Category Archives: True Crime

True Crime Wednesday: What Happened to Zachary Bernhardt?

Zachary Bernhardt was 8 years old when he disappeared on Sept. 11, 2000. One can only hope that he is alive and well today at the age of 25 years, possibly with no memory of who he is. But there are many that believe he met with foul play years ago.

The story is an odd one, and you pretty much only have the word of one person about what happened that night, and that’s Zachary’s mother, Leah. A single mom who often had trouble making ends meet, she told investigators she had insomnia that night and decided to take a swim in the apartment complex’s swimming pool between 3 and 4 a.m., leaving Zachary alone with the door unlocked.  When she returned, she immediately took a shower and then checked on Zachary, only to discover he wasn’t in his bed. She called police around 4:47 a.m. The phone call was odd, based on the recording played on the episode of “Disappeared” I watched. She sounded distraught, told 911 that is was “her fault” he was gone, and that he was a very well-behaved boy.

 

Right away, investigators had a few problems with her story. For starters, who goes swimming at 3 a.m. fully clothed, without even putting on a bathing suit? And why leave the door to your apartment unlocked when you know your 8-year-old son is in there sleeping? A few neighbors also stated that they noticed Leah’s car had left around the time she went swimming and returned later in the early hours of the morning before she made the call.

Leah and Zachary had a history of moving around a lot, and were reported to have been facing eviction at the time he went missing. Despite a massive search, no evidence of what happened to Zachary was ever found.

Investigators thought there might be a break in the case in 2001 when a nearby resident, Kevin Jalbert, told an acquaintance he was looking for a child to abduct and that he had abducted and killed many children before. When police questioned him about Zachary, he pointed at the wrong apartment and his description of the boy’s pajamas conflicted with information from Leah. He had a history of lying to people in order to get attention, though, which made him less than credible.  There was no physical evidence to tie Jalbert to Zachary’s disappearance, but he is serving 40 years in prison now on child pornography charges.

Another odd thing? On New Year’s Eve 2001, a 5-year-old boy was abducted from the same apartment complex and found alive in a dumpster ten hours later. He told police a white man with stringy hair had taken him. Despite thorough investigation, the police couldn’t find a connection between Zachary’s case and the New Year’s Eve abduction.

At some point, although Leah’s family members are still spearheading the search for Zachary, Leah herself stopped cooperating with the investigation, moved to Hawaii, got married, and changed her name. She appears to no longer be looking for her son that disappeared all those years ago.

True Crime Wednesday: The Disappearance of Bear Diaz

As a mom, this case is a hard one to wrap my mind around. Imagine if your child was frail from being ill and he went missing late at night after you dropped him off at home. That’s what happened in the case  of California resident Elijah “Bear” Diaz on Aug. 29, 2015.

Bear was a member of the Barona Band of Mission Indians. Because of this, he was receiving a monthly stipend from the casino on the reservation. The money enabled him to live comfortably and even purchase his own house. But he had been in poor health for awhile due to living with Type 1 Diabetes. He had a serious foot injury and had to walk on crutches. His mother, LeLanie Thompson, had been driving him whenever he needed to run errands and go to doctor appointments.  When I watched the “Disappeared” episode featuring Bear’s case, his mother shared that her son had been very trusting and opened his home to many people–you never knew who you would find crashing on the couch or sitting around Bear’s flat-screen TV playing video games.

On the night of Aug. 29, 2015, LeLanie dropped Bear off at home in El Cajon around 10:30 p.m. She received a text from him a little later before she turned in for the night. She went back to his home the next afternoon and discovered he was missing. LeLanie had a bad feeling and immediately contacted the police, but they were hesitant to act right away because of his age and the fact that he hadn’t been missing long. When they did search his house, Bear’s crutches were missing, along with the comforter on his bed,  a backpack containing about a week’s worth of insulin, and Bear’s 50-inch TV. His glasses were left behind.  LeLanie knew then that someone had to have taken 110-pound Bear out of the house.

His cell phone was turned off on Aug. 30 and never turned back on. Police searched an area near Santa Ysabel where a cellphone signal had been traced but found nothing. They also conducted a luminol test in his home but didn’t detect any blood.

