1959: Jacqueline Gay Hart
Jacqueline Gay Hart, known as Gay to her friends, was the lovely 21-year-old daughter of marketing wizard Ralph Hart, the president of Colgate Palmolive International. Ralph had scraped his way to the top from the humblest of beginnings – trapping muskrats in Alberta to support his widowed mother when he was just a lad – but Jacqueline lived a very different life than her father. (1) She was a socialite in the day when that meant something: Impeccable manners, glittering social skills, and flawless decorum were expected at all times and in every situation. And Jacqueline certainly fit the mould. Sleek. blonde, and poised, she was crowned Sweet Briar College’s Queen of the May in 1959, shortly before her graduation. She was engaged to 25-year-old Stanley Gaines, the son of a West Virginia coal magnate. They were to be married before 500 of their closest friends and relatives in late August. (2)
On the night of July 21, Jacqueline drove her fiance to Newark airport for a flight to Pennsylvania. She did not return to the family home in Short Hills that night.
After her empty car was discovered at the airport, a frenzied search commenced.
On July 23, Ralph Hart received the call he had been desperately hoping to get: Jacqueline phoned from Chicago, pleading, “Come and get me.” She had been taken to a Chicago police station after running up to a parked cruiser near Grant Park, sobbing, “Where am I?”
Tearful and dazed, she gave detectives a disjointed account of what had happened to her in Newark two days earlier. She had returned to her car after bidding farewell to Stanley in the terminal, and was about to climb into the driver’s seat when a strange young man accosted her. He dragged her into a car parked beside her own and roared off into the night before she could even scream. The kidnapper’s male accomplice gagged her, bound her hands, and blindfolded her. Then they tossed a blanket over her head.
The two men drove for hours without telling her anything. All she could hear was the occasional plink of coins dropping into toll booth slots. If she squirmed, one of the men would kick her. Periodically, she was given a candy bar to eat.
The car finally stopped sometime on July 22. The kidnappers led Jacqueline out of the car and up a flight of steps, depositing her in a small bathroom. Through the door, she overheard them discussing her: One man called the other Ed, and urged Ed to “get rid of her…she’s too hot.” Clearly, the captors somehow knew that an intensive search was underway in New Jersey. At one point, the man known as Ed poked his head in the bathroom door and informed his captive that they would have to get rid of her because “my friend is chicken.”
The next evening, they dumped her near Grant Park. She didn’t know what city -what state – she was in. The men had handled her so roughly that there were bruises on her arms. She couldn’t remember many details about what they looked like, except that they appeared to be in their twenties. (3)
Newspaper photos showed a solemn Jacqueline Hart bundled under a blanket at the station, waiting anxiously for her parents. As she showed her bruises to reporters, detectives in Chicago and Newark set to work on finding Ed and The Chicken.
But their investigation led them away from abduction, straight into the twilight world of self-abduction. It didn’t take long to discover that a woman matching Miss Hart’s description had boarded a bus to Chicago on the night of July 21. Under questioning, she finally admitted that she hadn’t been abducted. She had fled New Jersey because she felt overwhelmed about her upcoming wedding.
Incredibly, Stanley Gaines decided to go forward with the nuptuials. He and Jacqueline were wed in a considerably scaled-down ceremony at the Hart home just one day after their original wedding date, and remain married to this day. (4)
1. Ralph Hart obituary. Chicago Tribune. Aug. 26/95
2. “The May Queen’s Baffling Journey“. LIFE. Aug. 3/59.
3. “Missing Jersey Socialite Found Near Hysteria in Chicago Park“. Rome Daily Sentinel. July 24/59.
4. “Jacqueline Hart, Girl Who Disappeared Two Days, Becomes Bride“. Ocala Star-Banner. Aug. 30/59.
2004: Audrey Seiler
The youngest of our vanishing ladies, Audrey Seiler, was just 20 years old in March of 2004. A native of Rockford, Minnesota, she was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she maintained a 4.0 GPA. She disappeared on the night of March 27, 2004. The last glimpse of her came from her apartment building’s surveillance camera; she left in flip-flops, leaving the front door open. She didn’t have her purse or a coat with her. Her roommate reported her missing the following afternoon.
