On occasion people seem to just vanish. There is no warning, no discernible reason to it all, they just simply step off the face of the earth, leaving bafflement and often sadness swirling in the void they have left behind. Yet for as many unexplained vanishings there are out there that have never been solved, sometimes one comes along that gets resolved when the missing person shows up again, although these reappearances can often be just as strange and surreal as the disappearance itself. Here we will take a voyage into some cases of people who seemingly ceased to exist, only to turn up years or even decades later with a rather strange story to tell, and often posing just as many questions as answers with their enigmatic arrival from the fringes of mystery.
In 1970, a single mother named Lula Cora Hood left her home in Galesburg, Illinois after a family argument and never returned, simply vanishing without a trace and leaving behind her 15-year-old daughter. There were no leads, no tips, no sign of what had happened to her. She was just gone. The mystery of Hood’s strange disappearance haunted the family and baffled police for decades, until in 1996 human remains were discovered buried in a brickyard that were determined to be those of the missing woman. It seemed as if the mysterious vanishing had at last been solved, and the remains, little more than some bones, were given a proper burial as Lula Hood. For 13 years that grave would be considered to be Lula’s, and the mystery would be case closed, yet in 2009 there was a strange new development.
With the use of more advanced DNA analysis techniques than had not been available back in 1996, investigators began to peel away new layers of the seemingly long dead mystery. It was found that the remains were not Lula’s at all, and belonged to another unidentified individual. With this finding, two new investigations were opened; the search for Lula Cora Hood, and the one for whomever the enigmatic bones really belonged to. One of these mysteries would be solved when authorities managed to discover that an 84-year-old woman living in Florida was in fact the long missing Lula Hood, and that she had a new family and had eventually had 14 children. It is unclear what exactly had caused her to suddenly vanish, but it is thought that her history of mental illness may have had something to do with it. As for the identity of the remains that were found, they remain a mystery.
Another surprising case concerns the disappearance of commodities trader Arthur Jones in 1979. On May 11, 1979, Jones, who was a happy father of three and had a lucrative job with a seat on the Chicago Board of Trade, told his wife he had a sudden meeting to go to, after which he rushed out the door and seemingly off the face of the earth. Police would later find Arthur’s car abandoned at the airport with all of his belongings inside it but no sign of the missing man. When questioned, Arthur’s wife told police that he had not been dressed for business when he had hurried out of the house for his supposed meeting, and that he had been acting rather strangely in recent days. It also later came to light that Arthur had sold off his seat with the Board of Trade prior to the vanishing in order to help pay off deep gambling debts in excess of $210,000, and that a fellow trader Carl Gaimari had been murdered in the days before the disappearance, leading authorities to strongly believe that he had certainly met with foul play. Nevertheless, there was no real solid evidence of this, an extensive search turned up no sign of him and the investigation went cold, after which Arthur Jones was eventually declared legally dead in 1986, with his date of death listed as the day he had completely vanished.
For decades this would be the last word on the mysterious and rather perplexing disappearance of Arthur Jones, but then in 2011, the missing man turned up almost by chance, and proved to be far from dead. Jones was discovered to be using a fake identity, which he had procured through someone else’s social security number, and was caught when the owner of the number had noticed unusual activity with it at the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles and had reported it to the Social Security Administration. An investigation found that Arthur Jones was living under the name “Joseph Richard Sandelli,” and had made stops in Florida and California, before settling in Las Vegas where he had been working as a sports bookie for 10 years.
He would tell investigators that he had paid $800 to a friend to set up his fake identity complete with drivers license, social security card, and birth certificate, and that he had left behind his children and wife of 20 years to “get a fresh start.” In the wake of Jones’ discovery, it was found through fingerprint evidence that he had been busy committing crimes other than identity theft, and that he had been arrested numerous times in Florida, California, and Nevada for a variety of crimes under different fake names. In the end, the long missing man was charged with fraud, burglary, obtaining and using personal identifying information of another person, and possession of personal identifying information to establish false status or identity.