Bear’s family has come to terms with the fact that he is no longer alive. Now they are simply looking for answers. In a recent Facebook post on the Bring Bear Diaz Home page, LeLanie told of how she decided to let the second anniversary of Bear’s disappearance go by as quietly as she could, with the exception of a scheduled haircut. In the Native American culture, one cuts their hair when a loved one passes on. She says her heart is telling her that he is gone. She said:

All I can do is to find peace, embrace love, and hold on to joy… Bear would want me to. He loved me so strongly, I simply need to hold tight to my memories, and keep moving forward. Counting my blessings, and reaching for the full moon.

Please contact the El Cajon Police Department at (619) 579-3311 with information about this case.

True Crime Wednesday: The Disappearance of Baby DeOrr Kunz

I love the show People Magazine Investigates on the Investigation Discovery channel, and the case that aired this week is a difficult one because a 2-year-old child was involved. There are so many unanswered questions about the case and finger pointing that it makes coming up with theories difficult, especially because you want to be sensitive to the parents who are still looking for answers. On the other hand, there are far too many cases like Susan Smith and Casey Anthony (even though she was acquitted of charges) that prove a parent can indeed know something happened to their child and then lie to investigators about it.

Photo courtesy of East Idaho News.

Here is what we know. On July 10, 2015, Jessica Mitchell and Vernal DeOrr Kunz took their 2-year-old son DeOrr on a camping trip with Mitchell’s grandfather Robert Walton and a friend of the grandfather, Isaac Reinwand. Then the story gets a little murky. The parents (who were high school sweethearts who had married other people and then divorced and reconnected to have baby DeOrr) said they walked up a trail only a few feet from the campsite. They left DeOrr in the care of the grandfather when they did this. Then Vernal said he saw some minnows in a stream that he thought his son would like to see, and he and Jessica returned to the campsite to get him. The grandfather (who is in poor health and tethered to an oxygen tank) claimed he thought the toddler was with them.  From one report I read, the parents were probably gone 20 minutes or so. But that’s more than “a few feet away from the campsite.” There are also discrepancies on how long they waited before they called 911. I think on the episode Jessica said he had been missing for an hour but I can’t be positive on that.

There was a reservoir nearby that was searched but the dive team didn’t find anything. Jessica told police they had been at a nearby gas station that morning and she noticed a man looking at DeOrr in a way that made her uncomfortable. Investigators tracked down the man and determined he had nothing to do with the disappearance.  The four people at the campsite couldn’t seem to get their stories straight, either, they all had different recollections of who had cooked breakfast that morning, how long DeOrr had been missing before they called for help, etc. The parents both ended up failing polygraph tests which didn’t help their case.  The friend that was with the grandfather had a criminal background (theft, I believe).

I think at first their local community rallied around them, but now that investigators have said none of the four people on the trip can be cleared in the case that support has wavered. Jessica and Vernal are no longer together, and have taken to saying they don’t know if the other had anything to do with DeOrr’s disappearance. Jessica stated that she feels DeOrr was kidnapped by someone that was in the area on that day. It also came out on the “People Magazine Investigates” episode that Jessica had two other children from a previous marriage but had given up custody of them before she had DeOrr. And the fact remains that no trace of him has ever been found and only four people truly know what happened that day.

It is heartbreaking to see the photos of this adorable little boy and know that something tragic likely happened to him, whether it was an accident or not. If it was an accident, I hope that whoever is responsible does the right thing and comes forward so that the extended family can finally get some answers.

 

 

True Crime Wednesday: Jennifer Kesse

When most people think of Orlando, Fla., they envision theme park resorts, Mickey Mouse, water parks, and a place where people go to seek thrills and adventure. For 24-year-old Jennifer Kesse, Orlando provided a place for her to start off a career as a financial analyst. That’s where she was headed on Jan. 24, 2006, when she disappeared. When she didn’t show up for work, her employer called her family because it was so unlike her normal behavior. When police and family members searched her condo, they could tell she had showered and gotten ready for work per usual, but there was no sign of her car.

Two days later the car was found in a nearby condominium complex. Video surveillance captured the grainy image of a person exiting her car and walking away on foot shortly after parking (the car was left in the lot on the day Jennifer disappeared). Unfortunately, most of the footage of this person was obscured by a tall, black, wrought-iron fence.

At the time of her disappearance, Jennifer’s condominium complex was undergoing a massive renovation, and from what it sounds like, many of the workers on the project were illegal immigrants who didn’t speak a lot of English when questioned. Some theorize the person captured on the surveillance image could have been a painter or other contractor based on the white, non-descript clothing. Jennifer had told friends and family members that she felt uncomfortable having so many workers in the complex where she lived alone, especially when they made comments as she walked by.