Fear immediately set in for Audrey’s friends and family, because just the previous month Audrey had been knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant while walking home alone from a party. It was not her habit to leave her door unlocked. Also, she was suffering the flu on the night she vanished.
In November of the previous year, a student at the University of North Dakota named Dru Sjodin went missing after leaving a shopping mall. At the time Audrey disappeared, Dru’s body had not yet been found, but a registered sex offender had been charged with abducting her.
Audrey’s boyfriend, Ryan Fisher, was certain that someone had taken her. Audrey was a slender, pretty girl with hair flowing sleekly past her shoulders – the perfect coed.
The disappearance made national news. Hundreds of citizens of Rockford, Minnesota, converged in Madison to search for the girl. University students planned to hold a candlelight vigil outside Audrey’s building.
Four days later, a woman found Audrey wandering, confused, in a boggy area behind office buildings and hotels on Rimrock Road, on Madison’s south side. She was whisked to St. Mary’s Medical Center, but didn’t have to be treated for dehydration, hypothermia, or anything else. She only complained of muscle aches.
Audrey said she had been abducted from her apartment by a man in his 20s or 30s. He simply walked into her apartment, barged into her bedroom, and ordered her knifepoint to put on her shoes and walk out of the building ahead of him. He held her captive for four days in the same area where she was found. He would leave her alone for short periods, but always warned he would be watching her from hiding places nearby. When a police officer approached Audrey, she was lying on the ground in a fetal position. She told him her abductor was still somewhere in the area, with a gun and a knife. Oddly, though she wasn’t injured or restrained and hadn’t been drugged with anything stronger than Nyquil capsules, she hadn’t made any effort to flee the area or seek help in the two hours since the kidnapper left her.
Employees of Stark Realty and the Department of Revenue were evacuated from their offices while police searched the area for an armed man. They found no sign of him were found, but they did locate several items that Audrey had purchased at a local store the night before she disappeared – including a paring knife and a Nyquil box. When asked what items she had purchased at the store, Audrey failed to mention these things. She said she had just bought some gum and Chapstick, she insisted. Only when shown surveillance footage of herself in the store did she admit that she had bought some Nyquil for her flu, as well as some duct tape to fix a light in her apartment.
Audrey had no idea why she had been abducted, she said. As she hadn’t caught even a glimpse of the person who struck her on the head in February, she had no way of knowing if it was same person. All she could tell police was that the man had made a phone call to someone else when he thought she was asleep, and she heard him say, “I did what you asked. You got to let me in now.” She gave a vague physical description: 5’10” or so, stocky, large nose. A cap covered his hair. Later, she gave a more detailed description to a sketch artist.
Investigators soon learned that Audrey had gotten into an argument with Ryan Fisher on the night she was knocked unconscious after a party. They arrived separately at the party, argued for a short time, then parted ways for the night – Audrey headed home by herself, while Ryan remained at the party.
After the attack, according to a friend, Audrey spent most nights with Ryan because she was afraid to be by herself. Audrey’s roommate and other friends implied that prior to the attack, the relationship had been on shaky ground; Audrey seemed to want more attention than Ryan was willing to give her. She seemed depressed, crying often and complaining that Ryan wasn’t returning her calls. This was confirmed by Ryan, who told police that Audrey “does not go 12 hours without calling my cell phone”, and made it clear he didn’t always return those calls.
Audrey’s mother noted that her daughter was “extremely needy” when it came to Ryan. (2)
A search of Audrey’s laptop showed that someone had logged on to Ryan’s e-mail account and accessed two recent messages between Ryan and an old girlfriend.
