In the world of vanished people there is often no concrete evidence to go on. Our minds are forced to imagine their last moments, their fates projected upon the screens of our imaginations, with every individual perhaps picturing it differently. However, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in some mysterious disappearances there is bizarre photographic evidence left behind hinting at the fate of these people who have stepped off the face of the earth. These are peeks into the macabre last images of the vanished, a look through the window of the unexplained into a place where we have a chance to glimpse the answer to these riddles, forever preserved in photographic form, time frozen for these lost souls who still wander out past the periphery of our understanding. These are cryptic clues etched onto film, immortalized, perhaps forever beckoning and taunting us from the fringes of mystery.
One well-known and spectacularly creepy such case is that of the vanishings of 9-year-old Michael Henley and 19-year-old Tara Calico, who had no relation and did not know each other but whose separate baffling disappearances would nevertheless converge in a rather bizarre and spooky manner. The first to vanish was Henley, when he disappeared on April 21, 1988 during a family camping trip to the Oso Ridge area of the Zuni Mountains, in New Mexico, in the United States. He would never be seen alive again, and no trace was found of him at the time despite massive, intensive searches, confounded by a major storm that hampered efforts.
That same year, at 9:30 AM on September 20, 1988, teenager Tara Calico left her home to go on a bike ride along Highway 47, near her home in Belen, New Mexico. Although she was in good spirits when she left and showed no signs of anything amiss, she told her mother, Patty Doel, to come looking for her if she did not return by noon, and this would prove to be a rather spookily prophetic thing to say in retrospect. Indeed, she did not return by noon, and when her mother went to drive around and see if she was just late, Tara was nowhere to be found, and the mother was alarmed to find the cassette tape Tara had been listening to lying on the ground lost alongside the highway.
Authorities were soon notified, and the last time anyone could remember seeing her was at around 11:45 AM, riding along the highway listening to her Walkman. Some witnesses claimed that they had seen a light colored 1953 Ford pickup with a camper shell driving behind her, but it was unclear if this had anything to do with the disappearance, whether they were just friends of hers, or were just simply some people harmlessly passing by, and no one actually saw her have an altercation with or get abducted by anyone. After a thorough search of the area, the only sign of Tara that would turn up was the fragmented pieces of her broken Walkman found at a nearby camping area, and Tara Calico seemed to have completely vanished into thin air.
At the time it was not immediately thought that she had been kidnapped or met with any foul play, and it was suspected that she may have just run away, yet according to her family she had never shown any desire to do such a thing and had had no reason to escape her life. However, the grim possibility that she had been taken by someone was certainly there overhanging everything, and the broken Walkman was a potential clue for this. Despite looking into every lead and scant piece of evidence they could find, authorities were not able to track Tara down, and the case went ice cold, that is, until a rather chilling discovery was made in June of 1989.
On June 15, 1989, a woman in Port St. Joe, Florida, about 1,600 miles from New Mexico, found a rather sinister polaroid photograph lying discarded in a grocery store parking lot off of Route 98. The disturbing photograph showed a young woman and a boy on bedsheets in what seems to be perhaps the back of a van or other large vehicle, with their hands apparently bound and duct tape over their mouths as they stare blankly at the camera, their eyes giving nothing away. Beside the woman can be seen a copy of the novel My Sweet Audrina, by V.C. Andrews, who it was found to have been Tara’s favorite author. Although their faces are rather obscured by the tape, the woman bore a striking resemblance to the missing Tara Calico, and when Tara’s mother saw it she became certain that it was her daughter, especially considering that there was some discoloration seen on the woman’s leg that matched up with a scar on Tara’s own leg. That, plus the presence of the book, strongly suggested that this was a picture of the missing woman, and that she was in deep trouble.
Even weirder and creepier still, the boy in the picture was strongly believed to be the missing Michael Henley. Witnesses told authorities that a white cargo van had been parked in the spot where the polaroid was found, but extensive searches and roadblocks could not locate the vehicle in order to question the driver, who was described as being a white male in his 30s with a mustache. It is unknown where the van went or if it had any connection at all to the photograph, although some have speculated that the picture could have actually even been taken in that van. We’ll probably never know.
