happiness, success and coping. Research shows optimistic people are more likely to live fulfilling lives and to enjoy life. In addition, hope relieves stress reducing the risk of many leading causes of death such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Having hope takes a special kind of courage I have found so many families of missing persons have mustered during the most difficult time of their lives . . . not just one season but many Seasons of Hope.