The romantic drama snagged investigators’ attention, but not as much as the testimony of office workers who had actually seen Audrey wandering in the marshy area near Rimrock Road in the two days before she was found. These witnesses said that Audrey seemed perfectly fine, if somewhat out of place, each time they encountered her in the area. She wasn’t in need of help and said nothing to them, behaving as if she wanted to be left alone. Only when a police officer walked right up to her did she say that she had just been set free by a kidnapper with a gun. Her clothes and shoes seemed fairly clean and dry, despite recent rain.
The biggest problem with Audrey’s account of the abduction was her description of the man entering her apartment and barging into her bedroom, ordering her at knifepoint to put on her shoes and walk ahead of him out of the building. The surveillance footage taken at this time showed Audrey leaving by herself. No one followed her. Also, the office workers who saw Audrey wandering around hadn’t seen any fitting the kidnapper’s description.
And though she said her mouth had been duct-ducted during some of her captivity, there was no trace of tape residue on Audrey’s face.
Under close questioning, Audrey burst into tears and admitted she had bought the Nyquil, the tape, and the knife with the intention of staging her own abduction. She said she felt “messed up” and just wanted to be by herself for a while. She seemed embarrassed, contrite, and very relieved to be coming clean at last.
Incredibly, though, she insisted she really had been abducted by the man with the knife after she left her apartment alone with her “abduction kit” in tow.
When she repeated this story to Ryan Fisher, she implied that the man had sexually assaulted her.
Word that Audrey had changed her story spready quickly. As in all the other cases we’ve examined, all the fear and concern of the community was immediately translated into baffled rage, scorn, and mockery. One Madison resident left this comment at an online forum, “Here in Madison many people are throwing ‘Audrey Seiler Parties’. Dress code includes Abercrombie sweatshirt and either white shoes or flip-flops. Duct tape and rope optional. I’m not kidding about this, people really hate her around here.” The sense of betrayal ran deep. Thousands of people had joined in the search for a vulnerable girl, only to find that she wasn’t the victim of some random psycho – she was the victim of her own broken heart.
Ultimately, Audrey Seiler pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of obstructing an officer and was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay $9000 towards the cost of the search efforts. (video)
Audrey has returned to obscurity, but the Seiler affair hasn’t gone away. For some reason, it lingered in the public consciousness a bit longer than the average staged disappearance. A Madison playwright even staged a show titled “Audrey Seiler, Where Are You?”, and Audrey’s abduction was reportedly the inspiration for Jacqelyn Mitchard’s suspense novel Now You See Her.
1. “Audrey Seiler: Mystery Surrounds Alleged Abductor“. WISN News, Madison. April 1/04.
2. Criminal complaint against Audrey Seiler (PDF)
2005: Jennifer Wilbanks
Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared from Duluth, Georgia, on April 26, 2005 – just four days before her planned wedding to boyfriend John Mason. He reported her missing when she failed to return from her usual evening jog. The following day, police discovered some unsettling potential pieces of evidence in the area: clumps of brunette hair near a pond, discarded clothes, weapons.
Unfortunately, suspicion of murder buzzed around Mason’s head for the next three days as searchers combed Georgia’s byways for the missing 32-year-old woman.
Then, on April 29, a phone call from Albuquerque changed the whole story. From a phone booth at a convenience store, Jennifer told Mason she had been abducted and sexually assaulted by a middled-aged Hispanic man and his white girlfriend. They had dropped her off on the road and driven away in their blue van.
When questioned by New Mexico authorities, Wilbank admitted that she hadn’t been abducted. She was just nervous about her upcoming wedding, and needed some time alone to think. The creepy clues had been planted to throw police off her trail.
As police led Wilbanks past a bevy of reporters, she famously draped a Mexican blanket over her face. She promptly checked into a clinic for psychiatric treatment and rest.
Later in the year she pled no contest to a charge of making false statements, and also agreed to pay the city of Duluth $13,000 towards the cost of the massive search effort.
This wasn’t the end of the affair, of course. As you probably recall, the media brouhaha over the “real runaway bride” stayed at insane levels for weeks. “Total media saturation” wouldn’t be an exaggeration. The woman who ducked out of state to avoid some embarrassing personal conflict was suddenly the center of worldwide attention – none of it good.