The macabre case captured the imagination of the public, and as authorities pored over the photograph and any clues or leads they could find within it, the case was featured widely in the media and on various TV shows such as America’s Most Wanted and A Current Affair, which generated a massive amount of tips but none of them led anywhere. In the meantime speculation swarmed around the case. Many strongly believed the woman in the photograph to indeed be the missing Tara, suggesting that she had been abducted, although the perpetrator and their motives remained an enigma. Yet it was not known for sure, nor was it known whether she was even still alive or not. One Sheriff Renee Rivera from Valencia County, New Mexico expressed the assertion that not only was Tara most likely abducted and likely murdered, but that it had been carried out by local people who knew her and subsequently covered up, saying:
The individuals who did the harm to Tara, knew who she was. They knew who she was, and they’re all local individuals. And I believe that the parents [of the attackers] were some of the people that helped the individuals with hiding the truth or hiding the body or trying to escape prosecution. You know it’s very frustrating, being that there’s a lot of people that know what happened. They know the whereabouts of the body or the remains… I believe the body is nearby.
There is also the observation that it might not have even been her at all, and this assertion was bolstered when it was found that the boy in the polaroid could not have possibly been Michael Henley because his body would eventually be found in 1990, near the campsite where he had originally disappeared. Michael’s parents had previously been sure that it was their son in the photo, but an autopsy would show that he had died of exposure in the outdoors, and had showed no signs of having been abducted, leading investigators to consider it highly unlikely that he could have possibly been the boy in the mysterious photo. Nevertheless, Tara’s mother and many investigators including detectives from the Scotland Yard Police Department in the United Kingdom were convinced without a doubt that it was her in the picture, although this is still disputed to this day and unknown.
Another theory was that the whole thing was even a sick prank that Tara was perhaps even in on, but why would she do such a thing, and if it was just a practical joke then where did she go? Also, the picture looks very authentic and besides the striking physical similarities it does look like the two are under severe duress. Whoever the people in the photo are, they look legitimately scared for their lives, and one Gulf County sheriff by the name of Joel Nugent would say of this:
It obviously is two kids with terror written all over them. It’s kind of a bad time when you have to look at something like that…. No one knows for sure if it [the picture] was a set up. Some people think it was a staged photograph, but it was a real look of fear to me.
Also muddying the waters are some leads that later came in suggesting that Tara had been perhaps hit by a car either intentionally or accidentally, after which the startled occupants of the vehicle had disposed of her body, and this would mean that it couldn’t have been her in the polaroid. In the end no one knows. Tara’s body has never been found and she has never been seen again. It is not known what happened to her or even if it was really her in the photograph, and the case has left authorities baffled ever since. Eerily, among the many questions surrounding the case is who are the people in the photo really? Is that really Tara, and even if it is what was happening to her and what became of her? Also, if that boy is not Michael Henley, then who is it? No one knows, and to this day the case remains a profound mystery.
Another eerie case that is similar in some respects is that of 12-year-old Johnny Gosch, of West Des Moines, Iowa, in the United States. At around dawn on September 5, 1982, Johnny went out on his paperboy route and later on that morning his parents began to get persistent phone calls from addled people who were upset over the fact that they still had not gotten their morning newspapers. His mother, Noreen, and father, John, spoke to other paper carriers in the area and were told that Johnny had been in that day to pick up his newspapers as scheduled, which then prompted them to search the area to find Johnny’s abandoned newspaper wagon nearby, still full of undelivered papers.
Authorities were contacted and they were able to glean from witnesses that Johnny had been approached by a Ford truck with out of state plates, whose driver had asked him for directions, and there was also a report that suggested that Johnny might have been followed by a separate unidentified man. It was assumed that the boy had been possibly kidnapped, but no suspects were found, the truck that had allegedly approached him could not be located, no motive was ascertained, and there was no evidence of what had happened to him. The only possible lead was a sighting of a boy matching his description in Oklahoma being dragged away by two men, but it was not clear if this was really him or not. For the most part the case was totally cold. Private investigators hired by the distraught parents were also not able to figure out what had happened to him. He was just gone.
The whole case would become more bizarre when Johnny’s mother came forth with some strange incidents that she had had in the following years. According to her, in 1997 Noreen claims that she was visited by a young man who she believed to be her now grown lost son. He apparently told her that he had escaped his captors but that they were still out looking for him and that he could not stay for long, before making her promise to keep quiet about it and vanishing yet again. During the whole bizarre meeting there had apparently been another unidentified man with him waiting outside in the shadows. There was some doubt as to whether this really happened or not, but Noreen has remained adamant that it did.
