At times the stresses of modern life can get to us and we seek to get away from it all and escape the burdens and responsibilities that bog us down. We embark on journeys out into the world to seek a life that eludes us in our everyday toil. Perhaps it is to visit friends, or maybe it is to fulfill our dream to journey to some faraway land that we perceive to be exotic and welcoming. Very few of those who push forth into such travels and vacations would expect that they may never make the return journey home, but for a surprising number this is where the road out into the release they seek has ultimately taken them. Indeed, some of the more chilling and perplexing missing person mysteries revolve around people who just wanted to escape, if even for a short time, the rigors of their daily life. These are some of the people who went out to travel and for one reason or other kept on venturing out right off the face of the earth, to vanish into thin air and leave nothing but mysteries and strange clues behind.
By far one of the most well-known and widely covered cases of a mysterious disappearance concerning travelers is the tragic vanishing of 3-year-old Madeleine McCann, who in May of 2007 was on vacation in Portugal with her parents Kate and Gerry McCann of Leicester, England, her younger 2-year-old twin siblings, and a group of family friends and their children. On May 3, Kate and Gerry left their children asleep in their holiday apartment in the resort area of Praia da Luzat at around 7PM, and went to go have dinner with some friends at a restaurant a mere 50 yards away. According to the parents, they made regular check-ups on the children every 30 minutes, and a check at 9:05 PM showed them all to be sleeping peacefully. Then, at around 10 PM, Kate went to go check up on her children again and found that little Madeleine was nowhere to be found. Authorities were soon notified, and so began one of the most famous, baffling, and controversial missing persons cases of all time.
The whole handling of the case was bungled right from the start. Since the apartment was not initially treated as a crime scene, an estimated 20 Portuguese law enforcement personnel trounced about the place contaminating any potential evidence before the area was finally officially sealed off, and road blocks to and from the location were not set up until 10AM the following morning, more than enough time for a potential perpetrator to be long gone. Additionally, border authorities were not notified of the incident for hours, and it took 5 days for Interpol to finally put out a missing persons report, all of which conspired to make solving the case much more difficult to solve considering typically for such potential kidnapping cases the first 24 hours are absolutely crucial. Further complicating matters was that Madeleine’s parents were initially treated as suspects by the Portuguese police, despite a complete lack of evidence that they had had anything to do with it.
So dead-set were Portuguese authorities on their misguided mission to prove that the McCanns were somehow guilty that they allocated a good amount of resources toward this goal. Two sniffer dogs were brought in and taken to several areas of interest, but it was in the McCanns’ own apartment that they got the most excited, further bolstering the police belief that they were guilty. 24 days after Madeleine had gone missing, one of the specialized cadaver dogs picked up a scent in the car the family had been renting, and DNA samples were invariably taken. Even though these tests turned out to be wholly inconclusive, Portuguese authorities nevertheless went on to make the confident and bold proclamation that they were a 100% match for Madeleine McCann. This led to a whole scenario concocted by police that said Madeleine had been killed accidentally by giving her too much of a sedative to sleep, after which they had essentially made up an abduction case and then moved the body in the rental car to hide it in an unknown location. It got so bad that Kate McCann was told by police that if she just confessed to the crime she would only serve 2 years in prison and her husband would be let off completely. Then, suddenly in July of 2008, the McCanns were released as suspects.
It certainly appears that this mad dash to try and prosecute the most likely innocent McCanns detracted from resources and manpower that could have gone into actually investigating what had really happened. Indeed, the ball was dropped on other occasions as well. Around the time of the vanishing, two people came forward with sightings of suspicious activity near the apartment. In one case, one of the McCann family friends, a Jane Tanner, who had been at dinner with them on that fateful evening, reported that she had seen a man carrying a small child who had been wearing pink pajamas, just as Madeleine had been wearing. This was considered to be a key suspect at the time, but the Portuguese police kept it secret and under wraps, and it wasn’t until years later that Scotland Yard, who took over the case in 2011, would conclusively deduce that it had merely been another holiday maker carrying his daughter home.
