045 - The Disappearance of Zachary Bernhardt
Zachary Michael-Cole Bernhardt was born on December 18th, 1991 in Florida to his mother Leah. According to multiple interviews and reports of the time, Zachary never knew his father and it would later be revealed that Zachary’s father was not aware that he had a son with Leah, whom he hadn’t seen since shortly after the time she had gotten pregnant, though he was not told. Leah would embark into her life with her son as a single mother. It was not an easy journey, and throughout it, there would be many ups and downs from job losses to evictions. While their life together was stressed by financial issues, Zachary never wanted for much. He had a large family, consisting of many cousins as well as Aunts and Uncles who loved him and an extremely caring grandmother.
Throughout Zachary’s early years, he quickly became the center of attention for the family. At that time, he was the youngest cousin and the only boy which made him stand out. Beyond that, his golden blond hair and beautiful blue eyes could easily melt the hearts of his predominantly female family, who looked up him as all of their baby. Though Leah wasn’t always in the best position to provide for Zachary, she didn’t have to do it alone. Her family contributed in numerous ways, always there for her and Zachary. He was treated as if he was all of the child, a cousin, but more like a sibling. When asked about her relationship with Zachary, his cousin Deendia Flanagan would state “He’s like a little brother. He likes people, got along great with his cousins, did good in school. Very smart, energetic. Just loved life.”
Leah’s family lived around central Florida, and ultimately, she and Zachary would settle in Clearwater, the county seat of Pinellas County. Clearwater sits on the eastern edge of the Gulf of Mexico and boasts a population of over 107,000. It is a hotspot for tourists who are drawn to the sandy white beaches and picturesque locations such as Moccasin Lake Nature Park. Despite being the smallest city in the Tampa-St. Petersburg – Clearwater metropolitan area, which Tampa Bay being just to the northwest, Clearwater is a popular destination in the state and draws in large funds from tourism, with the statistics for the Spring and Summer of 2016 showing over 1.4 million visitors to the city during that time.
Leah was twenty-one years old when she had Zachary, and for the most part, it has been suggested that he may have been the result of a one night stand, or possibly a limited and shortly lived romance. Regardless, she absolutely adored her son and according to her family, he was the light of her life. Her affection for Zachary was not exclusive, with everyone who came into contact with the boy being immediately taken by his charm and charistmatic personality. As a result of growing up in a family of predominantly female relatives, Zachary would often find himself involved in play time that involved tea parties and dolls, but he simply went with the flow. An energetic and excitable child, he loved making others laugh and wasn’t ashamed to play with dolls or the girls any more than he was to play with his action figures and plastic tool sets.
Leah quickly appropriated the title of being the so-called “Cool” aunt in the family. Her nieces loved going on to her apartment for sleep overs because, while under her supervision, the rules were more lax than those they found at their own homes. Leah would allow the kids to stay up late with her, watching movies, eating junk food and drinking soda while talking and laughing. It wasn’t uncommon for Leah to put on a scary movie and sit up until midnight with the kids, watching and throwing popcorn at the screen. While, for her nieces, Leah had earned a place in their hearts at the more loose and free spirited aunt, this was not her typical disposition, especially when it came to her own son.
Being a single mother, with no men in the picture throughout Zachary’s life, Leah developed a special bond with her son. Her sister, Billie-Jo Jiminez would describe it as “They loved each other a lot. They spent a lot of time together, had a tight bond, a very tight bond. With her being single, all they had was each other, they were like best friends too, but when she had to be a parent, she was a parent.” Leah managed to walk the line between authority figure and friend, allowing Zachary to have fun and confide in her, while also ensuring that he learned respect and how to follow the rules. This though, never seemed to be much of a problem as Zachary was extremely well behaved and, unlike other boys his age, wasn’t running around rambunctiously and causing a scene. Zachary was more reserved, and enjoyed the quiet calm of playing gently and talking softly.