In subsequent interviews, Jennifer’s father Drew shared that he feared she had been kidnapped and kept in one of the unoccupied condo units while community members searched for her. No one interviewed remembered seeing her in the parking lot that morning, leaving her family to think something happened to Jennifer before she even made it out of the breezeway outside her condo.

Elementary-school teacher and Tampa-area resident Shaun Gurd has helped the case receive a resurgence of interest the past year with the podcast, “Unconcluded.” Gurd produces episodes of the podcast along with is friend Scott Jamison. (It seems pretty popular with at least 300,000 downloads so far!) I haven’t listened to any episodes yet but hope to in the next week to see if I can learn any other details.

Have you listened to the “Unconcluded” podcast? If not, what are your theories on what happened to Jennifer Kesse?

True Crime Wednesday: The Disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit

This is a case that drives home the fact that you can be vulnerable anywhere, even in the early hours of the morning when you’re doing something as innocent as trying to get to work. This case has always bothered me, because when 27-year-old news anchor Jodi Huisentruit disappeared, she wasn’t out partying or returning home from a late night with friends. She had overslept and was in a rush to get to her job at news station KIMT in Mason City, Iowa, where she hosted the early morning show. Jodi was an ambitious reporter who was focused and working hard on advancing her career. Her friends and co-workers described her as vivacious, friendly, motivated and energetic.

On the morning of June 27, 1995, Jodi didn’t show up for her 4 a.m. call, and a co-worker phoned her from the station to check on her. According to the co-worker, Jodi was awakened by the phone and said she would “be right there.” She only lived a few minutes from that station. But based on the evidence that was found a few hours later by police when Jodi didn’t show up for work, she never made it out of the parking lot. Jodi’s car was still there with they key bent in the lock on the driver’s side door. Tools she needed for work (a blow dryer, jewelry, shoes, etc.) were found scattered the ground. Drag marks near the car suggested a struggle, and that Jodi was most likely ambushed while she tried to get in her car. Neighbors later reported they heard screams in the early hours of the morning but no one called the police at that time. Someone else claimed to have seen a white van in the parking lot with its lights on around that same time.

The “Disappeared” episode on this case provided a lot of interesting information. The really eerie thing? Jodi’s employer, KIMT, had to report on their missing anchor, so it hit her co-workers hard. Watching news footage during that time, you can see how shell-shocked they are. Female anchors were also nervous because they were afraid there was a stalker out there who had known what time Jodi left for work each day and would strike again. There was another person of interest brought up during that episode. Jodi had a friend, an older gentleman who had wanted a relationship with her, but she had gently told him she wasn’t interested. He had lavished her with attention and gifts and even threw her a birthday party. After her disappearance, he went to the police and told them he was “the last person to see Jodi alive,” which was kind of bizarre, because no one knew if Jodi was deceased.

In 2011, a female police officer fired from the Mason City Police Department claimed that three members of the department had been personally involved in Jodi’s disappearance and had covered it up. This officer also filed a sexual harassment suit against the department and claimed to have been discriminated against based on her religion. Because she had a contentious relationship with the department, it’s hard to know if there is any truth to her claims, but you do have to wonder if she was fired for knowing too much.

There has never been any closure in this case, and Jodi was declared legally dead in 2001.

True Crime Wednesday: Kyle Fleischmann

I moved to the suburbs of Charlotte, N.C. in late 2003, and in 2007 I saw the original news stories when local resident, 24-year-old Kyle Fleischmann went missing. He has never been found and it’s a case that bothers me every time I think about it, mostly because it could have happened to anyone. How many times did I meet friends at bars when I was in my early 20s and walk in the dark to my car, alone? When you’re that age, you think you’re invincible. This case shows us our vulnerability. And also to be wary of walking alone, especially at night. It also inspired a flash-fiction short story I wrote several years ago.

