Although many people throughout history have vanished without a trace, the cases surrounded by the most tragedy are when the victims are children. Among the cases of children who have seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth there are those that stand out as particularly bizarre, surrounded by odd details and circumstances that propel them beyond mere missing persons to firmly lodge themselves into the realm of the bizarre. Indeed, there is a disturbing tendency for some of the stranger vanishings to be those of children, and in many of these cases we find mysteries and puzzles that go deep. Here we will take a look at some of the weirder cases of children who have vanished under odd, often sinister circumstances, and who were often found in situations that only further served to envelope them in shadows and the specter of the strange.
A bizarre vanishing related by missing persons researcher David Paulides, author of the Missing 411 series of books concerning people who have disappeared under bizarre circumstances, happened in the summer of 1938, when 4-year-old Alfred Beilhartz was on a fishing and camping trip with his family at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As the boy and his parents were taking a hike along a river, little Alfred suddenly simply disappeared without explanation. One moment he had been there walking in a line behind them, and the next the parents had turned around to find he was gone without a trace. There had been no shout or sign of distress, and all calls to him went unanswered. He had seemingly just ceased to exist.
Although the parents claimed that the boy had gone nowhere near the water, authorities were nevertheless convinced that he had fallen into the river, and immediately went about blocking off the river so that it could be thoroughly searched and so that his body would not float too far away. A 6-mile stretch of the river where Alfred had vanished was searched and dredged for 5 full days without turning up any sign of the boy, and when bloodhounds were brought in they oddly tracked his scent to around 500 feet uphill from where his parents had been when he had disappeared, which was odd considering he had supposedly gone missing as he was walking behind them. Also strange was that allegedly the bloodhounds followed the trail for some time before reaching a fork and suddenly stopping and simply lying down, an odd behavior for trained scent dogs to display, and also strange because it seemed that the trail had just abruptly stopped to vanish just as surely as the boy had.
Even more bizarre than this was an odd report that came in from some hikers in the area in the early stages of the search, the very day after Alfred had vanished. The hikers, who were a couple, had been on Old Fall River Road about 6 miles away over rugged terrain and around 3,000 feet higher from where Alfred had disappeared, and at the time had had no idea that there was a missing boy in the area, yet they reported seeing a rather worrying sight. They claimed that they had seen a young boy perched up upon a high ridge in an area ominously called “The Devil’s Nest,” near the top of Mt. Chaplin. The hikers reported that the boy had been forlornly sitting alone up there and had then suddenly moved out of sight, which the hikers mysteriously allegedly said looked as if he were being “jerked back.” At the time they could not figure out how such a young boy would be out there in the remote wilderness by himself or how he could have possibly climbed up onto that formidably high ridge. According to the hikers, as soon as they had gotten home and seen the news, they had realized that the boy they had seen was the missing Alfred Beilhartz.
Authorities acted on the tip and made the journey out to the Devil’s Nest, a perilous hike through thick, unforgiving forested terrain littered with rough brush and dense trees, and there at the top of the looming ridge they could find no trace of the boy. Considering the difficulty of the terrain, the elevation, and the steep, treacherous climb up to the ridge on which the hikers had claimed to have seen the boy, park rangers came to the conclusion that it would have been impossible for the boy to have made the hike out there in the timeframe involved on his own, and that he could not have possibly climbed the ridge alone without specialized climbing equipment and experience. There are several weird details about this case. How did Alfred manage to just vanish right under his parents’ noses without making a sound? What happened to his scent trail and why did the bloodhounds following him act so oddly? How could Alfred hike all the way up Mt. Chaplin, trudging 6 miles and 3,000 feet through unforgiving perilous terrain in such a short time, and then climb up onto that high ridge by himself? What did the hikers mean that he was “jerked back”? We may never know, and Alfred Beilhartz has never been found.
This disconcerting habit of turning up in unlikely places or surprisingly far from where they disappeared is a disconcertingly common feature among mysterious cases of vanished children. In 1992, 12-year old Kenny Miller went missing in Yosemite National Park, in the United States, while on a hiking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail with his family. The developmentally disabled boy was last seen throwing pebbles into a creek in an area called Meiss Meadows, and had allegedly been out of his parents sight for just a few minutes before seeming to vanish off the face of the earth. An intensive search was unable to locate any trace of the boy or where he had gone off to. A month later, some hikers discovered Kenny’s body in the Carson Pass area west of Meiss Meadows. The body was found on a soaring ridge in treacherous, rocky, brush choked terrain nearly 1,500 feet higher than where he had mysteriously gone missing, and it was unclear how the mentally challenged boy, who reportedly had the mental capability of a 4-year-old, had been able to get there on his own. The cause of death was thought to be exposure, but it was unclear just what had happened.
