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People Who Disappeared Without Explanation

When coroners look at a body, they are looking for a cause of death. In some cases, the cause of death is not apparent. The person may have died from drug overdoses, natural causes or from an injury that caused the death. The American public has always been strangely enthralled by difficult cases. That interest is ratcheted up substantially when there are no clear leads—or when possible leads indicate a scandal in the making.

In a November 1879 article, Mysterious Disappearances, James Mokeller Bugby explored several cases in which a person vanished, never to be found again. In his view, the blame for these disappearances—mostly from large cities—could be placed squarely on society's move away from the family unit and community cohesiveness.

In every large city there are thousands of men, women, and children whose past history and whose present means of living are unknown to those with whom they come most closely in contact. It is only when some crime, at once frightful and mysterious, has been committed, and the newspaper reporters tell us of the inability of the police to identify the victim, or to find an adequate motive for the crime, that we fully appreciate the conditions of our modern city life.

Bugby recounted five tales of people who disappeared without explanation. In the first, a man left for Holland for a three-week trip, and didn't return for seventeen years. When he did come back, he gave no reason for his long absence. The man never confessed, even to his most intimate friends, the cause of his singular conduct ... He led a perfectly correct life while in hiding ... Probably it was the freak of an unsound mind,—an unsoundness which might never have betrayed itself so as to attract attention in any other action of his life.

In the second case, which Bugby also attributed to an "unsound mind," a young girl had disappeared and was thought to have been murdered—only to be discovered living as a boy on a canal boat. Bugby wrote: How many of the mysterious disappearances of which we read, and which are attributed to foul play, or to a weak or criminal desire to escape the obligations to one's family or to society, are prompted by the cunning of insanity cannot be known.

After a trunk with a young woman's remains was found floating in the Saugus River in Lynn, Massachusetts, a police detective told Bugby that there were at least fifty girls about the same age who had gone missing in the recent past. Moreover, many young women in the area lived alone, and those who lived near them were not "sufficiently familiar" to notice their disappearance. Young men, on the other hand, ran away from their homes—and were subsequently reported missing—in such large numbers as to be "quite astonishing," Bugby said. [A] large proportion of the runaways are doubtless prompted to set up in business for themselves by the cheap novels, whose heroes almost invariably throw off the parental control at a very early age, and run away to certain fame and fortune.

Bugby recounted the tale of a boy who ran away from his New England home to sea; his relatives knew only that he had headed for a French colony. Many years later they received a wire from New Caledonia that a man had died, leaving a child. Based on the little girl's name, which was the same as the maiden name of the missing boy's mother, the Australian government returned her to the United States to live with siblings of the runaway. Bugby was not optimistic about the girl's survival in America.

Think of introducing this child, at the age of eight or ten, into a quiet New England family, and teaching it to look at life from the stand-point of the Assembly's catechism—its father a revolter against the restraints of New England life; its mother, or its mother's parents, a revolter, probably, against the laws of France!

The author recommended "greater unity of action" between the police departments of this country. He proposed as a model the "Habitual Criminal's Record," which had recently been instituted in England to keep track of repeat offenders. The establishment of a "national police association" was recently recommended by the Boston police commission; but the recommendation appears to have met with so little favor that it was abandoned. All the heads of departments that expressed an opinion upon the suggestion admitted that such an association would greatly improve the police service throughout the country; but from political or other considerations many of them were unwilling to become members.

Bugby argued that police must become more vigilant, or the ranks of missing persons would only increase: Unless the police lines are drawn closer around the inhabitants of our large cities, the number of those who mysteriously disappear from one cause or another will become still more alarming than it is at present.

The 70's were a bad decade for disappearances. People mysteriously disappeared whose subsequent fate remains a mystery. People whose current whereabouts are unknown or whose deaths are not substantiated. In law, death in absentia is the status of a person who has been declared legally dead. This occurs when an individual disappears but no identifiable remains can be located or recovered.

Donna Lass, American nurse, last seen in Stateline, Nevada. On September 6, 1970, she signed her last entry in her log book at 1:50 a.m. She was never seen leaving the Sahara, however her car was found at her apartment complex. Lass, then 25, was never seen again. The next day, Lass's landlord and employer both received calls from a man who told them that Lass was ill and had left because of a family emergency; the call proved a hoax. A month later, a paste-up postcard was received by the San Francisco Chronicle, hinting that Lass's disappearance was connected to the Zodiac Killer. Six months later, another paste-up postcard was received by the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the San Francisco Times. No evidence was ever uncovered to connect Donna Lass's disappearance with the Zodiac Killer.

