Show Mobile Navigation
Mysteries |

10 Controversial Missing Persons Cases

by Robin Warder
fact checked by Jamie Frater

There are many adjectives that can be used to describe missing persons cases: sad, mysterious, tragic, baffling. However, you could also add the word “controversial” to that list. When a person disappears, that can sometimes only be the tip of the iceberg in a complicated and bizarre story.

10Felipe Santos And Terrance Williams


Felipe Santos was driving to work in Naples, Florida on the morning of October 1, 2003 when he got into a minor accident with another vehicle. A sheriff’s deputy named Steven Henry Calkins cited Santos for driving without a license before putting him into his patrol car and driving away. However, Santos was never actually booked at the police station and has not been seen since. Calkins claimed that he changed his mind about taking Santos to jail and dropped him off at a nearby convenience store. Calkins would find himself at the center of another suspicious disappearance only three months later when an African-American man named Terrance Williams went missing.

After experiencing engine troubles with his car, Williams was pulled over by Calkins. Even though Williams was driving without a license and insurance, Calkins did not cite him and once again, his story was that he put Williams in his patrol car and dropped him off at a nearby Circle K convenience store. This time, Calkins was caught in a lie when he claimed to have phoned the store to inquire about Williams, as phone records did not back up his story. The families of both missing men filed complaints against Calkins, and he was eventually fired by the department for lying. Notable figures like Tyler Perry and Reverend Al Sharpton have taken up the cause of finding out what happened to Santos and Williams, but there are still no answers.

9Nicholas Barclay


Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay was playing basketball with his friends in San Antonio on June 13, 1994, when he called his mother to come pick him up. Nicholas’s mother was asleep at the time and his brother wouldn’t wake her, so Nicholas never did make it home that day. He would remain a missing person until October 1997 when his family received the shocking news that he had been found in a youth shelter in Linares, Spain. Apparently, Nicholas contacted law enforcement officials and told them he had been abducted, taken to Europe, and forced into a pedophile ring for three years before he managed to escape.

Nicholas’s sister flew to Spain, identified him, and took him back to Texas. However, his appearance had changed an awful lot during his three-year absence and even though his family seemed to believe the young man was him, others were suspicious of his story. After the FBI launched an investigation and took fingerprints and DNA samples, they determined that “Nicholas” was actually a 23-year-old French con artist named Frederic Bourdin. While in the youth shelter, Bourdin had impersonated the shelter’s director in order to contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. After obtaining some information about Nicholas Barclay, Bourdin decided to assume his identity. He was eventually sentenced to six years in prison for passport fraud and perjury. Since being released and deported to Europe, Bourdin has continued to get into legal trouble by assuming the identities of missing children. The real Nicholas Barclay has never been found.

8Isabella Miller-Jenkins


Parental abductions are always horribly tragic affairs, but one of the most controversial involves a lesbian couple named Janet Jenkins and Lisa Ann Miller. In 2002, they both welcomed a baby girl named Isabella, who was conceived after Lisa was artificially inseminated. One year later, the couple had a seemingly amicable split and made an informal arrangement where Lisa would have custody of Isabella while Janet had regular visits. However, this arrangement ended after Lisa joined the ultra-conservative Thomas Road Baptist Church, prompting her to renounce her homosexuality while refusing to grant her former partner access to Isabella.

This would be the start of a very heated legal battle that saw Lisa make unfounded accusations about Janet abusing Isabella. After Lisa accumulated thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to let Janet see Isabella, the state of Vermont found Lisa in contempt of court and awarded custody of the child to Janet. Lisa responded by disappearing with Isabella and neither of them have been seen for over three-and-a-half years. A felony warrant was issued against Lisa for kidnapping and at least two Mennonite pastors have been charged with helping Lisa and Isabella flee the country and escape to Nicaragua. Janet has also filed a civil lawsuit against Lisa, the two pastors, the Thomas Road Baptist Church, and other organizations for orchestrating Isabella’s abduction, but the child has still not been found.

7Brooke Henson


At approximately 2:00 AM on July 4, 1999, the parents of 20-year-old Brooke Henson returned to their home in Travelers Rest, South Carolina to find her sitting on the porch while a party was going on. She had just had a fight with her boyfriend and was going to walk to a nearby convenience store to buy cigarettes. She left behind a note for her boyfriend which read “Follow me if you care,” but never returned home. Brooke’s boyfriend refused to cooperate with the investigation and the case ran cold until June 2006 when it was discovered that she was apparently enrolled at Columbia University in New York.