Another sighting was made by a vacationing Irish couple by the name of Mary and Martin Smith. They claimed that on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance they had seen a suspicious man carrying what appeared to be a child of 3 or 4 around 500 yards from the McCanns’ apartment. The man was described as looking like a local, as not looking comfortable with the child in his arms, and had allegedly been carrying the child towards the nearby beach. Despite this seemingly credible break in the case, it was not until 2013 that the mystery man would be considered a prime suspect and his sketch composite finally released to the public, far too long after the events for it to be of much use.
Throughout the investigation, a few suspects other than the McCanns themselves have been apprehended. One was a property consultant by the name of Robert Murat, who was finally cleared after extensive questioning and a thorough search of his apartment that turned up nothing suspicious. Another was convicted burglar Euclides Monteiro, but he too was released and died in 2009, any secrets he might have held taken to the grave with him. There have been other persons of interest as well, but none of these have led anywhere at all.
Over the course of Scotland Yard’s extensive investigation into Madeleine McCann's disappearance, called Operation Grange, they have considered a wide range of possible suspects and leads, from bogus charity collectors operating in the area at the time, to prowling child sex-offenders, to photos of men who they believe may have been staking out the apartment either for the purpose of burglary or to abduct people, to a sexual predator who was on the loose in the area at the time of the vanishing, to numerous alleged sightings of the missing girl. None of these has led to the case being solved, and indeed authorities are really no closer to finding the missing girl than they have ever been, which is not very close at all. Theories range from Madeleine being killed in a botched burglary, being whisked away by human traffickers, or wandering out of the apartment to die in an accident, but there is no evidence at all to support any one of these and no one has any real idea of what happened to her. The disappearance and ultimate fate of Madeleine McCann remains a complete, impenetrable mystery.
Certainly one of the stranger unexplained cases of a vanishing traveler is that of 20-year-old Charles Horvath. In the spring of 1989, the adventurous resident of England decided to take an ambitious journey to the wilds British Columbia, Canada, where he planned to spend several months traveling around by hitchhiking, and also to meet his natural father, Max A. K. Horvath Sr., and his godfather in Ontario, after which he meant to fly over to Hong Kong to visit his mother, Denise Horvath-Allan, for his 21st birthday. On May 11, 1989, Horvath was in British Columbia staying at a campground in Kelowna. From here he would send a fax to his mother in Hong Kong to finalize his travel plans. It was the last time anyone would ever hear from him.
Several months went by without further contact from her son, which was highly odd for him, as the two were close and up to that point he had frequently contacted her, and Denise officially declared him missing on August 10, 1989. The Kelowna Detachment RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) launched an extensive search of the area where Charles had last been known to be, but no trace of him was turned up. In the meantime, Denise traveled to Canada to aid in the search efforts, and she would be joined by her husband Stuart Allan, "Charles" Nana Austin-Thorpe, and Step Grandfather Tony Thorpe. Flyers and missing person announcements and advertisements were placed throughout the country and in various newspapers worldwide in a desperate effort to glean any pertinent information from the mystery. It was partly due to these flyers that a woman by the name of Joanne Zebroff came forward claiming to have known Charles, and that her family had allowed him to temporarily stay with them, after which he had gone off to stay at a campground called Tiny Tent Town, on Lakeshore Road in Kelowna.
The Zebroffs claimed that the last time they had seen him was when he had unexpectedly arrived during a family reunion, and they had been forced to decline his wish to come up to see them. When the campground was investigated, it turned out that Charles had left his tent, sleeping bag, and all of his belongings behind, including all of his clothes, as wells as his wallet, cash, ID, and family photos, and additionally other campers at the site claimed that Charles had suddenly left the campsite in a hurry. Other than this, no sign of Charles could be found, leaving authorities and Charles’s family in a state of desperate frustration. There seemed to be no reason why Charles, who had been very close with his family, should want to disappear, and there was no sign of foul play. He had just disappeared from the face of the earth. Denise expressed bafflement as to why her son would have left his photographs behind, saying:
It was assumed that something terrible had happened to him which caused him to leave his belongings, because it was so unlike him to have left his photographs behind, which were very important to him.
