As a true crime journalist who searches for the missing, I am keenly aware of the breadcrumbs I’m leaving behind throughout a typical day. If I were to suddenly disappear, these bits of information will mean everything to detectives. But I worry that these clues will be misleading, that my receipts and cell phone pings will only muddy the waters of the official investigation should I vanish without a trace, because the littlest detail can seem quite suspicious when taken out of context.
James Renner is a novelist and journalist from Ohio. He’s new work of nonfiction, True Crime Addict, follows his investigation into the disappearance of Maura Murray. It’s available everywhere books are sold, May 24.
For instance, the police might find the credit card slip in my car that shows I was in the bad part of Akron, today, and think that has something to do with whatever happened. That’s where people go to buy crack, after all. But really, I only drove out to Exchange because I found a new place over there that serves authentic Pho. Yesterday, I paid for several mirrors at a craft-supply store I’d never visited in the past. If I disappeared, the detectives will wonder why I altered my routine that day. Maybe they’ll suspect I was using those mirrors to cut cocaine (my son needed them to build a periscope for Cub Scouts – honest!).
When someone goes missing, the clues they leave behind lack context. There’s no telling which detail is important and which isn’t. And the cases that go cold often contain more clues than the ones that don’t. It makes a certain kind of sense, if you think about it. These unsolved cases lack focus because there’s just enough evidence to lead a detective in any direction they wish to go. Without focus, how can an investigator hone in on the solution?
A disappearance is a half-finished story. Is the victim alive? Are they dead? Other crimes at least have a conclusion: murder, robbery, assault. We know what we’re dealing with. Not so with disappearances.
Of course, that’s what I like about them. And I suspect I’m not alone. After all, who doesn’t like a challenge?
Over the years, I’ve kept a log of the most alluring disappearances. I present them here, in no particular order.
10. Ted Conrad
Case Background: It was the summer of 1969 and the future looked bright for young Ted Conrad. He was a handsome, bright kid with a nice job at Society National Bank, in Cleveland. He had a cute girlfriend and an apartment in Lakewood. He could have done anything he set his mind to. And what he set his mind to that summer was robbing the his bank.
Conrad was a fan of The Thomas Crown Affair, the one with Steve McQueen. He watched the movie over and over, religiously and began to model himself after McQueen’s debonair character, purchasing a sports car and becoming fluent in French. On his twentieth birthday – Friday, July 11 – Conrad purchased a fifth of whiskey and smokes during his lunch break and made sure to show everyone the bag as he returned to the vault for the remainder of the day. When his shift was over, he walked out of the bank with the paper bag. But this time it was filled with $215,000. That was a lot of cheese in 1969 – adjusted for inflation, that’s equal to about $1.3 million, today.
Nobody noticed he was missing until Monday. By the time the bank figured out it had been robbed, Conrad had a four day head start on the F.B.I.
Possible Solutions: Conrad would be sixty-six years old, today. Family members claim he never contacted them after he fled Cleveland and his brother-in-law believes he’s dead. Conrad was spotted at a bar in Hawaii a couple weeks after the theft, by a couple from Cleveland on vacation. Before he vanished for good, Conrad sent his girlfriend a letter postmarked from Engelwood, California, near Los Angeles International Airport.
Want to hear something really crazy? I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations not long after I reported on Conrad’s disappearance for The Free Times. It was the episode where Bourdain travels to Hawaii and meets a strange old man living in a house on a volcano. The old man wouldn’t talk about his past and refused to leave the evacuation area as the lava fields drew near. I’m not positive, but damn it if that strange man doesn’t look like an old Teddy Conrad.
9. Madeleine McCann
Case Background: The disappearance of Madeleine McCann is easily the most publicized missing persons case this century. But for all the reports and news specials, the mystery remains unsolved. Madeleine was from Leicester, a city near the center of England. She was on vacation with her family at Praia da Luz, a Portugal resort, in May, 2007, a week before her fourth birthday, when she vanished from the ground-floor bedroom of a rented apartment near the beach. Her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, had gone with friends to eat dinner at a restaurant a mere 160 feet from the apartment door. During the meal, members of their group went to check on Madeleine, who was sleeping in a bedroom with her younger siblings. The McCanns had left the patio door unlocked so they could easily come in and out to check on them. Madeleine’s mother discovered her daughter was missing sometime around 10 p.m. The bedroom window was open, the girl was gone.