As it turned out, Brooke’s identity had been stolen by a woman named Esther Reed, who used Brooke’s name and Social Security number to enroll in classes at Columbia. Reed had an extensive history of stealing other people’s identities to attend universities and run up heavy debts. Despite taking courses under Brooke’s name for two years, no one noticed her ruse until she applied for a job and a simple Internet search informed her prospective employer that the real Brooke was missing. When authorities confronted Reed and asked her to take a DNA test, she fled and remained on the run until she was apprehended in February 2008. Reed was sentenced to 51 months in prison on fraud and identity theft charges, but authorities do not believe she had anything to do with Brooke Henson’s disappearance, which remains unsolved.

6Walter Collins


On March 10, 1928, Los Angeles resident Christine Collins left her 10-year-old son, Walter, home alone to go to work. When she returned, he was gone. The police quickly faced enormous public pressure to find Walter, and five months later they announced he had been located in DeKalb, Illinois. The LAPD turned Walter’s reunion with his mother into a media event. Unfortunately, Christine did not think the boy who arrived was actually her son. After she made repeated attempts to convince the police that they had found the wrong child, they conspired to have her committed to a psychiatric institution.

In reality, “Walter” was a 12-year-old runaway named Arthur Hutchins Jr., who resembled Walter Collins and decided to impersonate him in order to get a free trip to California. After Arthur confessed, Christine was released from the institution and filed a lawsuit against the police. In all likelihood, the real Walter Collins was a victim in the “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.” In 1930, a man named Gordon Northcott was executed for the abduction, molestation, and murder of at least three young boys. His victims were buried near the chicken coop at his ranch in Wineville, California, and it’s believed that Northcott lured Walter to his ranch before murdering him. However, Walter’s remains were not found and Northcott never confessed to the crime, so Christine always held out hope that her son survived. These events were dramatized in the film Changeling, with Angelina Jolie as Christine.

5Robin Abrams


On October 4, 1990, 28-year-old Robin Abrams vanished from her hometown of Beecher, Illinois. Shortly afterward, her abandoned vehicle was found in a nearby town with the keys still in the ignition. A witness claimed to have seen two men dropping it off with a tow truck that night. The local sheriff’s department initially investigated the disappearance, but it was soon turned over to the state police. This was due to a possible conflict of interest as Abrams had been embroiled in a heated legal battle with the department, particularly with a police officer named Anthony Marquez.

Abrams began an affair with the married Marquez in 1987. He eventually talked her into taking a job with the sheriff’s department, but their relationship went sour after Marquez allegedly smashed into her car while she and her mother were inside. Shortly thereafter, the department terminated Abrams’s employment, and Marquez and Abrams would file various criminal complaints against each other for the next two years. Abrams eventually got an order of protection against Marquez and filed a federal lawsuit against him and seven other members of the sheriff’s department, alleging wrongful termination and sexual harassment. Abrams was scheduled to give an official deposition 18 days after she disappeared. Because she failed to appear, the lawsuit was dismissed.

Marquez was later fired from the department after a new sheriff was elected. Robin Abrams has never been found and the exact circumstances of her disappearance remain unclear.

4Rilya Wilson


After being removed from their mother’s custody, four-year-old Rilya Wilson and her two siblings were living with their godmother, Geralyn Graham, in Miami. Social workers from Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) were assigned to make frequent visits to check on them. According to Geralyn, an unidentified DCF social worker showed up at her home on January 18, 2001 and removed Rilya for an evaluation. Nobody questioned this story until April 2002 when two DCF employees were investigated for making fraudulent records of their home visits. Since Rilya had never actually been returned to Geralyn, she was reported missing, but authorities initially suspected that Geralyn’s story was false.

DCF had no record of anyone removing Rilya from her home, but because social workers had been falsifying records and not making their scheduled visits, no one from the agency had actually checked in on Rilya for over a year. The agency faced heavy criticism for allowing the disappearance to go unnoticed. During Rilya’s absence, Geralyn continued to cash over $14,000 in checks sent by the state for childcare. Authorities suspected foul play in the case, and Geralyn would eventually be charged with fraud, kidnapping, child abuse, and Rilya’s murder. In January 2013, Geralyn was convicted on most of these charges and sentenced to 55 years in prison. However, since there was very little evidence that she killed her granddaughter, the jury deadlocked on the murder charge. Rilya Wilson has never been found.