Unsurprisingly, the wedding was called off in May.
In 2006 Jennifer sued Mason, claiming that while she was hospitalized and medicated, he negotiated the sale of their story to a New York firm for and later used the money to buy a house in his own name. They moved into it together, but he soon threw her out. Mason countersued for the emotional distress he suffered from being abandoned days before his wedding. The suits were ultimately dropped.
John Mason married another woman in 2008, and Jennifer Wilbanks…well, she’s still single.
The incident and its aftermath bear an almost eerie resemblance to the Seiler case, and inspired a musical that premiered in March, 2008, at the Red Clay Theater in Duluth, Georgia.
2007: Karyn McConnell-Hancock
If you’ve noticed a pattern in these voluntary disappearances, it’s probably that all of these “vanishees” were educated women working in male-dominated careers. Why is this? I have no idea, but our next case is no exception.
In December of 2007, 35-year-old Karyn McConnell-Hancock was a Toledo, Ohio attorney who had taken over the practice of her father, Cleasby Allen McConnell, after he left private practice to become a municipal court judge in 1999. Like Dar Heatherington, she served as a city councilwoman at one time.
She married Lawrence Hancock in 2004, and a year later he became the founder and pastor of Toledo’s Final Harvest Church. They had a son named Lawrence, Jr. At the time of her abduction, Karyn was six months pregnant with the couple’s second child.
The case played out much like those of Sister Aimee and Darlene Heatherington. On the morning of December 5, 2007, a Wednesday, McConnell-Hancock was on her way to a meeting at the Lucas County Juvenile Justice Center in Toledo. She parked her Chrysler in a downtown lot and stepped out of the car. She wasn’t seen again for four days.
Lawrence Hancock first learned something was very wrong shortly after 6:00 that evening, when he received a call from the daycare center saying that his wife hadn’t picked up Lawrence, Jr. Finding her car missing from its lot near her law office on Michigan street, he reported his wife missing at 10:30.
Toledo police learned that someone had withdrawn several hundred dollars from McConnell- Hancock’s bank account on Wednesday night.
The next afternoon, Lawrence Hancock received a brief phone call from his wife. Karyn told him she had been abducted downtown by two men and a woman, but she hung up before she could give him any details about her location, saying “they’re coming”. News of the phone call sparked a nationwide alert for Karyn. So soon after the disappearance of Laci Peterson, the daylight abduction of a pregnant woman was taken very seriously. (1)
On Saturday, December 8, a woman caught the attention of a security guard at the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park outside Atlanta. She said she had been dropped off there by three people who abducted her in Ohio and drove her to Georgia in the back of a white van, blindfolded. She mentioned that her own car had been stolen, but curiously omitted any mention of the several hundred dollars removed from her bank account.
The Chrysler was soon found, parked about a mile and a half from the amusement park. The white van was never found.
McConnell-Hancock described to authorities in Cobb County, Georgia, and Toledo how two unfamiliar white men and a black woman she had never met approached her on the morning of December 5. One of the men had a pistol. They blindfolded her and ordered her into the back of a white van, while at least one of the kidnappers stole her car. There weren’t any demands from the captors as they drove to Georgia, nor was Karyn assaulted. The entire abduction seemed to have no specific purpose.
McConnell-Hancock’s father, a municipal court judge, offered his own cryptic explanation for the kidnapping, which would soon be parroted by his daughter: “I think she was not the target – I think I was. I think it was over something that happened before I became a judge.” He never elaborated on what this “something” could be.
As it turned out, he wouldn’t have to. After eight hours of questioning, McConnell Hancock admitted her story was fake. There had been no kidnappers. (1)
As in the Heatherington case, there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence of a secret lover or a rendezvous with someone Karyn met online, though that’s the explanation that many Toledo residents preferred.
There were, however, serious financial problems in Karyn’s life: She owed nearly $100,000 to the IRS for unpaid income taxes for the years 2001-2003. And throughout 2008, evidence steadily mounted that during the previous six years she had diverted over half a million dollars from an escrow account containing funds from 23 of her clients. She had replaced only half of this money when she was indicted for felony theft in October of that year (video). By that time, she had shut down her practice.
