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10 Haunting Unsolved Child Abductions Committed By Parents

by Robin Warder
fact checked by Jamie Frater

It’s always a heartbreaking and traumatic situation when a parent decides to kidnap their own child. Most of the time, the abductor’s primary motivation is to keep their child away from the other parent. On the surface, it would seem that the key difference between a parental abduction and an abduction by a stranger is that the child’s life won’t be in danger. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

10Brandi Summers And Tiffani Wise

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In 1977, Beverly Wise lived in San Bernadino, California, with her husband, Claude, and their three children: five-year-old Brandi, two-year-old Tiffani, and eight-month-old Stacy. Claude was the father of Tiffani and Stacy, but Brandi’s father was Beverly’s ex-husband, Roy Summers. Years earlier, the couple had divorced after an abusive marriage. Throughout his life, Roy was married seven times and faced numerous charges of violent behavior from his spouses. On March 30, while her husband was at work, Beverly was stabbed to death inside her home. Stacy was left unharmed, but Brandi and Tiffani were gone. Witnesses reported seeing a man putting Tiffani into a car outside the house that day. The man resembled Roy Summers.

Initially, authorities did not believe that Roy had anything to do with the crime, but in subsequent years there were sightings of him with Brandi and Tiffani in different states. In November 1979, Roy was arrested in Oregon for assaulting his current wife. Photographs of the two missing girls, along with belongings from the Wise residence, were found at his home. It was theorized that Roy abducted Brandi and Tiffani because they could identify him as Beverly’s killer. Numerous people would be charged with conspiring with Roy to hide the two girls in the years following their disappearance, but Brandi and Tiffani were never located.

Roy was eventually charged with Beverly’s murder and the girls’ abduction, but was acquitted at trial in 1982. Roy passed away in 2009, but there have no confirmed sightings of either Brandi or Tiffani in over 35 years. Unfortunately, since Brandi suffered from cystic fibrosis at the time she went missing, the odds of her still being alive after all this time are not good.

9Timmothy Pitzen

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In 2011, Jim and Amy Pitzen lived in Aurora, Illinois, with their six-year old son, Timmothy. On the morning of May 11, Amy made the inexplicable decision to remove Timmothy from his class at school. She told the school there was a family emergency, but this was untrue. After spending a few hours with her son at a local zoo, Amy drove to the town of Gurnee, where they checked into a water park resort. The following morning, Amy and Timmothy traveled to Wisconsin Dells and stayed at another water park resort. On May 13, Amy finally decided to phone her family to assure them that Timmothy was fine. They heard Timmothy’s voice in the background during the call, but that was the last confirmed contact with the child.

Amy then drove to Rockford and checked into a motel. The following morning, she was found dead in her room. She had slashed her wrists with a box cutter. There was no sign of Timmothy, but Amy left behind a note claiming that he’d been left in the care of someone who loved him and would never be found. Timmothy’s backpack and booster seat were missing from Amy’s SUV, but there were traces of his blood inside. However, since Timmothy had suffered a major nosebleed in the vehicle prior to his disappearance, it’s unknown if these blood traces signified foul play. The SUV was dirty, indicating that Amy may have driven into a rural area at some point. Prior to her death, Amy was also seen in surveillance footage wearing clothing which has never been found.

After four years, there is still no sign of Timmothy Pitzen, and everyone remains baffled about his mother’s decision to abduct him before taking her own life.

8Deborah Sanders

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In September 1984, Norell Sanders was visited at her Chicago apartment by her estranged boyfriend, Odell Sheppard. At the time, Norell lived with her one-year-old daughter, Deborah. Odell was the child’s father. When the couple got into a violent struggle, Odell snatched Deborah out of her mother’s arms and fled the scene. Weeks later, Odell phoned Norell and offered to return Deborah in exchange for $2,000, but Norell could not afford to pay that. Even after Norell contacted the police, they were unsure about how to proceed at that time. Since Odell and Norell were never officially married, it was unclear who had legal custody of Deborah. Shortly thereafter, Odell took Deborah to a family member’s funeral in Memphis. That would be the last confirmed sighting of the child.

One year later, Odell was finally tracked down and arrested, but Deborah was nowhere to be found. Odell was charged with child abduction but maintained his innocence and claimed that he had returned Deborah to his mother. After serving one year in prison, Odell was ordered to produce Deborah in court shortly after his release. When Odell failed to do so, he was jailed for civil contempt. As time went on, Odell continually refused to reveal what had happened to Deborah.

The case made legal history. Odell remained incarcerated in the Cook County jail for over 10 straight years, which is believed to be the longest sentence ever served for civil contempt. Since Odell was never formally charged with a crime, the situation has generated much controversy. He was finally released from jail in January 1998 after Norell died of a stroke. To this day, there are still no answers about the whereabouts of Deborah Sanders.