It was from here that the case gets stranger still. In March of 1992, Denise Horvath made her second trip to British Columbia in a desperate effort to dig up clues on her missing son’s whereabouts, and it was as she was staying at the Pandosy Inn that she received a very odd anonymous letter that had arrived by taxi of all things. The handwritten note held the chilling message that Charles had been partying with other campers at Tiny Tent Town when a fight had broken out and he had been knocked out, after which he had died and his body disposed of from a bridge into nearby Okanagan Lake. The note claimed that the body was still there floating in the cold depths, prompting a search of the area by divers, but no such body was found. Bizarrely, not long after this dive search, a second anonymous note arrived saying that they had been looking on the wrong side of the bridge. With this new tip, authorities searched again and this time did find a body, but it turned out to be not that of Charles, but rather that of a 64-year old Kelowna resident who had probably committed suicide. No other body could be found.
A witness would later come forward in the form of a fellow camper at Tiny Tent Town named Gino Bourdin, who claimed to have known Charles and that he had seen him shortly before his disappearance. Bourdin confirmed that there had indeed been an all-night party at the campground, but that he did not recall anyone attacking Charles. He claims that he went to sleep and when he woke up Charles was nowhere to be seen. Other campers also said that he had just merely left in a rush, and that there had been no violent altercation. Bourdin would also shed some insight into Charles demeanor and personality at the time, saying:
He was a nice guy. He was a good friend. He used to always come over to our camp, little camp and have coffee in the morning and play Frisbee and catch with my son and just sit and chat with us. He was friend, a real friendly guy, probably too friendly. He seemed, I don't know, naïve ... He'd talk to anybody, make friends with anybody.
In the decades since his mysterious vanishing, no further evidence has turned up, and Charles Horvath remains inexplicably missing. Despite hundreds of leads, tips, and sightings of the missing man, authorities have never come closer to cracking the case. Charles Horvath’s vanishing was covered on the January 12, 1994 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
Another rather odd vanishing occurred in November of 2001, when 86-year-old Leo Widicker, of Bowdon, North Dakota, was on his 41st humanitarian trip for a Seventh-day Adventist organization called Maranatha Volunteers International. This trip took Leo and his wife to Tabacon Hot Springs, in Costa Rica to paint two churches and a school, and despite their advanced age, the couple was described as being incredibly healthy and active for their age, having travelled around the world to such far flung destinations as India, Nicaragua, and Peru. On November 8, 2001, Leo and his wife were at a luxury resort beach, and as his wife waded about in the beachside hot springs, he reportedly sat down on a nearby bench to rest. At the time he was reported as being in good spirits, lucid, and quite talkative. When Leo’s wife returned around 30 minutes later, her husband was nowhere to be found. It was assumed at the time that he had just taken a nap and woken up confused, but he had always been mentally healthy.
When hotel guests and staff were questioned, they reported that Leo had been seen wandering around asking where his wife was, and guards at the resort gate claimed that he had approached them and asked if it was alright to leave. The guards had then opened the gates and claimed that the last time they saw him he had been walking slowly down the main road. Just 15 minutes after the time when the guards claimed they had let Leo out, a friend of the couple drove off down the road to retrieve him. Since Leo was known to be a very slow walker, and indeed did not seem to like taking walks in the first place, it was assumed that they would quickly find him, and there was no particular panic at this time. However, after driving up and down the main road up to 10 miles away from the resort there was still no sign of Leo. A more extensive search was organized, scouring the area but still no trace of the missing man could be found. It didn’t make sense because he simply did not walk fast enough for him to have gotten very far within the time frame of events, and considering that the road was fenced off on one side and dropped down a steep volcanic cliff on the other, he could not have possibly ventured far off road.
Other strange details added to the general weirdness of the disappearance. At the time, it had been raining heavily, making it seem odd that Leo should suddenly decide to go for a walk. In addition, he had left with a mere $4 in his pocket and no wallet, meaning it did not seem that he would have been planning to be gone long. He also had no history of mental deterioration due to age and had been perfectly fine and in control of his faculties as he had sat on the bench. This all led to the theory that he may have been picked up by someone on the road, perhaps with nefarious intentions, but this was just speculation. Some suspicion has been leveled at resort workers, with Leo’s daughter, JoAnn claiming that the story they were given does not make sense, and that even if he had decided to go for that uncharacteristic walk in the rain, he could not have possibly gone far, yet there is no trace of him. It is as if he just walked off the face of the earth. JoAnn would say of the ordeal:
He wouldn't go for a walk, that's not my dad. How does a human being totally vanish? It's so absurd. There’s no word for it.
