It is unfortunate that our world on occasion seems to swallow people up without leaving any trace behind, and that people can sometimes just seemingly step right out of existence. In some instances these cases are eventually solved with a body or the return of the vanished to their families, at other times neither they nor any sign of them are ever found, and in still others the missing person is sighted after their vanishing yet still elusive, like a ghost or specter. These are the cases in which a person has inexplicably disappeared or is even thought to be dead, only to be allegedly spotted lurking about like some mysterious beast such as Nessie or Bigfoot, giving us tantalizing yet ultimately fleeting potential glimpses into their fates and very often clouding their vanishings in even more mystery, yet ultimately providing hope to those who seek them.
The earliest case we will look at here occurred on June 1, 1948, when a 21-year-old college student by the name of Virginia Carpenter took a train to Denton, Texas to take summer courses at a college there. Along the way she met a schoolteacher who was also on her way to Denton, and they agreed to share a cab upon arrival. When Virginia reached her destination she realized that she had left one of her bags at the station and took a cab all the way back to retrieve it. Much to her disappointment the station staff told her that her bag was in fact on another train, but would be delivered to Virginia’s dormitory first thing in the morning. Taking a taxi back to the dorm, Virginia reportedly got out to talk to two men sitting outside in a yellow car, with whom she seemed to be familiar with, and the cab driver drove away without thinking anything of it. That would be the last confirmed time anyone would ever see her.
Although Virginia never checked into her dorm room and never showed up for her scheduled classes, she was nevertheless spotted around the area in the coming days. On one occasion she was seen at a nearby gas station riding with two men in a yellow convertible, and she was later sighted allegedly getting off a bus in Texarkana, after which she had purportedly asked around for hotels in the area, the whole time acting noticeably nervous and uncomfortable. She would then talk with an unidentified man who approached her and they would leave together.
The next sighting described her as looking disheveled and haggard, walking along a road near Chino, Texas apparently hitchhiking. A witness would see the missing person poster, recognize her, and approach police to say that they had picked her up hitchhiking and that she had told them her name was Virginia and that she had run away from home. This made little sense because she had been looking forward to her summer classes and had no obvious problems at home that would cause her to run away. Another theory was that she had fallen victim to a serial killer in the area who went by the ominous nickname “The Texarkana Phantom,” which was made all the more shocking in that several of Virginia’s friends would die later die at the hands of this killer. Whatever the case may be, it is unknown why Virginia Carpenter vanished, who the men she had been seen with were, what connection she has to the serial killer, or even if the woman sighted all over the place was even her at all.
We move on to 1961 in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where 31-year-old Joan Risch and her husband lived with their two young children. On October 24 of that year, Joan’s daughter came home from visiting a neighbor’s house to find that her mother was gone and that her 2-year-old brother was fast asleep with no one around to watch him. The father was away on business at the time and it was not at all like Joan to leave her youngest child unattended like that. While this was rather odd, things would quickly go to alarming when the girl found what seemed to be a trail of what she thought to be red paint leading from the kitchen out to the driveway, but there was no sign of where her mother had gone.
Authorities were able to discover that the “paint” was in fact blood, and that there were other strange clues left behind as well, such as a telephone ripped from the wall and a phone book opened up to a section of emergency numbers. In the kitchen was found a blood infused fingerprint, but oddly it was not of Joan nor anyone in her family, leading to the initial idea that she may have been kidnapped.
Strange eyewitness accounts painted a more bizarre picture when police were told by other residents of the area that they had seen Risch wandering about outside of her house looking dazed and disoriented at around the time of her odd disappearance, and several other witnesses claimed to have seen her walking aimlessly along nearby Route 128. Police would find more weird clues when it was discovered that the woman had previously checked out 25 books from the library on mysterious disappearances, including that of a woman who had been married to Brigham Young. One of these books even featured a case spookily similar to what appeared to have happened to her, with the vanished woman in the story also leaving ominous blood stains behind.