3Michael Rosenblum


On February 14, 1980, 25-year-old Michael Rosenblum stranded his girlfriend, Lisa Sharer, at a gas station in Pittsburgh and drove off in her car. Michael told Lisa he would meet her at his parents’ house later that night, but he was never seen again. A few hours later, Lisa’s abandoned vehicle was found on River Road with two flat tires, but the Baldwin Police Department did not inform her about this and the car sat in their impound for three months. In July, things got even more bizarre when the Baldwin PD issued a warrant for Michael’s arrest after mistaking him for another suspect who committed a robbery.

Over the years, Michael’s father would receive anonymous tips claiming that the Baldwin PD caused Michael’s disappearance. He eventually learned that in May 1980, Baldwin Police Chief Aldo Gaburri ordered his clerk to type up a letter informing Lisa that her vehicle had been found and was in their impound. However, Gaburri also had his clerk backdate the letter to February 15, 1980 and forge the signature of the officer who found the car. Gaburri would be fired over these allegations, but was reinstated soon afterward. When the TV show Unsolved Mysteries filmed a segment about Michael’s disappearance in 1988, Gaburri ordered his officers not to cooperate or participate in the broadcast. In 1992, a partial skull fragment belonging to Michael was found in a wooded area 4.8 kilometers (three miles) away from where Lisa’s car was discovered, but the circumstances behind his death are still unknown.

2Helen Brach


After the death of her candy magnate husband in 1970, Helen Brach inherited his $20 million fortune. Seven years later, the 65-year old Brach left an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which turned out to be the last confirmed sighting of her. Brach’s driver, Jack Matlick, claimed that he met her at O’Hare International Airport when she arrived back in Chicago. After driving her home, he supposedly took her back to the airport a few days later for a trip to Florida. However, authorities could not find anyone from the airport who recalled seeing Brach. Matlick claimed that Brach left $15,000 in signed checks for him, but they turned out to be forged. He also had Brach’s home repainted, had her car thoroughly cleaned, and did not report her missing for two weeks. Despite his suspicious actions, Matlick was never charged for any crime and died in 2011.

Brach’s con artist boyfriend, Richard Bailey, would actually be sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1994 for conspiring to commit Brach’s murder after she realized he was scamming her. Bailey has always maintained his innocence and things got even more controversial in 2005 when a career criminal named Joe Plemmons confessed that he and several accomplices were responsible for murdering Brach. Plemmons claimed that Bailey was not involved and that Brach was killed for threatening to go to the police after being swindled on some business deals. As evidence, Plemmons produced a ruby ring which supposedly belonged to Brach, but his story has never been corroborated, and the real truth about what happened to her remains murky.

1Sneha Anne Philip


When the World Trade Center was attacked on the morning of September 11, 2001, 2,752 people lost their lives. However, there has always been some controversy about whether one of those victims actually died in the attacks. Dr. Sneha Anne Philip was an Indian-American physician who lived in Lower Manhattan with her husband. On September 10, security cameras captured her shopping at a department store where she purchased about $550 worth of items, which have never been found. When Sneha’s husband returned to their apartment later that night, she was not there and he assumed she was spending the night with relatives.

Since Sneha lived near the World Trade Center, it was theorized that she may have been killed while heading home on the morning of the attacks. Being a doctor, she could have even stopped to offer medical assistance right before the towers collapsed. However, at the time of her disappearance, Sneha was suffering from numerous personal problems, such as alleged issues with substance abuse, extra-marital affairs, and a pending criminal charge for filing a false complaint against a co-worker. Authorities speculated that Sneha may have used the attacks as an opportunity to disappear and start a new life somewhere, or that she was actually murdered by an unknown party on September 10. While there is no hard evidence to prove that Sneha died in the attacks or was even near Ground Zero that morning, her family did successfully petition to have her declared a 9/11 victim in 2008.

Robin Warder is a budding Canadian screenwriter who has used his encyclopaedic movie knowledge to publish numerous articles at He is also the co-owner of a pop culture website called The Back Row and recently worked on a sci-fi short film called “Jet Ranger of Another Tomorrow.” Feel free to contact him here.

fact checked by Jamie Frater