5 People Who Disappeared Under Mysterious Circumstances

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Has the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance finally been solved? A recent study suggests the famed aviator’s remains were discovered on a remote Pacific Island in 1940, but were misidentified at the time. Earhart, along with a co-pilot, disappeared while on an around-the-world flight in 1937. Countless theories have arisen through the years regarding her fate. Mysterious disappearances such as Earhart’s always breed speculation, but the truth can remain elusive, even many decades later. Here are some of the most famous disappearances in the modern era.


5. Madeleine McCann

Madeleine McCann in 2007 at age 3, and what she might have looked like at age 9 in 2012.

McCann disappeared just days before her fourth birthday in 2007, at a Portuguese resort where her family was vacationing from the UK. McCann’s parents and seven other friends were dining in a restaurant, while eight children slept in a holiday villa less than 200 feet away. Sometime around 10 p.m., McCann’s mom noticed her missing from her bed. McCann’s disappearance dominated the European and even U.S. media for months, as investigators chased down leads. At one point investigators considered her parents as suspects. But a Scotland Yard investigation opened several years later concluded a stranger had most likely abducted McCann.


4. Harold Holt

Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared while taking a swim. © National Archives of Australia

The Australian prime minister disappeared while swimming in riptide conditions at a remote beach in Victoria on Dec. 17, 1967. While this would seem to be a clear-cut case of drowning — one of Holt’s friends with him at the time even reported seeing him swept out to sea — nothing is ever as simple as it seems in mysterious disappearances. One theory held that Holt had faked his death. Another suggested he’d committed suicide. One crackpot theory claimed he’d been working as a spy for the Chinese for more than 30 years, and they had come to take him away in a mini-sub. Still another suggested he’d been abducted by the CIA. Holt was declared dead two days later, and a memorial service was held in late 1967. Yet it would be almost 40 years later, in 2005, before a coroner concluded that Holt had drowned, his body most likely swept out to sea.


3. Judge Joseph Force Crater

Judge Joseph Force Crater’s disappearance in 1930 led to an investigation that remained open almost 50 years.

This New York State supreme court justice’s disappearance on Aug. 6, 1930 has been forgotten today, but created such a stir at the time that for many years, someone who disappeared was said to have “pulled a crater.” Last sighted leaving a Manhattan restaurant, Crater’s disappearance included several suspicious events before and afterward. For example, two women he had allegedly been involved with quickly left town, and a third was murdered. The morning of his disappearance, Crater had gone through his files at the courthouse and allegedly destroyed documents. Although some speculated he’d left town with another woman, or to avoid possible findings of corruption, notoriety about the case at the time would have made it difficult for him to hide. Although a court declared Crater legally dead in 1939, the police case remained open until 1979.


2. Jimmy Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa is widely believed to have met a grisly fate.

The Teamsters Union leader disappeared without a trace on July 30, 1975. Given the labor movement’s ties to crime figures, it’s widely assumed that Hoffa did not meet a pleasant fate. But bizarre theories abound. One holds that he left his family and went to South American to live with a go-go dancer. The most common theories, however, hold that he was assassinated and quietly buried. Two possible locations have surfaced through the years as his most plausible final resting place: under the foundation of former Giants Stadium in New Jersey — now a parking lot for MetLife Stadium — or under the foundation of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, the global headquarters for General Motors.


1. D.B. Cooper

The FBI finally closed its investigation into D.B. Cooper in 2016, although a group of private investigators now claims it has solved the case. Credit: FBI

Almost 50 years later, the case of D.B. Cooper remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in U.S. history. The day before Thanksgiving in 1971, a man identifying himself as “Dan Cooper” hijacked a Northwest Orient airliner flight from Portland to Seattle. Once airborne, the passenger displayed a bomb and issued his demands: Four parachutes and $200,000 in $20 bills. After the plane landed in Seattle, Cooper released the 36 passengers, and the plane — with several crew members and Cooper aboard — took off for Mexico City. But somewhere between Seattle and Reno, Nev., Cooper jumped from the back of the plane.

Cooper’s fate has puzzled investigators ever since. Did he survive the jump? Some say no, because he jumped into a forest at night. Supporting that theory, in 1980, a boy found a rotting package containing about $6,000 in $20 bills; the serial numbers matched Cooper’s ransom package. Others contend he survived and disappeared into society, pulling off the perfect crime. Either way, the FBI vigorously investigated the hijacking for many years, considering more than 800 suspects. Finally, after 45 years, the FBI declared in 2016 it would no longer actively investigate the case. Yet that hasn’t stopped amateur detectives from continuing on their own. In 2018, a 40-member cold-case team announced it had solved the mystery. The group claims D.B. Cooper is actually former U.S. Army paratrooper Robert W. Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who the FBI had considered a suspect in the 1970s. Rackstraw, now 74, has denied the allegations, and the FBI issued a statement saying there is insufficient evidence. But the head of the cold-case group told reporters the FBI is embarrassed to admit volunteers cracked a case the agency failed to solve.

Oh, as for the “D.B. Cooper” name, the FBI cites it as a media mistake. “Where did ‘D.B.’ come from? It was apparently a myth created by the press,” reads a statement on FBI.gov. “We did question a man with the initials “D.B.” but he wasn’t the hijacker.”


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