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10 Unsolved Spring Break Murders And Disappearances
Every March and April, dozens of cities across the southern portion of North America are inundated with college students. Excited to take a break from studying, they fill their days with beaches, bikinis, and booze. Tragically, some of these young people also fall victim to murders and mysterious disappearances.
10 Sarah Ann Ottens
In 1973, the University of Iowa dorm where Sarah Ann Ottens lived was almost empty because most students had departed for the spring break holiday. Sarah had stayed on campus to make a little extra money as a waitress. She intended to go home to visit her family in Illinois later in the week. Until then, she had the key to a friend’s dorm room and would sometimes stay there instead of her own room.
Just before midnight on March 13, the 20-year-old nursing student was found suffocated and beaten in her friend’s room. She had evidently been washed because there was blood in the sink. The students assigned to the dorm room had left for the holiday. Sarah’s body was discovered by the only other student staying on the floor that week.
Eventually, police arrested 20-year-old James Hall, a part-time student who was African American. Based on hair, blood, and fingerprint evidence found at the scene and on Hall’s attire, he was convicted and given a 50-year sentence.
However, the trial was marred from the outset. Racist statements were allegedly made at the grand jury proceedings. Then some jury members were accused of consuming alcohol during the deliberations before they rendered their verdict. Ultimately, Hall’s conviction was overturned on appeal because it was found that the prosecution had withheld evidence.
Hall was released, and Sarah’s murder reverted to unsolved status. Ten years later, Hall was convicted of strangling a 31-year-old woman. No one else was ever charged in Sarah’s death.
9 Susan Jacques
Susan Jacques, a high school senior from Connecticut, went with nine friends to Fort Lauderdale for spring break in 1986. Toward the end of the trip, Susan left her motel room during the night, ostensibly to go for a walk alone on the beach. Later, police believed that she might have been meeting other partygoers at another motel.
Susan was found three days later floating in a canal 55 kilometers (35 mi) away. Her body was so badly decomposed that the medical examiner could not determine the cause of death.
Little evidence was found to link her murder to any suspects. No witnesses have come forward, and no motive has been ascertained. Robbery was ruled out because she was still wearing expensive jewelry when she was found. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
Police investigated several men who unexpectedly checked out of their motels early and left the state. But each was eliminated as a suspect. The police say that their best hope of solving the case is a confession, but none has been forthcoming.
8 Kim Vaccaro And Lisa Eisman
On March 29, 1985, Kim Vaccaro and Lisa Eisman, 20-year-old students from State University College in Buffalo, New York, were headed to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. They intended to meet up with a friend who had already arrived.
The two women hadn’t told their families that they planned to hitchhike. Armed with only a couple of kitchen knives for protection, Kim and Lisa boarded a tractor-trailer for a ride. They were known to have made it safely to the southern border of Maryland, where Lisa sent a postcard to her boyfriend.
Apparently, their weapons were ineffective. Four days after setting off, both young women were discovered near a Tampa river in an undeveloped area. They were both beaten so badly that they had to be identified through dental records.
It was determined that Kim and Lisa’s bodies had been in the water for two days. They were clad only in T-shirts. Their cash and other possessions were missing. The truck driver who picked them up was never identified.
Thirty years later, the murders remain a mystery. Sadly, Kim and Lisa had initially signed up to take a bus trip to Florida sponsored by their university. Although they had been given money for the trip by their families, the young women had apparently changed their minds to save the cash for their vacation.
7 Karen Wilson
In an eerie coincidence, another New York college student went missing at the same time as Kim Vaccaro and Lisa Eisman. Karen Wilson, a student at the University of Albany, had also been planning to go to Fort Lauderdale with her roommate when she vanished.
Unlike Vaccaro and Eisman, Wilson had purchased airline tickets to fly to Florida. But she never picked them up. Investigators believe that she was grabbed off the street by a lone individual as she walked back to campus after a tanning session.
While conducting a mock kidnapping, police discovered that it would take as little as 10 seconds for a man to grab and wrestle a small woman into the trunk of a car. But there’s no certainty that this is what happened to Karen. Without evidence, a body, a crime scene, or any witnesses, it has been difficult to make progress in the case.