Zachary was described by one of his cousins as being very agreeable. She would go on to say that if you asked Zachary to do something, he would almost always comply even if he wasn’t necessarily interested. This apparently worked well for his female cousins who, in their youth, would convince him to play dress up with them. Regardless of his activities, one detail which remains consistent throughout all descriptions of Zachary is just how much everyone adored him. A cousin, Amandia Sharborn would later say of Zachary “He’s a fun loving kid. Adventurous, kind, caring. He’s always been that way. A little boy, a little sweet boy.” As Zachary began to grow, his mind developed to have a curious nature about the construction of items, and his creativity became apparent to all around him.
Zachary’s grandmother, Carole Bernhardt, described his behavior by saying he was a “very inquisitive child. He liked to take things apart, he liked to make things. He loved to do crafts.” According to friends and family, it wasn’t uncommon to find Zachary building items and toys out of every day household items. In particular, they recalled a story of him using tape, string and empty toilet paper rolls to create a telephone system. He was said to love using tape to ahere items together in his construction bids and was also known to examine a room with a quiet contemplation before construction complex systems of sheets and blankets into forts with multiple sections. His Aunt, Billie-Jo, commented that she’d always imagined that, with a mind like that, he’d grow up to be an architect.
When Zachary wasn’t inside playing with his toys, his cousins or building the next piece of the world he wanted to inhabit, he was a beach lover. According to his family, from a young age, he had fallen in love with the ocean and learned to swim when he was still extremely young. If the opportunity arose to run along the sand or jump into the cool, clear water, he was always up for it. These opportunities came mostly when he and Leah were visiting relatives, for throughout much of their time, they were both busy. Zachary began attending school where he is said to have been well behaved and to have achieved good grades and marks from his teachers.
Leah moved from job to job, and sometimes found herself in situation of financial peril. Leah had moved more than eleven times in the last fourteen years, several of these moves being the result of evictions. Reports of the time have suggested that, at different periods, Leah and Zachary had been in states outside of Florida. In addition to this, Leah did in fact have another child, a daughter born in 1994. This child was not in her custody at the time Zachary disappeared, and was instead livng with her father in Michigan, allegedly after Leah had dropped her two children off with the man to look after them and then failed to return, resulting in her being reported as a missing person. Ultimately she did return and took custody of Zachary. Leah also sometimes found herself in situations of physical peril. According to multiple reports, there was an incident which took place in September of 1998, when Zachary was just six years old, in which she had an altercation with a male friend who was also her boss at the time. In these reports, it has been said that Zachary was witness to the man breaking into their apartment and attacking Leah, physically assaulting her and ripping off her shirt. Not one to back down, Leah pursued legal options and successfully and obtained an injunction against the man, keeping him away from her. This does not appear to have been a one time incident, with Zachary having witnessed similar things in the past. However, this does appear to be one of the last instances. Months later, Leah and Zachary would return home to that apartment to find their belongings outside, the victims once again of an eviction.
During these difficult times, Leah would often turn to her family for assistance and support. She knew she always had a place to stay and a loving family who would be there for her. However, she wasn’t a leach, and she would only stay for as long as she needed to before she could find a new place and a new job. A year after that altercation, in 1999, Leah and Zachary moved into a two bedroom apartment in the Savannah Trace Apartment Complex, in Clearwater, located just off Drew Street. The two floor apartment was plenty big enough for the two of them and Zachary’s school was located just down the road at Eisenhower Elementary. Things seemed to be coming together for them, and Leah landed a job for a telemarketing firm which granted them a reprieve from their previous financial problems, as well as giving the two a much more locked in schedule.
Despite their previous issues, none of this seemed to have impacted Zachary in a way which was immediately obvious. During all of the duress, he continued to maintain he good behavior, both at home and at school. Several teachers described the boy as being calm, quiet and smart for his age. They saw a great deal of potential in his abilities and they thought highly of Leah as well. When asked about her, instructors at the school described her as an attentive parent who was always available to them if they needed to speak, and if nothing else, she seemed invested in her sons scholastic activities. This was not an uncommon belief, with many others saying that Leah was a responsive mother. Her family has stated, multiple times, that for Leah, Zachary was her entire world and everything she did revolved around him. There was never a question about her love and adoration for her son.
