026 - The Disappearance of Leah Roberts

[Case Evidence]

                Leah Toby Roberts was born on July 23rd, 1976 in the area of Durham, North Carolina.  She was the youngest of three children, having an older sister Kara and an older brother, Heath.  Leah was described by many as an insightful and poetic girl, with many saying that she had an old soul and seemed to have a perception and sensitivity beyond her young years.  A former friend of Leah’s, Suzie Smith, described the young woman as “just a very awesome person.  Everybody that meets her likes her.  Very personable, great smile.  But you know she was kind of private also.”  Though Leah was close with her family, especially her sister Kara who was only two years her senior, they lived a life of tragedy.  When she was only seventeen years old, Leah’s father was diagnosed with chronic lung illness.  The family was hyper aware of his condition, and as a result, gave a great deal of time and attention to him.  Leah struggled internally with this diagnosis, but outwardly maintained her positive and friendly attitude, continuing to shine her smile that everyone seemed to adore. 

                Leah is described as being 5’6” tall and weighing approximately 130 pounds.  She is Caucasian, with sandy blond hair and blue eyes.  She has a surgical scar on her right hip and a steel rod runs the entire length of her femur.  She has a beauty mark above the upper right corner of her lip.  Her ears are pierced, and she has noticeable dimples.  When last seen, Leah was a vegetarian and smoked cigarettes.  Her accent is defined as strongly southern and she can speak fluent Spanish.  It is unknown what she wore at the time of her disappearance, though she is known to wear and be in possession of 14 karat gold earrings with .3 karat ruby stones.  She wrote three rings on her right hand, including a 14 karat white gold ring set with a .45 carat emerald cut diamond flanked by two .07 carat baguette diamonds.

                Leah began attending college at North Carolina State University, near Raleigh, in 1995.  She was pursuing degrees in both anthropology and Spanish, and had spent a summer abroad studying in Spain.  She was an exceedingly bright young woman, with a high aptitude.  Despite her successes in school, those who were close to her have shared that there was always a hint of hesitance in her approach to life.  She didn’t like the idea of fitting into a box, and of doing things simply because they were expected of her.  She was far from the mainstream, believing that there was more to life than playing by all of the rules and being shaped in a typical cookie cutter design.  While the world was at her fingertips, tragedy after tragedy would strike in quick succession, forever changing the course of her life.

                In her twentieth year, while a sophomore at NC State, Leah’s mother died unexpectedly from heart disease.  This came as a shock to the family who had always been aware of their father’s medical condition but had never been made aware or noticed anything wrong with their mother.  Leah took the death exceedingly hard, and was given possession of her mother’s engagement ring which she wore everywhere she went.  According to friends and family, Leah would never remove the ring, no matter what was happening.  She treasured it and considered it a permanent connection to her mother.  As a result of her passing, and in an attempt to be there for her family and to mourn in her own time, Leah took time off from school, returning in the Fall of 1998.

                Sadly, during this time, Leah would find herself involved in a terrible car accident.  According to reports of the time, a truck turned in front of Leah and she couldn’t stop in time to avoid the collision.  She was badly injured in the crash, puncturing her lung and shattering her right femur.  Surgeons had to place a metal rod in her femur to aid in the healing, a rod which would always remain inside of her.  According to her sister, Kara, Leah had confided in her that when she saw the wreck was unavoidable she was certain that she was going to die and when she survived, she felt born again.  At this point, Leah began looking at life differently, feeling that there was so much more to it than she had ever thought and it seemed such a shame to waste a moment of it when it could all end so suddenly and unexpectedly.  Of her accident, and response to it, Leah’s brother Heath would say “I think that all of the things had the cumulative effect of making Leah even more introspective and probably more aware that, although she didn’t know what she wanted to do, I think she was unhappy that she wasn’t achieving it.”

                Leah signed up for a field study which was to take place in Costa Rica in the Spring of 1999, when again, tragedy would come in to shake up everything once again.  Leah’s father sadly succumbed to his medical issues and passed away, just three weeks prior to the Costa Rica trip.  While Leah mourned, she was trying to determined if she would pass off the trip or if she should follow through with it.  Perhaps in an attempt to get away from everything, or some measure by which to distract herself from the growing sadness, Leah chose to go forward with the trip.  Kara was given power of attorney over Leah’s bank accounts as a result of her out of country travel, Leah had some money saved up and had received more as inheritance after her father passed away.  Leah’s friend and roommate, Nicole, who participated in the trip with her, was worried about her.  According to Nicole, Leah wasn’t showing any outward signs over the passing of her father, and was instead, jumping head first into the culture and work in Costa Rica, seeming to be avoiding dealing with the pain of loss.

                Upon returning to the United States, Leah’s behavior and personality seemed to be shifting.  Friends and family noticed a change in her, though it wasn’t one which drew concern.  According to her roommate, Leah began distancing herself from close friends and started expanding outward, meeting new people and changing her methods.  With only one semester left in order to receive her degree, Leah made the choice to drop out of school.  Her brother, Heath, did his best to talk her out of this decision feeling that she was in a difficulty space in her life, but that if she could only tough it out for a few more months, she’d be free to do as she pleased and she’d have the degree to fall back on, but Leah wasn’t having any of that. 

