Back in 531 BCE, a Chinese sage wrote a book called the Tao Te Ching, then headed for the forest on the edge of his city and disappeared. That the author Laozi was never seen or heard of again is hardly surprising. The book was none other than the fundamental religious text for Taoism, a known forerunner of Buddhism, and Laozi was an outspoken critic of the decaying morality of his own city. As such, he was more than likely cut off in his prime by nervous authorities.
Poor Laozi… at least he went down fighting. Then again, some people disappear for little or no reason with zero suspicion of foul play, no secret government involvement, and no record of mental illness. One minute, they’re out enjoying a drink with friends — the next, gone. Vanished. And in the US alone, thousands of people are reported missing every week.
While some cases are well publicized (of which Laozi’s was the first of its kind), there are others that aren’t, which is perhaps more tragic. The following are 16 of the better known missing persons’ cases from all over the world — a list of people who disappeared in mysterious or sinister ways.
Some of the disappearances have been resolved either by the return of the person or a declaration of death in absentia, often resulting in the perpetrators of a kidnapping or forced imprisonment being brought to justice. But you’ll soon find out that many cases of disappearance still remain a mystery and a fascination.
16. Ben Needham
21-month-old Ben Needham was playing outside a farmhouse on the Greek island of Kos in 1991. The farmhouse belonged to Needham’s maternal grandparents, who were looking after him at the same time as renovating the property. As such, it was natural for the adults to walk in and out of the farmhouse, which meant, at least for some of the time, the toddler was unsupervised. At around 2:30 PM, both realized Ben was gone.
After a long search, the child was still not found despite efforts by an international team of investigators. However, in 2016, the mystery appeared to be drawing to a conclusion when police learned that a man driving a car past the property had accidentally run over and killed Ben and had buried his body without telling anyone. This man has since died, but an excavation of the site of the accident revealed tantalizing clues despite not yielding the child’s remains.
15. Natascha Kampusch
Austrian student Natascha Kampusch made her way to school on a chilly day in March 1998 but never arrived. Her disappearance sent Austrian police on a worldwide search. Kampusch was seen being bundled into a minivan in the morning, but despite police interviewing the owners of mini vans in the area — including her abductor — they failed to come up with any leads.
Kampusch had been imprisoned initially against her will but later became almost a companion of her 35-year-old kidnapper, Wolfgang Přiklopil. In fact, as the years went on, Kampusch was seen relaxing in the garden of the house and, despite her confinement, was taught to read and write. Although she later referred to her kidnapper as a criminal, she’s quoted as saying, “I feel more and more sorry for him—he’s a poor soul” and later admitted she “cried inconsolably” when she was told he was dead.
14. Elizabeth Smart
On the evening of 4 June 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart lay down in her bed next to her sister, 9-year-old Mary Katherine Smart. Their father, Edward Smart, made sure the doors and windows were locked as he normally would do. Then, in the early hours, Mary Katherine watched as a stranger forced her sister, at knifepoint, to leave with him. Despite a wide and frantic search, Elizabeth wasn’t seen again until March the following year.
The kidnapper was a religious fanatic called Brian Mitchell, known also as Emmanuel. Smart was held captive by Mitchell at a camp in Dry Creek Canyon. It was here that Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, starved, beat and assaulted Smart in such a depraved manner that she later said she felt as though she were an “animal” and a “slave.” Luckily, Smart was found, and the kidnappers were sent to trial. Mitchell received two life sentences and Barzee, 15 years.
13. Bethany Decker
A five-months-pregnant Bethany Decker was journeying from her husband’s house in Maryland to Ashburn, Virginia when she went missing. She hasn’t been seen since January 29th, 2011. She and husband Emile Decker were going through a difficult time of their marriage, and she also had a boyfriend at the time by the name of Ronald Roldan.
Neither the body of Decker nor her unborn child was found, and her absence wasn’t noted for another three weeks after her disappearance since messages to her friends were still being posted on her Facebook account. In the meantime, boyfriend Roldan had moved away and struck up a relationship with a woman called Vicki Willoughby. However, this relationship turned violent, and, following a domestic squabble, Roldan was charged with Willoughby’s attempted murder. At the trial, Willoughby admitted that Roldan had confided in her that he could “make people disappear.” The case continues.
12. Oscar Zeta Acosta
Mexico has been fighting a war against the violence and the corruption that have been caused by drug cartels since 1920. Today, they’re still struggling to rid their country of the scourge of barons and bandits, and it’s likely this first disappearance is connected with them.