An even weirder incident supposedly happened to her on September 1, 2006, when she says that she found three disturbing photos left on her front porch. In one of the pictures, three boys can be seen bound and gagged, with one of them bearing a resemblance to Johnny Gosch. Another photo is black-and-white, and shows a single boy tied up and gagged, who displays what seems to be a brand on his shoulder. Yet another apparently shows a man who seems to be dead by hanging.
The photos would prove to be somewhat controversial. One anonymous letter sent in said that the photo of the three bound boys originated in the 1970s and merely showed a prank in which they were trying to see who could escape their binds fastest. There turned out to have actually really been such a photo and case investigated by police in the late 70s, but there has never been any proof of whether this was the same photo or not. The individuals in the other two photos have also never been concretely identified. While there has been some doubt cast on whether any of the mysterious photos show Johnny Gosch, his mother is convinced that the first two show her son, and that they are from an organized pedophile ring. Whatever the case may be, the photos have helped make the disappearance of Johnny Gosch much debated and discussed. The missing boy has never been found, the identities of the people in the photos never conclusively identified, and although various leads and information have come forward over the years the strange case remains shrouded in mystery.
One extremely unsettling and spooky case revolves around the notorious American serial killer Dean Arnold Corll, who in the early 1970s raped, tortured, and strangled to death at least 28 young boys in the Houston, Texas area, aided by his two accomplices David Brooks and Elmer Wayne Henley, Jr. Ominously nicknamed by the media “The Candy Man” because of his family business as a candy maker, which he used to lure in his young victims, Corll is well known as one of the most monstrous and prolific serial killers of the century, and would have likely racked up even more victims if he had not been shot to death by his own accomplice, Elmer Wayne Henley, Jr., after an altercation.
Although there were 28 official Candy Man victims, it has always been suspected that there were more, and in 2012 these suspicions were further fueled by the distressing discovery of a shocking photo found in a cast off box of Henley’s personal possessions that had been stored away and forgotten in an abandoned old bus in a field after his arrest, by filmmaker Josh Vargas as he did research for a dramatization of the gruesome events. Vargas would say, “We are the first people to go through that stuff in 40 years.” Among the items contained within was a blurred, chilling polaroid snapshot of a young, terrified looking boy obviously in captivity. Vargas would say of the find:
While rummaging through those pictures, this Polaroid falls out. I take a look at it and right off the bat, having studied the case and the crime scene photos and everything, I see Dean’s toolbox, and I see his implements in that tool box and I see this kid right here with handcuffs on his arms. I sat there and I looked at this picture for about 30 minutes and then I showed it to my wife and said look at this and tell me what you think it is. That was a boy who was horrified who was laying on a floor.
The truly eerie thing about this picture is that no one seems to know who it is, no one has come forward with information, and it is not any of the official 28 victims of the Candy Man. Considering that Corll has no known victims who managed to escape his clutches, it is very likely that this is not only a picture of one of them, but also that he was likely gruesomely tortured, killed, and worse just moments after this photo was taken. When Vargas confronted Henley in prison, who was doing a life sentence, about the photograph, the inmate claimed that he did not know, but divulged that there were certainly other victims in the killing spree that have yet to be uncovered. As to who the boy in the photo could be, one forensic anthropologist who took a look at it has said:
I compared the photograph with the missing person information, such as descriptions and photographs, that are relevant to the 1973 murder cases and are available in the HCIFS files. I have also compared the photograph to photographs of previously identified victims that are available in the HCIFS files. The relatively poor image quality does not allow for a conclusive comparison of features to known or unknown individuals associated with the 1973 murder cases. However, the individual depicted is not immediately recognizable as one of the known victims or missing persons in the photographs or descriptions in the HCIFS files. Any information regarding the individual shown in the photograph may aid HCIFS or law enforcement in identification efforts or investigation.
Other mysterious photographs linked to vanishings were taken by the victims themselves shortly before they disappeared, and potentially hold clues to their deep mysteries. In March of 2014, two young Dutch women by the names of Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers were in the country of Panama for a homestay study trip to learn Spanish. Looking for a day out enjoying the beauty of the countryside, on April 1, 2014 Lisanne and Kris set out on a day hike on the pristine Pianista Trail, which is located near the town of Boquete and the Baru volcano, along with their host family’s dog. It was planned to be a short, routine excursion to take in some scenery in the cloud forests of the area, perhaps do some swimming, and then come back to their studies, and they had only brought with them the barest essentials, such as swimsuits, sunglasses, and cameras, yet they would walk out onto that trail into the jungle and seemingly off the face of the earth, never to be seen again.