David Paulides has also related the strange case of a 2-year-old boy who went missing near the Umatilla National Forest in Oregon. Although the boy was found 19 hours later, he was discovered in an area 12 miles away through rough, mountainous terrain, which would have been difficult for an adult and impossible for such a young child to have traversed in that amount of time. Equally weird is another case recounted by Paulides in which an unnamed 7-year-old boy vanished from in front of his home in Arizona. Bloodhounds were unable to pick up any scent trail for the boy and an aerial search turned up nothing. He was eventually located 2 days later, dazed and wandering about out in the desert 20 miles from where he had gone missing. Oddly, the boy was in remarkably good condition considering he had had no water yet was not dehydrated, and showed no signs of negative effects from exposure, even though nighttime temperatures had dropped to below freezing. It was uncertain just how the boy had disappeared, how he had covered so much distance over harsh terrain while managing to remain in such good health, or how he had managed to not leave a scent for hounds to follow or be detected by aerial searches. It remains an enigma.
Another case of a child turning up in an unusual place is the case of 5-year-old Stephen McKerron, who on September 17, 1988 was visiting his aunt and uncle’s home in Ayr, Scotland for what was to be a fun-filled one week trip including a visit to a popular amusement park called Ayr’s Wonderwest World. The trip got off to a bright, fun start, with little Stephen thoroughly enjoying his time at the theme park, but things would take a dark turn for the worse. At one point, Stephen was playing on the escalator and the parents were looking away for just a moment, yet the boy managed to vanish from right under their noses without making a sound. Thinking that young Stephen had simply wandered off, the parents did a search of the area calling out his name but could find no sign of their son. Increasingly panicked, they notified park security, who also were unable to locate the missing boy.
The police were notified and from there would launch one of the largest searches for a missing child in Scotland’s history. Hundreds of searchers scoured the park and a 6 square mile radius around it, including divers combing the rivers and ponds, and aircraft patrolling the skies, but no sign of Stepen McKerron was found. He had simply vanished without a trace. After the strange disappearance, several strange reports began to trickle in of witnesses who claimed to have seen the missing boy in the days after his vanishing. One such report claimed that the boy had been seen several hours after he had gone missing in the company of a middle aged man at the Wonderwest World Cafe, during which time the boy was described as looking “distressed.” Another witness claimed to have sighted the boy climbing over the park’s fence, and yet others claimed to have seen the missing boy walking dazedly along a nearby road.
Authorities were under the impression that Stephen had been kidnapped, but there was little evidence of this. Another theory was that he had simply run away, but the boy had been hotly anticipating his trip to the amusement park and had been a happy, well adjusted child who loved his family. There seems to be no reason for him to have wanted to run away. For 2 weeks the search commenced, and then tragedy came. On October 2, Stephen McKerron’s lifeless body was found around 6 miles from the theme park and just outside of the search area. An examination of the body found that there were no signs of violence, injury, or foul play, and it was assumed that he had perhaps died of exposure. The strange part was that his body was found in a ditch in the middle of rough terrain full of marshes, hills, forests, and gullies, which would have been hard for an adult to navigate let alone a young boy, a full 6 miles from where he had gone missing. Oddly, when the body was found, his socks were stuffed in his back pocket while his shoes were still on. Why and how had he ended up there, and why had he removed his shoes, taken his socks off, put them in his pocket, and then put the shoes back on?
Stephen’s family insisted that it was impossible for their son to have willingly left the park and to have ended up there alone, and were convinced that someone had dumped him there. The detail of the shoes removed and the socks put into that pocket were also suspicious, as Stephen’s father claimed that his son had not even been able to put on or take off his shoes in his own, and even if he could, why would he have done such a thing? Despite the family’s calls for a deeper investigation, authorities ended up concluding that the boy had wandered off, hiked out there through some of the roughest terrain in Scotland, taken his socks off and put his shoes back on, before finally succumbing to exhaustion and the elements. It all seems a bit odd to say the least.
Other cases marry the phenomenon of being in an unusual location with a variety of other oddness. Another case covered by David Paulides which is a bit harder to define is that of 3-year-old Jaryd Atadero, who in October of 1999 was staying with his father at a Christian retreat lodge at Poudre Canyon, Colorado. On October 2, Jaryd was out with 12 of the Christian group members on a hike along the Big South Trail when he somehow got ahead of the group and talked to some fishermen along the Cache la Poudre River, asking them if they’d seen any bears, to which they replied that the boy should get back with the others. Those fishermen would be the last ones to see Jaryd Atedero alive. In the wake of his disappearances a massive search using bloodhounds and aircraft was unable to find any trace of the boy, and it was largely assumed that he had fallen into the frigid waters of the river and drowned.