In January of this year, McConnell Hancock was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.
Lawrence Hancock alleges that Judge McConnell’s law practice was already debt-crippled and deeply disorganized when he handed it over to his daughter in 2000, and that the judge paid off at least one of Karyn’s clients who told him his money was missing – over $15,000. According to Hancock, the judge kept this a secret from the rest of the family. If his father-in-law had shared the information with him, Hancock wrote in an e-mail to NBC24 in November 2008, “I would not have been subjected to forgery, able to protect my assets, and avoid the nightmare of Karyn faking her own kidnapping/false alarm…. As a result, our lives and community are still healing from a faked kidnapping hoax that shell shocked and embarrassed us all nationally that should have been prevented. ” He alleged that Karyn had stolen all of his mail in November 2008. She was not charged with forgery nor any other crime related to her ex-husband’s allegations.
He called for McConnell to resign from the bench. (3)
This wasn’t the only problem the Hancocks faced in 2008. In May, Karyn filed for divorce, citing Lawrence’s “extreme cruelty” as one reason. Was it a legitimate reason? Only the Hancocks know the answer. The only thing we know for certain is that the McConnells were not impressed with their former son-in-law, because during Karyn’s trial they made an unsuccessful attempt to gain custody of their two grandchildren. They may only have been angry about Lawrence’s accusation that Judge McConnell helped his daughter hide her financial misdeeds.
So what happened here?
It’s likely that Hancock-McConnell was either fleeing her financial troubles to start a new life somewhere else, but had second thoughts by the second day of her escape, and/or was afraid that a client was after her.
She definitely doesn’t fit into the self-stalker category; unlike Dar Heatherington, she had never reported being menaced by anyone (though her father and husband did say they received strange phone calls before her disappearance). As mentioned earlier, there were no signs of a boyfriend. The motive for this voluntary disappearance was probably good old-fashioned fear.
1. “Father of the Toledo lawyer thinks he was abductors’ target” by David Yonke. Toledo Blade. Dec. 10/07.
“What happened to Karyn McConnell-Hancock?” WTOL News, Toledo. Dec. 10/07. wnRenderDate(‘Monday, December 10, 2007 9:44 AM EST’,
3. “”Embattled Attorney’s Husband Speaks out. Toledo on the Move. Nov. 12/08.
Lest you think I’ve been picking on the ladies, here are two equally strange voluntary disappearances involving men…
2007: Don LaRose (AKA Mayor Ken Williams)
In November of 2007, 69-year-old Ken Williams had been the mayor of Centerton, Arkansas for six years. Then he announced that his name was really Don LaRose, and this wasn’t the first time he had become someone else. Over 30 years earlier, he had been a married preacher and father of two in New York state, until Satanists abducted him and “brainwashed” him to forget all about his former life. In 1975 he was injected with a truth serum and suddenly remembered what the Satanists had done to him. Williams/LaRose says he underwent five years of therapy to recover the rest of his memories.
The disappearance of Reverend Don LaRose from Maine, New York, had made area headlines in 1975. According to a February 13/76 article in Christianity Today, some members of his congregation at the First Baptist Church even speculated that he had been abducted by angry Satanists who had written a threatening letter to him. However, when authorities located LaRose three months after his disappearance, they determined he had vanished voluntarily (for some crazy reason, they just didn’t buy his story that strangers had hauled him into the back of a van and “brainwashed” with a portable electroshock device they attached to his forehead). He had taken the name Bruce Kent Williams from a car-crash victim who died in 1958, but implied the Satanists had “given” him this identity; according to LaRose, he had simply woken up in Minneapolis as a homeless drunk named Bruce Williams, with no memory of his previous life as a Baptist minister. He became a baker’s assistant in a downtown cafeteria, spending his free time at a local mission. A preacher there recognized him as the missing New York pastor and arranged for LaRose’s wife and father to pick him up.