That night only the dog returned, without either Lisanne or Kris, and the worried host family became concerned. It soon turned out that both women’s families shortly after stopped receiving regular mobile phone message communications from their daughters, and their Facebook updates had also abruptly stopped. When Lisanne and Kris missed an appointment the next day they were declared missing, and Panamanian authorities organized an intensive search which scoured the terrain using police, aircraft, soldiers, scent dogs, and signal flares to alert the women to their presence in case they were lost, all with the help of locals and native tribes of the area, while in the meantime a $30,000 reward was offered by the families for any information. After 10 days of meticulously searching the region, no signs of the two missing women were found, and they seemed to have simply disappeared into thin air. The only clue as to what may have become of them came from witnesses who claimed to have seen the two women having lunch with two unidentified men before embarking on their hike, but it was totally unknown who they were or what connection they had to the disappearances, if any.
It would not be until 10 weeks later that a clue would finally come in the form of a backpack brought to police by a woman claiming that she had found it abandoned beside a river near the village of Alto Romero. The backpack was soon determined to be that of the missing Lisanne Froon, and a treasure trove of new clues was found within. Among the various mundane belongings found within the bag such as sunglasses, cash, and a passport were also both of the missing women’s smartphones and Lianne’s camera, all found to be dry and in remarkably good condition. These phones and camera would go on to provide several rather dark hints as to what had happened, and propel the case further into the realm of mystery.
When the phones’ call histories were checked it was found that on the very day that they had set out on their hike, at around 4:30 PM they had tried to make a call to emergency services but the call had not gone through. Over the next few days it seems they had then repeatedly tried to dial various emergency numbers in both Panama and the Netherlands, none of which had gone through, and all of them interspersed by the phones frequently being powered on and off, possibly to conserve the batteries. Lianne’s phone finally had died on April 5th, and although Kris’ phone had continued to function it was not used to make any further actual calls, simply being turned on and off again and again, perhaps in an attempt to find reception before wasting power on another futile call. Oddly, on April 6th there had been several attempts to enter a PIN number that had failed. By April 11 both phones were dead after dozens of calls.
Perhaps even spookier and more unnerving than these call records was what was found on the camera. It was found to have taken some initial pictures of the women along their hike and at a waterfall, which were taken before the emergency calls, but then the camera was not used again until April 8, which was well after the frantic calls had started and a week after they had been declared missing. At this point there was a sudden series of around 90 photographs, all of them taken at night, and these would prove to be bizarre indeed. Many of them do not show anything, merely blackness, as if the lens cover had not been taken off, while others showed blurry, nondescript scenes of the nighttime jungle, suggesting that the camera flash was being used to provide light.
However, 3 photos stand out from the rest, peppered amongst the others. One is a puzzling shot of what looks like toilet paper and a mirror on a rock, its meaning unknown. In another, a stick which upon its branches are tied pieces of red plastic, possibly candy bar wrappers. It is speculated that this could have been an attempt at a crude signal, but no one really knows. The third is probably the weirdest, and shows an extreme close-up of Kris Fremer’s hair. The meaning of these strange photos is unclear, but they were, and still are, seen as holding ominous hints as to what happened to the missing pair.
With the finding of the backpack and its enigmatic contents a renewed search effort was launched in the area where it had been found. During this search, a pair of torn, yet neatly folded jeans was found politely perched upon a rock, but more grisly and sinister discoveries awaited the searchers as they began to find bits of human remains scattered about the jungle along the river bank, mostly bones from the foot, and most notable of these was a boot with the remains of a whole human foot ensconced within, as well as a pelvic bone found behind a tree nearby it. Oddly, it was found that while some of the bones appeared to be rather fresh, others were bleached. Considering the state of the remains it was impossible to determine the cause of death for either Lisanne or Kris.
The remains, plus the strange call records and photographs, started up heavy speculation on what had happened to them. One idea was that the pair had gotten lost and then proceeded to use the camera to try and signal the search party, possibly after being injured and unable to move. The stick with the plastic could have been a makeshift way to get the attention of planes flying overhead, all while they desperately tried to call for help on their phones. After this they may have died out there in the wilderness and then scavengers could have done the rest, scattering the remains. However, if they were trying to signal ground search parties, then why not call out to them? Also, why is it that none of the local tribes had come across them and how had they remained so well hidden from the massive search that had been through the area?