Possible Solutions: How can a girl just disappear from a popular holiday resort? Was she abducted? Was her death accidental and her body hidden? Is she still alive? Early scrutiny fell on Madeleine’s parents but it’s very difficult to believe they could have had anything to do with some kind of rushed cover-up while dining with seven friends. And it was Madeleine’s father who reported the girl missing at 10:10 p.m. that night. In the last nine years, according to the BBC, police have taken 1,338 statements and have looked closely at 60 persons of interest. There have been over 8,000 reported sightings of Madeleine from all over the world – so many, in fact, that the sightings, alone, have their own Wikipedia page. In a recent interview, Kate McCann said she believes her daughter is still alive, and being held not far from Praia da Luz.
8. D.B. Cooper
Case Background: This case is fascinating because it is actually a series of mysteries. On November 24, 1971, a handsome, well-dressed, Don Draper-type who called himself “Dan Cooper,” boarded a Boeing 727 at Portland International Airport for a thirty-minute hop to Seattle. He lit a cigarette, ordered a bourbon and soda, and when the plane took off, he handed a stewardess a note in which he claimed to have a bomb. He then casually asked for $200,000 cash and four parachutes to be delivered in exchange for the passengers when they reached Seattle. The FBI met his demands and the passengers and some crew were released before Cooper instructed the pilot to take off again. After they were in the air, he told the rest of the crew to join the captain in the cockpit and stay there with the door closed. At about 8 p.m., the aft airstairs opened up and Cooper jumped out with the money and two parachutes. It remains the only unsolved hijacking in American history.
So who was “Dan Cooper?” And where did he go?
Possible Solutions: There are dozens of men who have been suspected of being D.B. Cooper, as he came to be known thanks to a newspaper misprint. Several books have been written, pointing fingers at different suspects. But to date, none of these men have been linked to the fingerprints and DNA the FBI have on file. It’s possible the hijacker died as soon as he jumped from the plane, his neck snapping when the parachute opened, his corpse slowly falling into the deep woods south of Seattle. Perhaps he landed in a river or lake and that’s why no body was ever found. After all, an eight-year-old boy discovered a couple bundles of Cooper’s ransom cash in the Columbia River, in 1980. But if Cooper did die that day, there has to be a missing persons report that matches him out there somewhere, since he never managed to return to the life he left behind.
7. Amy Lynn Bradley
Case Background: In March of 1998, twenty-three-year-old Amy Lynn Bradley joined her parents and brother on a Caribbean cruise, while on break from college. They were aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Rhapsody of the Seas, en route to Curacao, the morning of March 24 when she suddenly vanished. She was seen around 5:30 a.m., on the balcony of her family’s suite. Her father realized she was missing around 6 a.m. The balcony door was left open and her sandals were just inside the room. This occurred just as the ship was entering the Curacao port and her father asked the crew to not let anyone off until they found Amy but the gangplank was lowered anyway.
The night before her disappearance, Amy and her brother were up until 3:30 a.m., partying at the disco with the ship’s band, Blue Orchid. Amy was last seen in an elevator with one of the band members, a man known as “Yellow,” according to The Charley Project website.
Possible Solutions: Though she was last seen on a cruise ship, it’s not likely that Amy could have jumped from the balcony or have been pushed into the ocean. At the time of her disappearance, the ship was pulling into Curacao and she likely would have been seen by crew or tourists on land if she’d fallen into the water. She was also an excellent swimmer. So, did Amy exit with the other passengers on Curacao? Did she decide to stay on her own or was she kidnapped? Two Canadian tourists claimed they saw Amy on a beach in Curacao in 1998, and even identified her tattoos. And, in 1999, a man in the Navy came forward saying he saw Amy in a Caribbean brothel, leading to speculation that she may have been sold into sex slavery.
6. The 229 People Aboard MH370
Case Background: In this day of constant surveillance, advanced radar technology, and heightened airline security it is inconceivable that a large passenger jet could simply vanish without a trace. And yet that’s exactly what happened on March 8, 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 flew out of Kuala Lumpur International Airport and failed to arrive as scheduled in Beijing. Everything seemed fine when the captain communicated with air traffic control in Kuala Lumpur, but then he failed to check in with their Ho Chi Minh City counterparts when the plane crossed into Vietnamese airspace. At the same time, the jet’s transponder stopped functioning and it could no longer be tracked by tradition radar. However, military radar still had it. They tracked Flight 370 as it went off course and turned to the southwest. The aircraft’s satellite data unit continued to communicate with its satellite, even though the transponder was down. The SDU data suggests Flight 370 flew west for another five hours before it stopped transmitting altogether.
