A missing person, especially a child, emotionally destroys the lives of everyone around them. The heartbreak and stress involved around the disappearance is unparalleled as well as the feeling of inadequacy during the often years-long searching and waiting to hear news from police to no avail. In many situations, the missing cases become public either locally or even internationally, bringing massive publicity and press (sometimes aiding in the recovery of the missing persons) or sometimes simply sensationalizing the whole thing. The stories sometimes even get re-dramatized in movies or mini-series or inspire other scary film synopses.
While many abducted women and children are returned home or escape, some missing persons are never found again. The disappearances often leave questions that remain unanswered for months or years, and families and authorities can follow tips or trails that they find ended up going nowhere. The following list includes missing girls who in some cases were found or returned home but some who are and still will be missing forever. Some of the stories might make you want to lock your windows and sleep with the light on after reading. Regardless, this is a list of 16 missing girl cases that will blow your mind.
16 Mary Agnes Moroney
The oldest missing persons case in Chicago concerns a two year old named Mary Agnes Moroney. Catherine and Michael, the parents of Mary Agnes, were very young and poor and a relative decided to write to a needy-family service in the area for help. “Julia Otis” arrived at the Moroney’s home, saying she had been sent by a social worker. Otis asked if she could take Mary Agnes with her to California for a short while. Catherine refused, Julia handed her $2 but returned the next day and asked to take Mary Agnes to the store to buy her some clothes. This time Catherine let her take the toddler. That was the last time the girl was ever seen.
Strangely, the Moroneys received two letters, one from Julia saying she would bring Mary Agnes back soon after the Moroneys got back on their feet financially, and then another saying “Mrs. Otis had pined for the company of a child after losing her own,” hence the kidnapping. Police concluded that both letters were written in the same handwriting and were from Julia Otis.
A woman came forward in 1952 suspecting she might be Mary Agnes but could not be proven. The case still remains unsolved 89 years later.
15 Joan Risch
On October 24, 1961, Joan Risch’s daughter returned from a playdate to find her mother gone. There was blood smeared in the kitchen, a table was overturned and the phone had be ripped from the wall and thrown in the trash. During the subsequent investigation, two witnesses reported seeing a woman walking down a road near Joan’s house looking untidy and hunched over cradling something. The blood in the kitchen amounted to less than half a pint, indicating it would not have been a life-threatening wound. It was hard to tell where the injury occurred, where the blood might have come from, and, there were no footprints anywhere in the area.
Joan’s husband was on a business trip and therefore had an alibi. A child and the milkman both reported seeing an unfamiliar car in the driveway that day, but the most bizarre part of the case was that the local library said that Joan had checked out 25 books on missing persons cases before her disappearance including one about a woman who left blood smears and a towel as Joan did. Many believe that Joan was unhappy with her life and staged her own disappearance. The case still remains open.
14 Azaria Chamberlain
Have you ever heard the phrase “a dingo ate my baby!” uttered in an Australian accent? Well, this is the case where it originated. Two month old Azaria Chamberlain went missing in August of 1980 while the family was on vacation in Northern Territory, Australia. From the start, her mother Lindy claimed that a dingo had taken her baby, which was never found. During a heavily sensationalized trial, Lindy was charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison. Her husband received a charge as “accessory after the fact.” Several years later, some clothing belonging to Azaria was found near dingo lairs. A court of criminal appeals then overturned all convictions against Lindy and her husband, and in 2012, a coroner officially declared that the baby was taken and killed by a dingo. A movie entitled “A Cry In the Dark” starring Meryl Streep was also made about the case in 1988.
13 Stacy Ann Peterson
Stacy was 19 when she married police sergeant Drew Peterson in 2003. In 2007, she went missing. The case was shady from the beginning due to Drew Peterson’s past: he’d been married three times before, and his third wife’s death was deemed an “accidental drowning” when she was found in a dry bathtub. Drew claimed that Stacy had called him on the night of her disappearance saying she was leaving him for another man. She did not contact anyone else, but her sister claimed she would never leave her children. Search warrants were issued and their property searched, but there was no sign of foul play although Drew’s stepbrother attempted suicide two days after allegedly helping Drew carry a large blue plastic container from Peterson's house to his truck, fearing he may have helped get rid of Stacy’s body.
After Stacy’s disappearance, Drew’s third wife’s body was exhumed, re-examined, and her cause of death was determined as a murder staged to look like an accident when signs of a struggle were found including injuries to her head. Drew is currently in jail for her murder. Stacy has still yet to be found.
12 Kristin Smart
In 1996, Kristin Smart disappeared at California Polytechnic State University. She had attended a party on the night of May 25th and was found by friends passed out on a nearby lawn. Three people helped her walk back in the direction of her dorm. Tim Davis left the group first as he lived off campus, Cheryl Anderson left when she reached her dorm, and Paul Flores walked Kristin as far as his dorm and then allowed her to walk back to hers alone. She was never seen again.
