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10 Terrifying ’80s Abductions That Changed America Forever
The 1980s were a time of lost innocence in America. Things had been trending that way for a while, of course. The tumultuous social upheavals of the 1960s and the difficult economic climate throughout the 1970s both pointed the United States toward adversities. But in the 1980s, the focus turned to children.
Ronald Reagan became president and pushed for two things: the resurrection of the American family and the need to be tough on crime. That combination swirled until Americans were intent on doing everything they could for their kids while also shielding the young ones from boogeymen, both real and imagined.
Simultaneously, new social issues were taking hold. In Bakersfield, California, a group of young children accused their parents and family friends of ritual child sexual abuse done in the name of the devil. The so-called “satanic panic” sprung up from Bakersfield and other cities and quickly spread across America.
It turned out to be a witch hunt, but it was terrifyingly real at the time. Soon, every mother was worried about their child being swiped by Satanists, kidnappers, and murderers. The end result was a society locked in unease. And it manifested itself in hyper-vigilance and excessive worry about abduction.
Of course, the likelihood of a child being kidnapped by a stranger was very, very small. But that didn’t stop parents from worrying. And even though it was rare, stranger kidnappings did happen. They were unfathomable events that ripped families apart and captured the nation’s attention during an unsettling period.
Unfortunately, when these rare abductions hit the news, they blew up. Parents tuned in to the horrible stories and altered the way they parented to avoid being the next victims. In this list, you’ll learn about ten shocking and brazen ’80s abductions that changed the way America looked at “stranger danger” forever.
10 Adam Walsh
Adam Walsh’s abduction turned out to be the one that started it all. It was far from the first major child abduction that swept the American airwaves, of course. But Walsh’s parents pushed so hard for kidnapping resources after his tragic tale that the 1980s saw a major surge in anti-abduction activism. Four decades later, Adam Walsh’s story is still felt by millions of Americans, and the unfortunate little boy’s legacy still reverberates through law enforcement agencies, victim support groups, and countless grieving families.
Adam was with his mother, Revé Walsh, in a Sears department store in Hollywood, Florida, on July 27, 1981. The six-year-old boy asked his mom if he could go with some older boys to play video games in another part of the mall. She said yes, and he ran off to have fun. Revé shopped alone for another ten minutes, then went to check on Adam.
However, she couldn’t find him anywhere in the department store. And nobody had seemed to notice a young boy running away—or being led out of the store by somebody else. Frantic, Revé panicked and called the police. Florida cops immediately got on the case, and the stricken mother’s husband, John Walsh, rushed to the scene too.
Sadly, Adam was never seen alive again. His remains were found two weeks later. Nearly overcome with grief, John moved to take action. He wanted to prevent this from ever happening to another family. So he got the wheels in motion to start the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The NCMEC wouldn’t go into effect for a few more years—and after a few more high-profile kidnappings—but it still serves children across America today. John also began filming the legendary true crime show America’s Most Wanted. And in the early 2000s, an Amber Alert precursor called “Code Adam” was instituted in public places nationwide to assist law enforcement in cases of kidnapping.
Years after the young Walsh’s awful murder, serial killer Ottis Toole took responsibility for the death. He was already in prison for other murders he’d committed, along with another sadistic killer named Henry Lee Lucas. Florida cops couldn’t bring a legal case against Toole; they didn’t have evidence he actually committed the crime. They worried his confession was simply a way to seek media attention.
However, in the end, they pieced together Toole’s known whereabouts in 1981 and realized he could have been telling the truth. It didn’t bring Adam back, but the frank admission may have at least placed the final puzzle piece in the terrible tragedy.
9 Nyleen Marshall
When a four-year-old girl named Nyleen Marshall disappeared from a Montana campground on June 25, 1983, police initially suspected she’d wandered off into the woods. They were worried about her going out into the forests alone outside Helena, of course. But they had dealt with wandering children before and were confident they could locate her.
As soon as her family called in her missing persons report from the campground, cops got to work. But as the investigation proceeded that day, they learned some very concerning details that made them think this wasn’t a simple missing toddler case.
Witnesses at the campground came forward to report having seen Nyleen speaking with a man in a purple jogging outfit early in the day. The outfit was memorable for campers in attendance, but they couldn’t tell the cops much else about the man’s appearance. Police weren’t able to find him on the jogging suit tip alone.