Due to this new development is has been speculated that she may have intentionally staged her own disappearance to get away from her life and that she is still alive, which is somewhat supported by the many alleged sightings of the vanished woman over the decades, but this is uncertain and Joan Risch has never been found. One theory now is that she may have been injured and sustained amnesia, possibly from falling while walking along Route 128, which was under construction at the time, or that she had even been knocked unconscious and buried by asphalt, but this is all wild speculation and no one really knows what happened to her. It also doesn’t explain all of the sightings. The case of Joan Risch remains a mystery.
In 1988 there was the strange disappearance and subsequent sightings of 20-year-old college student Elizabeth Campbell, of Lampass, Texas. On April 25, 1988, Campbell got into a huge fight with her boyfriend and she stormed out of his house to head home on foot, which happened to be about 30 miles away. Along the way a classmate passed by and gave her a lift, finally dropping her off at a convenience store outside of the town of Copperas Cove. Somewhat calmed down after their argument, Campbell then called her boyfriend to ask him to come get her and drive her the rest of the way but he bluntly refused. She then hung up the phone in a huff and proceeded to step off the face of the earth.
Campbell did not return home that evening, and authorities were unable to locate any leads or clues as to where she had gone, assuming that she was perhaps still angry about her fight and had just run away. Nearly a week later there were two sightings of a woman who matched Campbell’s description, both originating from another convenience store around 85 miles away, and witnesses reported that she had been with a man who was holding her arm and that she had looked scared. One witness would say of one of the incidents:
This car drove up to the fuel tank and a man got out of the car and took a young woman by the arm and brought her into the store with him, holding on to her arm. It wasn’t as if it was a boyfriend/girlfriend type hold, it was his hand was above her wrist. I was up at the counter, and he pushed a twenty-dollar bill out with one hand. The girl looked up at me, and I said ‘Yes, can I help you?’ He said something to her in a language that I didn’t understand, and she dropped her head, and looked down, as if she was being punished for trying to say something. She just hid, put her face down, and that was the end of that.
Yet another sighting came in 2 months after this, in this case around 150 miles away at yet another convenience store. Again she was described as being with an unidentified male who would not let go of her arm. It was then speculated that she had been abducted, but despite these leads police could locate neither Campbell nor the man she was claimed to be with, and no one really knows what happened to her or whether she is still alive or not.
In 1991 there were two separate cases of rather strange disappearances connected to mysterious sightings. The first occurred on April 23, when 34-year-old California resident Gordon Collins was on vacation near Santa Rosalia, in Baja California Sur, with his girlfriend Anastasia Seals and some friends of theirs by the names of Wayne Shwartz and Arlean Burlington. On this day the group embarked on a fishing trip in the Sea of Cortez in the early morning under perfectly calm weather, but a sudden storm would descend upon the area later that day and their 22-foot sailboat would disappear, lost to the winds and rain.
After an extensive search the boat was finally found overturned and adrift at sea the Island of San Marcos, and bodies of Wayne Shwartz and Anastasia Seals were found bobbing around not far away. There was no sign of where the other two had gone and no bodies were recovered despite an intensive searched a 250-mile area by the United States Coast Guard. It was assumed that they must have drowned as well, that is until September of that year, when a series of strange eyewitness reports started to come in from the rural Mexican village of Colonia Vicente Guerrero, around 300 miles from San Diego.
Witnesses described a disheveled, disoriented, and rather feral looking American man who had been seen for months lurking about the area and wandering around begging for money and eating handouts given to him by the locals. There was suspicion that this could be the missing Gordon Collins, and indeed the man’s family became convinced that this was the case and that he had possibly suffered amnesia during his ordeal. Adding credibility to this idea was a subsequent report from two fisherman who claimed that they had seen an American man wearing only shorts and apparently injured climb out of the surf, after which he shambled off and was last seen trying to board a bus, with all of this just about in the same area and at the same time as the group had gone missing.