                Now that Leah no longer had school to attend, didn’t have a job, and had some money in the bank to live on, she began expanding the sphere of her life.  Leah purchased a guitar and began taking lessons, and also showed an interest in pursuing photography.  It was during this time that Leah dedicated herself more to her writing, something she had always done, but now felt a much stronger connection to.  She adopted a kitten, whom she named Bea, and began spending a great deal of time hanging out at coffee shops where she would meet and spend time with new people while writing in her journals and constructing poetry.  Many who met her said that she was very open about what she was going through, what she was feeling and what she was dreaming of doing.

                It was during this time that Leah began developing a strong interest in the works of Jack Kerouac, the famed Beatnick writer who had penned such books as “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums,” which was Leah’s favorite.  She became fascinated with the idea of criss-crossing the county, seeing the beautiful sights of it and, perhaps in the process, finding herself, too.  It seemed apparent to those who knew Leah that she was struggling with the losses of her parents and finding her own place in the world.  In the Dharma Bums, Kerouac wrote extensively about his time spent on Desolation Peak, located in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington State.  Jeannine Quiller had met Leah during one of her treks to a coffee shop, and the two quickly began talking and getting along.  According to Quiller, Leah expressed her passion for Kerouac’s work, and her desire to take a trip to see the sights of the country, and specifically Desolation Peak.  According to Quiller “From the last conversation that we had, we were talking about Dharma Bums and about how Kerouac was up on Desolation Peak, just taking in all the beauty around him.”

                According to both Quiller, Leah began discussing the possibility of following in his footsteps.  Nicole, Leah’s roommate, also shared that Leah came to her about the same topic.  She asked Nicole if she’d be interested in taking a trip with her around the country, and though Nicole agreed that it sounded like a great deal of fun, she had a job and responsibilities she couldn’t just up and leave.  On the other hand, Leah was done with school, had no job, had money in the bank and ample opportunity to make the trek if she decided that was what she wanted to do.  It would seem that in March of 2000, Leah decided it was time to pursue this journey and see where it would take her.

                On the morning of March 9th, 2000, Leah had a phone conversation with her sister Kara.  They discussed life, how things were going, and made plans to see each other soon, though they didn’t lock in any particular timeframe or dates.  According to Kara, the call ended with them agreeing to meet up soon and she had no reason to believe anything was up with Leah, who made no mention of any trips or plans.  Later that afternoon, Leah was talking with her roommate.  According to Nicole, the two made plans to do some babysitting the next day and Leah seemed interested and showed no signs of having any other plans or intentions.  If nothing else, Leah was dependable and when she said she was going to do something, she followed through.

                Nicole left for work shortly after this conversation, leaving Leah home alone.  When she returned later, Leah was not there and her 1993, white jeep Cherokee was also gone, but Nicole thought little of this.  Since leaving school, and not working, Leah had been coming and going as she pleased and it wasn’t unusual for her to be gone.  According to Nicole, often times when she left and arrived home, Leah was either out or in her bed asleep and she had adjusted to the fact that Leah was doing things on her own time.  It wasn’t until the next day, March 10th, that Nicole began to grow concerned.  She hadn’t seen Leah since the previous afternoon and she failed to show up for their babysitting appointment, which was completely unlike her.  Though worried, Nicole didn’t think anything in particular was wrong and considered it possible that Leah was staying with a friend.  Despite this, she placed a call to Kara and told her of the situation.

                Kara came over to their apartment and immediately went into her sisters room, looking for any signs of indications of where she might be.  It was at this time that the two women discovered Leah had taken a large quantity of clothing, her new cat and personal items with her, and Kara suddenly realized that Leah may have made the decision to take a trip somewhere, though she considered it strange that she hadn’t told her or contacted her since she left.  The two women began placing phone calls to Leah’s friends, asking if they had seen her or had any idea where she was, but no one seemed to have a clue.  Kara traveled around town, visiting many of the coffee shops and spots that Leah tended to spend her time, but found no sign of her nor anyone who could offer any insight.  At first, Kara felt that Leah was simply going on a trip and that she would get in touch and let her know that she was all right.  Though she was worried, she didn’t feel there was anything to be too deeply concerned about.  If anything, she was more annoyed that her sister failed to fill her in on her plans.  In an interview with CNN, Kara would state “By the time Leah was 22 she had lost both of her parents and here she is on the verge of graduating from college and I think she just really felt lost and didn’t have a lot of direction, and I feel like she took this trip as a soul-searching trip.”

                Several days passed, and on Monday, March 13th, Kara could no longer accept that Leah would keep radio silence for that long.  She went down to the Durham Police Department and filed a missing persons report.  Police took the case seriously, but they were faced with a very complicated situation.  Leah was an adult, and was free to travel if she so pleased.  In addition to this, they had no starting point.  Leah could have been anywhere, and there was little that could immediately be done to locate her, though they did tell Kara that they would investigate.  They had the make and model of her Jeep, a physical description and a few places to go and ask questions.  It was during their initial investigation that they located Jeannine Quiller who gave them their first hint when she told them about the discussion of Desolation Peak.