One very well publicized mysterious vanishing from 1984 had mystery and bafflement surrounding it for 31 years before finally reaching a resolution. On July 26, 1984, a 24-year-old computer science student in Braunschweig, Germany named Petra Pazsitka left her student apartment to go shopping and make a visit to the dentist before taking a bus to go to her brother’s birthday party. She would never arrive. At the time, the strange vanishing took headlines by storm and instigated a massive manhunt to no avail. The case was featured on the German version of Crimewatch, called Aktenzeichen XY…ungelöst, but no new leads or evidence came forward and it was as if Pazsitka had simply vanished into thin air.
Although no body was ever found, desperate authorities came to the conclusion that Pazsitka had been murdered and her body covertly disposed of. They focused on a man who was suspected of raping and murdering another girl in the same area, and the suspect actually admitted to killing Pazsitka under questioning, although he would later withdraw his incriminating statement. Even with this seeming confession, with a lack of any body or solid evidence of any kind, the search for the missing woman petered out and even the sole suspect remained a free man due to a lack of evidence to hold him. However, it was strongly assumed that Pazsitka had been murdered, and she was officially declared dead in 1989. What happened to Petra Pazsitka remained a complete, much talked about mystery for years, yet the strange story was not finished evolving just yet.
In 2011, police received a call from a woman calling herself “Mrs. Schneider,” reporting a burglary at her home in Düsseldorf, around 200 miles away from Braunschweig. When authorities arrived to question the woman about the crime, she at some point casually admitted to stunned police that she was in fact the missing Petra Pazsitka, who was one of the most famous mysterious disappearances in German history and had long ago been considered dead. Police were skeptical at first, but later would corroborate her story through further investigation. Petra claimed that she had lived all over western Germany under various fake identities, but gave no details on what had caused her to suddenly want to vanish or why she had decided to reappear, and she also expressed no desire at all to make contact with her grieving family. Whatever the reason for her disappearance was, it was apparently meticulously orchestrated, with police spokesman Joachim Grande saying:
She did not even have a bank account and paid all her bills cash. Her father passed away a few years ago, but her brother and mother were in shock and tears when they heard the news.
The sudden decision to escape one’s life and run from real or perceived threats, even leaving behind beloved family and friends to cut off all contact, is a recurring theme in many of these cases, and the story of 24-year-old Denise Bolser, of Manchester, New Hampshire, is no exception. On January 17, 1985, Denise disappeared from her home without a trace, the only clue being a note which allegedly read “We’ve got your wife.” Several days later, authorities would find all of her important documents within the husband’s abandoned truck at Logan International Airport, including her Social Security card, birth certificate and charge cards, all of which had oddly been carefully laid out on the front seat, but there was no trace of where she had gone or what had become of her. The mysterious note that had been left behind at her home also offered no real clues, as there was no forthcoming ransom demand or contact from whoever had written it.
The intense investigation hit one dead end after the next, and the best guess anyone could come up with was that Denise had perhaps been kidnapped and possibly even murdered, but there was no real evidence of this other than that anonymous note. No suspects were targeted either, and Denise’s husband was not pursued as a person of interest. The first real break in the baffling disappearance would come when the co-owner of the firm she had worked for was accused of embezzlement, and it was found that Denise herself had been at least partially responsible for stealing between $12,000 and $100,000 when she falsified books in her role as bookkeeper. She was charged with her crimes in absentia in 1986, and this information gave authorities reason to believe that it may have given Denise a reason to run, despite the fact that she was claimed to be very close with her family.
Nevertheless, no good tips or leads on the disappearance could be found, and it was a perplexing mystery until 2002, when a credible lead came in from a private investigator who had long been working to crack the case. Denise Bolser was soon tracked down and discovered to be living in Panama City, Florida, where she had started over under the name Denise James, and had indeed started a whole new family who had had no idea about her shadowy past life. When questioned about the whole ordeal, Denise came clean and explained that she had run when her ex-boss had threatened her life. Nevertheless, at the time she had had no idea that she was wanted for embezzlement, or that this was what had brought the authorities to her door. She also said that she had lived in South Carolina, the Bahamas, California, and Hawaii during her absence. In 1996, the embezzlement charges were dropped.