These would not be the only sightings of the mysterious man. He was seen again a short time later on another nearby beach wandering around aimlessly, and when approached he is said to have told the witness that he was waiting for some friends he had gone fishing with. When shown a picture of Gordon Collins the witness said he was sure that this was the one who he had seen and spoken with. He would be spotted a further 50 times in the area of La Paz and Cabo San Lucas before finally being arrested for theft, after which the American translator who was brought in on the case swore that the man he spoke to was indeed Gordon Collins. The translator, a local American resident named James Hatfield, would say off their meeting:
There’s no doubt in my mind it’s Gordon, because when we met him in jail, I introduced myself to him and he gave me his name Gordy. And then when the flyer came out, it’s right there on the flyer, ‘Gordon.’ And you can’t get the two pictures mixed up. It’s the same.
Unfortunately the man was released and disappeared once again before anyone could question him further, and despite occasional sightings he has never been located or conclusively proven to be Gordon Collins. If he is, then it is unclear just what happened to him or why he would take up this transient lifestyle far from home and make no attempt to contact friends or family. Collins’ own family stands by their theory that he has suffered some form of amnesia and is disoriented, and they continue to search for him. Who the mystery man was, why he was in that area, or what became of him are unknown.
Later that same year, on August 28, 1991, a 50-year-old salesman by the name of Adam John Breaux, of Houma, Louisiana, attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that he led in order to help people with drinking problems similar to the ones that he had long struggled with. On the way home he stopped by a convenience store to buy a gallon of milk and then proceeded to vanish into thin air. He never returned home and made no attempt to contact friends or family, even though he was considered to be a well-respected member of the community involved in many projects such as Alcoholics Anonymous and was a kind, loving family man.
Considering that he was so beloved by his family and his community and that there were no signs of foul play, it was baffling as to where Breaux could have possibly gone off to. Then, two days after he vanished his abandoned car was located at Jim Bowie Park, just across the street from where his regular AA meetings were held. Upon inspection of the locked car, there were found to be the missing man’s wallet with money in it and other belongings, as well as $165 worth of AA money in a bag, which ruled out robbery as a possible motive. Unfortunately, heavy rains had plagued the area at the time, and very little other evidence could be obtained from the scene. A subsequent investigation turned up absolutely nothing, and Breaux’ family even hired a psychic at one point out of desperation.
The only possible leads were the various sightings of the missing man that began to come in. Indeed, on the very same day that the car was found one of Breaux’s friends claimed to have seen him talking on a payphone, and that he had seemed nervous and on edge. There was also claimed to be a red car parked next to the payphone with three men sitting within, as if waiting for him to complete his mysterious call. The red car would come up again when another witness claimed to have seen it drive past Breaux’s house, and that he had been sitting inside with three unidentified men.
Strangest of all was a woman who claimed that a man fitting Breaux’s description had come to her house in a van and tried to sell her frozen fish, of all things. He was described as being unkempt, dirty, and staggering drunk. One possibly solid lead came with an anonymous note to police that claimed the missing man had gotten drunk and shot himself, but this could not be confirmed. To this day no one has the slightest clue as to what happened to Adam Breaux or who the three men in the red car were or what connection they may have, and the case has gone on to be featured on various crime programs such as Unsolved Mysteries.
Continuing on into the 1990s we come to the weird case of Mistie Murray, a 16-year-old high school student in Goderich, Ontario, Canada. On May 31, 1995, Mistie went off to her band practice as usual but did not return that evening. Even odder still was that her friends would claim that there had in fact been no band practice that day and that they had no idea where she had gone. Considering that Mistie was adopted and had recently expressed interest in finding her biological mother, police at first suspected that the girl had run away.