Another, more disturbing theory is that they were stalked and killed by some sort of large predator, and that the camera flash pictures could have been an attempt to unsuccessfully drive it away as it closed in on them, although what predator it could be is unknown. There is also the possibility that they could have met with foul play, perhaps at the hands of the two young men they had been seen with, but there is no real evidence of this at all. What happened to Lisanne Lisanne Froon and Kris Kremers? What is the meaning behind their remains, the bizarre phone records, and those haunting pictures? What do they mean? Did these two young women fall victim to the terrain, predators either animal or human, or did they simply get hopelessly lost? These are questions that have yet to be answered.
In at least one of these cases of vanishings, a photo taken by the victim may have even captured an image of the one behind it all. On February 27 of 2015, 18-year-old Daylenn “Moke” Pua went out hiking up the Haiku Stairs, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Also called “The Stairway to Heaven,” the Haiku Stairs are a series of 3,922 perilously steep steps leading to a radio tower perched within the Ko’olau mountain range, and were built by the U.S. Navy in 1942. The stairs were closed in 1987, and they are technically off limits to casual hikers, but many ignore this and go up them anyway for the thrill of danger and the stunning, beautiful scenery to be found at the top. Pua was one of these, but he probably did not suspect that this would be his last hike before vanishing off the face of the earth.
Pua was last seen in in Waianae, Oahu, at a bus headed for the stairs, but it is known that he reached his destination, as he regularly posted pictures and his progress on social media and one picture was of the stairs themselves, which was posted at 11 AM. After this the posts suddenly stopped, and Pua was never heard from again. A land and air search including the fire department, local volunteers, drone operators, and the U.S. Navy failed to find any sign of him, although they did hear from two witnesses who claimed to have heard a man shout out for help on the day he went missing.
At first it was mostly suspected that he had slipped and fallen over one of the many harrowing cliffs of the area and then swept out to sea, but a sinister finding would be noticed when his last photo carefully looked at. The photo in question seems at first glance to be merely a scenic shot of some mountainside forest, but sharp-eyed observers pointed out that something quite ominous could be seen lurking near a tree in the background. Closer inspection shows what appears to be a man crouched down in the foliage as if in hiding. Considering this was one of the the last photos Pua took, it is suspected that this man could be someone who was following Pua and potentially abducted or killed him. Daylenn “Moke” Pua has still not been found and the person in the photograph has not been identified. What happened to him? Who is the mystery man in the photograph and does he have anything to do with it? We don’t know. Here is a breakdown of the photo.
Another case concerns a photo of a possible cause for a vanishing who may be more paranormal in nature. In the early 20th century, a folklorist named Charlie Noonan supposedly spent years traveling about collecting and compiling the lore, myths, and supernatural tales of communities throughout the South and Southwestern United States. One story he came across in Oklahoma was that of a mysterious old hermit woman who was said to live in a dilapidated old farm house in the middle of nowhere. It was said that the old lady was said to be a specter, demon, or wraith of some sort, and that a large hound was never far away, padding alongside her wherever she went. Noonan was purportedly intrigued by this story and went to go look for the house and its strange denizen, after which he vanished without a trace.
Eventually Noonan’s wife, Ellie Noonan, came into possession of Charlie’s missing camera, after a pawnbroker recognized the name engraved on the side as the missing man and returned it. According to the story, only one picture had been taken on the entire roll, and it shows the chilling image of some sort of shadowy looking old lady figure with a spectral large dog, just as in the legend. As intriguing as this story is, there is little evidence to corroborate this tale, it is unknown where the picture actually came from, and much that has been written on the case of Charlie Noonan seems to be the same basic story regurgitated over and over again, making me think that this is perhaps just a spooky urban legend. Nevertheless, considering the bizarre image and the possibility that the story is true I felt I had to include it here.
What do any of these photos mean? Are these snapshots that provide a glimpse into the last moments of the vanished? Do they shed any light on these dark cases? As much as many of these cases remain debated and picked apart, no matter what theories come up or what new information trickles in there is this unchanging constant; those mysterious photographs. They beckon, taunt, and weave a web of questions around these cases, brief captures of light from another time when these people were amongst us. They have made these cases immortal in a sense, and have served to fuel the mysterious vanishings and deaths they represent. What clues or answers may lie within them? Only time will tell, but none have been forthcoming so far.