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.
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.
It has been over a decade since Facebook first broke ground in social media. Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has gone from connecting people in close proximity—students on college campuses—to closing the gaps of space and time as old high school flames reignite their old love through the lines of Facebook Messenger. However, not even Mark Zuckerburg could have predicted Facebook would be used to connect family members and amateur investigators in order to uncover new leads in unsolved or cold cases. The social media platform hosts hundreds of discussion pages, like Cold Case Discussion Group and Missing Leads, all ranging from the unsolved murder of child pageant star, JonBenét Ramsay, to the disappearances of private citizens.
As the epidemic of missing persons and unsolved cold cases in the United States grows, so does the number of Facebook discussion groups dedicated to the collection of new leads in these cases. These discussion groups and subsequent websites devoted to the re-examination of these cases have provided a new platform for connecting armchair detectives across the country. The phrase “armchair detective” refers to a person, who is not a member of law enforcement and who is not involved in the investigation process, who makes a hobby or career to research crimes and investigations in the hope of solving them. The phrase possibly first appeared in a Sherlock Holmes short story called The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter in which Holmes says, referring to his brother, Mycroft, “If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived.” Armchair detectives may be professionals such as investigative journalists or former law enforcement. They may also be retired private citizens, like Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub of Baltimore, Maryland.
Hoskins and Schaub are like many of the middle-class people who grew up in Baltimore in the 1960’s. They were involved in their community, they attended church, and like many of their peers, they attended an all-girls Catholic school, Archbishop Keough High School, where they were under the instruction of a nun named Sister Catherine Cesnik. Both Hoskins and Schaub were former students of Sister Cathy’s when she mysteriously disappeared in early November of 1969. Her body was found nearly three months later by hunters in a wooded area outside Baltimore. The medical examiner discovered Sister Cathy died by blunt force trauma to her skull—the manner of death is homicide. Despite various leads, including the victim’s car being found abandoned across the street from her apartment, the trail for those behind Sister Cathy’s murder went cold and stayed cold for nearly half a century.
In 2005, a journalist named Tom Nugent revived interest in the case when he wrote a story entitled “Who Killed Sister Cathy?” for the front page of the Baltimore Sun, but it wasn’t until 2013 that he contacted women like Hoskins and Schaub who might have been Sister Cathy’s students. This renewed interested prompted Gemma Hoskins to post a message on the Facebook group for Archbishop Keough alumni, seeking others who might have information about the circumstances around Sister Cathy’s murder. Her attempt to reach out was met with negative response, with one exception: Abbie Schaub. And thus, an amateur team of armchair detectives was formed.
Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins
Hoskins and Schaub are both retired—Hoskins from teaching and Schaub from nursing—and in the last five years, they have used the leads garnered from their Facebook discussion page about Sister Cathy to break new ground in the cold case, including identifying possible suspects, and circumstantial information that might point to a conspiracy to have the nun abducted and murdered. In the 2016 Netflix series, The Keepers, an original docu-series chronicling the mysterious circumstances surrounding Sister Cathy’s murder, Tom Nugent describes Abbie Schaub as “the intellectual,” and Gemma Hoskins as “the bulldog.” Between the two of them, they make a highly efficient investigative team. While Schaub’s strengths lie in research and the recovery of documents in public-access, Hoskins uses her people skills to pound the pavement in search of anyone with information about their favorite teacher’s murder.
In addition to seeking out the perpetrator behind Sister Cathy’s abduction and murder, Hoskins and Schaub have also taken it upon themselves to help another family who was devastated by a concurrent tragedy in Baltimore in 1969. On November 11th, 1969, three days after Sister Cathy went missing, Joyce Malecki, 20, also disappeared from the Baltimore area. Her body was discovered two days later. The circumstances surrounding the disappearances of both women were strikingly similar: Both women were out shopping on the day they were abducted. Both cars belonging to the respective victims were later found abandoned. The important difference was Malecki’s remains were recovered almost immediately, whereas Sister Cathy’s were not be found for three months. There was no difference to Hoskins and Schaub, who took it upon themselves to solicit tips about the disappearance of the 20-year-old office worker. In The Keepers, Schaub told director, Ryan White, “We thought, ‘As long as we’re doing all of this digging around’ let’s see if we can find something to help the Maleckis.”
The Facebook group monitored by Hoskins and Schaub also spawned a website about the case where anyone could leave an anonymous tip regarding any information they might have about the disappearances of Sister Cathy or Joyce Malecki. Their hard work, determination, and meticulous investigation skills played a major role in the development of The Keepers, with some interviewees alleging Hoskins and Schaub possessed more information than law enforcement. After the release of the Netflix docuseries, the Facebook group received such an overwhelming influx of new members the page was forced to temporarily shut down due to high traffic. The pair of amateur sleuths have made a glowing example of why the rising popularity of true-crime media will play a crucial role in shining new light on unsolved cases. When reflecting on the magnitude of their investigation in the first episode of The Keepers, Tom Nugent tells the camera, “I’ve asked both of them, ‘Don’t you guys want to become investigative journalists? Let’s have some real fun.’ And they tell me, ‘We’ll do it our way.’”
For more information on the cases of Sister Catherine Cesnik and Joyce Malecki, or to leave an anonymous tip, please visit: WhoKilledSisterCathy.com
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.