Another person who apparently mysteriously vanished in order to take flight from his own existence was Richard Hoagland, of Indianapolis, Indiana, who on February 10, 1993 called his wife to tell her he was feeling ill and on his way to the emergency room. It was the last anyone would hear from him. Calls to the emergency rooms of all of the hospitals in the area showed that no Richard Hoagland had checked into any of them and he was feared missing. Authorities found that he had left everything behind at his home, and had not taken any cash, credit cards, clothes, passport, or even his coat even though it was a cold day. A few days later, Richard’s abandoned car was found at the airport but it turned out that there was no record of a Richard Hoagland taking a flight.
An in-depth investigation turned up no new evidence and there was no sign of where Richard could have possibly gone, or if he was even still alive at all, until the summer of that year, when his two young sons each received a card with $50 and a note saying: “Maybe sometime soon we will get to see each other. I bet I won’t even know you. It has been so long. Mind your mother. Bye, Dad.” This would be the last known contact from him, and 10 years later Richard Hoagland was officially declared dead.
For 23 years the disappearance of Richard Hoagland remained a confounding mystery and cold case until 2016, when he was unexpectedly found living in Florida. Hoagland had assumed the identity of a man named Terry Symansky, who had died in 1991, and he had not only remarried, but had also had a child with his new wife. The whole scheme was blown wide open when the dead man’s nephew was looking at a family tree and found it odd that his uncle, Symansky, had gotten married years after his death and on top of that had received a pilot’s license to boot. When the whole charade was brought to light, Hoagland’s new family was shocked, as they had been just as duped as everyone else. As to why he did it, Hoagland explained to authorities that he had run away to avoid a messy impending divorce with his previous wife, although she gave a different reason; that he had been on the run from the law after embezzling money. Hoagland has been charged with fraudulent use of personal identification.
Sometimes people vanish not to escape the law or monetary issues, but rather to just simply get a new life and start over. One person who wished to leave behind her old life did it almost on a whim. In 2002, Brenda Heist was in a bad place. She had just gone through a divorce and been left to care for her two children with next to no money, and her request for public housing had been denied. One day Brenda put dinner on the stove, laundry in the washing machine, and walked out the door to vanish without a trace, leaving behind her dear, much loved 8 and 12 year-old kids. An investigation could turn up no sign of her, and at first it was suspected that her husband, Lee Heist, had had a hand in her disappearance somehow, but he was later cleared and released. Other than this, there were no other suspects and no other evidence of where Brenda had gone, and she was declared legally dead in 2010.
Then, 11 years after her vanishing in 2013, a woman calling herself Kelsie Lyanne Smith suddenly turned up at the Alachua County jail in central Florida and declared herself to be a missing person. It turned out that she was Brenda Heist, looking haggard, spent, drained, almost feral, and practically unrecognizable to who she had been before. When questioned by authorities, Brenda explained that one day she had been crying in a Pennsylvania park, the weight of her worries overcoming her, when she had been approached by three strangers who comforted her, befriended her, and offered to let her join them in their travels hitchhiking to South Florida. At the end of her rope and desiring a completely new life and the promise of adventure, she had accepted their offer, leaving everything behind. A detective who interviewed her, John Schofield, explained:
Everybody that knew Brenda told us there was absolutely no way Brenda would leave her children. She explained to me that she just snapped … She turned her back on her family, she turned her back on her friends, her co-workers.
It had not turned out to be the romantic adventure she had envisioned, as Brenda had ended up mostly living as a homeless vagrant, living off of hand-outs, doing drugs, and only sporadically working as a housekeeper. She had spent some time camping out with a male companion and then finally ended up living with a brother in north Florida. Seeing that her life had taken a turn to be even worse than before, and that her adventure had turned into a nightmare, Brenda had then finally decided to turn herself in and try to return to her old life, but her old family wanted nothing more to do with her, sadly leaving her on her own.
A similar story, only with a bizarre little twist, is the case of 32 year-old Michele Whitaker, of Spartanburg, North Carolina, who vanished in August of 2002 after an argument with her mother. The case gained a sinister twist when one of Michele’s co-workers, 21 year-old Heather Sellars, also went missing a short time later. Sellars’ boyfriend, Jonothan Vick, had long been suspected of a rape and murder from 1995, and was immediately considered a suspect in Heather’s disappearance. It also turned out that Vick had known Michele, and so he was suspected of having been responsible for the disappearance of both women, and possibly their murders as well. Vick was eventually convicted of the 1995 crime in 2006, but he steadfastly refused to divulge any information on the two missing women, only cementing the idea that he was guilty. It was for years assumed that Michele had been murdered in cold blood.