To this day, his identity remains a mystery, but police felt then and still do now that he is the key to unlocking this case. With no other leads to go on, it was as if Nyleen had vanished into thin air. Police alerted the media, and the case was made public. Soon, it caught national attention. But millions of eyeballs didn’t bring any more information to light.
Two years later, in 1985, the NCMEC and the Child Fund of America were both contacted by a person mailing unsigned letters. Then, a man started leaving anonymous voicemails with the two organizations’ offices. In them, he claimed he was the one who kidnapped Nyleen. He also said he was now raising her as his own daughter.
At first, authorities were skeptical. But the man provided them with details that hadn’t been published in any prior media reports. Soon, investigators felt they were dealing with the actual kidnapper. Police were able to trace the calls and letters to the Madison, Wisconsin, area, but the trail went cold from there. The man stopped contacting the NCMEC, and he was never heard from again.
8 Cherrie Mahan
Cherrie Mahan’s shocking disappearance went down like every parent ever since has imagined in their worst, darkest nightmares. It was the afternoon of February 22, 1985, and Cherrie was being dropped off from school in her Pennsylvania town. Her parents heard the bus roar by their home and knew the little eight-year-old girl would be inside at any moment. After all, she only had to walk less than 150 feet (45 meters) from the bus stop to her family’s driveway. But she never made it.
When Cherrie didn’t come to the family’s front door after a few moments, her parents went outside to see if she had stopped to talk to a friend. Instead, they found her footprints in newly-fallen snow just down the block. But right before they reached her driveway, the prints stopped—and just feet away, tire tread marks showed a car had pulled away.
The Mahan family called the police, and cops were immediately dispatched to investigate. The bus driver and several children on the bus all confirmed that Cherrie was dropped off at her normal spot that afternoon. But on the extremely short walk home, something awful clearly happened.
Cops quickly learned from other neighbors that a very distinctive van had been parked on the street that day. The van had a memorable mural painted on the side of its paneling: a skier going down a mountain. The van had been parked right along Cherrie’s path to her house, but when her parents had gone out to check on her, it was gone.
As police canvassed the neighborhood and reached out to their contacts, they figured the unique van would be easy to find. Sadly, it wasn’t. Even with the skier mural painted on the side, cops never managed to track down the van or its driver. Along with that missing lead, Cherrie was never seen again.
Having learned from abductions earlier in the ’80s, Pennsylvania detectives launched a full-on media blitz. Hoping to draw attention to the girl’s case, they plastered her picture and information all over local television stations and newspapers. They even printed up postcards with Cherrie’s face on them and a “Have you seen me?” message typed across the bottom.
Postcards like that would go on to become commonplace in stranger abductions, but Mahan’s were the first ever mass-produced and mailed out by the NCMEC. Sadly, they didn’t result in any leads. To this day, Cherrie has never been found.
7 John Gosch
John Gosch was on his paper route with his beloved pet dog in the early morning hours of September 5, 1982, when the unthinkable happened. The 12-year-old boy was jumped by two unidentified men and thrown into the back of a car in West Des Moines, Iowa. The men quickly drove off with John in tow, leaving behind many questions and few answers.
Soon, John’s paper route customers started calling his family home complaining that they hadn’t gotten their paper. His parents assumed he’d overslept. But when they checked his room, he was gone. They called the police, and cops started quizzing neighbors about what they’d seen. Authorities began piecing together the timeline based on early witness statements from the neighborhood. But nobody had a reliable report about what the two men looked like. And nobody got a good look at the car’s license plate, either.
John’s abduction proved to be a landmark case in many ways. For one, Des Moines cops waited for 72 hours before beginning a full investigation into John’s whereabouts. Most missing children of that era were runaways, and cops simply felt John would return soon. His parents knew better, but they were powerless to stop police procedures.
After John’s abduction, though, that policy changed nationwide. John was also the first child to have his face printed on the side of a milk carton. That practice would continue to happen for countless other children throughout the decade and onward to the new millennium.
Curious events made the Gosch family terrified of the kidnapping too. First, about six months after the 12-year-old disappeared, a boy in a parking lot was overheard screaming that he was John Gosch and he’d been kidnapped. Cops couldn’t track the kid down to confirm his story, though; he was gone by the time officers arrived. A year later, the Gosch family received a crumpled-up dollar bill in the mail. Scrawled across it were the words “I am alive” and a signature that seemed to match that of the young pre-teen.