7The Skelton Boys

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In September 2010, Tanya Skelton filed for divorce from her estranged husband, John. The couple had three children together: nine-year-old Andrew, seven-year-old Alexander, and five-year-old Tanner. Upon hearing about what Tanya had done, John immediately withdrew Andrew and Alexander from their school and attempted to take the boys to Florida before finally agreeing to return them to their home in Morenci, Michigan. Shortly thereafter, Tanya was granted full custody of all three children. At Thanksgiving, John was granted visitation with his sons and picked them up from their home. The three boys were last seen in the backyard of John’s home that day.

John was soon found in an Ohio hospital receiving treatment after a failed attempt to hang himself. There was no sign of his children, so he was immediately arrested. John claimed that he had given his sons to a woman named Joann Taylor, who happened to be the wife of a pastor, but there is no evidence that this woman ever existed. He later changed his story and claimed to have given his children to an underground organization to protect them from their mother.

In July 2011, in order to avoid kidnapping charges, John agreed to plead no contest to three counts of false imprisonment and was sentenced to 10–15 years in prison. To this day, he has never divulged the location of his three missing sons, but authorities do not believe they were given away to anyone. It is feared that John murdered his children and disposed of their bodies early the morning after Thanksgiving.

6Gabriel Johnson

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In 2009, Elizabeth Johnson lived in Tempe, Arizona, with her seven-month-old son, Gabriel, and was engaged in a custody battle with the child’s father, Logan McQueary. On December 18, the day after the two parents were awarded joint custody, Elizabeth took Gabriel and traveled to San Antonio without informing his father. The last confirmed sighting of Gabriel was at a motel on December 27. Shortly thereafter, Logan received a series of disturbing text messages and phone calls from Elizabeth in which she claimed to have killed Gabriel and tossed his body into a dumpster. Three days later, Elizabeth was tracked down in Miami Beach and arrested. A search turned up no trace of Gabriel’s body.

Elizabeth then told police that she’d lied about killing Gabriel and had actually given the child to a couple in a San Antonio park. Months before Gabriel’s disappearance, Elizabeth had met a woman named Tammi Smith and made unofficial arrangements for Smith and her husband to adopt Gabriel. Since Logan did not want to give up his child, Smith conspired with Elizabeth in an attempt to strip Logan of his parental rights. Smith even went so far as to claim that her cousin was Gabriel’s biological father and forged his signature on a paternity document.

Smith served a 30-day jail sentence for forgery and conspiracy to commit custodial interference but has always denied any knowledge of Gabriel’s current whereabouts. Elizabeth received a five-year prison sentence for unlawful imprisonment and custodial interference and was released in July 2014. Elizabeth continues to maintain that she gave Gabriel away and did not harm him, but the boy’s fate remains unknown.

5The O’Brien Boys

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On November 9, 1996, Gary O’Brien showed up in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, for a scheduled visit with his three sons: 14-year-old Adam, 11-year-old Trevor, and four-year-old Mitchell. Prior to Gary’s arrival, his ex-wife, Diana Boland, had phoned him to say that Mitchell was feeling ill and might have to miss the scheduled visitation, but Gary was very insistent about seeing all three of his sons. Gary picked up the boys as scheduled in his 1989 Ford Tempo. Later that night, Diana received a phone call from Gary, who told her that he was not going to return the boys. He also claimed to have rigged his home with a bomb which would explode if anyone tried to enter.

After police were notified, they traveled to Gary’s home in Torbay and discovered that he had indeed rigged the residence with a bomb. The device was made up of two 180-kilogram (400 lb) propane tanks and could have destroyed the entire neighborhood if it went off. However, there was no sign of Gary or his three sons, and they have not been seen since. One year later, an engine belonging to a 1989 Ford Tempo was found in the ocean off nearby Red Head Cliff. This led to speculation that Gary may have committed a murder-suicide by deliberately driving his vehicle into the ocean with his three sons inside. However, it is unknown if the engine actually belonged to Gary’s Ford Tempo.

Diana Boland continues to hold out hope that her ex-husband rigged the propane bomb and tossed the engine into the ocean in order to mislead police and fake his children’s deaths. If Gary O’Brien is alive, there is a still an active felony warrant against him for kidnapping and attempted murder.

4Kamelia Spencer

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In January 1997, Sonia Coppulecchia gave birth to a daughter named Kamelia. The child’s father was her current boyfriend, Derek Spencer. Six months after Kamelia’s birth, the couple’s relationship came to an end. Sonia initially retained custody of Kamelia, but things soon got explosive when Derek’s mother, Helen Gruning, filed criminal charges against her. Helen claimed that Sonia had threatened to kill her and her son. Most of the charges against Sonia did not stick, but she did spend some time in jail for threatening Helen. Derek and Helen wound up gaining custody of Kamelia, but the story only got more bizarre. Helen was eventually investigated by the California Department of Social Services once it became apparent that she was suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

It turned out that Helen had been coercing Kamelia into faking illnesses, forcing the child to seek unnecessary medical attention, and take medication she did not need. Kamelia was removed from the custody of Derek and Helen and placed in foster care. On December 20, 1999, Derek was allowed a supervised visit with Kamelia at the Funland amusement center in Palmdale, California. During the visit, Derek managed to sneak away from the social worker and disappeared with his daughter. When authorities checked the residence where Derek and Helen both resided, they discovered that it had been completely cleaned out.