Leah’s new job seemed to suit her, despite her schedule, which put her working overnights. She would go into work late in the evening and arrive home early in the morning, during which time she would sleep while Zachary attended school. They found their time together when he’d come home and they’d have a few hours to talk about his day, play and Leah would often make dinner for them. For the most part, they lived a normal life, though Leah sometimes felt she was being silently judged for being a struggling, single mother. Regardless, Zachary had a happy life and loving mother with whom he was exceedingly close. His cousins visited frequently and Zachary had made friends locally and would often be out playing with them. He was an intelligent young boy who heeded his mothers word and when she gave him a curfew, he always arrived home in time. On the nights when Leah was working, she enlisted the help of a neighbor in the complex who would babysit for her. Sadly, their happy world would be shattered in September of 2000, when Zachary was eight years old.
On Sunday, September 10th, 2000, Leah was off from work and so she and Zachary had plans to spend the evening together. Being that she worked nights, she still maintained her schedule of sleeping during the day. Zachary went out to play with his friends during this time and returned around dinner time. Leah would cook them a meal, later she would say it was one of his favorites, and they began their evening together. The nights plans involved dinner and a movie marathon, which Zachary was very excited for. According to Leah’s later statements, she and Zachary ate dinner together and then sat down on the couch to begin watching movies.
Details about what they ate or watched haven’t been revealed, though it doesn’t seem exceedingly relevant either. As the night grew longer, Zachary began to show signs of being tired. At approximately 11pm, Zachary began to fall asleep. Leah would later say that he had requested to sleep in her bed with her that night, and so when she noticed him sleeping on the couch, she carried him upstairs to her room and tucked him in. As for Leah, she wasn’t nearly tired yet. She’d only been up for a few hours as she was in the habit of being up all night for work. She sat back down on the couch and continued watching the movie, and when that was over, she turned on the television and began flipping channels. Throughout this process she picked up her laptop and went on the internet, visiting several websites and ultimately ending up chatting on forums.
Carole Bernhardt, when asked about Leah’s activities on her nights off, and whether they were consistent with that night, responded “It was her night off. On your night off you do not go to sleep. You do not change your routine, you’re used to being awake. She would go downstairs and watch tv or read.” According to her official statement to Police, Leah continued these activities until approximately 1am. It is now the early morning hours of Monday, September 11th. At this time, she took the garbage out and got in her car, to drive it over to the trash area of the apartment complex. She returned home and continued her normal night off activities, though this night would be a little different than usual.
The timeline becomes debated for the rest of the hours, with news reports suggesting some times and Leah and the Clearwater Police Department listing others. According to Leah, sometime around 4am, reported by newspapers as being 2am, she wasn’t quite feeling tired yet and thought about taking a walk. According to her report, she went upstairs and checked on Zachary who was sleeping comfortably in her bed. She then went downstairs and exited the apartment, bringing nothing with her. She left the door unlocked as she didn’t have her keys in her possession at that time either. Detective Thomas Dawe, who will eventually become the lead investigator on the case, would state “Just prior to leaving she put eyes on Zachary, to make sure he’s still sleeping, which he was, in her bed, and then she goes downstairs and exits the apartment. She says she doesn’t take her keys with her.”
According to Leah, she began walking around the apartment complex hoping that the activity and fresh air might help her relieve her restlessness and give her the ability to go back to the apartment and sleep. It’s at this point that the story takes an unusual turn as Leah claims she decided to swim in the pool. This has been a major point of contention for investigators throughout their examination of the case for multiple reasons. Some of those reasons are that Leah did not have a bathing suit on, she didn’t bring a towel with her and, according to her own statements, she didn’t like swimming very much.
