20 Missing Child Cases That Shocked the Nation (PHOTOS)

Damarys Ocaña Perez | Oct 23, 2015 Crime

Child abductions are first and foremost a parent's worst nightmare, and some of the most gruesome and well-publicized cases captivate and horrify the country as massive searches get under way. Some cases grow cold, or worse.

These 20 missing child cases made national headlines and, in some cases, prompted legislation. They also terrified us. A few ended in the victim's rescue; others remain unsolved.


Image via © Michael Brandy/Reuters/Corbis

  • Polly Klaas


    Image via pollyklaas.org

    She wasn't walking home from school or shopping at a mall. Polly Klaas, 12, was having a slumber party with friends when a knife-wielding man entered her bedroom in Petaluma, California, tied up the friends, and took Polly in 1993. Polly became the first case in which a missing child poster was circulated online. Her killer, Richard Allen Davis, was sentenced to death; his lengthy criminal record inspired California's  "three strikes" mandatory sentencing law. Today, the Polly Klaas Foundation helps find other missing kids and offers a free child safety kit.

  • Adam Walsh


    Image via YouTube

    Abducted from a Sears in Hollywood, Florida, in 1981, Adam Walsh was raped and decapitated, with his head dumped in a canal. Though drifter Ottis Toole confessed to the murder while in prison for other murders, he was never convicted because police lost key evidence, and he died in 1996. Adam's parents, John and Reve, became missing-child activists whose foundation merged with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. John became the host of the long-running America's Most Wanted. 

  • Elizabeth Smart


    Image © Michael Brandy/Reuters/Corbis

    The nation was captivated by the story of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City in June 2002 while her little sister watched. She was found nine months later, the prisoner of Brian David Mitchell, who raped her and forced her to watch porn and drink alcohol, as well as wear a burka-like robe and veil. Mitchell was eventually sentenced to life in prison and Elizabeth has become a child advocacy speaker.

  • William Ownby & Shawn Hornbeck


    Image via YouTube

    When police raided the home of Michael Devlin in Kirkwood, Missouri, in 2007, the man suspected of kidnapping 13-year-old William "Ben" Ownby, they also found Shawn Hornbeck, 15, who had been missing since 2002. Devlin, a pizza shop manager and funeral home worker with no previous police record, was sentenced to four life sentences for kidnapping and child sexual abuse, as well as making pornography with one of the boys.

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  • Erica Pratt



    A month after Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped, 7-year-old Erica Pratt was walking home from school with a friend in South Philadelphia when two men grabbed and stuffed her in a car. They bound her hands and feet and left her in the basement of a vacant house, while they sought $150,000 ransom from her grandmother. Erica gnawed through the duct tape, broke down the basement door, and smashed a window to cry for help. Her heroic escape made Erica one of the relatively few missing African-American children whose case has drawn national attention. Abductors Edward Johnson and James Burns were arrested three days later.

  • Etan Patz


    Image  ©Keith Bedford/Reuters/Corbis

    One of the first missing kids whose face appeared on a milk carton, Etan Patz, 6, was abducted on May 25, 1979, as he walked to his school bus stop. Although his parents won a civil suit against one suspect, the man was never charged. A second man, Pedro Hernandez, confessed and was charged in 2012, but questions about his mental illness and intellectual capacity as well as a lack of physical evidence led a jury to deadlock in 2015, and a mistrial was declared. Etan's remains have never been found.

  • The Atlanta Child Murders


    Image © Bettmann/Corbis

    Between 1979 and 1981, 29 African-Americans, mostly kids, were murdered in Atlanta, largely by strangulation or asphyxiation. Wayne Williams, 23, was convicted for the murders of two of the adults, and was linked by evidence to 20 of the other deaths, though never tried for them. The killings, which stopped once he went to jail, terrorized the city for 22 months and drew national attention from celebs like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Robert DeNiro. 

  • Balloon Boy


    Image © David Zalubowski/AP/Corbis

    Richard and Mayumi Heene called 911 in 2009, saying that their 6-year-old son, Falcon, had floated away in a giant helium balloon. When it crashed near the Denver Airport and was discovered to be empty, the airport closed and a manhunt ensued. Then things got weirder: The family told authorities that the boy had been hiding in the house all along. During a TV interview, Falcon revealed the entire incident had been a hoax — his parents' attempt to gain fame and score a reality show. The parents served time in jail and paid $36,000 in penalties.

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  • Kyron Horman


    Image via Multnomah County Sherriff's Office

    After his stepmother dropped him off at Skyline Elementary in Portland, Oregon, on June 4, 2010, 7-year-old Kyron Horman disappeared. For years, his stepmom was the focus of the police investigation, after the family gardener told police she'd previously tried to hire him to kill her husband. She's never been charged, and no other suspects have been named. The boy was never found.

  • Jaycee Dugard


    Image © Cliff Owen/ /AP/Corbis

    For more than 18 years, Jaycee Dugard lived in a tiny, soundproofed backyard shed, eventually joined by two daughters she had with her kidnapper, repeat sex offender Phillip Craig Garrido. He and wife, Nancy, had abducted Jaycee as she walked home in South Lake Tahoe, California. Eventually breaking out of the psychological hold Garrido had on her, she finally rescued herself by telling Garrido's parole officer who she really was. Garrido is serving 431 years in prison, and his wife is serving 36 to life.

  • Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry & Michele Knight


    Image © Tony Dejak/AP/Corbis

    Kidnapped between 2002 and 2004, Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry, and Michele Knight spent years chained to each other in the boarded-up home of Ariel Castro, in Cleveland, as he raped, beat, and manipulated them. In 2013, Berry noticed that Castro had left a door improperly fastened and was able to escape with the help of a neighbor and police. Ironically, one month into his own imprisonment (he received a life sentence), Castro hanged himself in his cell. 

  • Caylee Anthony


    Image ©mSplash News

    Caylee Anthony was reported missing by her grandmother, who called police after not seeing the child for 31 days, saying that her daughter Casey's car trunk smelled like a dead body. Casey was charged with her murder and became the most hated woman in the country. Caylee's remains were found in a wooded area and Casey went to trial for first-degree murder, but she beat the rap in a highly publicized trial and went into hiding.

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  • Steven Stayner & Timmy White


    Image © Bettmann/Corbis

    Such was the psychological hold that convicted child rapist Kenneth Parnell had over Steven Stayner, a boy he'd kidnapped from Merced, California, in 1972 at age 7 and repeatedly raped, that Steven was allowed to come and go as he pleased during the seven years he was with Parnell, and never sought help. Until Parnell kidnapped a second child, terrified 5-year-old Timmy White, in 1980, that is. Steven took the boy and they hitchhiked their way to the nearest town — and to safety. 

  • Megan Kanka


    Image via YouTube

    Megan's Law, which created the sex offenders' registry, was named for Megan Kanka, the Hamilton, New Jersey, girl who in 1994 was lured inside a neighbor's house, raped, and strangled. The murderer, Jesse Timmendequas, dumped her body in a nearby park and later confessed. He had two previous convictions for sexual assault of minor girls. Now, sex offenders have to update the public registry whenever they move into a neighborhood.

  • Amber Hagerman


    Image via YouTube

    Something positive came out of Amber Hagerman's kidnapping and brutal murder: The AMBER Alert, the child abduction alert system, which in the past few years has widened its digital reach and has helped recover some 700 kids. That doesn't, however, lessen her family's pain, as the case remains unsolved. Amber, 9, was kidnapped while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 13, 1996. A witness saw her being forced into a pickup truck. Her body was later found in a creek, throat slashed, trace evidence carried away in the current.

  • Jimmy Ryce


    Image via YouTube

    The details of Jimmy Ryce's 1995 murder, culled from an unusually detailed confession, are horrifying. After kidnapping the boy, who was walking home, at gunpoint, Juan Carlos Chavez raped him and then shot him in the back as Jimmy ran out the front door. Chavez, who was executed in 2014, then cut up Jimmy's body and placed the pieces in several pots of cement. His parents became outspoken activists, forming the Jimmy Ryce Center, which provides law enforcement with the free services of bloodhounds to aid in missing child searches. 

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  • Shasta & Dylan Groene


    Image ©Kootenai County Sheriff's Department/Reuters/Corbis


    In 2005, Joseph E. Duncan III entered the home of Shasta and Dylan Groene, and after bludgeoning to death their mother, older brother, and mother's boyfriend, he kidnapped and raped them over a period of seven weeks. After he'd killed Dylan, he and Shasta were spotted at a Denny's, and he was arrested. Duncan, a violent sex offender, is serving 11 life sentences for the murders and kidnapping, as well as the kidnapping and murder of 10-year-old Anthony Martinez.

  • Carlina White


    Image © NY Post/Splash News

    Abducted from Harlem Hospital Center as an infant in 1981 by a woman posing as a nurse, Carlina White lived with Ann Pettway, the woman she thought was her mother, for 23 years. She solved her own kidnapping case after noticing she and Pettway didn't look alike and Pettway couldn't produce a birth certificate for her. She found pictures of herself as an infant on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's database, and contacted her birth parents (shown in photo at left). Pettway was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

  • Sandra Cantu


    Image via YouTube

    Americans were horrified when police found 8-year-old Sandra Cantu's body in a suitcase dumped in an irrigation pond in 2009; they were even more so when the killer was revealed to be a female Sunday school teacher, Cantu's neighbor, who kidnapped, drugged, and raped the child, then smothered her. The neighbor, who had a history of mental illness and was later charged with drugging another child 10 weeks before Sandra's death, pled guilty and is serving a life sentence.

  • The Lindbergh Baby


    Image © Corbis

    In the country's first famous child abduction, pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh's 20-month-old son was kidnapped from his bedroom in Hopewell, New Jersey. The kidnappers left a ransom note, then another, for $70,000. When the money was dropped off, the Lindberghs were told the baby was on a boat. But after a massive search, the baby was found dead near the Lindberghs' property. A German carpenter, Bruno Hauptmann, was arrested two years later after using marked ransom bills. He was electrocuted in 1935. 

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