15 High Profile Kidnappings and Disappearances

Whether a celebrity’s child or simply a curious case, turning on the tube and seeing news about a kidnapping or disappearance tends to rivet the public. Somehow the media often manages to connect with us in a way that compels us to feel the pain, worry and desperation of the family and loved ones of the missing person. Over the past few decades, literally thousands of people have gone missing, but here are the 15 most high profile kidnapping and missing persons stories that grabbed our attention and made headlines around the world.

Charlie Lindbergh

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Charles Lindbergh was an author, inventor, and explorer. But he rose to fame when he became the first person to ever fly from New York to Paris, France. Shortly after winning an Orteig Prize for his non-stop flight, Lindbergh’s life was turned upside down. On March 1st, 1932, while studying in his office, Lindbergh’s nanny came to him with the startling news that their little Charlie Lindbergh was nowhere to be found. After searching the house relentlessly, Lindbergh found a white envelope with information regarding a ransom. After delivering $50,000 of ransom, Lindbergh and the police were lead on a wild goose chase that lead them nowhere. After a few months, the body of Charlie Lindbergh was found. The $50,000 was traced to Bruno Richard Hauptmann and he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to the electric chair.

Frank Sinatra Jr.

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With only an hour until show time in Lake Tahoe, Sinatra Jr. sat with his trumpet player enjoying a room service chicken dinner. When a package arrived, Sinatra didn’t question the delivery man at all. After being let into the room, the “delivery man” pulled a gun, and his accomplice stepped into the room. Sinatra was blindfolded and driven to Los Angeles, California. Frank Sinatra Sr. paid a $240,000 ransom and Jr. was released. The kidnappers were caught, but sentenced only to a short prison terms. Some conspirators believe that Sintatra Sr. had planned the entire kidnapping to boost his sons singing career.

Natalee Holloway

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Natalee Holloway’s parents expected their “baby girl” to dig some feet in the sand while on her high school graduation trip to Aruba in 2005. Natalee’s plans were quite a bit different. The last time she was seen was outside of a nightclub three local men- Joran van der Sloot and brothers Deepak and Satish Kalpoe. All three men have been arrested in connection with her disappearance, but were let go after lack of evidence. Natalee Holloway’s case was a media sensation in the United States, and continues to be as they still search for her body and kidnapper 5 years later.

Jennifer Wilbanks (Runaway Bride)

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April 30th was suppose to be the happiest day of Jennifer Wilbanks and John Mason’s life. But when “Jen” went out for a jog three days before the wedding and never came back, the small town of Duluth, Georgia went into a panic. The media covered the situation heavily because of suspicions that Mason might have killed her. But after nearly $50,000 was spent on search efforts, a call came in from Jennifer who said she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a Mexican man and white woman. She was later found, and police learned that the entire thing was a hoax. She was fined $2,200, received two years of probation, and was required to complete 120 hours of community service.

Patty Hearst

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Patty Hearst, granddaughter of journalism mogul William Hearst, was kidnapped in early February of 1974 by the SLA (Symbioneese Liberation Army). She was originally intended to be the bargaining chip to get fellow SLA members out of jail, but when the deal went south, the SLA turned to her father’s money. Oddly enough, the SLA didn’t want ransom, but $70 worth of food to be given to every poor person in the San Francisco Bay Area. After refusing delivery of Patty due to “poor food”, a major twist in events occurred. Patty announced over the radio that she had become a member of the SLA and asked to be referred to as “Tania”. Shortly after the announcement, she took part in the Sunset District bank robbery, carrying a M1 Carbine, and was arrested months later. In court, she argued that she had been “brainwashed”, but received the harsh punishment of 35 years in jail. After serving little more than a year in jail, her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and she was later given a full pardon by President Bill Clinton.

John Paul Getty III

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Having been expelled from St. George’s English School, the oil rich Getty family considered John Paul Getty III an outcast. When the 16-year-old went missing and two letters demanding ransom for his return were received, the family dismissed them as attempts of John to acquire his family’s wealth. The third attempt to get the Getty’s attention didn’t beat around the bush. Kidnappers sent a local news station a fraction of John’s ear at which point a $2.9 million ransom was paid and Getty III was returned safely – other than the severed ear.

Graeme Thorne

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At a time when winner confidentiality wasn’t available, lottery winner Bazil Thorne, a salesmen, found his name, address and more posted on the front page of every newspaper in Australia. When Graeme, Bazil’s eight-year-old son, suddenly went missing while walking to his bus stop in 1960, there was immediate concern. Bordering on two hours of Graeme’s disappearance, a call was made to the Thorne household – “If you don’t get the money, I’ll feed the boy to the sharks.” Not knowing what to do, Sergeant Larry O’Shea called an immediate press conference to hopefully find someone who had seen something that could lead to the boys finding. With no luck, another call was received that night instructing them to put £25,000 in two separate paper bags, but the call went dead abruptly before more information was given. With no other contact, months later, Graeme Thorne’s body was found, still wearing his school uniform. Stephen Bradley was brought in for questioning after a witness identified his car sitting “suspiciously” near Graeme’s bus stop that morning. Evidence began to pile up on Bradley, at which point he admitted to the kidnapping and was sentenced to life in prison.