Leah would later say she jumped in, swam from one side of the pool to the other, and then got out. Detective Dawe would later say “She didn’t have anything with her. Didn’t have a bathing suit, didn’t have a towel. Then she exits the pool and goes back home. She goes upstairs and enters the apartment. When she enters, her apartment is cold inside. She keeps the air pretty low, so she immediately wants to go take a warm shower.” According to Leah, she walks into her bathroom and turns on the water, planning to warm up and relax before she goes to bed. After exiting the shower, at approximately approximately 4:30am, Leah notices that Zachary is no longer in her bed.
This is an interesting point to examine. While the floorplans may have changed since 2000, current day floorplans for Savannah Trace Apartments show that one of the bathrooms is attached to the master bedroom, which makes it unlikely that Leah wouldn’t have noticed Zachary missing before entering the shower, unless of course, she used the other bathroom though there doesn’t appear to be an explanation as to why she would do this. This is one detail of her story among many that raises questions. Also, due to the discrepancy in the timeline, Leah’s walk and swim either took place at 4am and lasted only fifteen to twenty minutes before she returned home. Reportings of her actually exiting the apartment at 2am make this trip take two to two and a half hours, which would be suspicious if accurate. Regardless, authorities have suggested that the timeline likely falls in the middle. Chief Daniel Slaughter, at the time a detective, has stated “It would have been somewhere in the 3 to 4am period.”
According to Leah, there is a gap between her bed and the wall and, at first, she assumed that Zachary may have rolled off the bed and into that space as it has happened before. Her sister, Billie-Jo later said “She thought he fell off the bed and she told me when she looked back there that he wasn’t there.” Now worried, but not yet panicked, Leah gets dressed and begins searching the apartment. She assumes that Zachary may have awoken while she was out and went looking for her, or possibly returned to his own bed, but after checking his room and all over the apartment, from top to bottom, she finds no trace of her eight year old son. Growing more worried now, Leah considers the possibility that Zachary had woke up and panicked when he couldn’t find her, and he may have gone to the neighrbors apartment who often babysits him.
Leah made the short walk to her neighbors apartment and knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Seeing the lights out and no response, Leah begins to lose it and starts banging on the windows and shouting. Eventually a light clicked on and she told her neighbor about Zachary missing and asked if he had come over, but the neighbor confirms that he hasn’t seen Zachary since the last time he watched him. Leah immediately runs back to her apartment and dials 911. The call is received at 4:47am. According to the dispatcher, Leah sounds panicked and upset. At one point she discussed leaving the front door unlocked and states “It’s my fault.” The dispatcher sends officers toward the apartment complex and gain a physical description of Zachary. A total of seventeen minutes pass between the time that Leah noticed Zachary missing and her call to the Clearwater Police Department.
First responding officers immediately corden off the area with police tape and begin conducting a search of the premises. Within minutes more officers arrive with detectives in tow who procede to the apartment to question Leah about the nights events and to gather information about Zachary. Leah explains her actions that night and reiterates that she had put Zachary to bed around 11pm and that he had been there before she left the apartment. Sometime during this period, Leah places a call to her sister Billie-Jo, with whom her mother Carole also lives, and informs them that Zachary is missing. The two women panic and immediately get into a car and begin the drive to Clearwater. While Carole and Billie-Jo are driving, Leah’s apartment is in the initial stages of being processed as a crime scene. Investigators become suspicious when they notice no signs of forced entry, nor any signs of a struggle, but considering that Leah had left the door unlocked, they don’t necessarily think this is too out of the ordinary.