Possible Solutions: Oh man, how far down the rabbit hole do you want to jump? There are those who believe the flight was hijacked by terrorists who diverted it to Afghanistan so the aircraft could be used in a future attack. Others believe that twenty-two employees of a semiconductor company who were passengers aboard Flight 370 had to be murdered to silence what they knew about stealth technology. And there are some who blame things like black holes, aliens, and Shakira (I’m not kidding).
If Flight 370 was hijacked perhaps it was taken over by the two men who used stolen passports to clear security in Kuala Lumpur. Or maybe the captain decided to commit suicide and take everyone with him – it’s happened before. Maybe the lithium-ion batteries in the cargo hold caught fire and fried the electrical system.
Last year, debris from a Boeing 777 washed up on a beach on Reunion Island, in the western Indian Ocean. Since then, other pieces of an aircraft have been found along the coast of Mozambique. Though these artifacts have yet to be conclusively linked to Flight 370, they do fit the pattern of debris we expected to find if it crashed into the Indian Ocean.
But if it is Flight 370 how did it get so off course? What happened on board that plane for six hours after it lost contact with air traffic controllers?
5. Tara Calico
Case Background: Nineteen-year-old Tara Calico borrowed her mother’s bicycle and went for a ride near her house in the small town of Belen, New Mexico, the morning of September 20, 1988. She was listening to her Walkman as she pedaled along her usual route down Highway 47. She was due to return home by noon and was last seen around 11:45 a.m., two miles away. Her mother went searching for her at 12:05 p.m. When she could not find her, she contacted police. Later, part of Tara’s Walkman was found near a campground, nineteen miles away. Neither Tara nor the bicycle were ever found.
Possible Solutions: There are two clear possibilities in Tara’s case: 1. She was abducted by a man or a group of men. 2. Her death was accidental but covered up.
One clue that supports the abduction theory is the disturbing Polaroid photograph that was discovered in a parking lot in Port St. Joe, Florida, in 1989. It’s a picture of a woman who resembles Tara, bound and gagged in the back of a van beside a young boy, who is also restrained. Her mother believes it to be Tara and points to the scar seen on the woman’s leg that matches an injury Tara suffered in a car accident, as proof. But some police detectives who worked on the case lean toward a simpler explanation: that Tara was accidentally struck by a truck, driven by a boy she knew. That boy, and at least one friend, then covered it up, disposing of Tara’s body and the bike. Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera has publicly stated he believes this is what happened but cannot prosecute due to lack of a body.
4. Ray Gricar
Case Background: On April, 15, 2005, the District Attorney for Centre County, Pennsylvania, vanished under very mysterious circumstances. He was playing hooky that Friday, as he liked to do, driving through Brush Valley, cruising the back roads of rural P.A. When he didn’t return that evening, his girlfriend reported him missing. Police found his red MINI Cooper parked in the lot of an antique store in Lewisburg, near a bridge over the Susquehanna River. He was never seen again. A few months later, fishermen recovered Gricar’s laptop computer from the river. The hard drive had been removed. The hard drive was eventually discovered on the shore but it was so damaged, nobody could recover the data it once contained. A search of his home computer found Internet searches for “how to wreck a hard drive” and “water damage to a notebook computer.”
Possible Solutions: This one gets weird, fast. First, there’s the rumor that Gricar was murdered to avoid a sex scandal. You see, Gricar’s office had investigated Jerry Sandusky after kids came forward claiming they had been sexually abused by the Penn State assistant football coach. But in 1998, Gricar declined to press charges and the truth didn’t come out for another thirteen years. Some believe that Gricar, facing retirement in 2005, was finally going to make the allegations public and had met someone in the parking lot about this, only to be killed.
I prefer to believe that Gricar staged his disappearance and changed his identity to live out the remainder of his life, quietly. And I think he did it in such a way as to pay homage to a science fiction book he once consulted on. Author Pamela West approached Gricar about twenty years before he disappeared, asking for a little help with a novel she was working on, titled 20/20 Vision. It was a mystery loosely based on the cold case murder of Penn State student Betsy Aardsma, but it used time travel to solve the crime. In the novel, the main character disappears from State College, on April 14. Like Gricar, this detective was about to retire. And cigarette ash was found in Gricar’s vehicle, just like in the book, though neither Gricar, nor the protagonist smoked.