Elizabeth Smart

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When Elizabeth Smart’s parents woke up in the wee hours of the morning, Mary Katherine, their 8-year-old daughter, told them “Elizabeth was gone and was taken by a man with a gun”. At first, they dismissed it as a bad dream, but as they searched the entire house, and found a window broken open, the reality of this horror came to life. After a nation-wide search began for Elizabeth, her story was featured on prominent television shows such as America’s Most Wanted and Larry King Live. After nine months of being missing, Elizabeth was found in Sandy, Utah with Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee. In late 2009, Barzee was sentenced to 15 years for the kidnapping. Mitchell still awaits his trial, which has been delayed multiple times due to his sanity.

Jaycee Lee Dugard

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In June of 1991, Carl Probyn watched a man and woman force his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Jaycee, into a car while she was waiting at the bus stop. Probyn, who was riding a bicycle at the time, attempted to catch the kidnappers, but was simply outrun. Within just days, national media arrived in South Lake Tahoe and was covering the kidnapping story. After years of searching and investigation the case seemed hopeless, but a turn of events changed everything in August 2009. After displaying suspicious behavior while being interrogated by a parole officer, Phillip and Nancy Garrido’s house was searched where officers found Jaycee Dugard, after 18 years. Dugard bore two daughters, aged 12 and 15, that belonged to her abductor, Phillip Garrido. The trial for the Garridos continues, but a long sentence for both are expected.

Carrie Smith Lawson

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In the early morning of September 11, 1991, Lawson and her husband received a call from a nurse at a local hospital conveying the message that a relative had been seriously injured. The couple immediately got dressed and stepped out their front door, only to meet the end of the gun. Lawson was told to bind her husband and was then forced into a car. The next day, Lawson called her husband informing him that $300,000 of ransom was required for her release. The family willingly agreed and followed the demands of the kidnapper, but Lawson was never returned. Just months later, an arrest was made. Karen McPherson admitted to the kidnapping, but pleaded that she had no idea of where Lawson because she had escaped two days after the kidnapping.

Polly Klaas

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During a slumber party at her house in 1993, Polly Klaas opened her bedroom door to fetch sleeping bags, but was grabbed by a man with a knife as she entered the room. The man proceeded to tie up all the girls at the party, told them to count to 1000, and took Polly. Polly’s story was featured on television shows such as 20/20 and America’s Most Wanted in subsequent months. After recognizing his face from a sketch, a police officer brought Richard Allen Davis in for questioning. More evidence began to pile up on Davis’ plate including a palm print of his in the Klaas’s home. He eventually confessed and led police to Polly’s body. Davis was convicted and currently is on death row.

Madeleine McCann

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The McCann family were dining 130 yards from their floor level apartment where their children were sleeping unattended. The parents took turns checking on their children every 20-30 minutes. Approximately two hours after leaving the apartment, Kate McCann returned to apartment to check on the children yet again, but this time to find Madeleine missing. Reporters call the case an utter mess, having had many sightings of Madeleine and even suspicions that the parents were involved in Madeleine’s disappearance. To this day, she has still not been found.

Caylee Anthony

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When Casey Anthony refrained from reporting that her three-year-old daughter was missing for a month, suspicion grew immediately and this case drew national attention. Many question whether Caylee would have ever been reported missing at all if it wasn’t for her grandmother who called 911 after not seeing her grandchild for weeks and smelling human decomposition in her daughter’s trunk. But Casey stuck to her word, stating that a babysitter had kidnapped her daughter Caylee. But in December of 2008, Calyee’s remains were found in a garbage bag by an elementary school near the Anthony home. The prosecutors say they will pursue the death penalty if Casey is convicted of first-degree murder.

Shawn Hornbeck

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In October of 2002, Shawn was 11 years old when he was kidnapped while riding his bicycle. Local, state, and national search efforts were made to find him. His parents even appeared on the Montel Williams show where a psychic told them that Shawn was dead. But neither Shawn not his parents gave up hope. For over four years, he was held in small apartment with another kidnapped child named Ben Owensby in Kirkwood, Missouri. After witnesses had identified a truck, and an employer had noted his odd behavior on the day of Owensby’s kidnapping, police brought in Mike Devlin for questioning. He revealed the location of where the boys were being held and now faces life imprisonment for first-degree kidnapping.

Etan Patz

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On the first day that Etan was allowed to walk to the bus stop alone, at the age of six, he disappeared and never returned home from school. After phoning the school, Etan’s mother learned that he had never even made it to the bus stop. A national campaign was launched to find him, which included him being the first missing child to ever appear on a milk carton. In 1991, informants inside a jail in Pennsylvania stated that Jose Antonio Ramos, a child sex abuser, admitted to killing Etan. Ramos is currently the prime suspect in the disappearance. May 25th, the day Etan went missing, is now the National Missing Children’s Day.


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