Detective Dawe describes their activities as “They did DNA forensic processing, latent fingerprint processing, extensive collections of various items, photographs, you know, at this point, we just don’t know what is going on. There were no broken door or signs of forced entry. Nothing that led us to believe there was a struggle. There was no blood spatter or anything like that.” It’s apparent early on that Zachary is not in the apartment, and exhaustive searches of the complex grounds turn up no results. The search is going to have to expand out into the surrounding area, but this complicates things for investigators. The apartment complex is seated in an area known for woods, wetlands and terrain which can be difficult to navigate, let alone search for a child in. As investigators are planning out how they will execute the search, Billie-Jo and Carole arrive. When they see the police tape, they are immediately scared that something has happened to Zachary and that he may have been injured or even died in an accident. When they reach the apartment, they find investigators all over it and Leah is still answering questions.
Local media and reporters begin to arrive at this point, and an officer approaches Billie Jo. According to her, the officer explains that they would very much like to bring Leah down to the Clearwater Police Department for additional questioning, but they don’t want to walk her through the media and take her away in a police car as it may present a bad image and give bias to their reporting. Billie agrees to drive Leah down herself, but when Carole is asked if she will come along, she refuses, saying that she isn’t leaving the apartment until Zachary is found. As Leah is being driven, officers finish processing the apartment, though they find nothing which initially makes them suspicious of a crime having been committed. Chief Slaughter later recalls “By all appearances, the crime scene where Zachary disappeared was just that – Zachary disappeared.”
At this point the search for Zachary had begun to expand and was kicking into a higher gear, and as the sun began to rise, the ability to cover land and water more thoroughly was granted. A grid search was mapped out and begun, covering a two mile radius with the apartment complex as the central point. Experienced searchers familiar with the terrain were called in to aid, and multiple agencies committed resources. The Clearwater Fire Department aided in the search and utilized their marine unit. The Tampa Police Department sent officers and detectives to aid in the foot search while they also lent helicopters for air support. Search dogs were utilized, but unfortunately, they were unable to pick up on Zachary’s scent outside of the apartment, and therefore had no trail to follow, nor the ability to point investigators in any particular direction.
As officers were combing the surrounding area, Leah was led into an interrogation room where she would be questioned by Detective Slaughter. The first goal was to run through the events of the night multiple times, not necessarily trying to trip Leah up, but in hopes that she may recall an important detail which she had previously forgotten. Often times, when questioned, witnesses leave out information which may be vital, but to them, is irrelevant. Detective Slaughter later stated “She was forthcoming, at least as afar as describing the chain of events that she had that morning. So those were facts that we were evaluating and checking.”
One area of concern for investigators was anyone who may have wanted to abduct Zachary. Since the topic hadn’t been discussed, Detective Slaughter began questioning Leah about the father and whether or not he may have had a role in this, if they had a good relationship, when the last time was that she’d spoken with him. Leah would go on to explain that she hadn’t seen Zachary’s father since before his birth, though she did offer up his name and possible location. Officers began looking into the man, were able to track him down and spoke to him about his son. The man had a solid alibi, and to their surprise, was not even aware that he’d fathered a son with Leah. Regardless, the man was thoroughly questioned but this path seemed to lead to a dead end and, ultimately, he was ruled out.
Leah was questioned for several hours and run through her story many, many times. The more she told officers, the more they began to feel that her account of that night didn’t make sense. There were details that just didn’t fit, including but not limited to, why she’d go swimming, which she said she didn’t like doing, without a bathing suit or towel, why she would leave her sleeping son alone in an unlocked apartment and how she managed to get into the shower without noticing he was missing. Beyond these inconsistencies, Detective Slaughter felt that Leah’s behavior was off, though he considered this could simply be due to the trauma. He would state “It was really unusual, there were times where she looked upset and there were times where you didn’t understand why a person would make a joke or a comment that seemed unusual, but that is part of the process sometimes.”
