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.
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.