Investigations suggested Paul Flores as a suspect. Kristin’s family even took a wrongful death case against him, but later dropped the lawsuit. From 1996 to 2007, many searches were conducted including those with ground penetrating radar, but nothing ever was found. As a result of her disappearance, the Kristin Smart Campus Security Act was enacted requiring publicly funded educational institutions to have their security services make agreements with local police departments about reporting cases involving or possibly involving violence against students, including missing students.
11 Elizabeth Smart
The case of missing fourteen year old Elizabeth Smart was a much publicized one. While sleeping at home, Elizabeth was abducted from her bed by two people, one of which was later identified as someone named “Emmanuel” by Elizabeth’s sister. “Emmanuel” was someone the Smarts had hired to do odd jobs around the house (real name: Brian David Mitchell).
During the night of the kidnapping, Elizabeth was forced to walk for hours into the woods near her home where a fake “marriage ceremony” was performed by Mitchell’s wife for the kidnapped girl and Mitchell. She suffered extreme amounts of sexual abuse during the nine months away from her family. After being moved to California, she was eventually able to outsmart her captors by making them believe that God wanted them to move back to Utah. Even though she was disguised when they returned, several people recognized Mitchell and Elizabeth was rescued. Although she still lives with the nightmare of what happened to her, Elizabeth was able to turn it into something positive: she created the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to prevent crimes against children, she lobbied Congress to create a National Sex Offender registry, and she advocates for the Amber Alert System.
10 Natalee Holloway
Another highly publicized case involved Natalee Holloway who vanished in 2005. She was on a post-high school trip with friends in Aruba when she suddenly went missing. The night of her disappearance, she was at a bar and left with three men, one named Joran van der Sloot.
When Natalee did not show up for her flight home, searches were started and hundreds of volunteers got involved. The three men from the previous evening were prime suspects. Van der Sloot changed his story several times during the interrogation period, and the investigation and re-arrests continued during the months and years following. There were conflicting stories from witnesses from the last night Natalee was seen, leaving inconsistent evidence. The Aruban police have since been criticized for lack of progress during the investigation. Natalee Holloway was declared officially dead in 2011 and creepily enough, van der Sloot is currently serving time for murder of another woman.
New declarations by an Amsterdam man saying that he saw van der Sloot bury Natalee’s body at a construction site have come up. The man previously did not come forward due to his involvement in illegal drug activity at the time, but his story is being investigated.
9 Amelia Earhart
Probably the most famous of the missing women cases listed here is Amelia Earhart, the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. On June 1, 1937, she and Fred Noonan left Miami in a Lockheed Model 10 Electra to circumnavigate the entire globe. The last known stop was made in New Guinea before the large expanse of Pacific Ocean they would have to fly over. While trying to make a stop at Howland Island in the Pacific, Earhart apparently had a lot of radio troubles, which resulted in a ship near the island using Morse Code to communicate with her. Several attempts were made back and forth, but the plane disappeared.
Several theories are still in circulation about what happened afterwards. One is that she simply crashed into the water. Another states she was caught by Japanese forces. A third describes a crash on Gardner island, which her stepson has expressed support for underwater expeditions in the area.
Earhart was key in forming the women’s pilot group the Ninety-Nines, she was a member of the National Women’s Party and was an avid supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She is still looked up to as a feminist icon today.
8 Jean Spangler
Jean Spangler was an actress, dancer and model living in Los Angeles. On October 7, 1949, she left home saying she had to meet her ex-husband over a child support payment and then was going to do work on a movie set. The last person to see her was a store clerk who said she looked like she was waiting for someone. The case got mysterious when her ex-husband said he hadn’t seen her in several weeks, and no movie studios were open that night. Her purse was found near one of the entrances to Griffith Park with one of the straps torn. Police found an unfinished note in it saying “Kirk, Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.” Many hypothesized the note was written to Kirk Douglas. Douglas actually ended up calling authorities saying that he was not the Kirk in the note even though Jean had a bit part in one of his movies. Jean’s friend later told police that Jean was secretly pregnant and wanted an abortion which was illegal at the time. Searches continued for years but the case is still open.
7 Natascha Maria Kampusch
In March 1998, Natascha did not show up for school and did not arrive home afterwards. A twelve year old witness told police Natascha had been dragged into a white minivan. A search commenced of 776 minivans in the area, but she was not found. There were theories she was forced into a child abuse ring or even was kidnapped by a French serial killer. Eight years later, she reappeared.
During her disappearance, Natascha was kept in a small soundproof cellar underneath her kidnapper’s garage. As the years went on, she was allowed upstairs into his house but was made to perform tasks such as cooking for him. She was beaten on many occasions and starved so that she would be too weak to run. He also played psychological mind games on her by making her think the doors were rigged with explosives so she would not escape. She finally found her chance to reunite with her family at age 18. While she was vacuuming out her kidnapper’s car, he took a phone call and she dropped the vacuum to run to a neighbor’s house. The kidnapper jumped in front of a train shortly thereafter to avoid being caught.
6 Shelagh McDonald
This Scottish folk singer was an up-and-coming artist who mysteriously vanished in 1971. For 24 years, there was no trace of her, and fans wondered what happened. An article about Shelagh in the Scottish Daily Mail detailing her disappearance ended up catching her eye, and she showed up at the Mail office to tell them what happened.