Kyle is described by his friends and family as fun-loving, happy, and at a good place in his life. He had a nice job and had just moved into a condo in the trendy part of uptown Charlotte. On the night of Nov. 9, 2007, Kyle’s best friend organized an outing to see a Dane Cook concert (I believe his parents were there, too), and then the friends decided to end the evening with a stop at the Buckhead Saloon. I saw one interview where his friend said he saw Kyle talking to an attractive young woman at the bar, and he asked Kyle whether he was staying or leaving. Kyle opted to stay. Based on some reports I’ve read, surveillance footage caught a discussion between the guy the woman was with and a few of his friends. Kyle then exited the bar alone around 2 a.m. He left his jacket and debit card at the Buckhead Saloon, and went out into the cold night wearing only a t-shirt and jeans.

Here’s where the story gets strange. An employee at nearby Fuel Pizza claimed Kyle came in and ordered a few slices of pizza around 2:30 a.m. A little while later, he made calls to his parents, his best friend who was with him at the concert, his sister, and maybe one other person. He didn’t leave messages on any of those calls. He was never seen or heard from again.

When police investigators started searching for Kyle, they tracked his cell phone records. They could tell that when he made all the early-morning calls, he was walking through uptown and into what’s considered a bad part of the city. At some point after that, his phone went dead. Based on an interview with Kyle’s dad, Dick Fleischmann, that ran in Charlotte Magazine, Dick thinks Kyle is dead, and probably died that same night. He believes Kyle may have been intoxicated and tired and wandered into a bad part of town, where someone attempted to rob him. His theory is that Kyle’s body was left in what was then a construction site in that area. If this is what is happened, it is all the more sad because Kyle likely had nothing of value on him. He had left his debit card at the bar, must have used some cash to buy the pizza, but he probably didn’t have much more than a few dollars on him. Because wouldn’t he have used money or another credit card to call a cab?

To learn more, you can visit the Help Find Kyle Fleischmann Facebook page, where his father often posts.

 

True Crime Wednesday: The Disappearance of Zebb Quinn

In March of 2015 a newspaper article caught my eye online because it involved the disappearance of a couple in Leicester, N.C., which is near my hometown of Asheville. Cristie Codd and her husband J.T., who had only recently moved to the area, had gone missing from their home and no one could locate them. The disappearance made national headlines because Cristie, a celebrity chef, had starred on a season of the reality show “Food Network Star” and also made her living catering on film and TV sets. She met her husband, J.T., when the two both worked on the crew of the CBS show “Without a Trace.” The two were expecting their first child and had wanted to raise their family in the quiet and serene mountains of Asheville.

I kept track of the case for several days until a suspect’s name caught my eye—because I had heard it before connected to another disappearance in the Asheville area. Jason Owens had been questioned when Zebb Quinn, 18, went missing in January of 2000. But more in that later in this post.

A few days after the Codds’ disappearance, police picked up Owens, who had worked as a handyman for the Codds, after receiving reports from a local a resident grew suspicious of Owens throwing a large bags of items in a private dumpster. Upon examining the items, police discovered they belonged to Cristie Codd. When presented with the evidence, Owens claimed he had accidentally run over Cristie as he was trying to get his truck out of a ditch. However, this doesn’t explain the death of her husband. By the time police were able to get to Owens’ home and property, where they found charred remains of the couple in a wood stove, most evidence had all but been destroyed. Owens eventually pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder and two counts of dismembering remains. He will serve a minimum of almost sixty years in prison for the crime.

Several years ago I watched an episode of Investigation Discovery’s show “Disappeared” that focused on Quinn. I immediately suspected his co-worker Jason Owens, because he told conflicting stories about the last night anyone saw Quinn. Quinn seemed like a nice guy who was probably too quick to trust people. Because he was interested in buying a new car, it sounds like Quinn had some cash on him when he went to peruse some used car lots after work. Guess who went with him? Jason Owens. The two were caught on a video camera at a local convenience store buying sodas after they left work at Wal-Mart.

Owens told police the two boys had taken separate cars on that errand, and that Zebb had received a page and made a call from a pay phone that upset him, prompting him to leave early. Supposedly when he sped away, he rear-ended Owens’ truck. What’s interesting is that hours later, Owens received treatment at a local hospital for fractured ribs and a head injury he told doctors happened in a second accident, one that he never filed an accident report for. Quinn’s car was found a few days later in a local restaurant parking lot, with the lights on and a puppy inside. Using red lipstick, someone had also drawn a pair of red lips on the back windshield. This reappearance of his car has never been explained.