It is believed that Derek and Helen were fearful about Sonia regaining custody of Kamelia and spent several months selling off everything they could to raise $122,000 for an escape. Kamelia, her father, and her paternal grandmother have not been seen since. Federal arrest warrants are still active on both Derek Spencer and Helen Gruning. If still alive, Kamelia Spencer would be 18 years old today.

3The Brown Family

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In 1985, James Brown lived in Port St. Lucie, Florida, with his wife, Carolyn, and their three children: 10-year-old Sheketah, six-year-old Barry, and two-year-old Brandon. Sometime during July of that year, the entire Brown family mysteriously disappeared. After not hearing from them for several weeks, Carolyn’s mother reported them missing to police. A search of the Brown home revealed that one of the rooms had been freshly painted to cover up bloodstains. Carolyn’s purse had been left behind and all of her identification was cut up. Shortly thereafter, Carolyn’s sister received a surprising phone call from James, who told her that the rest of the family was “out there.”

James Brown was soon found in a Savannah, Georgia, hospital under a false name. He was treated for a gunshot wound to the head, which he attributed to a robbery attempt. However, when questioned by police, James confessed to murdering his family before making a failed attempt to commit suicide. He claimed to have killed Carolyn and Brandon inside their home before disposing of their bodies in Palm Beach County. Afterward, he drove Sheketah and Barry to Georgia before shooting them to death and disposing of their remains.

James later recanted his confession but was charged with the murders of Carolyn and Brandon. He would be acquitted at trial, as the victim’s remains were never found and there was little evidence of him having committed a crime. Nonetheless, James was officially diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and spent over a decade in a mental health facility. He has since been released, but the rest of the Brown family has still never been located.

2Kate Phillips

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In 2011, Ariel Courtland lived in Ludington, Michigan, with her two children, one of whom was a four-month-old girl named Kate. Ariel’s boyfriend, Sean Phillips, was the father of her older child but denied being Kate’s father. On June 29, Sean was forced to take a court-ordered paternity test. Since he was a soldier and was going to be deployed in Afghanistan that summer, Sean did not want the added burden of a second child. He decided to drive Ariel and Kate to the Department of Human Services to place the child up for adoption. Ariel did not want to do this, and the couple got into a heated argument before returning to Ariel’s apartment. When Ariel went to her apartment to get Kate’s stroller, Sean drove away with the child still inside the vehicle.

Sean was arrested at his parents’ home a few hours later. Even though Kate’s car seat and diaper bag were inside the trunk of Sean’s vehicle, the child was nowhere to be found. Sean also had some of Kate’s clothing in his pocket, but gave conflicting stories about what had happened to her. In April 2012, Sean was convicted of false imprisonment and sentenced to 10–15 years in prison.

While incarcerated, Sean allegedly wrote a letter to Ariel in which he confessed to accidentally killing Kate. Sean’s letter stated that, after driving away from Ariel’s apartment, he threw the car seat out of the vehicle in frustration. However, he’d mistakenly assumed that Ariel had already taken Kate out of her seat. Afterward, Sean left his lifeless daughter at an undisclosed location. While Kate’s body has never been found, there are still tentative plans to put Sean Phillips on trial for murder sometime in the future.

1The Campbell Children

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For years, Jewel Bernay Campbell suffered through an abusive marriage with her husband, A.J. In 1958, Jewel finally left A.J. and traveled to Texas with their two children: three-year-old Myrisha and 11-month-old A.J. Jr. Eventually, A.J. was granted visitation rights with his children, and he arrived to pick them up from Jewel’s home on the morning of September 6. A.J. was driving a car belonging to one of his friends, William Randle, who accompanied him on the visitation. A.J. was supposed to return the children by 3:00 PM, but shortly after leaving town, A.J. stopped the car and asked Randle to climb out. A.J. claimed that he would return shortly and drove off with his two children.

A.J. returned to pick up Randle 40 minutes later, but Myrisha and A.J. Jr. were no longer inside the vehicle. A.J. claimed that he went to visit his brother-in-law and got into a fight with him, but never explained what happened to his children. A.J. then drove to San Antonio and once again parted ways with Randle. The following day, Randle’s car was discovered outside Austin. A.J.’s body was inside. He had shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Shortly before his death, A.J. had phoned a minister in Fort Worth, stating that he had killed and buried his children and was planning to kill himself. A.J. also left behind a note for his ex-wife, once again claiming that he had buried both their children. Jewel has always held out hope that A.J. was lying in his note, but no trace of Myrisha or A.J. Campbell Jr. has ever been found.

Robin Warder is a budding Canadian screenwriter who has used his encyclopedic 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