The 5 Most Insane Twist Endings Of Real Missing Person Cases
Modern technology makes it pretty difficult for a person to drop off the face of the Earth. We leave such large digital footprints everywhere we go that if you suddenly stop tweeting or Facebooking, a lot of folks are going to notice. That wasn't always the case.
As recently as the 1990s, vanishing forever used to be as simple as leaving your hometown without telling anyone or hiding in your boyfriend's closet, resulting in a whole mess of confusion when you showed up again years later, completely oblivious to how everyone thought you were totally dead, and may or may not have replaced you with an entirely different person. What we're trying to say is that missing persons cases used to get super weird.
A "Missing" Child Is Mistakenly Taken Away From His Mother And Given To The Wrong Family
In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar vanished during a trip with his wealthy family at Swayze Lake in Louisiana, and the nation lost its fucking mind. Hundreds of volunteer rescuers scoured the swamp, dissecting alligators and dynamiting the water in hopes of uncovering little Bobby's body, but failed to turn anything up. Thankfully, eight months later, the Dunbar family received some shockingly good news: A child resembling Bobby had been found in Mississippi, travelling in the company of a drifter named William Cantwell Winters.
Back in the days when not having a mustache made people suspect you were a pedophile.
Winters claimed the boy was his nephew, Bruce, the son of his brother and a family servant named Julia Anderson. However, the Dunbar family became convinced that Bruce was their missing Bobby. He had a burn scar on his left foot, just like Bobby, as well as a similar mole. And really, don't all of us have nothing but vague ideas of what our immediate family looks like, save for a few distinguishing marks?
Julia Anderson, for her part, stubbornly insisted that Bruce was her son. Historically, disputes over the parenthood of a child are resolved using empirical evidence or, like, proving one of the alleged parents is really a child-stealing robot or something. But in the case of "wealthy, well-respected family v. unwed servant woman," the court skipped the whole "evidence" thing and awarded custody of the boy to the Dunbars.
Many reporters invoked King Solomon, because back then,
"maybe hack the kid in two" was legitimate, responsible journalism.
Winters was charged with kidnapping and went to prison, but his conviction was soon overturned on a technicality. Bobby Dunbar was returned home, where his family continued raising him. He eventually had children of his own, and lived a full and happy life until his death in 1966.
The thing is, it wasn't really his life.
As the 21st Century rolled around, one of Bobby's grandchildren decided to research the case, and concluded that something was a little off about the whole thing. She convinced her father, Bobby Dunbar Jr., to take a DNA test, the results of which revealed that -- as you can guess -- he had no genetic connection to the Dunbar family. "Bobby Dunbar" had in fact been Julia Anderson's son Bruce, and had lived the last five decades of his life as the wrong person. Whoops!
"On the bright side, at least you avoided living five decades in Mississippi."
That means William Winters was convicted of a nonexistent crime, Julia Anderson had her biological son stolen away from her, and the fate of the real Bobby Dunbar will remain a mystery forever. On the bright side, we learned that there's a place called "Swayze Lake" in Louisiana. So that's neat.
A Missing Father Turns Up Years Later ... As A TV Host
In 1957, Lawrence Bader, an amateur archer and Akron-based cookware salesman, ignored severe storm warnings and took a boat out on Lake Erie. When his boat was discovered the next day, damaged, missing an oar, and without Bader in it, it didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened. Clearly, he'd gotten tossed overboard in the storm (or eaten by some manner of storm-dwelling lake monster). Rescuers searched the lake but never found him. Bader left behind three children and a pregnant wife, who received $40,000 in life insurance -- a princely sum in exchange for a dead patriarch in the 1950s.
Eight years later, a family friend was in Chicago when he encountered a man who looked eerily like Lawrence Bader. The doppelganger was John "Fritz" Johnson, a well-known radio and television personality in Omaha, Nebraska. Some of his notable endeavors included announcing pro wrestling matches and winning 13 archery titles, which was a favorite hobby of Bader's (archery, not wrestling matches).
Though what easier way to win wrestling matches than with an arrow to the knee?
Fritz Johnson insisted that he was not Bader. He claimed he was raised in an orphanage and served 14 years in the Navy before moving to Omaha, where he had a wife and two children. In other words, this dude was positive he was not Lawrence Bader. But he agreed to take a fingerprint test to put everyone's minds at ease. (It is unclear whether anyone tried to verify his military service, which you'd think would be easier.) To his own apparent astonishment, Johnson's fingerprints were a perfect match for Bader's.