It would not be until 4 years later that he would finally be found, when on June 4, 2003 his remains were discovered up in a remote, inaccessible area up a steep incline about 500 feet above the trail he had vanished on. This is where the case gets weird. On the dead boy’s cranium were found a series of odd scratches that were assumed to be from a mountain lion, yet big cat experts pointed out that a cougar would have torn at the sweater and body near the neck and stomach, damage that was absent. Indeed, there were no other apparent injuries on the body. Paulides also claims that he spoke to forensics experts on the case who told him that, although the source of the scratches could not be determined, they were not from any known animal. Other odd details about the body were that the boy’s clothes had been turned inside out, and a single tooth from his mouth had been found placed upon a nearby log, strangely not overgrown with moss or vegetation considering that it had presumably been sitting there for 4 years. The clothes and shoes themselves were also surprisingly brightly colored and new looking for supposedly having been out in the elements for so long.
Adding to this strangeness surrounding the case of Jaryd Atadero are allegations made by the boy’s father, Allyn Atadero, that authorities were very secretive and dishonest about the whole incident, and seemed to be almost intentionally botching the investigation. One example is when the Atadero family was allegedly threatened with arrest if they tried to go off snooping around on the Big South Trail, and although it was claimed by authorities that the trail was the only way in or out of the canyon, this turned out to be a falsehood, as Allyn found records of various other entry and exit points. Another oddity was that Allyn claimed that he had discovered that the police were using his own shorts as a scent sample for the dogs rather than those of his son, and that when confronted about this glaring error in procedure they got confrontational and irritated, allegedly going so far as to threaten to call the search off. Allyn would also claim that although some strange hair samples had been collected from his son’s sweater, no test results were ever released and he was merely told that they were neither human nor mountain lion, but that he “shouldn’t worry about it.” To top it all off, Paulides also claims that authorities were highly uncooperative with his own investigation into the case, and that the FBI had refused to get involved. What in the world happened to Jaryd Atadero? Was this an animal attack, a kidnapping, or something more? It seems we may never know.
There are other mysterious cases of vanished children that also seem to hint at some sort of attack by some kind of animal or something else. In July of 2004, 9-year-old David Gonzales was camping with his family at Big Bear Lake campsite in Northern California’s San Bernadino National Forest. At one point, David asked his mother for the car keys so that he could go get a box of cookies that he wanted to eat. The mother gave him the keys and watched as he made his way towards the car, which was only 50 yards away. At this point, the mother claims that she turned to look away just for a moment and that when she looked back David was gone. When a cursory search of the area turned up no sign of the boy, the authorities were contacted.
It was found that the box of cookies that David had wanted were still in the car, meaning that he had never reached his destination. David’s mother remembered hearing a car speeding off at around the time of the disappearance, but there was considered to be no strong evidence that the boy had been kidnapped. An intensive, 9-day search of the area failed to find any trace of the boy, no blood or any other sign of struggle of foul play, no scraps of clothing, and he had seemingly blinked out of existence. The only clue that was turned up was some witnesses who claimed to have seen the boy walking along a road near the campsite not long after he disappeared.
One year later, hikers came across the decomposed remains of what were believed to be from David a mere mile away from the campsite from which he had disappeared from, in an area that had been already been well searched. The remains showed no obvious signs of trauma or injury, yet despite this the prevailing theory was that he had been attacked and dragged off by a mountain lion. This seems to be a rather odd conclusion considering that the mother had been right there when David had gone missing yet had heard no scream or sound of struggle, and there had been no blood or any evidence that such a violent attack had taken place. When pressed about why the mountain lion scenario was being entertained, San Bernardino County sheriff’s spokesman, Chip Patterson, was rather evasive, saying:
Explanations can be found in the lack of evidence. It was such a thorough search, and there were so many resources used, you wonder why we couldn’t find him there. We searched that exact area…. Why couldn’t he hear or see the people looking for him? Why couldn’t we find him? This theory fits with what we don’t know. We were told the big cats can drag their prey one to three miles away, that they like to take it to a secluded area. There had to be a reason he wasn’t being seen.