                Kara returned to Leah’s apartment, and this time searched her room more thoroughly.  She discovered a piece of paper, folded over with a drawing on it.  The image was that of the Chesire Cat’s grin.  Leah was a big fan of Alice in Wonderland and Kara felt this was significant, the Cat who would disappear and reappear.  Inside the note, Leah discussed traveling.  She specified “I’m not suicidal, I’m the opposite, remember Kerouac.”  What was curious was that the note wasn’t left in an obvious spot, and was hard to find.  In addition to the note, there were several hundred dollars inside, left to Nicole to cover expenses while she was gone.  According to Nicole, there was enough money to cover around a month’s worth of rent and utilities.  Kara now knew that Leah had left of her own volition, and based on the money, had a timeline, believing that Leah planned to return in a month’s time.

                It was at this point that it occurred to Kara that she still held Power of Attorney for Leah, from the trip to Costa Rica, and as such, had access to her bank account records.  She hoped that Leah would be using her debit card which may give her some clue as to her possible location.  According to bank records, on March 9th, just hours after talking to Kara, and not too long after Nicole had left for work, Leah had withdrawn three thousand dollars cash.  Leah had also used her debit card that night, paying for a hotel room near Memphis, Tennessee.  After this, Leah appeared to be using cash for most of her purchases, outside of gas, for which she continued using her debit card.  Luckily, the debit card was able to map out her path and it followed Leah traveling West along Insterstate 40.  Interstate 40’s western end occurred in California, and at this time, Leah turned North, heading along Interstate 5.  The last trackable bank record for Leah occurred just after midnight on the morning of March 13th, the day she would be officially reported missing.  The records showed that Leah had purchased gas in Brooks, Oregon and then the financial trail ended.

                Kara spoke with Jeannine Quiller about Desolation Peak, and while she was concerned for her sister, she felt some comfort in knowing the probable location.  According to Leah’s debit card purchases, she had in fact made it into the pacific northwest, and it seemed most likely that she had, or was soon going to, reach Desolation peak.  Though there were no signs of activity on her debit card following the morning of the 13th, Kara knew Leah had a large quantity of cash and considered it possible that she was simply using that instead.  She tried to remain calm about the situation, to give Leah the time she desired to process things and come to terms with where her life was heading.  All of that would change on March 18th.  It was Kara’s 26th Birthday and she fully expected to hear from her sister that day, but instead, she received startling news.  When she arrived home, she found a note stuffed in her mail slot.  It was from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office requesting that Kara call the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department in Bellingham, Washington.  Hoping for news that Leah had been located, Kara was crushed when she was informed that Leah’s abandoned and smashed up Jeep had been located, with no sign of Leah anywhere.  It had been found on a side road, thirty miles east of Bellingham.

                According to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department, early on the morning of March 18th, a husband and wife were jogging along Canyon Creek Road, a side street of the Mount Baker-Highway.  It is considered a back road mostly used for the logging business, not often traveled by locals, let alone someone who had never been in the area.  While jogging, the man and woman saw clothing scattered about in the wilderness and grew curious, looking closer.  The clothing was found at a point in which the road curves sharply and begins and upward incline.  As the two approached, they found more clothing laying on the ground, and some even tied to branches of trees.  They also located a drivers license and passport.  As they looked down the embankment, off the side of the road, they saw the Jeep at the bottom, obviously having been severely damaged in the fall.  They immediately notified the police who arrived on the scene to investigate.

                Sgt. Kevin McFadden lead the investigation, and it was quickly determined that something about this accident didn’t seem right.  According to damage to the trees, and calculations made by scene investigators, it was determined that the vehicle was moving at approximately thirty to forty miles per hour when it went over the edge.  Based on damage to the vehicle, which included dents all along the body and smashed out windows, they determined that the vehicle had gone over the embankment and rolled multiple times before stopping rightside up.  Police scoured the area, looking for any signs of Leah.  They felt it was unlikely that she could have simply walked away from such a bad crash, but were unable to locate any tracks or signs of her outside of her items scattered around the area.  Strangely, the busted out windows appeared to be covered up with blankets and pillows, leading investigators to wonder if she had spent some time in the Jeep following the crash.

                According to McFadden, this wasn’t the kind of accident someone was likely to stroll away from without having taken some damage themselves.  He would later state “With the speed that the vehicle was traveling and the amount of damage to the vehicle, you would anticipate some type of injury to the person inside.  At least some type of evidence to indicate contact damage, that the person had been inside the vehicle.”  And yet, there was nothing to indicate this.  No damage to the steering wheel, the seatbelts weren’t stretched out, no signs of blood and no evidence in the surrounding area that anyone had sought help or was unable to walk away from it.  Police ran a quick search through local hospitals for anyone who had been admitted in the past few days for injuries similar to what they would have expected related to the accident, but there had been no such admissions in the previous five days.

                Initially, police weren’t sure what they had.  While it was obvious there was an accident, they didn’t know if foul play was involved or not.  According to multiple sources in the area, it wasn’t uncommon for locals to have a few too many drinks and crash their cars, where they would leave them until a few days passed and they’d report it to police.  While it wasn’t completely uncommon, it wasn’t often that it happened to this extreme and the fact that the vehicle has North Carolina plates immediately drew the curiosity of investigators.  It was when they reached out to North Carolina authorities that they were informed of the missing person’s report on Leah.  Although they were now in possession of her vehicle, they had no trace of Leah herself.