"But that's utterly impossible! I have a mustache! He doesn't!"
Johnson's life fell apart almost immediately. His wife annulled their marriage, he lost his television job, and if this had taken place today, he would have certainly lost his Twitter verification check mark.
Bader's reappearance also caused problems for his first wife. His newfound aliveness meant the insurance company wanted their money back. Johnson maintained that he had no memory of his former life as Bader, and that he had a strange case of amnesia which, in addition to wiping his mind clean of any trace of Bader, had also implanted false memories in his head.
"Things haven't been the same since that big muscular Austrian guy convinced me to go to that 'Recall' place."
While it is admittedly strange that a man would submit to taking a fingerprint test if he was consciously lying about his identity (something Johnson fiercely argued), Bader was in a huge amount of financial trouble leading up to his disappearance. He was heavily in debt, and had a spot on the IRS' shit list for not paying his taxes for years. Add to that the fact that he had a mortgage and a large life insurance policy, and it's easy to see why he would've faked a drowning to abandon his life in Akron as a cookware salesman to become a popular local television personality.
Bader's family believed there was something wrong with him (which is clearly true), but he cunningly died of liver cancer before psychiatrists conclusively determined what had happened to him.
A Murdered Man Shows Up To Testify At His Killers' Trial
In 1929, a man named Connie Franklin drifted into St. James, Arkansas and into the heart of a 17-year-old named Tiller Ruminer. Everything seemed great (or at least at acceptable levels of miserable for 1929) until the night they rode off to get married, when Franklin disappeared.
Everyone probably assumed that Franklin had bailed on the marriage and run off, but several months later, Ruminer went to the county sheriff with a shocking story. She reported that on their wedding night, she and Franklin were attacked by four local men who tortured Franklin and burned him alive, then assaulted her and intimidated her into staying silent for months. An investigation turned up a burn site with bones buried in ash, as well as a corroborating witness, so the four men Ruminer accused were arrested and charged with murder, which makes total sense. The thing that didn't make sense was the defense's star witness: Connie Franklin.
"We Have No Damn Clue, Please Help: A St. James Police Op-Ed"
You see, a man claiming to be Connie Franklin showed up very much alive after the supposed murder. He said he had gotten drunk with his wife and the four defendants the night of the wedding and had fallen off his mule, which was a perfectly acceptable alibi in rural Arkansas in 1929. The following morning, Ruminer allegedly told him she didn't want to get married anymore, so he left town voluntarily.
Normally, a man testifying in the trial of his murder would be very strong evidence that everyone should go free, barring some Weekend At Bernie's-type scenario. But this was 1929, an era before every human being had a cellphone full of identity-verifying photographs and a lifetime of documentation backing them up. Proving that you are who you say you are used to be a much more Kafkaesque undertaking, not dissimilar from Sandra Bullock's struggle in The Net. The prosecution therefore maintained that the newly discovered (and decidedly un-murdered) Connie Franklin was an impostor. They were at least half right.
And wholly left the jury confused.
The court ordered a fingerprint check, which revealed that the newly alive "Connie Franklin" was actually a guy named Marion Franklin Rogers, who had escaped from a mental hospital years earlier. Now, this in no way proved that he wasn't also the Connie Franklin in question, but it didn't prove that he was, so the trial went forward. As you might imagine, this was a lot to take in for people 50 years before Matlock. The jury wasn't sure what to make of the multiple claims about who was or was not the man Ruminer didn't want to marry, and were getting ready to suggest the case be retried.
However, the awesomely named Judge S. Marcus Bone told the jury that they absolutely, positively had to reach a verdict, because the county could not afford to go to trial again. Ultimately, the jury couldn't be sure that Franklin wasn't Franklin, so they acquitted the four defendants accused of his murder.
If the case is batshit, you must acquit.
Of course, debate continued to rage on about whether Marion Rogers really was Connie Franklin, or a very convincing liar. We'll probably never know for sure, as Rogers/Franklin died for good only a few years later (we only say "for good," because he has yet to testify at any more trials).