3. Brian Shaffer
Case Background: Brian Shaffer was dashingly handsome med student at Ohio State University when he disappeared after a night of drinking, on Friday, March 31, 2006. Shaffer and his friend, William “Clint” Florence, met up at the Ugly Tuna Saloona around 9 p.m. and then went bar-hopping for several hours before returning to the Ugly Tuna just before 2 a.m. The bar’s security camera shows Brian walking in but never coming out, again. His friends say they figured he’d gone home. He wasn’t reported missing until Monday, when he didn’t show up to catch a flight to Miami, where he planned to spend Spring Break with his girlfriend.
Possible Solutions: Not long before he went missing, Brian Shaffer’s mother died and those close to him say he took it hard. This event, and the pressures of medical school, lead some to believe he committed suicide, though no body has ever been found. Perhaps instead of killing himself, he simply walked away from his life. Others suspect foul play. His friend, Clint Florence, refuses to take a lie detector test. But again, where is the body? How did Brian get out of the bar without being seen by security cameras? Two New York homicide detectives have even suggested Brian was the victim of the Smiley Face serial killer, a rumored boogeyman who draws smiley faces near the locations of the bodies he’s dumped in rivers.
2. The Beaumont Siblings
Case Background: On Australia Day, in 1966, Jane, Arnna, and Grant Beaumont disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia. Jane was the oldest at nine. Arnna was seven. Grant, just four. Their parents often let Jane take her younger siblings to the beach to play that summer. The children set out from home at 10 a.m. and were supposed to return at 2. When they still hadn’t come home by 7:30 that night, their parents called police. No trace of them has ever been found.
Several witnesses came forward later to say they’d seen the Beaumont children playing at the beach. The children were seen in the company of tall, blond man with a thin face and a sun tan. They also bought a meat pie from a local vendor, which was strange for two reasons: 1. They’d come into the store before, but never for a meat pie. 2. Nobody knows where the children got the money for the snack, as they were not sent out from home with enough coin to cover it.
Possible Solutions: Washed out to sea? Jane was the only one of the lot who could swim, and she couldn’t swim all that well. Did Grant wander into the ocean, prompting his older sisters to attempt a rescue? Were they killed in an accident while walking along Jetty Road, their bodies hidden as part of a cover-up? Did the tall, blond man abduct them? Was he the person who gave the children money for the meat pie? A reward of $1 million still stands for information that might solve this mystery.
1. Maura Murray
Case Background: On the surface, Maura Murray appeared to be the quintessential All-American Girl: track star, former West Point cadet, nursing student, and cute as a button. Then a series of strange events began one night while Maura was working the security desk at Melville Hall, on the campus of UMass, Amherst. This was Thursday, February 5, 2004. A shift manager found Maura at her desk in a catatonic state. All she would say was, “my sister.” The manager escorted her back to her room. The next day, school was canceled due to snow. That Saturday, Maura’s father, Fred, came to visit, with $4,000 in cash, to find her a new car, he says, though they never purchased one. On Saturday night Maura wrecked Fred’s car on the way back to his motel room around 3:30 a.m. On Monday morning, Maura sent an email to professors, stating that she would not be in class that week due to a death in the family – this was a lie. Nobody had died.
That afternoon, Maura got into her car, stopped by an ATM to empty out her bank account, and then drove north into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where she got into another accident, this time smashing into a snow bank. A bus driver who lived nearby stopped to ask if she needed help. She declined. The time between the accident and the moment the first officer arrived on scene was between five and seven minutes. Sometime in that window, Maura vanished.
Possible Solutions: I began investigating Maura’s disappearance in 2010 and what I found was quite shocking. Maura was not the angelic young woman presented in early media reports. At the time of her disappearance she was in trouble for credit card fraud and identity theft. She left West Point in the middle of a judicial inquiry that was launched when she stole makeup from the commissary at Fort Knox. And she had been having an affair with her track coach and sometimes told him that she wanted to run away and start a new life.
Where was Maura going when she crashed her car in New Hampshire? What happened to her afterwards? Was she heading into the White Mountains to commit suicide, to go off and die “like an old squaw,” as her father suggested to police. Was she picked up by a serial killer? Or did she use an underground railroad for abused women to aide her escape into Canada?