                Among the clothing in the wreck site, Police also discovered all of Leah’s personal affects which included cds and her check book.  They also found cat foot and a cat carrier inside the jeep.  Kara knew that Leah had taken the cat with her, though it has never been located.  Police was perplexed, although it appeared to be an accident, investigators couldn’t help but feel suspicious about it.  Considering the lack of evidence to suggest a drive, they began to wonder if the accident itself was staged.  It didn’t seem possible that someone could have rolled down the embankment, causing such extensive damage and simply walked away without so much as a scratch.  In regard to a possible staged event, McFadden stated “There’s nothing to indicate the wheel was tied and that it was pushed off the road.  We couldn’t find any marks on the back that indicated anyone had pushed it to where it was.  If you had somebody driving the vehicle and they jumped out, you would have taken your life, into your own hands trying to jump out of the vehicle at that speed.”  Confused, but determined, investigators gathered up all of the items they could locate and sent the Jeep in for processing.

                Police initiated an inspection of the area using search and rescue teams, dogs and helicopters.  Unfortunately, there were no results from their search, despite inspecting the entire area and traveling up and down the road.  During this time, Kara and Leah’s older brother, Heath, made the trip to Bellingham.  Police informed them that they hadn’t found anything to indicate Leah’s location, but also that they felt suspicious about the manner in which her jeep was discovered.  Both were taken to the crash site and police explained the manner in which the vehicle was found and their belief about how the accident occurred.  While Kara tended to agree with authorities about the likelihood of an injury, Heath wasn’t convinced and felt that the jeep didn’t look as though it would be impossible to walk away from without injury.

                After processing the jeep, police found several items which raised their suspicions.  First and foremost, inside the pockets of one of Leah’s pairs of pants, they recovered $2,500 in cash which would indicate that Leah had spent very little money during the course of her trip.  In addition to this, one item which has raised suspicions for all of those who knew Leah was her mother’s engagement ring, which was found beneath the floor mat in the driver’s seat.  As previously stated, Leah never took the ring off and many considered this a startling sign that something bad happened to her.  Leah’s roommate Nicole state “As long as I’ve known Leah, she has worn her mother’s engagement ring.  It was her most prized possession.  And when we discovered that the ring had been found in the car, it was definitely, for me, a bad sign.”  This left police with a strange set of circumstances, while it seemed as though the possibility was growing that Leah may have fallen victim to foul play, it was clear that robbery was not the motive of whoever may have been involved.  Although most of what they found was unable to give them any assistance in the investigation, they did manage to find one piece of evidence which helped them construct more of a timeline.

                Inside of a jewelry box, located inside the jeep, they found a movie ticket stub.  The stub was dated March 13th, five days earlier, and was for a 2:10pm showing of the film American Beauty at a movie theater in Bellingham’s Bellis Fair mall.  Although this established that Leah had arrived in Bellingham five days prior to the discovery of her jeep, it also raised a few questions.  How had Leah managed to be in Bellingham for five days, appeared to have spent little to no money and not have stayed in a hotel at some point in time?  Investigators began to wonder if something had happened to her shortly after arriving in town, and had hopes that locals may be able to assist them.  Kara and Heath had missing persons fliers printed up, with the assistance of the Sheriff’s Department, and began papering the town, beginning at the Bellis Fair Mall, Leah’s last confirmed location.

                No one at the movie theater remembered seeing Leah and so Kara decided to go down to the food court.  She figured that Leah would likely have eaten at the mall, and when she arrived, she found only one restaurant in the food court that accommodated a sit down restaurant.  Luckily, several of the workers remembered Leah and said that, on the day she had come in to eat, she sat down alone.  During the course of her meal, men eventually sat on either side of her.  Police made a plea to the public, asking for information from anyone who may have been there that day, specifically looking for the two men who may have engaged her in conversation.  One of these men called the police and told them that he had talked with Leah that afternoon.  According to him, she had discussed Kerouac and Desolation Peak.  He described Leah as a kind and very open girl who he enjoyed speaking with.  He didn’t have much information to offer beyond that, though he was able to describe the man sitting on the other side of Leah, whom he alleged had spoken to her for longer.

                When police managed to track down the other man, they were given a story which, though it shared similarities to the original story, also had some contradictory details.  The first witness stated that Leah left alone, while the second witness claims she left in the company of another man.  The second witness gave such a vivid and detailed description of the man she left with that authorities brought him in to work with a sketch artist and a composite was developed.  According to this witness, Leah referred to this man as Barry.  Unfortunately, no other witnesses were able to corroborate the story and police began to question whether or not the second witness had made up these details.  Though they had no evidence to question him further, he became a person of interest for them in regard to Leah’s possible whereabouts.

                Interestingly, several days after the discovery of Leah’s jeep, police received a strange phone call.  An unidentified man claimed that his wife had seen Leah.  According to the caller, Leah seemed disoriented and confused and was spotted hanging around a gas station in Everett, a city near Seattle, some sixty miles south of Bellingham.  Before Police could gather more information, the man seemed to be scared and hung up.  While they have no way to corroborate his story, and there were no additional sightings of Leah in that area, investigators do consider this tip credible and thus consider the possibility that this was the last sighting of Leah.