After hearing Owens’ name come up in the Cristie and J.T. Codd case, my heart sank. I’ve suspected all along that Quinn was dead, and that he probably died the night of Jan. 2, 2000. My guess is that Owens tried to rob Quinn of the cash he had saved up and the two boys fought, or had an altercation that involved their cars. In March and May of 2015, investigators searched Owens’ property and a portion of a national forest in Asheville searching for evidence of Quinn’s remains. I haven’t heard anything about the results of those investigations, but Owens was indicted in the murder of Quinn in July of this year.

I hope Quinn’s family can find the closure they’ve been looking for, because this may be all that they ever get. I believe Owens is a coward and a thief who will probably never tell the truth about what happened to the Codds or Quinn. He likely robbed Quinn and my guess is that he was stealing from the Codds and they confronted him about it shortly before their deaths. I only wish investigators had been able to charge Owens for Quinn’s murder before another innocent family had to die.

True Crime Wednesday: The Disappearance of Maura Murray

When I first decided to start up my blog again I knew I wanted to designate one day to true crime posts. (Hey—I had to find some way of justifying my addiction to the unsolved/unresolved missing persons and cold cases, right?) For today’s post I had originally planned to talk about Kyle Fleischmann, a young man who disappeared in Charlotte, N.C. in 2007, but after I saw a new program scheduled to run on the Oxygen channel this weekend titled “The Disappearance of Maura Murray,” I changed my plans.

For those not familiar with the case, on the night of Feb. 9, 2004, Maura Murray e-mailed her college professors at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and employers and told them she needed to take a week off due to a death in her family. (This was later determined to be a lie). She researched renting a condominium in the mountains of New Hampshire. She left campus, withdrew most of the money in her bank account from an ATM, purchased alcohol at a liquor store, including a box of wine, and drove to Haverhill, New Hampshire, a few hours away. She crashed her car on a country road there around 7 p.m.

A school bus driver stopped to ask her if she needed help on his way home but she said, no, she had already called AAA for help. He drove to his home just a few houses away and placed a call to police. He doubted her story because the area had no cell service whatsoever.  By the time police arrived around 15 minutes later, there was no sign of Maura. Some of her possessions were found in the car, along with an empty bottle that appeared to have residual wine in it and the smashed up box of wine she had purchased at the liquor store. Her debit and credit cards and cell phone were missing. Maura was never seen again.

Disappearance of Maura Murray Sneak Peek 101: A Timeline of Events

I’ve listed to a few episodes of the Missing Maura Murray podcast , produced by Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna, where they discuss different theories out there about Maura’s disappearance as well as a detailed timeline of the events leading up to the night she went missing. James Renner is another journalist who has a blog devoted to this case, My Search for Maura Murray, as well as a nonfiction book titled True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray.

I think people are fascinated with Maura’s case because on the surface, she looked like she had everything going for her. She was young, beautiful, athletic, intelligent, studying for a promising career in nursing. But Maura’s story goes much deeper than that. Scratch the surface a bit and secrets would be revealed, one by one. So many secrets and transgressions that when added up, could result in a person wanting to run away, disappear, or take their own life rather than be exposed.

Some of those secrets (from what I’ve been able to glean from news articles, podcasts, and television broadcasts of the case) are that Maura had been asked to leave West Point Academy, which she originally attended after graduating from high school, for an honor code violation. She transferred to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to study nursing. While there, she got into trouble for using the credit card of someone who lived in her dorm to order food from a local restaurant. The day before she disappeared, she crashed her father’s brand-new car near campus around 3:30 a.m., causing a lot of damage. The next day, she put most of her belongings in boxes in her dorm room, e-mailed professors and her employer for the time off, researched condos in the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, and drove away. Then she crashed her car again around 7 p.m. that night. How could this girl not be scared that her world was caving in?

Some people theorize that a local resident snatched Maura as she stood outside of her car wondering how she was going to get out her second car accident in two days. Me? Personally I believe she panicked because she was probably going to get a D.U.I., and that, along with the rest of her troubles, was too much for her to handle. She probably grabbed what she needed and took off into the woods before police could arrive. She could have gotten disoriented in the woods and succumbed to the elements. I don’t really believe any of the theories that she faked her own disappearance and is living in Canada somewhere. It seems a little too far fetched to me. But, who knows? I could be wrong.

Do you have any theories about what could have happened to Maura Murray? Have you watched “The Disappearance of Maura Murray” or followed any of the blogs? Do you think the case will be cracked anytime soon?