The case was aired on an episode of the TV show Forensic Files, and this produced a tip from a viewer who claimed the missing Michele Whitaker was their own neighbor. Shocked authorities found that she was indeed alive and well, and that the disappearance of Heather Sellars and the conviction of Vick had been completely coincidental, having nothing to do with why she had vanished. It turned out she had mostly just decided to leave her unsatisfying life behind and start anew.
Sometimes rather than vanishing merely to get away from it all, there are those who want to completely reinvent themselves or live out some personal fantasy. Such is the weird case of Philip Sessarego, a soldier in the British Army who long fantasized about being in the SAS special forces unit to the point of obsession. Indeed, he had tried to apply to enter their ranks twice, and both times he had been denied, which had apparently sent him into despondency. Sesssarego’s daughter, Claire, would say of her father’s creepy idolization of the SAS thus:
Dad was obsessed with wanting to be in the regiment. He took the SAS selection test a couple of times but failed, and that really crushed him. I think he decided if he couldn’t be the real thing, he would pretend … He always wore a half-moon moustache because that was the fashion among all real SAS soldiers at the time and walked with a swagger, with his chest puffed out. He used to wear desert boots and jeans or combat trousers and a check shirt and would hang out in the pubs where SAS men drank.
In 1993, as he was serving in Croatia, Sessarego would simply vanish, and it was assumed that he must have died in action, but this was only the beginning of a decidedly odd saga. Not long after this disappearance, a man named Tom Carew began making claims that he had served with the SAS for 20 years, and had helped to train Muhajideen to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1970s. Carew would release a book in December of 2000 entitled Jihad! The Secret War In Afghanistan, which told of his many supposed adventures with the SAS and would propel itself to the New York Times bestseller list. In addition, Carew made many appearances in the media in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks talking about how to retaliate, and also talked about writing a follow up book, but little by little it was suspected that Carew was not who he said he was. Not only did many of his facts not line up, but some irritated SAS soldiers questioned the accuracy of the accounts, as well as his willingness to divulge secrets, which they claimed real SAS would not do. Additionally, several mercenaries claimed that they had followed Carew to Croatia for a “black op” but that it had turned out no such mission had ever existed.
It was eventually discovered that Carew was in fact the supposedly vanished and thought to be likely dead soldier Philip Sessarego, still very much alive and living out his fantasy of being in the SAS. Exposed as a fraud in great part due to a November 2001 episode of the program BBC Newsnight, Sessarego then sort of dropped off the map and even took on a new alias, Philip Stephenson, under which he traveled around Belgium and continued to spin yarns about his imaginary days in the SAS to anyone who would listen. Then, in 2009, Sessarego was found dead in a rented garage in Antwerp, Belgium, where he seemed to have been living, after the landlord came to collect rent. It was believed that he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning after using his gas cooker in the confined space. Even in the wake of the news of this fraudster’s death, there are still rumors that this is just another chapter in the façade, and that he had made a habit of playing dead, with one local saying:
I wouldn’t believe it. It’s not the first time he has been dead. He was supposed to have been found decomposed in Bosnia in the early 90s. And there were rumours of his demise in South Africa. Anything to do with this guy I would take with a pinch of salt. He is an out and out fantasist and for some people he has almost become a bogeyman.
Not all vanishings and reappearances have to do with those who desire to escape, leave their life behind, or live out a fantasy, and some of the stranger cases revolve around people whose memory of their old life was somehow erased. On January 21, 1987, a husband and father of two in Sydney, Australia named Gabriel Nagy called his wife to tell her he would be home early for lunch before vanishing without a trace. Authorities found the man’s car the following day charred and burnt out, and monitoring of his bank account showed that money was withdrawn two weeks after his disappearance, and it was found that he had soon after bought camping supplies, but other than that there was no further evidence and Nagy’s vanishing remained a complete mystery. For decades there were no new leads, no clues, nothing, and it was widely assumed that Nagy had died.