Things would take a turn for the more sinister when it was discovered that Mistie’s adoptive father, Steven Murray, had been away on a boating trip on Lake Huron when his adopted daughter had vanished, and suspicion fell on him in the case. Indeed, authorities became so convinced that he was behind the vanishing that he would eventually be accused of killing her and dumping her body in the lake, despite the lack of any evidence to this effect and the fact that Mistie’s body was never actually found. Then there were the numerous sightings of Mistie in the coming weeks that seemed to suggest she was very much alive. There were even instances where people she knew claimed that they had come across her wandering about looking dazed and had even spoken with her.
In total there would be 97 reported sightings of Mistie all over Canada as far away as Toronto, with many of them deemed credible, yet in spite of this Steven Murray was put on trial for her murder. Considering the lack of any evidence at all and no body, he was soon acquitted, and friends and family would strongly criticize authorities for using so much time and resources in doggedly pursuing Steven as a suspect even in this void of evidence instead of trying to figure out what had really happened. Theories range from foul play, to her just simply running away, to the idea that Mistie Murray was kidnapped and forced into human slavery, but no one knows and her case remains an enigma.
The following year was another bizarre case, that of Bridget Lee Pendell-Williamson in 1997. A registered nurse by trade, Bridget left her family in 1996 after falling victim to drug abuse and then became a sort of transient for a time in Northern California before being arrested for prostitution in 1997 and subsequently failing to show up for her court date. After that, she completely fell off the grid and totally vanished, with all contact with her family ceasing. Then, some articles appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle that talked about the lives of the city’s many homeless people. Among all of the photos in the series were those of a woman with tribal tattoos on her face called “The Crier,” due to the fact that she always appeared to be sad and despondent.
Bridgett’s sister would see the photo by chance and become absolutely convinced that The Crier was in fact her lost sister. She made a trek out to San Francisco on a crusade to track her down, but despite extensively interviewing the homeless community she was unable to locate the mysterious woman or determine her true identity, and it remains unknown if The Crier was really Bridgette or not, or indeed just what happened to either one of them.
More recently and just as strange is the 2103 vanishing of 18-year-old high school student August Reiger. He and his family took a vacation down to the South American country of Ecuador in June in order to celebrate a scholarship he had earned from the University of Oklahoma, and they stayed in the affluent resort town of Banos. While there, they embarked on a leisurely hike not far from where they were staying, during which August told his family he was going to go on ahead and that he would meet them at the summit. Oddly, when his parents reached the summit just a few minutes later their son was nowhere to be seen. Thinking that he had simply gone back to the hotel, the puzzled couple headed back but August was not there and did not return that evening.
When August had still not returned the following morning a search was launched, and the theory was that he had gotten lost in the wilderness or had fallen and been injured or worse. However, no sign of the missing young man was found and since the area was not particularly remote it became more apparent that he may have been abducted instead. Making matters more complicated were some sightings that came in not long after that seemed to point to Reiger still being alive, and one of these seemed to support the kidnapping angle, with the witness claiming he had seen the man riding in a pick-up truck that was headed into the Amazon jungle.
Reiger would subsequently be sighted numerous times in the region, but none could be confirmed as being him and the mystery man could never be located. Considering that he was a valedictorian student with a full scholarship and his whole life ahead of him it is unlikely that August would willingly run off to leave it all behind, especially since he did not take his money or his passport with him, and the main theory is that he was perhaps kidnapped, but there have been few leads in the case, no one knows why he would be abducted. August Reiger’s fate remains a mystery despite wide ranging publicity, news coverage, campaigns, and posters to find him all over Central and South America.
It is hard to know what to make of cases like these. Are these people still alive somewhere and if so what has happened to them? Have they abandoned their lives willingly for whatever amorphous, unknown reasons? Were they kidnapped and if so how and why, and indeed why is it that they keep popping up to be sighted so far and wide? Is amnesia or some mental breakdown to blame? Are these purported sightings even of them at all? The sightings of the vanished themselves often do little to dispel any of these questions and provide few usable clues, but even though these remain frustrating peeks into mysteries we may never solve they perhaps at least offer hope to the families of the missing that somewhere their loved ones are still alive and can be found. Perhaps for some that is enough.