Robin Graham ran out of gas on the Hollywood Freeway. She was last seen by California Highway Patrol officers who directed her to a call box, and later saw her speaking with a man beside her car. The circumstances of her disappearance resulted in CHP policy being changed to ensure the safety of stranded female motorists.

Richard Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, and the last person ever to be deemed a murderer by a coroner's jury. His whereabouts have been unknown since his children's nanny, Sandra Rivett, was beaten to death with a lead pipe in the basement of his estranged wife's home. He was officially declared dead in 1999.

Lyon Sisters, two U.S. pre-teen girls, disappeared on their way home from a neighborhood mall. Katherine Mary Lyon (aged 10), and Sheila Mary Lyon (aged 12) were two sisters who disappeared without a trace in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in 1975. Known colloquially as The Lyon Sisters, their case resulted in one of the largest police investigations in the Washington, D.C. metro area's history. The case remains unsolved. The immense media attention given to this case at the time, its significance in the Washington area's criminal history, and the fact that the mystery of their disappearance has never been explained, has led to the story being revisited by the press on a regular basis, with the result that it has started to pass into the area's folklore.

Renee MacRae (36) and her son Andrew (3) were last seen in Inverness, Scotland. They are thought to have been murdered and their remains have never been found. Their disappearance is Britain's longest running missing person's case. Northern Constabulary renewed their search for evidence in 2004 and named a suspect in a report to the procurator fiscal in October 2006, however the Crown Office declared there was insufficient evidence to go to court.

John Brisker, former American Basketball Association and National Basketball Association player, disappeared after flying to Uganda. Some rumors claim he went to Uganda as a mercenary, others say he was invited as a guest by Idi Amin. The last confirmed communication from Brisker was in April 1978, after which it has been speculated that he was executed by a firing squad when Amin was removed from power in 1979. He was declared legally dead in 1985 by the King County, Washington medical examiner.

Frederick Valentich (20), Australian pilot, disappeared while flying across Bass Strait, in what has been claimed by some people as a UFO encounter. Prior to his disappearance, Valentich reported via radio that he had encountered an unidentified craft that flew at high speed dangerously close to his Cessna, and later hovered over his aircraft. No trace of Valentich or his aircraft was ever found, and a Department of Transport investigation concluded that the reason for the disappearance could not be determined.

Genette Tate (13) disappeared while delivering newspapers in Aylesbeare, Devon, England. Her case is the longest missing person's inquiry in British history. Her bicycle and sack containing the newspapers were found lying in the middle of the road, on a quiet country lane. Her disappearance remains unexplained, though police have investigated the possibility that she was murdered at the hands of serial child killer Robert Black, who was found guilty of murdering three children in 1994.

Sayyid Mousa al-Sadr, Lebanese philosopher and a prominent Shi'a religious leader, disappeared on a tour to Libya and was never found. Sayyid Mousa al-Sadr and two companions departed for Libya to meet with government officials. The three were never heard of again. It is widely believed that the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi ordered al-Sadr's killing, but the motivation is unknown. Libya has consistently denied responsibility, claiming that al-Sadr and his companions left Libya for Italy. Some others have reported that he remains secretly in jail in Libya. Al-sadr's disappearance continues to be a major dispute between Lebanon and Libya. According to Iranian General Mansour Qadar, the head of Syrian security, Rifaat al-Asad, told the Iranian ambassador to Syria that Gaddafi was planning to kill al-Sadr. On August 27, 2008, Gaddafi was indicted by the government of Lebanon for al-Sadr's disappearance.

Etan Patz, schoolboy, disappeared while walking to New York City bus stop. On the morning of Friday, May 25, 1979, six-year-old Etan put on his prized blue captain's hat and left his SoHo apartment by himselfâ€"for the very first timeâ€"to walk the two blocks to catch the school bus. He did not reach the bus stop. When he did not return home from school at 3:15 that afternoon, his mother reported him missing. An intense search, utilizing nearly 100 police officers and a team of bloodhounds, began that evening and would continue for weeks. Various circumstances surrounding this case, such as it being Etan's first time outside alone, made it into a greatly media-driven incident. He is arguably the most famous missing child of New York City. His disappearance helped spark the missing children's movement, including new legislation, new awareness, and various methods for tracking down missing children, such as the milk carton campaigns of the mid eighties.

Ivan Boothe. Unsolved Mysteries. The Atlantic . July 31, 2002.


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