LaRose was “happily” reunited with his unremembered wife, Eunice, and their two daughters, but his former church washed its hands of him. And that seemed to be that.
The LaRoses moved to Indiana in ’77. Don became pastor of Hessville Baptist Church in Hammond, and continued to tell his story about Satanic abduction and brainwashing, claiming he had recovered the memories of the events only after a dose of sodium amytal administered by Dr. Marvin DeHaan.
Those pesky Satanists just wouldn’t leave him alone, though. In June 1980 he claimed to have seen them sneaking around his church, peeping in windows. On June 10, he told Eunice he was going to the church to meet someone. He didn’t return home. Seven years later he was declared dead, and Eunice remarried.
Despite his presumed death, family members continued to search for Don LaRose and hoped to learn his fate.
On the website that led to his unmasking, LaRose/Williams admitted his second vanishing was deliberate, but only because the unknown Satanists had threatened to kill his family unless he disappeared again. He bicycled away from home, bought a bus ticket to Wyoming, and became “Ken Williams”.
In the early ’80s Ken Williams popped up in Centerton, became a radio personality on KURM, and remarried. He founded Ken Williams Ministries, which now focuses on the “4 Rs”: Retracing the Jewish roots of Christianity, Researching Creationism vs. Evolution, Rescuing Christian History from Revisionists, and Reveling in the Country Gospel Music of Dale Johnston.
Williams was elected mayor in 2001. But earlier this year he put up a website about Pastor LaRose’s disappearance, written from the perspective of LaRose. It contained an autobiography of LaRose, a recap of the initial “abduction” (“may have been SATANIC inspired”), and his “amazing story of survival” after being forced to abandon his family. A member of LaRose’s family discovered the site, and it was easily traced to Williams. On Monday, November 19, the Benton County Daily Record phoned Mayor Williams to confirm his true identity. For a day he denied being LaRose, then “came clean” about his past to the newspaper.
LaRose has resigned as mayor of Centerton. Though he has expressed interest in seeing his daughters, his grandchildren, and his 96-year-old father, he plans to remain in Arkansas with his current wife, and will continue to use the name Ken Williams. He is reportedly not under criminal investigation.
LaRose/Williams says the people who abducted and brainwashed him were probably not Satanists, just “Satanically inspired”.
Poor Eunice. Not every man will pretend to be brainwashed by Satanists twice just to get away from you.
– Florida wftv.com article (erroneously gives pastor’s name as “LeRose”)
– “Being Don LaRose” by Eleanor Evans and Tracy Neal, Benton County Daily Record online, Nov. 21/07
– “The Two Reappearances of Don LaRose”, Benton County Daily Record online, Nov. 22/07
– http://www.donlarose.com/ (Williams’ website)
2009: Furqan Muhammad-Haroon
The second-youngest abductee on our list, Muhammad-Haroon is 22 years old. Photos show a squirrel-cheeked man with a swirly shock of black hair and a what-me-worry grin. Your average university student. He was enrolled at the University of Toronto, studying electrical engineering. On the afternoon of April 22nd, while driving his van in the Midland Avenue and Ellesmere Road area, he was reportedly carjacked by three armed men. He was en route to the airport to depart for a trip to the United Arab Emiriates when he phoned a friend to describe the vehicle closing in on him. Then one of the men in the vehicle brandished a gun, waving him to the side of the road. Police found the abandoned van, but no trace of the quartet.
Because of his ethnicity, there was speculation that Furqan had become the victim of an extraordinary rendition or an act of anti-Muslim violence. His horror-stricken parents begged publicly for his safe return.
Four days later, an anonymous call to police led to Furqan’s location: a mosque in St. Catherines. He had not been abducted. It turned out that he had allegedly stolen a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment from his former employer, IBM, and was fearful of criminal charges while he was out of the country. He’ll be going to court on those charges in September. In the meantime, he was charged with criminal mischief.
“However far you may travel in this world, you will still occupy the same volume of space.” – traditional Ur-Bororo saying