The 12 Most Mysterious Disappearances

Hundreds of thousands of Americans go missing every year. Here are some of the cases that continue to capture attention, and some that remain unsolved.

Transparent outline of a young girl stands in an empty street. Signifies a missing child.

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Every year in the United States, over 600,000 people go missing; that’s according to NamUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Person System. The good news is that most of the missing are found, but thousands are never located. Similarly, 4,400 unidentified bodies are discovered every year, but 1,000 will still be unidentified 12 months later. While most of the missing fade from public view, a few cases here and there stand out. Some are monuments in American memory, like Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa. Others are remembered because the missing persons were eventually found, like Elizabeth Smart or the trio of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina DeJesus. Here we look back at a few cases (outside of the well-covered Earhart and Hoffa) that still hold a place of fascination in the public consciousness.

Roanoke Colony

Investigators find a tree carving of the word CROATOAN near the abandoned colony of Roanoke
(William Ludwell Sheppard, Engraving by William James Linton – Flickr, Source, No restrictions)

The original American mystery, the second attempt at a colony on Roanoke Island in what would become North Carolina completely disappeared. The first attempt was in 1585 and abandoned a year later due to, among other reasons, a dearth of supplies. The second attempt started in 1587; various circumstances, including the Anglo-Spanish War, stopped founder John White from returning with supplies and equipment until 1590. White and others found that the colony had at one point had a defensive wall, but the houses were stripped for parts and buried supply trunks had been emptied. On a post was carved the word CROATOAN, which was the name of both a nearby island and a Native American tribe that lived there. The party had to leave due to ship difficulties before an accurate determination could be made, but for all intents and purposes, the 100+ settlers had disappeared. Conjecture over the years has had the settlers massacred by another tribe, assimilating into a different tribe, or suffering any other number of fates. To this day, the whereabouts of the colonists after White left remain a mystery.

D.B. Cooper

FBI sketch of D.B. Cooper
U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. / Public domain

The FBI closed the this case in 2016, but that doesn’t mean that speculation stopped. The man calling himself “D.B. Cooper” hijacked a Boeing 727 to Seattle in 1971. After securing a $200,000 ransom, Cooper bailed out via parachute, and neither he nor the money was ever seen again. Many questions still surround the case, like “Was Cooper an alias?” or was it even possible to successfully parachute to safety from the plane’s height. Whatever the case, Cooper disappeared from the plane and into history.

 

The Mary Celeste

When the Canadian ship Del Gratia found the two-masted American ship Mary Celeste adrift near the Azores near Portugal in 1872, it’s likely they had no idea that the abandoned ship would become legend. Mary Celeste was found in good shape with its cargo intact, the sail partially up, and the lifeboat gone. The ship had left New York for Italy less than a month before, but it had been 10 days since the last entry in the log, which was still aboard. Similarly, the belongings of the captain and crew were intact. Ten people had been on the ship when it left the States, including seven crew, the captain, his wife, and their daughter. Apart from the people, the major things missing were the captain’s navigation gear and ship documents. The ship was salvaged and stayed in service for some years, but the captain, his family, and the crew were never found. Many theories have been proposed, from hungry giant squids to paranormal intervention.

Judge Joseph Force Crater

The Saturday Evening Post examined the case of Judge Crater on more than one occasion. A recent appointee to the State Supreme Court of New York in 1930, Crater left a restaurant on August 6 and was never seen again. Post Archive Director Jeff Nilsson took a deep dive into the case in 2009, which includes a link to the original Jack Alexander piece, “What Happened to Judge Crater?” from 1960.

Lauren Spierer

In March of 2019, Time referred to the 2011 disappearance of Lauren Spierer as one of the most mysterious of all time. The fact that Spierer disappeared isn’t quite unusual; in 2019, more than 235,000 women under the age of 21 were reported missing. However, the circumstances surrounding the vanishing of the 20-year-old Indiana University student make it all the more baffling. Spierer was out with friends on June 2 and into June 3 in Bloomington, Indiana. She was definitely in a local bar, seen on surveillance video at 2:51 a.m., and confirmed to have been sighted outside the residence of a friend around 4:30 a.m. Since then, she hasn’t been seen again. The investigation continues to this day, with FBI agents searching a residence in Martinsville, Indiana in 2016 in connection with case. There are still no further leads, though the Find Lauren website posts updates.

Jim Sullivan

Singer-songwriter Jim Sullivan cut two albums between 1969 and 1972. He played the high-end club circuits, made friends in the movie business, and even performed on TV shows and appeared as an extra in Easy Rider. In 1975, Sullivan abandoned his car at a ranch in New Mexico. He apparently left behind everything he had with him, including his guitar, copies of his albums, clothes, and money. Reports indicated he was last seen walking away from the car, and he was never seen again. A variety of stories circulated as to his possible fate, but no evidence or body was ever found.