It was 1974; the drug trade was massive. American attorney, politician, and novelist Oscar Zeta Acosta phoned his son just before getting onto a boat bound for Mazatlán, Mexico. According to Marco Acosta, his father told him he was “about to board a boat full of white snow.” Given the Mexican climate, it seemed unlikely he was talking literally. After having no further contact with his father from that moment on, Marco feared the worst. He suspected that Oscar had perhaps been a little too vocal about the ship’s cargo and was hauled overboard and drowned or shot before being thrown into the North Pacific.
11. Lord Lucan
Theorizing over the disappearance in 1974 of John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan (AKA Lord Lucan), became a British pastime. Although a death certificate was issued in absentia in 2016, the mystery of his disappearance is still a hot topic for a list such as this. After all, it involved a member of the aristocracy, and the Brits love stories about the landed gentry gone mad.
Mad is exactly what Lucan was when he bludgeoned his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, to death, mistakenly thinking she was his wife, Veronica. His motive? Lady Lucan had won a court battle for custody of their three children and had become a damn nuisance. It might as easily have been written by Sherlock Holmes. There have been sightings of the man all over the world, but it’s now commonly believed he killed himself while in hiding. However, his body has never been found.
10. Lynne Schulze
On an ice-cold winter’s day in 1971, the then 18-year-old Lynne Schulze made her way with friends to the exam hall of Middlebury College campus, Vermont. She stopped dead and announced to her pals that her favorite pen was where she’d left it just moments ago in her dorm room. She couldn’t face the exam without it and headed back that way to get it, promising to catch up on them. The exam was due to start at 1 PM, but she never showed up.
She was last seen at 2.15 PM, standing outside a food store in town, but after that, she vanished. The location of her disappearance has led police investigators to consider the shop owner, Robert Durst, a prime suspect; however, they currently have nothing to pin on him. As an aside, Durst’s wife, Kathleen Durst, disappeared from NYC ten years later. That case and Schulze’s both remain open.
9. Elisabeth Fritzl
Back in 1984 Austrian Josef Fritzl convinced his daughter, Elisabeth Fritzl, to join him in the basement of their family home under some pretense or other. To the outside world, she then disappeared. Fritzl’s wife, Rosemarie Fritzl, promptly filed a missing person’s report after her husband had told her Elisabeth had joined a religious sect. Little did she know that her daughter was being kept against her will in a soundproofed torture chamber right underneath her nose.
The “House of Horror,” as the Fritzl’s place is known, can be found in the town of Amstetten. It became the scene of unimaginable terror for Elisabeth, who was raped over 3,000 times by her own father. She also gave birth to seven children from the ordeal. It was only when Fritzl took Elisabeth and one of the children to hospital in 2008 that she was able to tell the authorities. Fritzl, now 82, was sentenced to life in prison.
8. Larry Hillblom
American businessman and co-founder of shipping company DHL Worldwide Express Larry Hillblom lived well. The 52-year-old had set up residence in Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific and the largest of the Mariana Islands. On 21 May 1995, Hillblom was flying home when the plane crashed, killing the pilot Robert Long and a business partner of Hillblom. Hillblom’s body, however, was never recovered.
In the aftermath of the accident, several women from across East Asia came forward to make claims against the entrepreneur’s vast estate claiming that he had sired children with them, but having not discovered a body, it was virtually impossible to determine DNA cross-matching. However, in a bizarre twist, his home in Saipan had been wiped clean of anything that might contain his DNA. Hillblom never surfaced, but in his absence, an extensive judicial process awarded four out of the eight claimants a settlement from his estate.
7. Etan Patz
Etan Patz’s usual route to the local bus stop took him past a convenience store owned by 18-year-old Pedro Hernandez. The six-year-old walked alone on a day in May 1979 and stopped in the shop. He was never seen again. Etan’s disappearance, which became a subject of national interest, proved that the days of allowing a child out by themselves were over. His case also gave rise to the now popular habit of putting missing people’s photos on milk cartons.
It took 38 years of investigation to solve the crime, which, although yielding a killer, never unearthed a body. Hernandez was a worker at the store and had lured Etan into the basement on the promise of a soda. He strangled the child and threw his body into the garbage. Hernandez was finally brought to justice in 2017 and was sentenced to at least 25 years behind bars for kidnapping and murdering the boy.