What happened to Leo Widicker? How could he have possibly disappeared right under everyone’s noses at at a bustling resort? How could such an elderly man have managed to walk off into oblivion within 15 minutes of being last seen and evade all efforts to find him? Is there something else going on here and does the resort staff know more than they are letting on? Although efforts by the family and Red Cross continue to try and located the vanished man, Leo Widicker has not been seen since, and his disappearance remains a profound mystery.
Spooky vanishings of travelers abound, and another concerns 23-year-old Karen Denise Wells, of Oklahoma, in the United States. In April of 1994, Wells decided to rent a car and take a cross country road trip to visit a childhood friend living in New Jersey, a Melissa Shepard. The evening of April 12 found Wells staying at the Pike Motel, in Carlisle, PA, and at 7:30PM that evening she called her friend to tell her to come meet up with her. During the phone conversation she was in good spirits, and mentioned that she was going to go to a nearby McDonald’s to get something to eat and then go to bed. Shepard claims that when she arrived at the hotel in the early morning hours of April 13, her friend was not there. Hotel staff let the concerned woman into the room when repeated knocking went unanswered, and within the room were found Wells’ belongings and the hotel room key. A look at the parking area found no sign of the rented car she had come in with.
Authorities were contacted, and it was found that the hotel room itself and the bed had not been disturbed in any way, with no sign of forced entry or a struggle. The missing rental car was located abandoned and out of gas around 35 miles away, in the middle of Route 274 near New Germantown. The car was scratched and splattered with mud, both the passenger and driver doors were wide open, and Wells’ purse was found on the ground, with a substantial amount of cash still inside. Inside of the car was found a small amount of marijuana, some empty bottles, and an uneaten box of McDonald’s french fries, meaning she had gone out for that bite to eat after all. There was no sign of blood or a struggle in or on the vehicle. Bizarrely, the car had an extra 700 miles more on the odometer than should have been there considering her route, and it was in the westbound lane, suggesting that she had been headed east when she ran out of gas. It is unknown just why the missing woman would have driven an additional 700 miles totally out of her way and then double back. Authorities believe that she had driven almost all the way to New Jersey, before inexplicably turning back around to make her way back to Carlisle. But why? No one knows.
Some other odd little details emerged as well. First, it seems odd that at no point did she contact her 6-year-old son, with whom she was very close. There is also the fact that it was reported that Shepard was with two unknown men when she filed the missing persons reports, and at one point Shepard herself was questioned by police, but was quickly dismissed as a potential suspect, after which she stopped talking to authorities and then sort of vanished herself. Apparently there was also a strange voice message left on Thanksgiving of 1994 for the wife of a man Wells had reportedly been seeing, which said “Tell Mike I’m not coming home. I’m already married.” This is just about the extent of the sparse evidence and clues that have been uncovered on the case, and in the years since there have been no further developments or leads. Authorities have come to the conclusion that she may have met up with foul play and been killed, possibly during a drug deal gone bad, but there is no particular evidence of this and she is still officially listed as missing. Wells’ family remains hopeful that she is still alive out there somewhere, and her mother, Deorma Wells, has expressed this hope by saying:
I have always hoped that someday she will return, although I do feel something has happened to her. I know there is no way on earth that she wouldn't have contacted her son that she so adores or the many people that love her. I am sure that only a handful of people know what happened and I can't point the finger at any one person.
What article about missing vacationers would be complete without at least a selection of the vast number of people who have inexplicably disappeared from aboard cruise ships? I have written on this topic here at Mysterious Universe before, but that is really just scratching the surface, and while a cruise may seem to be the height of vacation luxury, the fact is that nearly 200 people have mysteriously vanished from cruise ships over the past decade. One such person is 63-year-old book store owner John Halford, of Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire in the United Kingdom. Halford was enjoying a week-long Egyptian cruise in 2011 and would never make it back home.