                Early on in the investigation, while Police were pouring over Leah’s jeep and possessions, the FBI was called in to assist, though this would not lead to any new discoveries.  Kara and Heath stayed in Bellingham for four days before returning home to North Carolina.  While they were deeply concerned for the condition and whereabouts of Leah, they had lives and families they couldn’t stay away from and there was little more they could do in Washington.  They left the case in the hands of the authorities who had been working diligently to get to the bottom of this odd mystery.  In an attempt to find a link to this so-called Barry, or anyone else who may have had contact with Leah, Police retrieved surveillance footage from the gas station in Brooks, Oregon, the last place Leah stopped for gas. 

                Leah can be seen entering the gas station and paying at the counter.  She appears undisturbed and is wearing a hat.  There doesn’t seem to be any signs of distress, though there is a section of the video which raised questions for investigators.  While at the front counter, paying, Leah is clearly seen turning and looking out the front doors, into the area of her vehicle.  She sort of cranes her neck as if watching something, or looking for something.  Unfortunately, there were no cameras in the parking area, so police could not verify what she was looking at, though they speculated it was possible that she could have had a traveling companion, perhaps someone she met along the way.  They began to wonder if this could have been the alleged “Barry.”

                Unfortunately, there were few developments and Leah’s case remained a baffling disappearance for which there appeared to be no answers.  Though the case remained active, and Police began monitoring Leah’s financial records and social security number, there was nothing new and it slowly developed into a cold case.  The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department contacted Kara and asked her what she wanted them to do with Leah’s jeep.  Kara felt that it was important to keep it available in case of future developments, and considering advances in technology, she didn’t want to take the risk of possible evidence being lost, and so she requested that they keep it in evidence.  The Jeep was moved to a secured lot, where it would sit for nearly seven years.

                In the interim, very little would develop over the years.  Kara fought hard to keep Leah’s name in the public spotlight, enlisting the help of Monica Caison and the Community United Effort they organized a cross country trip, following Leah’s path.  The event launched in 2005, and since has become an annual event, drumming up attention for not only Leah’s case, but for many other unsolved missing person’s cases.  Kara felt that Caison was a true friend, who helped her and her family through their difficulty accepting Leah’s disappearance.  Later, in 2006, the initial lead investigator retired, and his files and cases passed to Detective Collins and Smith.  Upon their receipt of the case, they chose to look over the evidence once again and they discovered some interesting curiosities.

                Primarily, upon looking over the files, Collins and Smith learned that while Leah’s Jeep had been thoroughly processed there was one area which had never been examined:  the engine.  Due to damage to the front end, during evidence processing, they chose not to pry open the hood.  Smith and Collins felt it was time, and went to the jeep, still sitting in their impound lot.  Upon removal of the hood, Smith and Collins found several points of interest.  Inside of the hood, they were able to recover fingerprints.  In addition to this, they found that the engine had been tampered with.  Specifically that the cover on the starter relay had been removed.  This would allow someone to start the jeep and play with the relay, which would allow the jeep to accelerate without anyone needing to be driving it.  They began to wonder if it was possible this is how the accident itself may have been staged.

                Armed with this new information, investigators sent out articles of Leah’s clothing to the FBI for DNA processing.  In the years since Leah’s disappearance, there had been some advancement and they hoped that the Bureau would be able to uncover things which may have not been found back in 2000.  They began looking over the files, looking for someone who police may have spoken to that could have experience as a mechanic, at least to the degree that they felt he would know how to tamper with the starter relay.  Much to their surprise, they found that the second man from the restaurant, the one who claimed to have seen Leah leaving with the alleged Barry, had worked as a mechanic.  Unfortunately, this person of interest had since moved to Canada.  Unable to question him in person, they contacted Canadian authorities and requested fingerprints and DNA from the man.  This process would take over two years and ultimately result in no match on the fingerprints.  On the other hand, the FBI managed to recover male DNA from several articles of Leah’s clothing, though it has never been publicly stated whether or not they matched the DNA from the man in Canada leading to a great deal of speculation.

                Police have come forward and stated that they consider it likely that Leah is deceased, though what led to her death they are not sure.  In efforts to find answers, they went back to the site of the jeeps recovery with cadaver dogs and metal detectors.  Though they are aware that Leah may have decomposed by now, or could have been buried, they know that there is still a metal rod in her femur and that it will never decompose.  Despite their efforts, again, they came up empty handed.  In the years since her disappearance, Leah’s story has received fluctuating media coverage.  Unsolved Mysteries did a segment back in 2001, and the show Disappeared covered her story in 2011.  Both shows generated phone calls, reported sightings of Leah, though none of them ever panned out.       

                On Monday, October 23rd, 2017, the Center for Missing Person’s “On the Road to Remember” Missing Person’s tour stopped in Raleigh, North Carolina.  A national tour designed to bring attention to missing persons, several of Leah’s family members were present to discuss her case and hope to keep her name alive in the public.  In the seventeen years since she vanished, there has been little discovered in terms of evidence and theories have been developed by family, investigators and strangers alike.