Then, in 1997, John’s mother, Noreen, claimed her son—who would have been nearly 30 years old by then—showed up at her apartment. During a late-night meeting, the man claiming to be John said he’d been kidnapped by a pedophile ring and abused. He somehow managed to escape but had to stay hidden so as not to draw their attention again.
Nearly a decade later, in 2006, Noreen found several old photographs that had been left on her doorstep. They showed images of tied-up boys being abused. She believed one of the children to be her son. That has never been conclusively proven, but the continuous links back to John’s kidnapping remain a mystery to this day.
6 Suzie Bombardier
Suzie Bombardier was a 14-year-old girl living in Northern California with her family when she was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in June 1980. She had been living in the city of Antioch when she took a job babysitting one night that summer. She had agreed to babysit her adult sister’s young nieces. So she spent the evening in her sister’s townhome in the supposedly-safe California town.
However, sometime in the night, things went terribly wrong. When Suzie’s sister got home, she couldn’t find the teenager anywhere. There was no sign of forced entry, but it wasn’t like Suzie to just wander off. So she called the young girl’s parents, and the family then called the police.
Cops came to the house and did a full investigation of the scene. They didn’t uncover much evidence, but they did note the same thing Suzie’s sister had seen: There was no sign of forced entry into the townhome. If Suzie really had been kidnapped, and she wasn’t just a runaway, cops felt it was likely that she knew her abductor and had let them into the house of her own free will before being taken. As police scrambled to locate the girl, her family racked their brains, wondering who Suzie could have come across on that fateful night.
Five days later, Suzie’s remains were found by a local fisherman. They had been floating in the nearby San Joaquin River about 60 miles (97 km) east of San Francisco—and just a few miles away from where she was first abducted. For nearly four decades, the case went cold.
Cops didn’t have reliable evidence to track down a killer, and DNA technology was only in its infancy for much of the time the case had progressed. Police pressed media outlets to keep the case in the public eye, but it slowly faded. Concern over young girls babysitting alone only became more pronounced, though. All over America, families stopped letting their teen daughters babysit for neighborhood children out of an abundance of caution.
But then, in 2017, police caught a break. A new DNA profile matched swabs from Suzie’s remains to a man named Mitchell Lynn Bacom. He was a convicted sex offender who was known to Suzie and her family at the time of the murder.
He was charged in December 2017 with kidnapping, rape, and murder, and he was eventually convicted of those crimes. Police determined he likely convinced Suzie to let him into the townhome on that fateful night before kidnapping her and ending her young life.
5 Jaclyn Dowaliby
Jaclyn Dowaliby disappeared from the safety of her bedroom one night in September 1988. The seven-year-old girl had gone to bed that night like millions of other children around the country. Her home was in a safe neighborhood in the city of Midlothian, Illinois, and she never expected to be harmed—especially not while in bed. But at some point in the night, she was abducted by a stranger.
In the morning, her mother, Cynthia, called the police immediately upon finding the girl gone from her room. Cops rushed to the home and began to look around. Quickly, they found a broken window. They also learned from Jaclyn’s adoptive father, David, that the family’s back door was open when he woke up earlier that morning.
Midlothian residents put together search parties in the hopes of finding the little girl. For several days, they came up with nothing. But four days after Jaclyn was first reported missing, her murdered body was found at an abandoned dump in town. The site was just six miles from her home.
Police theorized she was stolen away during the night, assaulted, and murdered before being discarded at the dump. Medical examiners set up an autopsy, but the results came back inconclusive with one key detail—they could not determine when Jaclyn died during that uncertain four-day period.
Soon, police turned their attention to her mother, Cynthia, and her adoptive father, David. Cops put together an admittedly weak case against the pair. But with no other suspects and little evidence, they had nothing else to go on. Cynthia and David were arrested for the crime, and in 1990, they were both put on trial.
Cynthia was acquitted of the murder charges. David was found guilty in his case, but less than a year later, his conviction was overturned. An appellate court ruled there had been no more evidence implicating David in the crime than there had been for Cynthia—and both were scant at best. Thus, they threw out his conviction. Prosecutors declined to pursue him again, effectively admitting they had put the wrong man on trial in the first place.