Nagy may have remained just one of many unsolved disappearances if not for one dogged detective named Senior Constable Georgia Robinson, who in 2012 had been at work trying to crack the cold case for 10 years, without much luck. In the days leading up to an inquest to get Nagy declared dead, the frustrated and desperate Robinson meticulously went through her files again and found a clue in the form of a Medicare card registered to a Gabriel Nagy. After that it was just a matter of simply calling the number on the card, but the man on the other line seemed confused as to why the police would want to speak to him and seemed somewhat frightened when Robinson showed up at his door.
Upon questioning, Nagy seemed to have no idea what she was talking about, and she had to explain to him that he had not done anything wrong and hadn’t hurt anyone. It started to become very clear that this was indeed the missing Gabriel Nagy, but that he genuinely seemed to have no memory of anything that had happened. Robinson asked many questions and showed him photographs obtained from the family as well as letters from his children in an effort to jog his memory and it seemed to work. Nagy would later explain that the creeping into awareness was like when “cartoon where flashbulbs go off on top of people’s heads,” and his bizarre story began to emerge.
It was slowly revealed that Nagy’s earliest memory was bleeding badly from a head wound, although he could not remember what had caused the injury, and most of the following 20 years were a complete blank, with only sporadic, dull memories of camping out around Queensland, sleeping on the streets, and doing various odd jobs such as working farms, fishing boats, and construction sites; faint echoes of fleeting, tenuous memories more like half-forgotten dreams than reality. He claimed that throughout all of these lost years wandering from place to place he had had no memory whatsoever of his family or even his real name. He said that he had only really had started to regain some fragments of solid memories in the past few years, after he had met a truck driver and pastor named Barry Hayhoe, who had taken Nagy under his wing and offered him permanent shelter, as well as a job as caretaker of a church.
Little by little, memories had started to come back to him, and he had even started to remember his real name after having lived under a pseudonym for decades. It was this new caretaker who had helped get Nagy a Medicare card when he had needed surgery for a cataract, and his newly recalled real name was used to get it, helping him to finally be found. Nagy was subsequently reunited with his family after 25 years of being missing, and he started his road to trying to remember the rest of his old life. It remains unclear just what caused Nagy to lose 25 years of memories, but his family believes it was a rare form of amnesia called “Dissociative Fugue,” which can wipe vast swaths of one’s memory and cause them to aimlessly wander off away from their friends and family.
In another case of apparent total amnesia, Edgar Latulip, a mentally disabled man from Ontario, Canada vanished from the disabled home where he was staying in 1986 and was not seen again. Considering his mental condition and his purportedly suicidal nature, it was widely assumed that he had died. 30 years later he was found living around 80 miles away from where he had vanished, in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he had long been living without any memory whatsoever of his past life. It was not until he started to have potent flashbacks that he told his social worker that he believed himself to possibly be a completely different person, and research and a DNA check confirmed these suspicions, proving him to be the long missing Edgar Latulip. It is not known exactly how he could have gone so many years without remembering anything of his old life, or how he had lost his memory in the first place, but it is thought to have perhaps been due to some head injury or a result of a combination of his depression and mental handicaps.
As mysterious as some of these cases are, as unsolvable as they may seem at first or as high as they have propelled themselves into the atmosphere of mystery and cold cases, they indeed give us a sense of hope that the vanished do not always remain that way. Sometimes people disappear from the face of the earth for reasons other than sinister death, the supernatural, or abduction. In some cases these people fade from the world to start anew, because they have lost their grip on reality, have had their lives erased from their minds somehow, or are running from personal demons. The cases I have covered here are strange, yes, and full of weird details and questions that may remain unanswered, but above all they offer a sense of optimism for those who have lost someone who has simply vanished. Yet that does not stop the sense of awe, shock and wonder when these long gone people suddenly thrust themselves into our lives again. Why would they leave everything behind? What forces of the human mind would cause someone to forget a lifetime? Indeed sometimes the mysteries of human nature are every bit as enigmatic as anything within the realm of the supernatural and unexplained.