An anonymous caller pointed investigators to a 33-year-old truck driver named Brad Woodworth. But detectives thought it unlikely that Woodworth would have shown up for his 4:00 AM shift if he had kidnapped and murdered a woman at 8:00 PM the previous night. They investigated Woodworth for two years, but he was never charged.
Another tip led police to search a wooded area near an abandoned country club near Woodworth’s home. Months of searching turned up nothing. Woodworth died years later in a fire, and Karen’s parents do not consider him a suspect in their daughter’s disappearance.
Karen Wilson’s body was never recovered, and the case remains open.
6 Reny Jose
When he disappeared in 2014, Reny Jose, a senior engineering student at Rice University, was vacationing with friends in Panama City, Florida, during spring break. Around 6:30 PM on the fourth day of the trip, Reny left the house that he and about 20 friends had rented. His clothes, cell phone, and wallet were later found in a trash can behind the house.
Police speculated that Reny was tripping on LSD when he waded into the cold water and drowned. Some of his friends reported that drug use was common during the vacation and that Reny had been making comments about possibly hurting himself. His family denied that he was suicidal. Reny had been ready to graduate with a 4.0 GPA and was reportedly excited about finding a job.
Authorities searched the waters near the beach house, but they couldn’t find Reny’s body. Several of Reny’s friends left the rental house in Florida less than one day after he went missing. None admitted to seeing Reny leave the house or participated in the search efforts. No suspects have been named.
One year after Reny’s disappearance, his family held a vigil to raise awareness of his case as they continue to search for him.
5 Dana Bailey
In March 1987, 21-year-old Penn State student Dana Bailey was planning her wedding and looking forward to graduating. She’d gone to Washington, DC, to visit her fiance during spring break but had come home early after quarreling with him.
For some reason, Dana told her mother that she’d gotten a flat tire on the way back to Pennsylvania. Then she asked her mother to call in sick for her at the restaurant where she worked because she wanted to treat herself to a tanning session. That evening, her fiance called from DC. After a 30-minute chat, she said she was tired and was going to bed.
At the time, State College was a safe college town with no more than one or two murders per decade. The street on which Dana lived was quiet because most of the students who lived there were still away for spring break.
When Dana’s mother, Shirley, stopped by the next day to drop off a check for Dana’s rent, Shirley was horrified to find that her daughter had been stabbed to death in the chest. Dana’s diamond engagement ring was still on her finger, but her nightgown had been torn off her.
Since the area was deserted, there were no witnesses. Investigators refused to release many details of the crime, leading Dana’s parents to speculate that there wasn’t much evidence to go on. However, one strange detail was Dana’s story about the flat tire. Her tires seemed fine, and the police could find no garage along the route that reported helping her.
Nearly 30 years later, the case is still open.
4 Rachel Taylor
Almost 50 years before Dana Bailey’s disappearance, another Penn State student was the victim of a mysterious crime. In 1940, 17-year-old freshman Rachel Taylor, a native of New Jersey, was returning to campus from a visit home during spring break.
She got off the bus from her hometown around 1:20 AM to make the 0.8-kilometer (0.5 mi) walk to her dorm. Ten minutes later, Rachel was seen getting into a car just outside the dorm. A janitor found her beaten body early the next morning about 6 kilometers (4 mi) away. She had been sexually assaulted, and her body had been mutilated.
There was some speculation that a white slavery ring was operating in the area because another young woman had also been found tortured and murdered near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. But friends insisted that Rachel had probably known her killer because she wasn’t the type of girl to accept rides from strangers.
An autopsy revealed that Rachel had eaten just before she’d died. Since no restaurants in the area were open at the time, this made it more likely that she had known her assailant. However, a search of the entire campus turned up nothing.
Police interviewed prison inmates, mental hospital patients, and a number of likely suspects around the state. A bloody handkerchief and a man’s footprint were found near the location where Rachel’s body was discovered.
But her killer was never identified. Neither the car nor the murder weapon was ever located. Rachel’s murder has become one of the oldest unsolved cases in the area.
3 Stacie Madison And Susan Smalley
Stacie Madison and Susan Smalley, two high school students from Carrollton, Texas, were enjoying their last night of spring break. Before their planned sleepover at Susan’s house, they visited friends in the Dallas suburbs, went to the mall, and attended a friend’s party in Arlington. Typical teenage stuff.