As for Jaclyn, the time Midlothian cops wasted on the family abduction theory proved detrimental to the pursuit of actual justice. After David was quickly released from prison, cops revealed to the world that they simply had no idea about other suspects. The assumption that the parents were involved likely stemmed from the tremendous amount of public pressure to find the killer. Without a real lead, the parents ultimately became the prime suspects.
Nobody else has ever been arrested for Jaclyn’s murder or even named a person of interest in any department reveal. Now more than three decades after the little girl was first taken from her bedroom in the dead of night, Jaclyn Dowaliby’s killer remains at large.
4 John Patrick Kerrigan
Not all 1980s abductions were of young children. In fact, one of the most notable and mysterious kidnappings of the decade involved a Catholic priest. Father John Patrick Kerrigan was working for the Church in Montana when he disappeared from the small town of Ronan on July 20, 1984.
Days later, police found his bloody clothes and his wallet—full of cash—along with a mangled coat hanger. After another week, they came across his car. The interior was covered in blood. Cops knew Kerrigan had met an awful fate, but they hadn’t been able to find his body, and there wasn’t much else to go on.
Then, detectives from Santa Fe, New Mexico, called. Two years earlier, a Catholic priest there named Father Reynaldo Rivera had gone missing. His vehicle was also found abandoned, and police found a mangled coat hanger with that ca, too. New Mexico cops had discovered Father Rivera’s body after his death and determined he’d been strangled. So when they heard about the possible connection to Father Kerrigan up in Montana, they became interested.
Detectives quickly determined Father Kerrigan had previously worked in New Mexico before being transferred to Montana. They also disturbingly found that he’d been accused of numerous instances of child sexual abuse during his time in the Southwest. Police theorized someone may have killed him in a bid to exact revenge for alleged prior molestation.
That wouldn’t explain Father Rivera’s death two years earlier, though. Police have never been able to link him with any child sexual abuse. So while the revenge motive may be in play for Father Kerrigan, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Then, a new lead: two days after Father Kerrigan first vanished, a schoolteacher named Curtis Austin Holmen went missing from the nearby Montana town of Missoula. At first, cops didn’t connect the two cases. But after persistence by Holmen’s brother, police began to wonder if the two cases were connected.
Holmen’s vehicle was soon found in a rural spot less than 40 miles from where Father Kerrigan’s car had been discovered. And just like Father Kerrigan, Curtis Holmen’s body has never been found. The mystery of what happened to all these men continues now into its fifth decade.
3 Tara Calico
Tara Calico was 19 years old with the prime of her life ahead when she went missing from her neighborhood in Valencia County, New Mexico. The teenager was an avid cyclist for years who loved to bike along routes to school, work, and fun times with friends.
For several years, her mother was in the habit of biking with Tara up and down the rural roads near their home. But one day in early 1988, her mother decided to stop biking so often after an unsettling encounter with a road-raging motorist. Tara continued biking alone, though. And on September 20, 1988, it was possibly the last thing she ever did of her own free will.
That day, Tara didn’t come home after a long bike ride. Her family was terrified at her sudden disappearance and called the police to check on her. They also set out on a massive search for the girl, but she never turned up. They couldn’t find any sign of her—not even her bike was found anywhere along the routes she typically traversed.
Alarmed, her parents handed the investigation over to the police. But authorities in Valencia County didn’t have much more to go on themselves. Soon, the case grew cold. And for a while, it seemed like it was destined to be a tragic but confusing missing person cold case.
Then, over the next several years, strange occurrences started making Tara’s family believe she was still alive. The first came in a Florida parking lot in June 1989. A person walking to their car found a bizarre Polaroid photograph on the ground. In it, a woman was bound and held with duct tape over her mouth. A young boy was bound beside her, as well.
The person sent the photo to John Walsh’s show America’s Most Wanted, which broadcast it and asked the nation for tips. Word got back to Tara’s family, and her mother looked at the image. To her shock, the bound woman in the photo looked exactly like her daughter. She told the police, but cops didn’t know how to track down the image’s subjects or its photographer.
Two years later, cops came across another unsettling piece of photo evidence. At a construction site along the Pacific Ocean in tiny Montecito, California, workers found more photos of a woman tied up and bound. They turned them into the police, who again shared them with other agencies and the media. Once again, word got back to Tara’s mother, and once again, the mom was shocked to see that the depicted woman resembled her daughter.