A Scottish Folk Star Becomes A Huge Success And Then Disappears For Three Decades
Shelagh McDonald was a near-instant hit as a folk singer (in folk singer terms, this means her albums were bought by more than her immediate family). But in 1972, right as her career was beginning to take off, McDonald suddenly disappeared. Not just from the spotlight, but from, you know, everywhere. Even collaborators and friends had no idea where she'd gone. If the internet had existed back then, rumors of McDonald being a time traveler or part of some elaborate conspiracy would've been a trending topic. But this being the early 1970s, McDonald simply faded into a bizarre historical footnote.
"Sorry, the woman I saw wasn't blue. My mistake."
However, McDonald maintained a strong enough following that when her albums were reissued on CD in the mid-2000s, it spurred a cluster of wistful articles wondering what the hell had happened to her. One such article appeared in The Scottish Daily Mail, which found itself with an interesting postscript when, a short time after running the piece, Shelagh McDonald showed up at their offices.
Even though The Independent originally published the story and The Scottish Daily Mail copied it. Never change, guys.
As the understandably surprised newspaper staff listened, McDonald explained the story behind her sudden disappearance: a shitload of acid. See, McDonald was at a party one night when she took some LSD which sent her on the worst trip imaginable, leaving her staggering through the streets of London, battling terrible hallucinations that lasted for weeks. It was so bad that she hopped on a plane back home to Scotland to reunite with her parents, still tripping absolute balls.
Even when the hallucinations subsided, McDonald found that the trip had ruined her singing voice. All she could get out was a strangled croak, like a Muppet dying in a wind tunnel. McDonald's parents, who never wanted her to become a singer in the first place, convinced her to give up her music career, and she wound up marrying a failed academic and spending the next few decades living as a transient, which is definitely way better than being a famous folk singer, Mom and Dad.
McDonald and her husband were living in a tent when she saw the article about her in The Scottish Daily Mail, which they were presumably using for insulation. She was surprised that people were apparently still interested in her work after all these years, so she decided to resurface.
All those unpaid royalties would allow her to afford a much nicer tent.
McDonald also started making music again. Here she is in 2013, giving her first public musical performance since she disappeared and was presumed dead four decades earlier. We can't wait for the day Tupac decides to return and join her for a duet.
A Girl Presumed Murdered By A Serial Killer Is Found Living Two Miles Away From Her House
In 1998, 14-year-old Natasha Ryan vanished without explanation from her hometown of Rockhampton, Australia. Her disappearance was eventually linked to Leonard Fraser, also known by the terrifyingly alliterative moniker "The Rockhampton Rapist," who was serving time in prison for the murder of a young girl.
You'd never think it, to look at him.
In a secretly recorded conversation with a fellow inmate, Fraser confessed to the murders of four girls, one of whom was Natasha Ryan. Ryan's body was never found, but after being missing for four years and having a convicted killer confess to her murder, nobody had any reason to doubt she was dead. Her family held a funeral for her, and Fraser stood trial for her murder in 2003. Case closed, right?
Well, as it turns out, Fraser wasn't being entirely truthful in his confession. Which is another way of saying that Natasha Ryan wasn't dead. After receiving an anonymous tip, police raided the home of Ryan's boyfriend, Scott Black, two and a half miles away from the house where Ryan's family lived (from which she had disappeared). There, they found the very much alive girl hiding inside a wardrobe. That's right -- she'd been crashing at her boyfriend's house for half a freaking decade, just down the street from where she'd been abducted, more than happy to let her family think she'd been abducted and killed by a serial rapist.
"Umm ... punked?"
It wasn't like she was having an awesome time, either. She had to stay inside the house all the time. In four and a half years, she never went outside during the day. She would have to hide inside the wardrobe whenever visitors came around. Meanwhile, her boyfriend kept leading an active social life, and apparently even dated Ryan's sister at one point.
"Babe, it'll look weird if I don't date your sister!"
Ryan told police she couldn't leave because "the lie had become too big." She was basically George Costanza-ing her way through the world's longest episode of Seinfeld. Since Black had lied under oath about his girlfriend's disappearance, he spent a year in jail for perjury, but the couple bounced back afterwards by selling their wedding photos to a magazine for $200,000. They're still together to this day, with a son and everything. We assume she no longer sleeps in the wardrobe, but honestly, who can say?
"We decided to travel to Narnia for our honeymoon."
To hear Robin Warder analyze some unsolved disappearances and cold cases, check out his true crime podcast, The Trail Went Cold.
For more stories you'll probably see in a Dick Wolf show, check out 6 People Who Just Fucking Disappeared and 5 People Who Vanished Mysteriously (And Appeared Awesomely).
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