They returned to Susan’s house by their midnight curfew. But a short time later, they decided to stop by the restaurant where Susan worked to chat with a boy she had a crush on. After that, they were never seen again.
Stacie’s 1967 Ford Mustang convertible was found locked and abandoned at a busy intersection a few miles south of Carrollton. Authorities questioned Stacie’s ex-boyfriend, who had bragged to his new girlfriend that he had murdered both girls and buried them in a cemetery near State Highway 121. But a search turned up nothing. The boyfriend recanted his confession, passed a polygraph test, and was released.
In 2010, Shawn Sutherland, a paralegal in the Dallas area, was inspired to write a book about Stacie and Susan’s disappearance. Called This Night Wounds Time: The Mysterious Disappearances of Stacie Madison and Susan Smalley, it revealed nothing new but reignited police interest in the case.
Both police and Stacie’s family believe that her ex-boyfriend hasn’t been fully cleared as a suspect. Sutherland seems to agree in the book. However, despite some promising leads that developed in the renewed investigation, the case is still unsolved.
2 Brian Shaffer
One evening in March 2006, Brian Shaffer, 27, had dinner with his father at a restaurant and then met up with a friend at a local bar in Columbus, Ohio, to celebrate the start of spring break.
Brian was a second-year medical student at Ohio State. He was preparing to leave on a trip to Florida in a few days with his girlfriend, Alexis Waggoner. She was a fellow medical student at Ohio State who was expecting the vacation to include a marriage proposal.
At the bar, Brian got separated from his friend, William “Clint” Florence. Brian was seen on surveillance video chatting with two girls near the bar and then apparently returning inside. Unable to reach Brian on his cell phone, Clint assumed that Brian had gone home.
However, video surveillance of the bar showed no signs of Brian ever leaving the bar. Police even went so far as to account for each person who entered the bar to make sure that Brian hadn’t left in disguise. His car and apartment were found just as he’d left them. None of his personal effects ever turned up.
Twice, Clint Florence refused to take a polygraph test. He was the only person in the investigation to do so. His attorney asserts that Brian is alive and inexplicably causing his family’s suffering. But numerous people—including Alexis, Alexis’s father, and Brian’s brother, Derek—believe that Clint knows more than he’s admitted.
1 Brittanee Drexel
The case of Brittanee Drexel, a 17-year-old high school junior from Rochester, New York, is perhaps the most high-profile spring break disappearance since Natalee Holloway vanished in Aruba in 2005.
In 2009, Brittanee asked her mother for permission to go to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for spring break. But her mother only gave her permission to go to Charlotte Beach near her home. Unknown to her mother, the Charlotte Beach trip was a ruse for Brittanee to go to Myrtle Beach. Her mother had denied her permission for the Myrtle Beach trip because she didn’t know the three friends who were going.
While in Myrtle Beach, Brittanee ran into 20-year-old club promoter Peter Brozowitz, an acquaintance from Rochester. The night before Brittanee planned to return home, she spent time visiting Brozowitz at his hotel before returning to her own hotel around 9:00 PM.
She had been texting her boyfriend during her walk back, but then the texts suddenly stopped. Subsequent phone calls went straight to voice mail, as did calls to the friends with whom she had traveled.
Between the hours of 9:30 PM and midnight, Brittanee’s cell phone pinged off two towers, the first near Myrtle Beach and the second about an hour south. The area where her phone was finally tracked (but never found) is rife with swamps and alligators, and some fear that her body may have been dumped there.
In one of the most suspicious moves anyone can make, Brozowitz suddenly checked out of his hotel between 1:00 AM and 2:00 AM and returned to Rochester. The four friends with whom he had shared the room stayed behind.
Theories abound as to what happened to Brittanee. Some people, including Brittanee’s mom, speculate that she was a victim of human trafficking. Myrtle Beach has become known as a trafficking hub, and South Carolina has documented a dozen confirmed cases.
Some believe that Brittanee’s friends may have been involved because there was an argument over a pair of shorts. Brittanee disappeared while walking back to her hotel to return them to one of her friends.
The friends who traveled to Myrtle Beach with Brittanee didn’t contact her family or the authorities when she went missing and didn’t help in the search for her. Others think Brozowitz is more involved than the evidence has been able to prove. As of February 2016, Brittanee has not been found.
Anya Pham does a little of this and a little of that in both professional and amateur capacities.