6. Robert Levinson
While supposedly researching a cigarette smuggling case on Iran’s Kish Island, Robert Levinson was arrested by officials and incarcerated. That happened back in 2007, and he hasn’t been seen since except in grainy video footage from 2010. While the US Government has since had “tacit admission that he’s in their [Iranian] custody,” (according to John Miller of CBS) his fate remains uncertain. The attempted release of Robert Levinson continues to be an important point of leverage in talks between the two countries.
It was discovered that Levinson had been in the employ of the CIA at the time of his arrest, according to the Associated Press in 2013. This shone more light on the reasons for Levinson’s arrest but no clear rationale for his being held so long. According to the Wikipedia page of Levinson, he’s been “interrogated and used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington.” Efforts to locate and free the 58-year-old continue.
5. Madeleine McCann
3-year-old Madeleine McCann was last seen when her parents put her to bed on the evening of 12 May 2003. They left her asleep in an unlocked bedroom of their holiday apartment in the Algarve, Portugal and went out to dine with friends. The restaurant itself was not too far from the apartment, and both parents, Kate McCann and Gerry McCann, took turns to check on her and their other children throughout the evening. At around 10 PM, Kate’s final check revealed the toddler missing.
Many theories have come about since Madeleine’s disappearance, including the suggestion that the parents had something to do with her death or the disposal of her body, post mortem. There was also, among the possibilities, the chance that one of the diners whom the McCanns were with — who had volunteered to check on her — was involved in some way. Either way, her body has never been found, and the case remains open.
4. Jaycee Dugard
In 1991, when she was just 11 years old, Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped outside her California home. Her family and law enforcement struggled for years to locate her, eventually fearing the worst. It wasn’t until 2009 that Dugard was found alive but with severe trauma. In that year, convicted sex offender Phillip Garrido visited the University of California campus in Berkeley along with two young girls, but Garrido’s parole officer had ordered he come in for questioning in relation to the disappearance.
A 29-year-old woman — later identified as Jaycee Dugard — accompanied Garrido. Dugard testified that she had been imprisoned and repeatedly raped and assaulted by Phillip and his wife, Nancy Garrido, who were both in their 30s at the time. She had given birth to two girls after Garrido’s sexual assault during her 18-year incarceration.
3. Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus
The plight of these three women who were in their teens and early 20s attracted global interest. Between 2002 and 2004, all three vanished on separate occasions from their homes in Ohio. Each had accepted a ride from Puerto Rican Ariel Castro and was taken back to his house in a quiet residential area of Cleveland. Once there, they were restrained, beaten, and raped.
The police response was initially slow, and the women’s’ disappearances were not sufficiently investigated. Police even admitted that in the case of Michelle Knight, only limited resources had been afforded. Not until May 6, 2013 was Berry able to attract the attention of passing neighbors while Castro was out of the house. Breaking down the door, Amanda Berry escaped and managed to notify law enforcement, who subsequently freed the other two women. Castro was given 1,000 years in jail but later killed himself.
2. Rico Harris
Former professional basketball player Rico Harris left his family home in Alhambra, on October 10, 2014 after spending the night. He was driving north on Interstate 5 on his way to a job interview in Seattle when at 10:45, while just north of Sacramento, he called his girlfriend Jennifer Song from his cell phone, saying he was going up into the mountains to “rest.” He was never seen again.
Despite search-and-rescue teams scouring the area, there was no sign of the 6ft 9in ‘baller. The investigation continues, but police remain optimistic. Dean Nyland, one of the detectives on the case, recently made a statement saying, “We have no sightings yet, and he may have decided not to continue to Seattle just yet.”
1. Yingying Zhang
26-year-old student of the University of Illinois Yingying Zhang was last seen getting into a car in Urbana, Illinois on June 9th this year. At around 2 PM, Brendt Christensen, a Champaign resident and former physics graduate student at the university, stopped at the curb and offered Zhang a ride. Having just missed her bus, she got in. The CCTV footage of this event is the last clip of Zhang. Her body hasn’t been found, and no motive for her kidnapping has been established.
On June 14, after matching the car to Christensen, police arrested him behind the belief that Christensen had “willfully and unlawfully seized, confined, inveigled, decoyed, kidnapped, abducted, and carried away [Zhang],” according to Wikipedia. After examination of the car and his apartment, prosecutors believe Zhang is no longer alive. Currently in custody, Christensen plans to plead not guilty to her death and could face life imprisonment.
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