4 Missing Persons Cases With More Twists Than a Shyamalan Movie
Missing persons cases are kind of mysterious by definition, but usually, it's not hard to guess what happened. Someone with a long list of personal and financial problems probably left to start a new life, someone who ran afoul of the mob is probably at the bottom of the ocean, someone who left a note explaining they were joining the circus probably got murdered by a clown, etc. Sometimes, though, the clues keep coming, and none of them make any sense. Like the cases of ...
Tiffany Whitton was what you might call a troubled woman. For one thing, the 26-year-old was shoplifting at two in the morning at a suburban Georgia Walmart on September 13, 2013, and no one finds themselves in that situation when things are going great. She was stopped by employees when she tried to leave the store with her partner in drugs and life, a man named Ashley Caudle, and after a brief struggle, she slipped free of the purse strap an employee was holding and also her shoes and ran out into the night and apparently off the face of the earth.
Once her family and police got wind of the situation—and it took a while because, again, Whitton's lifestyle wasn't incompatible with long absences—they didn't have to look far for an explanation. Caudle is seen on Walmart security footage passively standing by as Whitton fled, understandably angry that she'd drawn attention to them when he was a drug dealer carrying all the trappings of drug dealing on his person or in his nearby truck, though he later bragged to friends that he'd pulled a knife or a gun on the Walmart employees. To be clear, it's plain to see from the security footage that he didn't. It was one of many bizarre and easily disproven lies he told.
He was seen a short time later on the bench at the IHOP across the street where Whitton used to work by one of Whitton's ex-coworkers; according to her, he asked her if Whitton was there, and when she asked him if he'd tried calling Whitton, he produced his girlfriend's phone, explaining that he'd been charging it. That was weird because he told others that he had tried calling Whitton, though his phone records showed he hadn't. He was then picked up by some friends, with whom he drove around looking for Whitton, but not before stopping by one of their homes to do drugs, so like, they weren't too pressed about it.
He also didn't alert any authorities to Whitton's disappearance for two weeks. Her mother believes she ran to his truck, where they got in a fight and he killed her or she overdosed and he covered it up, but without a shred of evidence beyond general shadiness, there wasn't much to be done. Still, when Caudle was eventually arrested on drug charges, he was sentenced particularly harshly in part because he "refused to cooperate" with authorities on Whitton's disappearance. They later received a tip that Caudle had been seen dropping a barrel off a bridge, and upon investigation, they did find such a barrel underneath it.
Open and shut, right? Not even close. For one thing, to have killed Whitton or watch her die and dispose of her body before he was seen at the IHOP would have required remarkable efficiency, and to put it politely, Caudle didn't strike anyone as the ruthlessly competent type. While his phone records showed no calls to Whitton's phone, they did show numerous calls to area hospitals and jails, apparently in search of her. That barrel under the bridge? It was full of concrete. Not the kind that encases a body, just concrete.
It started to seem as likely as anything that Caudle was just kind of a spacey tweaker who lied a lot for no reason, but then what happened to Tiffany? Did she run into the nearby woods? They contained no trace of her. Did she get into a car with a stranger?
Maybe? According to her brother, she called him just after his next birthday, about four months later. He knew it was her because she called him by her nickname for him, but he apparently didn't get any information out of her. He might have conflated a call from the previous year with a Facebook message posted that year wishing him a happy birthday, because someone did use Whitton's phone to do that, but if she did call him, it's the only trace of her that's ever turned up. Authorities didn't know about it until a journalist interviewed him in 2016 because ... he hadn't told them.
Usually when people go unwillingly missing, those responsible are the ones to act shifty, but 25-year-old Tiffany Daniels was acting weird well before her disappearance. She hadn't been "her bubbly self" and became withdrawn, although that could easily have been explained by a previously short-distance relationship becoming a long-distance one after her boyfriend left Florida for school in Texas the day before she disappeared in 2013. What couldn't be explained was why she got up and left the house so early the next morning when she was typically a "roll out of bed and all the way to work" type of person and told her boss she would need a few days off because she had some "things she had to take care of." That's usually a Pulp Fiction situation, not something in which a professional theater tech often finds themselves, and indeed, her parents reported that it was very unlike her to make plans like that without telling anyone about them.
When her car was found eight days later on the nearby island of Pensacola Beach, it became apparent that wherever Daniels was going, she'd planned on roughing it—sort of. The car contained, among other things, her bicycle (with fresh sand on the tires), a jug of water, and a jar of peanut butter, but not her tent. The car hadn't been where it was parked for more than two days, though security footage from the toll booths leading to the island showed the car entering on the day she was last seen, and locals had witnessed a man getting out of the car the day it was discovered. Two unknown fingerprints were found on it, aaaaaand that's all anyone knew until half a year later.