                One theory examines the possibility that Leah left of her own volition.  We know for certain that the trip was planned and executed by Leah, but some have argued that she also orchestrated her disappearance from Canyon Creek Road in Bellingham, as well.  According to this theory, Leah wanted to escape from her life, looking for a deeper meaning or truth somewhere beyond the sphere of her every day world.  Many believe it’s possible that Leah chose to leave behind her jeep, as well as her belongings and clothing.  Many even argue that Leah may have been inspired not only by Jack Kerouac, but possibly Christopher McCandless, the subject of the 1996 Jon Krakauer book “Into the Wild,” and later a movie by the same title.  If indeed he was an inspiration, it may explain Leah’s choice to leave behind her money and possessions.  When asked about this possibility, Kara stated “I can understand Leah’s needing to get away and find some peace within herself, but considering the loss that our family’s experienced, it’s difficult for me to think that she would leave us open for another loss.”

                The second theory is, despite what her note said, that Leah either had the intent to commit suicide or, somewhere along the way, decided that she was going to do so.  Many people feel that Leah’s goal was to reach Desolation Peak and take her own life, but by one way or another, something went wrong and feeling dejected and still struggling with the loss of her parents, Leah may have wandered into the wilderness of the pacific northwest and chosen to take her own life.

                Somewhat of a split off on the suicide theory is that, following the crash, Leah became disoriented after possibly suffering head trauma.  Confused and lost, some believe she may have wandered off into the wilderness and, unable to find her way back, either perished due to exposure or found herself injured in some manner from which she couldn’t recover.  Others have argued that, though evidence doesn’t seem to support it, Leah may have suffered from some kind of internal injury which took her life in the hours or days after the accident.  Speculation suggests she may have wandered off and died as a result of her injuries, while others have put forth the possibility that someone else may have been involved in the accident, and that when Leah passed away, this person chose to conceal her body in order to hide his or her involvement.

                The final theory is that, while Leah may have chosen to take this trip, something happened to her along the way which ended her life.  Many believe it’s possible that Leah may have picked up a hitch hiker, or met someone, who would later abduct and or murder her.  Many people point to the account of the restaurant witness and his claims about the man named Barry, while others look at the witness himself as a possible suspect.  Police have felt, almost since the beginning, that Leah was likely the victim of foul play though they have never been able to discover evidence which could prove this for certain.

                The disappearance of Leah Roberts is a baffling case.  The idea that a young woman with a bright future, someone who had suffered so much tragedy, could go on a journey of self discovery from which she never returned is both chilling and heart wrenching.  Her brother and sister remain hopeful that someday they will find an answers, but as the years move forward, it becomes less and less likely that it will lead to a happy ending.  Kara continues to work hard to keep Leah’s name in the spotlight, and seventeen years later, her case remains absolutely perplexing.  What happened to Leah Roberts and why after all these years has there never been anything which could break open this bizarre case?  Following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, a beautiful young woman vanished into thin air and a family shattered by tragedy was forced to take another brutal hit.  Though the pain will always remain, we can only hope that someday, they may receive their answers and have closure as to what happened to their baby sister.

 [Thoughts & Theories]

                The Disappearance of Leah Roberts is one of those cases where it feels like there should have been a resolution by now.  Maybe many of them feel that way, but here we have this kind young woman who goes off on a trip to find her center, to deal with the trauma of loss and to give herself a new lease on life and she never returns.  Her jeep is over a week later, all of the personal belongings she brought with her are there, but she is gone.  Her brother and sister, who have already had to deal with the pain and grief of losing both of their parents now have to struggle, first to accept that Leah may have chosen to run off and, later, that something terrible likely happened to her and they may never know her fate.  I can’t begin to imagine how hard this had been for them, but they have worked hard to keep Leah’s name and to transform her disappearance into a way to call attention to all of those who are lost.  While others may have been too caught up in their grief, Kara and Heath have used it to empower their participation in media events and national tours promoting awareness.

                Leah was twenty-three years old when she disappeared into the Pacific Northwest in March of 2000.  All signs indicated that she had chosen to take a trip, inspired by the works of Jack Kerouac, to see Desolation Peak, to see the country from the driver’s seat and perhaps even find her own personal truth along the way.  It isn’t uncommon for people who suffer great traumas to want to take time away, to want a break from every day life to experience something bigger beyond their own horizons.  We know that Leah was a sweet girl with a very introspective thought process and a poetic and philosophical mind.  When Leah failed to contact anyone, her family and friends became worried and contacted the police.  Less than a week later, her Jeep was found abandoned and wrecked off the side of an embankment on a little traveled logging road near Bellingham, Washington.  Despite an exhaustive search and investigation, no trace of Leah was ever found from that point forward.  How does a young woman simply vanish into nothingness and not leave even the slightest hint about what may have happened to her?  As you might expect, in a case this confusing and mysteries, there are several theories about what may have happened.

                The first theory examines the possibility that Leah’s disappearance was of her own choosing.  We know, for a fact, that her trip was certainly planned and executed by her.  She gathered clothing and personal items, she withdrew money from the bank and she even left a note and enough money to cover the bills for the next month while she was gone.  She had spoken with multiple people about the possibility of taking a trip across the country, and her conversations with Jeannine Quiller suggest that Desolation Peak in Washington was certainly a likely destination for her.  For one reason or another, Leah didn’t tell anyone she was going.  Maybe she was afraid they wouldn’t approve or they might try to talk her out of it or maybe, though the decision to go had already been made, the timing of her exit may have been based around a more spontaneous moment.  We may never know why she didn’t tell anyone or why she didn’t reach out to anyone after going.  Suffice it to say, Leah was ready for this trip and was determined to pull it off.