Perhaps understandably, there are many who are not convinced with this theory. David’s parents, Jose and Rosenda Gonzales, believe their son was kidnapped and may even still be out there, that the bones are not really from their son, but authorities are quick to point out that the location of the remains and the fact that no other child has ever gone missing in the area means they likely are his. Others have said that the boy may have wandered off and been injured or died of exposure to the elements. Authorities are not entirely sure of what has happened here, but one thing that does seem apparent is that the location of the remains on the surface of the ground out in the open with no attempt to hide them tends to discredit the idea that the body had been dumped by a murderer. Was David Gonzales killed by a mountain lion, a murderer, or is there something stranger going on here? No one knows.
Where in many of the cases we have looked at heres so far the children were eventually found, albeit under unusual circumstances, in other bizarre cases the vanished truly do disappear off the face of the earth to never be seen again. One such case is that of 8-year-old Douglas Legg, who went missing on July 10, 1971 as he was out hiking with his uncle in the southern Adirondacks, on the Santanoni Preserve in Newcomb. As they were hiking, Douglas’s uncle told him to head back to camp in order to get some long pants, as the trail was overgrown with poison ivy. It should not have been any problem at all, since the camp was a short distance away and Douglas was described as being an avid hiker with a lot of experience in the woods, who was also very familiar with the area in question. The boy went off as requested, but he would never return.
Hundreds of searchers, as well as aircraft equipped with advanced infrared technology, would descend upon the area to try and find the boy, and flyers were posted all over the place, all to no avail. Authorities did not think that Douglas had been kidnapped or that there was any foul play involved, instead believing that he had simply wandered off and gotten lost in the thick wilderness of the area. During the search, teams of dogs were used and they followed the scent for around 30 miles over difficult terrain choked with brush and trees, which would have been nearly impossible for such a young child to have navigated on their own, yet the trail just seemed to suddenly end. Some animal tracks though to be those of a bear were found in the area but it is unclear what relation they have, if any, to the vanishing. In the years since Douglas’s disappearance there have been occasional leads that have come in that have led nowhere. In some cases the boy was allegedly seen alive, and in another from 1993 a woman claimed that a boy had been kidnapped, murdered and buried in a nearby lake bed, but a thorough investigation turned up no evidence that the claim was true. To this day, Douglas Legg remains missing and no one has any idea of what became of him.
More recently is the bizarre disappearance of 6-year-old Timmothy Pitzen in 2011. On May 11, 2011, Timmothy’s mother, Amy Fry-Pitzen, suddenly showed up at the boy’s school, Greenman Elementary School in Aurora, Illinois, and hastily withdrew him from classes due to what she said was a “family emergency.” Oddly, there would later turn out to have been no such emergency. Shortly after pulling Timmothy out of school, she took him to the Brookfield Zoo, and they would spend the night at Gurnee’s KeyLime Cove Resort. Security footage that has emerged from the time of their disapearance seems to show them having fun and enjoying themselves. Apparently Timmothy’s father had no idea that any of this was going on, as he went to go pick his son up from school only to find that both the boy and his wife were missing, and repeated calls to Amy’s cell phone went unanswered.
On May 13, Amy called several acquaintances to tell them that her and Timmothy were doing just fine, and the boy could be heard in the background talking and saying he was hungry. This would be the last time anyone would hear them alive again. Not long after this phone call, Amy Pitzen would take her own life through slashing her neck, wrists, and overdosing on antihistamines for good measure at the Rockford Inn, in Rockford. When her body was found, there were discovered to be three suicide notes left behind. One of the notes carried with it a haunting message. It said that Timmothy was with “someone who loved him” and, more chillingly, that he would never be found. Timmothy Pitzen has never been found. There have been many tips and leads that have come forth from people claiming to have seen the child, but none of these have led anywhere. Did Amy Pitzen kill her son, or did she pass him on to some as yet unknown party to care for him? It remains unclear.
There are many more cases of bizarre missing children, and I have merely selected some of the more intriguing and mysterious here. What happened to these kids? How is it that they have so completely managed to vanish right in front of people and what is going on with those who are found in circumstances orbited by such inexplicable weirdness? Are we dealing with animal attacks, kidnappings, lost children who have wandered off, murders, or something even weirder? Why are they able to elude discovery, ultimately turn up in well searched areas, and in many cases baffle trained bloodhounds and search crews? Vanishings of children tend to attract to them not only tragedy and sadness, but also mysteries we have yet to fully solve or understand. What has happened to these children and how they have managed to end up where they are may remain an enigma, a shadowy secret lurking along the periphery of our perceptions, and one can only hope that it will not happen again. However, we all know that it is likely just a matter of time.