The cruise had been a long-time dream of his, and he had departed on March 31, 2011, after saying goodbye to his wife, Ruth Halford and his three children, completely unaware that this would be his last time to see them. On April 6, John mailed his wife to remind her to come pick him up at the airport the following day and to give his flight details. As Ruth prepared to go to the airport the next day, she was informed by the cruise company that her husband was gone, and that he had never made that flight.
According to witnesses, John was last seen at a bar aboard the ship, the Thomson Spirit, at 11.45pm on April 6 drinking cocktails. Witnesses describe him as being in good spirits and friendly at the time, as the ship approached its final port, Sharm-el-Sheikh.
When the ship arrived, Halford was nowhere to be found, and ship records showed that he had not gone ashore. The entire ship was searched but no trace of John Halford could be found and authorities were perplexed. It was at first thought that he might have slipped overboard by accident, but the cruise line was quick to dismiss this, pointing out that the high railings were designed to prevent people from accidentally falling or stumbling into the sea, and that it would have been “virtually impossible” for the 5’5” Halford to have done so. It was also suggested that he might have committed suicide, but several pieces of evidence go against this. One is that his suitcases were found to have been set out by his cabin door, as is required on the last night of a cruise, and that they had been filled with gifts for his wife and children. Another was that he was not suicidal at all, and had seemed to be happy when he was last seen. Ruth Halford has added:
He was happy, certainly not depressed, enjoying his cruise and meeting people but looking forward to getting home again to be with me and the children. I can only assume there was a freak accident and he somehow slipped into the sea.
John Halford’s body has never been found, and his disappearance remains inexplicable. Another equally baffling case aboard a cruise ship is the strange vanishing of a Vietnamese-American couple by the name of Hue Pham and Hue Tran, of Westminster, California. In May of 2005, the couple was aboard a Carnival Cruise Line ship along with their daughter and granddaughter, on a one-week cruise between the islands of Barbados and Aruba for what was supposed to be a Mother’s Day gift. The cruise was going great until May 8, when Hue Pham and Hue Tran just up and vanished into thin air. When the ship was searched, the only thing that could be found was the surreal sight of the couple's empty flip flops casually lying on the deck as if the couple had simply evaporated out of them.
In the wake of the disappearance, the crew of the cruise ship showed an impressive amount of neglect in pursuing the case. First, it was 2 hours later that an announcement was finally made on the ship informing of the disappearance and not until 4 hours later that the Coast Guard was notified, and at no point during that time did the cruise ship turn around to look and see if the couple had fallen overboard. Even with authorities notified, it was not until a shocking 12 hours later that the ship, the Destiny, would finally arrive back at the area where the couple had vanished. Indeed, according to the family, the ship crew seemed to be far more interested in planning the next day’s activities at St. Martin island than looking for the missing people. In fact, when the ship reached its final destination of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the family was issued no apology and the cruise line refused to speak to them again on the matter, leading the frustrated daughter of the missing Hue Pham and Hue Tran to lament:
We believe there is more detailed information on our parents’ cause of death, than what is actually being released by CCL. The immediate actions taken by the cruise staff were acts of negligence and cover-ups. They were more focused on planning the next day’s shore activities in St. Marten (replacement for Aruba), then protecting crucial information and evidence pertaining to 2 of their missing passengers… Our parents!
What happened to these people? Where did their final destination take them? They went out to travel, visit friends, and see the world, and their road took them perhaps farther than they had ever expected, leading them off into the pantheon of great missing persons mysteries. With clues and leads that seem to lead nowhere, sparse evidence as to what became of them, and in some cases uncooperativeness from authorities themselves, will we ever find the answers we seek? Vacations and travel are meant to be light, fun affairs where we escape the perils and stresses of modern life, not the instruments of such dangers. These mysterious people have gone out with dreams and visions of fun, relaxation, and basking in paradise, yet they have ended up somewhere else, somewhere past out current ability to understand. Perhaps some day we will glean from the inscrutable clues the answers we seek, but until then these are prime examples of vacations to nowhere; a place from which they will seemingly never return.