That's where it gets really weird: In 2014, a waitress at a Louisiana restaurant reported serving an older woman in the company of two seemingly frightened younger women, one of whom she said looked just like Daniels. When the waitress mentioned that, the older woman—who had been doing most of the talking for the group—decided they were actually getting their order to-go and swiftly to-went. The waitress noted that the young woman in question had pulled her sleeves down over her hands and asked if the fish soup contained chicken broth, two things Daniels, an often chilly pescatarian, was known to do. Was Daniels kidnapped from a mysterious non-camping trip and human trafficked? If so, why did she seem to know something weird was about to happen? It's an unusually polite trafficker who gives you a heads-up in advance, but hey, you come up with a better explanation.
Bob Ross bless homeowners' associations -- they will not let an abandoned car go unnoticed in their neighborhood. In fact, the homeowners' association of a retirement community near Las Vegas noticed Steven Koecher's car possibly a little too hard in 2009, peering into his windows to read the phone number on a flyer for a window-washing company he worked for. They called the number and then somehow called his mom, who hadn't realized until then that nobody had heard from her son in more than a week. It was the first and last time HOA nosiness benefited anybody.
Unfortunately, it was also the last time Koecher's family benefited from anything involving the investigation of his disappearance. None of it made sense: In the three days before he went missing, he drove three times to Las Vegas from his home in southwestern Utah, apparently to either look for work or research family history. He stopped at an ex-girlfriend's parents' house along the way on one trip, explaining that he was on his way to Sacramento, but he never got farther than Nevada. He didn't tell his family about his adventures, but he didn't hide them, either, explaining over the phone to a friend from church that he couldn't attend the morning he went missing because he was in Vegas. He was last seen on a nearby home security camera leaving his car and crossing the street, but his phone kept moving for miles around the area for the next few days, and whoever had it was considerate enough to check his voicemail.
So where did Steven go, why was he so far from home, and why did he leave a perfectly good and gassy car to bounce around there? No one can even begin to guess. He was pretty down about being unemployed, as most of us were in 2009 -- had he just walked off into the desert to die? Unlikely: Christmas presents and job applications were found in his car, and he was nicely dressed and walking with a purpose, looking like he intended to meet somebody. His brother believes he was there for a job opportunity, "may have got to a place where he sensed something wasn't right and decided not to go forward with it," and "maybe he knew too much about something and was taken," but who was he prospectively working for? Jimmy Hoffa's ghost? He was a Mormon boy scout -- not exactly the type they look for. The only thing more perplexing than his disappearance itself was its connection to another in the area, which was ... a whole other thing.
It's actually pretty clear what probably happened to Susan Powell, but that doesn't make her case any less deranged in the truest "unordered chaos" sense of the term. In 2009, Powell went missing from her Utah home after her husband, Josh, claimed to have taken their two young sons camping in the middle of both the night and winter, so that's a very weird story to make up if one were inclined to make up a story. He claimed Susan had stayed home because she was too tired and not for any of the other reasons someone wouldn't want to go camping under those circumstances, but one of the children later told authorities that "Mommy was in the van but didn't come back with us." Documents found in a safe deposit box at the bank where Susan worked detailed the state of their marriage and the life insurance policy her husband had recently taken out on her and warned "If I die, it may not be an accident." It didn't look great.
A year later, however, Josh's father, Steven Powell, decided that what this story really needed was a little more spice and began claiming that his daughter-in-law had, in fact, been having an affair with the likewise recently disappeared Steven Koecher and ran away with him to Brazil, citing their similar ages, locations, religious affiliations, and not much else. When nobody bought that, he started telling the media his daughter-in-law frequently came onto him. It might seem like he was trying to frame her as a no-good harlot prone to all manner of impulsive behavior, but he also proudly declared that he reciprocated her advances, so nobody could discern what the actual even.
His daughter believes it was a clumsy attempt to throw the authorities off Josh's scent, which arguably worked, because they started investigating Steven and "found home videos taken by Steven Powell that showed secret recordings of his daughter-in-law's body parts and video diaries in which he smelled her underwear and expressed his love and sexual feelings toward her."
To be clear, the videos were obviously taken without Susan's cooperation or knowledge; in fact, a friend claimed that the family moved to Utah from Washington in part because Susan was uncomfortable with her father-in-law's, um, friendliness. If you weren't totally convinced that other guy did it, you'd be totally convinced this guy did it. Oh, they also found child porn.
Despite what they freely admitted was plenty of evidence to arrest somebody for Susan's murder, authorities were reluctant to do so in the absence of a body, but Steven Powell went away for seven years for voyeurism and child porn. Some sort of "cartoon pornography" that was presumably not of the respectable hentai variety was also found on Josh's computer that led the courts to require testing of both the psychological and polygraph kind in 2012, but before that could happened, Josh blew up his house with himself and his children inside. The lead detective on the case considers that an "admission of guilt"; we consider it massively screwed up and sad. Steven Powell died of "heart problem" in 2019, so it seems likely that no one is left who can explain just what the hell any of that was about.
Top image: Stefano Pollio/Unsplash