                So what happened when she arrived in Washington?  We know, based on the ticket stub, that in the days before her jeep disappeared, she saw the movie “American Beauty.”  How long she stayed in Billingham, there’s no way to know, but investigators found there were five days between the purchase of the movie ticket and the discovery of her jeep.  That opens a lot of possibilities of where she could have went or what could have happened to her in that time.  So the question becomes, did Leah accidentally crash her jeep and choose to abandon it or did she stage the accident herself, or with the help of someone else, in order to walk off into the wilderness and disappear from the world? 

                A lot of people have made the connection that Leah may have been inspired by Christopher McCandless who famously left everything behind and went on a hiking trip across the country.  McCandless perished in the wilderness of Alaska after traversing much of the country on foot just eight years before Leah herself made her own trek.  McCandless was twenty-four at the time of his death, and Leah was twenty-three when she vanished.  Much like Leah’s case, McCandless abandoned his own car after it became disabled.  While it’s easy to make this connection, and I can see the similarities, I don’t believe this was the inspiration, nor do I believe that Leah made the choice to vanish forever.  Leah was very open with people, almost everyone she met mentioned Jack Kerouac, but no one ever mentioned Christopher McCandless.  I believe if he was some kind of an inspiration for her trip, she would have likely mentioned him somewhere along the way.  Even in the note she left behind, she talks of Kerouac and no one else, other than her drawing reference to the Cheshire cat. 

                There are a lot of reason why I don’t believe that Leah made the choice to not return.  She wasn’t a selfish woman, and she certainly knew the trauma her family had been through.  I find it difficult to accept that she would make the choice to put them through that again, to take her grieving brother and sister and make them believe that they had lost her as well.  In addition to this, Leah left behind enough money for her roommate to cover rent and expenses for a month.  This seems to suggest that she was planning to return within that time frame.  We also have her reference to the Cheshire cat who is known to disappear, but reappears again.  If she truly was struggling with the loss of her parents and trying to find her place in the world, it doesn’t seem very enlightening or along the lines of self-discovery to leave the rest of your family behind without so much as a word.  Leah had cash and her debit card on her, but along most of the way she used the card.  If indeed she was looking to run away and not be found, she’d have been using only cash. 

                Leah’s family doesn’t believe she chose to disappear.  All of the evidence suggests that she was planning to return.  Up until the final days of her life, I do believe that Leah was planning to come home.  Something happened between March 13th and March 18th that forever changed that.  Some have suggested that when Leah got into the scenic beauty of the Pacific Northwest she was overcome by it and wanted to experience more, thus making the decision to leave the rest of the world behind.  While this is a possibility, I consider it a slim one.  Leah was not a foolish woman, and I don’t think she’d have simply left behind all of her clothing and supplies for a journey into the wilderness.  If nothing else, she would have taken her mother’s ring with her.  While there is a slim possibility that Leah Roberts elected to vanish, I don’t consider this the most likely scenario of what happened to her.

                The second theory suggests that Leah may have made the decision to end her own life, or have been subjected to an injury in the crash which left her thinking unclear.  Tackling the concept of suicide first, I can’t say this is outside of the realm of possibility.  We do know that in her note she specifically stated that she was not suicidal, and actually the exact opposite of that.  Of course, this note could have been left so that her friends and family wouldn’t worry about her, thus giving her the time to commit suicide before she could be located and stopped.  There are two schools of thought on the suicide theory:  One is that Leah knew she was off on this trip to take her own life, the other is that she made the decision to end her life during the trip itself.  I don’t believe she intended suicide from the beginning, it seems odd to bring so much clothing and personal items with her if that was the plan.  To me, if suicide is a possibility, it would have to be something she decided to do at some other point in time.  She never made it to Desolation Peak, as far as we know, and if anything I’d have guessed that if she were going to kill herself she would have done it there.  Maybe the crashing of the jeep left her feeling dejected and as though she would never reach her goal and that was just the final straw of heartbreak in her life.  This is a really hard one to examine, because though it is possible, we have nothing to suggest it is likely.  At the same time, it’s impossible to put ourselves in the head space of someone who may be suicidal.  I don’t believe that Leah committed suicide, but it’s a possibility that has to be considered.  If indeed she were in the Jeep when it crashed, it’s entirely possible she could have been hurt in some way which would have shifted her state of mind.

                Under the assumption that Leah experienced physical trauma during the crash, this may have resulted in a head injury which led to her disappearance.  There are several possibilities here, including but not limited to post-traumatic retrograde amnesia or a fugue state.  Typically, one would have to endure a traumatic brain injury in order to be subjected to amnesia, though it has happened without that occurring in rare instances.  If indeed Leah was in the jeep when it went over the embankment, just from looking at the extensive damage to the vehicle, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that she could have experienced a head injury which left her disoriented and confused.  The problem for me is that there were no signs or indications that anyone was actually in the jeep when the accident took place.  No blood or significant signs that someone had walked away from that crash.  Playing devil’s advocate, and assuming she was involved in the crash, it isn’t hard to imagine that in her state of confusion and possible injury, she may have wandered off into the wilderness. 

