If I had to put a finger on the point in time when I became interested in crime reporting and specifically missing persons, it would be July 7, 1974. I had just turned 17, and on that day, a 13-year-old girl named Lizabeth Wilson from the nearby neighborhood of Prairie Village, Kansas disappeared while walking home from the community pool.
Our community was shocked. It was the ‘Seventies, and this kind of thing didn’t happen in our town. In the days before social media, I’m sure the gossip buzzed along the cocktail time grapevine, but the adults certainly weren’t sharing any details with us kids. We gleaned our information from hushed conversations in the high school cafeteria, locker rooms, hallways, and the smoker’s bathrooms on Level 2.
I can recall a feeling of present danger, but it came more from the fact that the adults were shielding us from the event rather than from the suggestion that someone dangerous was walking around our neighborhoods and homes. But the adults shielded us from many topics that nowadays seem almost ridiculously naïve. Those were the days when people still apologized if they were overheard cursing in public, or if a girl’s bra strap showed outside her short-sleeved blouse she practically needed to switch schools to outrun the scandal.
So why did Lizabeth Wilson’s disappearance capture my attention so completely that I still remember it almost 50 years later? At seventeen, I was getting ready to graduate from Shawnee Mission East High School and to tackle individual, college-age independence. I know I was fortunate in my upbringing, but Lizabeth Wilson's disappearance was the first time the outside world broke through my sheltering bubble. It came to me when the crime literally appeared on my doorstep.
At seventeen, I knew I wanted to write, but I hadn’t become a writer yet. At that young age I didn’t have anything to say. But even so, I planted Lizabeth Wilson’s name in my brain because I promised myself that I would keep my eye on her case and follow it until its conclusion.
How did I end up using this? When I wrote “The Nature of the Grave,” my Nantucket Mystery #2, the genesis question was: What happens when you say “see you later” to a family member, and they disappear?
What triggered this blog topic? A more recent case that has continued to grip my attention is that of missing British toddler Madeleine McCann, who disappeared while on a family holiday in Praia da Luz, Portugal on May 3, 2007.
In 2020, German police named convicted child abuser Christian Brueckner as a suspect in Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. But this week, Julia Faustyna, AKA Julia Wendlet, a Polish 21-year-old aspiring musician and model posted her claim on Instagram and TikTok that she is the missing Madeleine McCann. DNA testing is pending.
My heartfelt sympathy goes out to anyone who is missing a family member. I can’t begin to imagine the uncertainty, the not knowing. But I am a crime fiction writer and considering “what if” is what I do.
To close, was Lizabeth Wilson’s disappearance ever resolved? Yes. It took 40 years, but in 2001, police detective Kyle Shipps reexamined the case. Teaming up with an agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the police arrested John Henry Horton, a Shawnee Mission East High School janitor, who was charged with first-degree murder. It took two trials before Horton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. I do recall that at the time the community suspected him.
For the answer to Madeleine McCann’s case, I’ll continue to patiently wait.
Has a crime ever caught your attention so that you needed to incorporate it in your fictional work?