Shelagh had taken LSD at a party one night and had such a bad trip that she ending up hallucinating for days and went home to her parents’ house. She had no money and didn’t have her address book so was unable to travel or contact her friends. Over 18 months, she began to heal but her voice had been so badly damaged during that she didn’t sing for years. She ended up meeting a man named Gordon but since they were so poor they ended up being nomads, moving from place to place until she saw the article about herself. Shelagh went to a library and looked herself up on the internet and found out that people had multiple theories about what happened to her since her disappearance. She has since started singing and performing again.
5 Natasha Ryan
Natasha disappeared at age 14 after being dropped off at school. An extensive search was conducted, but hopes of finding her alive waned when serial killer and rapist Leonard Fraser confessed to having murdered her. Natasha’s family accepted that she was dead and even had a memorial service for her in 2001.
Five years later, police received an anonymous tip that Natasha was alive and living at her boyfriend’s house. They raided the house and found her. She had been there since the day of her disappearance, living in the house and never leaving except only occasionally at night. She kept the curtains closed and even became known as “the girl in the cupboard” as she would have to hide there if anyone else came to the house. Fraser’s counsel did not appeal for a mistrial so the murder trial continued, oddly enough with Natasha appearing as a witness for her own murder. She has since married her boyfriend and they have a child together.
4 Shelly Miscavige
The Church of Scientology was formed in 1954 and the religion has since spread throughout many countries, but is probably most recognized by the public through celebrities who participate in it, including Tom Cruise. The head of Scientology is David Miscavige, and his wife Shelly hasn’t been seen since 2007. Speculation states that Shelly went missing after making changes while left in charge without her husband’s permission. The apparent abuses and inner workings of Scientology have come to light due to a docu-series made by actress Leah Remini, a former Scientologist. She filed a missing persons report for Shelly which was quickly closed and classified as “unfounded” by the LAPD. There are several “compounds” for the Church in various locations, which, according to the docu-series, are like jails. It is possible Shelly is still alive and being held at one of these locations, but Remini thinks she might be dead. Due to the power and secrecy of Scientology, we may never know what happened to Shelly if they choose to keep it that way.
3 Madeleine McCann
Three year old Madeleine disappeared in May 2007 from her bed in a vacation apartment in Portugal. That evening, the children had been put to bed around 8:30 and their parents had dinner with friends at a restaurant which was very close--only 180 feet away. During dinner, they repeatedly checked on the children in the ground floor apartment. At 10pm, Madeleine’s mother discovered she was missing. A massive search started and included a concurrent media circus. A friend of the McCanns reported a man carrying a child away from the area around that time, but since no one had seen the friend in that area, she was accused of making the sighting up. Theories that the parents were involved starting circulating including one that there was an accident and they hid Madeleine’s body. The investigation was criticized because of the amount of people in and out of the apartment after the disappearance, leaving the crime scene tainted. Madeleine’s parents plan to make more appearances in the media soon due to the upcoming ten year anniversary of her disappearance. There is speculation that Madeleine could still be alive and living in Portugal but may not know who she is.
2 The Entire Roanoke Colony
The Roanoke Island colony was the first English settlement in North America, founded in August 1585. Most of the colonists returned to England in 1586 as food was scarce and Indian attacks were prevalent. In 1587, John White took a new group of colonists to start again in the New World. At one point he returned to England to get more supplies but when he returned in 1590, the entire colony was gone. There were no signs of battle and no clues to where they may have gone except for the word “Croatoan” carved into a large part of a fence and the letters “C-R-O” carved into a tree. Since White had instructed the settlers to carve a cross into a nearby tree if they were forced to leave and he didn’t see one, he assumed they went to the nearby Croatoan Island but were not found there. A theory states that they may have been absorbed into an Indian tribe known as the Croatoans. To this day, no one definitively knows what happened to the colonists. Analysis of tree rings from that time in the area depict a severe drought which may be another clue why they disappeared.
1 Elisa Lam
The eeriest case is that of Elisa Lam, a Canadian student visiting Los Angeles in 2013 who was staying at the Cecil Hotel. She kept in touch with her parents daily, and when they did not hear from her they called the Los Angeles police. The LAPD released a video of Elisa in the hotel elevator, which was the last known sighting of her. The video is unnerving—she looks like she’s hiding at one point, then talking to someone in the hallway, and then trying to get the elevator to move by pressing multiple buttons.
Hotel guests began complaining that their rooms had low water pressure and some reported black water coming from the faucets. Upon investigation, the body of Elisa Lam was found in one of the water tanks on the roof.
Several theories have emerged including that she was murdered. But Elisa suffered from bipolar disorder and may have been having a psychotic episode during the time of death (causing hallucinations to make her jump in the water tank). Autopsy reports found no signs of foul play or drug use.
While finally closed, the case is still somewhat of a mystery. Ryan Murphy even stated that the elevator video inspired “American Horror Story: Hotel.”