                If Leah walked into the dense forestry of the Washington wilderness, with no supplies and no shelter, it’s entirely possible that she may have succumbed to the elements.  I’ve always found it interesting that police stated that the Jeep had blankets and pillows over the blown out windows, which they believe suggested that someone had used the crash site as shelter for a period of time.  Could this have been Leah, waiting to be found, or perhaps someone else who happened upon it?  Again, this is an answer we simply don’t have, but I do consider it possible that some injury related to the crash could have resulted in Leah moving off into the wilderness and being unable to make her way back. 

                Leah could have gone the other way, heading back towards civilization, but there were never any confirmed sightings of her.  The most probable call came in just days after the jeep was found and was by an unidentified man who stated that his wife saw Leah in the area of Everett, Washington, seeming confused and disoriented.  He didn’t stay on the line long enough to give his name, and though police consider it possible, they can’t officially corroborate the tip.  I have a hard time believing it, personally.  I simply think that someone else would have seen Leah, and considering the media coverage the case got early on, I don’t think she could stay hidden for that long without someone sighting her eventually.  I believe that if she were out there wandering around confused, at some point, Police would have picked her up or run into her, she would have been processed through the system and her identity would have been revealed.  Though it’s possible Leah wandered away from this crash, I don’t consider it likely.  Honestly, I don’t consider it likely that Leah was in the jeep when the accident occurred.

                That leads us to the final theory:  That Leah Roberts became the victim of foul play.  There are several different forks in this theory to examine.  Some have suggested that Leah may have picked up a hitchhiker at some point during her journey, and that this person may have eventually either abducted or murdered Leah.  This is certainly a possibility, though we have no evidence to suggest anyone was with Leah during her journey and police have gone so far as to say while they can’t be 100% sure no one was in the jeep during the crash, they are certain that no one was in the passenger seat.  Male DNA was found on some of Leah’s clothing when the FBI reexamined it, but does that necessarily suggest someone was there with her at the end?  Without knowing the specific source of the DNA it’s hard to know exactly what it implies that it was on some of her clothing.  It’s certainly possible that Leah picked up the wrong person and something bad happened.  No sign of her body has ever been found, but the wilderness of Washington is dense and hard to maneuver, and there are many places a body could be concealed.

                I don’t necessarily lean toward the hitchhiker theory, myself.  But I do believe it’s possible that Leah met someone local to Bellingham who did something to her.  The crash site, to me, is too remote for someone to randomly come upon.  I believe that, if indeed the crash was staged, the person who staged it knew that this was a less traveled area and that it would take days before the wreckage was found.  In addition to that, it was a place where the crash could occur and it was unlikely anyone would be around to hear it.  Now, we know that the engine was tampered with, giving an assailant the ability to cause the Jeep to accelerate and drive off the edge without needing a driver in the seat.  What I’ve always wondered is, how did the suspect get away after this?  Unless he had a car waiting somewhere, he had a long walk back to town.  Or could there have been more than one person involved in this?  That can’t be ruled out.  I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that so much money was left behind in Leah’s pants pocket, but at the same time, she was traveling across the country with clothing and random items, someone may not have thought she had much money on her and considered it useless to search the Jeep before sending it over the embankment.

                The only person police have ever looked at with even a remote interest is the second man who sat beside her in the mall restaurant the last day she was seen alive.  We don’t know much about him, other than the fact that he gave police a story about a man named “Barry” that no one else saw.  According to him, Leah left with this man.  There was a composite drawing made based on his description, but police slowly began to believe that Barry was completely made up.  An interesting detail about this man is that he had experience as a mechanic, which police believe was necessary in order to have tampered with the engine in the way that it was adjusted.  They did request DNA and fingerprints from this man, and though his fingerprints didn’t match, we’ve never been given any information about the processing of the DNA.  His DNA may not have matched, and so Police have chosen not to state it publicly.  On the other hand, there could have been a match, but Police don’t feel they have enough evidence to extradict him.  In a case this chaotic and confusing, for there to be only one man on the list of persons of interest suggests to me that there is a likelihood that he knows more than he is saying, but we have no evidence to link him to anything.  I do believe this is a good lead to follow, and one which police continue to look into.

                There is always the possibility that Leah came across someone else in Bellingham or the surrounding area who is responsible for her disappearance, but nothing has ever come to the surface to indicate this.  Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough information and whoever may be responsible for Leah’s disappearance may never be brought to justice.  Short of some significant evidence coming to the surface, the discovery of Leah’s remains or someone coming forward with information, this is sadly yet another missing persons case which doesn’t show many signs of breaking open in the seventeen years that it’s been active.

                Leah Roberts drove away from North Carolina to find herself, to find the answers, to make peace with her grief and to be reinvigeroated for the future to come.  She left behind a brother and a sister who adore her, and friends who miss her every day.  She was a bright light in the lives of many, with her kind words and brilliant smile.  Unfortunately for Leah, what she found out there in the world was not a warm place to explore, but a darkness that swallowed her whole and left all of us wondering where she is and what happened to her.  If she were alive today, Leah would be forty years old.  She has been missing since March 13th, 2000 and seventeen years later, we have no more answers than we did the day her Jeep was found abandoned and smashed up.  It sits in a Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department impound lot today, perhaps holding more secrets yet to be discovered.