Cops have never been able to conclusively determine if it’s really Tara in the photos. Still, her mother swears that it’s her. There is at least one clue that leads police to believe it may be possible, though: In both instances, the film involved was manufactured and sold after the date of Tara’s 1988 disappearance.
2 Laureen Rahn
Laureen Rahn had just turned 14 years old in April of 1980 when she disappeared. The teenager’s mom went out one night in late April, just a couple weeks after Laureen’s birthday. Trusting her daughter to be fine on her own without babysitting help, the mother allowed Laureen to invite two friends over—one male and one female—to hang out for a few hours while she was gone.
The night was mostly uneventful for the three teenagers, who busied themselves watching television and relaxing together. Late that evening, the three heard voices in the hallway outside Laureen’s family apartment in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. They assumed Laureen’s mom was on her way home, so the young male guest left for the night. Laureen and her friend then went to bed—with the friend in Laureen’s room and the 14-year-old girl sleeping on the couch for the evening.
When Laureen’s mom returned home from her evening out, she walked through the building’s hallways to find every single light bulb in the common areas unscrewed. She thought that was strange, but she was ready to get home and didn’t think much of it. When she finally got into the apartment, she found the front door unlocked and the back door wide open.
Alarmed, she went to check on Laureen. She quietly opened the girl’s bedroom door, saw a young woman sleeping in the bed, and assumed it to be her daughter. Satisfied that everything was safe and sound, the mother brushed aside the light bulb issue and went to sleep.
The next morning, she learned of the mistaken identity. It wasn’t Laureen in the bed, but her friend. Laureen—who had gone to sleep on the couch hours earlier, unbeknownst to her mother—wasn’t in the apartment at all. Suddenly, the wide-open backdoor and the unlocked front door were of major concern.
The terrified mother called Manchester police, and they began to investigate. The apparent abductor had an hours-long head start, though, and cops weren’t able to track down any reliable sign of Laureen. It was as if she’d simply vanished into thin air.
Months later, while still distraught over her daughter’s disappearance, Laureen’s mother was paying her phone bill. On the statement, she noticed several charges made to her account from a phone number in California. Confused, she researched the calls and found at least one of them had been made to a hotline meant for teens who had questions about sex.
Laureen’s mother immediately suspected her daughter had made the calls and was alive somewhere in California. She hired a private investigator to track the girl down. The PI didn’t find Laureen, sadly, but he did come across the owner of the hotline. He was a man known to police as “Dr. Z,” and California cops quietly believed him to be a child pornographer. Sadly, the case went cold from there, though. Laureen has never been found.
1 Ann Gotlib
Ann Gotlib was a 12-year-old Soviet immigrant who disappeared from a mall in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 1, 1983. The girl had been visiting Bashford Manor Mall with friends that day when she went missing. Her family lived just across the street from the mall, and she rode her bike over to hang out for only a few hours. But along the way, something terrible happened to the little girl.
The police followed thousands of leads, but all of them proved to be dead ends. They focused on a convicted sex offender who they knew was at the mall when Gotlib went missing and another suspected serial sex offender in the area. No evidence was tied to either man, though, and police never had enough to charge them.
The Gotlib abduction proved to be the tipping point for the work John Walsh had been doing on behalf of his abducted son Adam. After she went missing, Walsh had enough backing to push the Reagan administration to go forward with the NCMEC.
Gotlib’s abduction was also the first in America to employ the use of billboards and other mass media markers seeking information. Prior to that, cops believed mass public awareness in cases of missing children was futile, but that changed after Gotlib was swiped from the Kentucky mall.
Even as police and federal law enforcement officers scrambled to solve the little girl’s abduction, answers didn’t come. In 1990, a death row inmate in Texas claimed to have killed the little girl. He even provided a supposed map of where he had buried her body. Police excavated the site, though, and didn’t find a single piece of evidence pointing to his involvement. Back to square one again, the kidnapping languished in cold case files.
Then, in 2008, Louisville cops got a break in the case. They announced their determination that convicted sex offender Gregory Oakley Jr. was the one responsible for Gotlib’s disappearance. He died in Alabama in 2002, but he had previously been convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl with red hair and other physical features similar to Gotlib. Oakley had also been convicted in Kentucky in 1984 of raping another 13-year-old girl. Cops now believe Oakley followed Gotlib into the mall parking lot that day in 1983 and swiped the girl right off her bike.