Etan Patz

Patz was six when he disappeared on May 25, 1979. The young boy had been on the way to the bus stop when he vanished. The case generated a veritable avalanche of publicity, with Patz’s picture being among the first photos of a missing child to be printed on a milk carton. Despite a massive search effort and various leads, Patz was never found. In 1983, president Ronald Reagan designated May 25 as National Missing Children’s Day; the following year, the National Center for Missing Children was founded by John and Revé Walsh, with the disappearance of Patz cited as one of the prime motivators alongside the abduction of the Walsh’s own son, Adam. Patz was declared dead in 2001. In 2017, Pedro Hernandez was convicted of the kidnapping and felony murder of Patz after a public confession from years previous was brought to light.

Sneha Anne Philip

Born in India, Philip moved with her family to America where she attended Johns Hopkins University, followed by the Chicago School of Medicine. She married fellow student Ron Lieberman, and the pair moved to New York City where they interned at different medical centers. The last time that Lieberman saw his wife was on September 10, 2001. What happened next has been the subject of endless debate, more than one investigation, and court cases. It’s definite that Philip went shopping and then went out for the night. Lobby video shows that she may have returned to the building while her husband was at work on the morning of September 11. When the attacks on the World Trade Center began, it’s now believed that Philip was at the nearby apartment and ran toward the scene to offer her medical assistance. Philip’s body was never recovered. However, a 2008 court decision has now officially placed Philip as the 2,751st victim at Ground Zero.

John Patrick Kerrigan

In August of 1982, Father Reynaldo Rivera was murdered in New Mexico. In July of 1984, Father John Patrick Kerrigan disappeared in Montana. A bloody coat-hanger and bloody clothes were found by a highway, and Kerrigan’s vehicle (a brown Chevy Malibu, coincidentally like Rivera’s car) was found a week later in Polson, Montana; Kerrigan’s wallet, a pillowcase, and a bloody shovel were in the trunk. Rivera had been lured to a rest stop by someone requesting last rites for their grandfather; Rivera was apparently taken, strangled (with what might have been a coat hanger), and shot. The FBI believed it to be a revenge killing. Kerrigan’s body has never been found. As the investigation continued, it was determined that Kerrigan had spent time in New Mexico, notably at Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, before he was sent to Montana. That congregation hosted members of the clergy with issues, including sexual allegations. In 2015, following a class action suit against the Diocese of Helena, the church published a list of priests and nuns accused of sexual abuse; Kerrigan’s name was on the list, fueling speculation as to why he and Rivera were murdered. The two cases are now considered to be linked due to similar evidence in both cases and Kerrigan’s New Mexico connection. However, Kerrigan’s remains are still undiscovered and no further evidence has been found.

Cherrie Mahan

Cherrie Mahan got off her school bus in Pennsylvania in 1985 and vanished before she could reach her home. The mother of some school friends who was in a car behind the bus said that she saw Cherrie pass a distinctive blue van before turning the corner toward her driveway, but that’s all she saw. Mahan’s case led to widespread distribution of postcards emblazoned with her picture and the logo, “Have You Seen Me?”, a procedure that entered regular use for missing child cases in the years to follow. Mahan was declared legally dead in 1998. She has never been found.

The Springfield Three

On June 6, 1992, Suzie Streeter and Stacy McCall graduated from Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Missouri. The pair hit a series of graduation parties. At 2 a.m. on June 7, they decided to modify their plan of staying the night at a friend’s house (deeming it too packed) and went to Streeter’s home, where she lived with her mother, Sherrill Levitt. At around 9 a.m., the girls’ friend, Janelle Kirby, and her boyfriend came to the Levitt house looking for the girls; they were supposed to meet to go to a waterpark. The front door of the house was unlocked; aside from a broken globe surrounding the porch light, nothing else seemed obviously amiss. However, Streeter, McCall, and Levitt were nowhere to be found. Their cars, keys, purses, clothing, and cigarettes were in the house, as was Levitt and Streeter’s dog. McCall’s mother came to the house later and reported the women missing; however, a “strange message” on the answering machine was accidentally deleted during the bustle of people moving in and out of the home. While there have been various tips or leads over the years, no trace of the women was found and the case is considered unsolved.

Phoenix Coldon

In 2018, Oxygen ran a two-night special devoted to her case.  (Uploaded to YouTube by Oxygen)

This much is known. Phoenix Reeves was born in California; she was adopted by her step-father, Lawrence Coldon. The family later moved to Missouri. Coldon was a fencer and a musician. In December of 2011, the college student’s car was found in East St. Louis; her purse, ID, and glasses were still inside. The Coldons initially had trouble getting the police to take the disappearance seriously, as Phoenix was labelled a runaway; the family cited a phenomenon of missing black women getting less coverage as another obstacle. Shortly after the disappearance, the family discovered that not only had Phoenix not re-enrolled in college, she had apparently been living with a man without their knowledge. She also had two cell phones: one that her family paid for, and one that she’d acquired on her own. Phoenix had also made a video in selfie style, talking about her desire to start over. However, these factors complicate what could be a disappearance brought on by another party. It’s true that Phoenix could have disappeared on her own (or with help), but she could also been abducted. At this point, no one knows for sure.

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