In addition to these questions, officers on the scene had questioned neighbors who reported seeing Leah’s vehicle exiting and returning to the complex multiple times during the night and early morning hours, between approximately 3 and 4:45am. Unfortunately, there were no cameras present which would give them the ability to verify these statements, but it certainly added to their suspicions. Detectives sent Leah home, but informed her that they may have more questions pending. They had a lot of information to sort through. When asked later about Leah’s story, Detective Dawe responded “Everyone has questions. Four in the morning, coming out of the residence, not locking the door behind her, with her child left behind, to go for a swim, with no towel. In fact, her statements were she doesn’t know why she did that and she doesn’t even like swimming. There was no reasonable explanation for some things.”
As the morning began changing into afternoon, the search expanded to areas outside of their two mile radius. Ultimately they had a search area which encompassed more than six hundred acres, much of which was rife with foliage, brush and jagged shoreline. It was during this time that other members of Leah’s family arrived. They wanted to pitch in and assist with search efforts, but they were told that the areas being searched were dangerous and they didn’t want to allow inexperienced individuals to assist. Wanting to do something, and unable to scour the area, Zachary’s cousins began printing up and handing out missing persons fliers bearing Zachary’s photo, vital statistics and the clothing he was last seen in which were described as boxer shorts and possibly a t-shirt. Thousands of fliers were distributed, all over Clearwater as multiple cousins took up various locations throughout the city.
The first day of the search yielded no results. According to police they found no sign of Zachary, and they had no answer for what may have happened. Spokesmen for the Clearwater Police Department were very reserved in what they would say to the press, but the media had already begun to develop its own ideas and, in their view, Leah was the most prominent figure of suspicion. Over the course of the next few days, reporters began digging into her past and interview former friends, co-workers and relatives. They began to construct the profile of a young mother who had had negative encounters with boyfriends in the past, a woman who lived a partying lifestyle and was known to frequent bars into the late hours of the night. When asked about this, Leah’s mother stated “They talked to everybody and everybody had their own story. It’s like, you know, I’m gonna be on TV, I’m gonna tell you anything.”
Leah had remained withdrawn from the media, not wanting to speak out publicly. Whether due to this or their own interests, she was being depicted as the one responsible for the disappearance of her son. As news reports ran, locals became more aware, but began to follow suit in assuming Leah had been responsible. It has been reported that, on multiple occasions, Leah had gone out grocery shopping, or to run errands, and people would whisper behind her back. Some were even so brazen as to call her a murderer to her face. In hopes of subduing this thought process, and in an effort to draw attention to Zachary’s case, Leah agreed to speak to the press. On September thirteenth, two days after Zachary’s disappearance, Leah came down the steps of her apartment and issued a statement which, in part, read “Anyone who has ever met Zach has loved Zach. The support of the community has shown us how much Zach is loved. We miss him. We love him very much and we want him to come home. We are all here waiting, so please, don’t stop looking for Zach and help bring Zach home.” [Possibly grab audio.]
Media exposure, the fliers and police statements resulted in many tips coming in, but none of them lead to anywhere significant. It was frustrating for investigators, and they couldn’t help but feel there were pieces of the puzzle missing. A belief began to grow within the Clearwater police department that Leah knew more than she was saying. In the weeks after Zachary’s disappearance, the amount of officers assigned to the search was being reduced and a theory began to emerge that Zachary had not been abducted, nor had he wandered off during the night. Leah’s actions continued to puzzle detectives as, weeks after the disappearance, she moved out of the apartment complex and completely withdrew, no longer participating in searchers nor speaking to the media much, if at all.
In hopes of shedding light on what happened to Zachary, Leah was brought by investigators back to the apartment complex. She was asked to walk them through the apartment and to explain all of her actions and everything that had occurred, one more time. They utilized a video camera to record her statements and her movements. Interestingly, throughout most of the video, Leah keeps her chin down and doesn’t make much eye contact with detectives. Her story, though, is beat for beat the exact story she had told since the day Zachary vanished. Investigators could not determine if this was due to her telling them everything she knew, or if it was the result of a rehearsed story. Either way, Leah was adamant that she didn’t know what had happened to her son.
Several weeks after Zachary vanished, the case was beginning to fade from the spotlight. At this time, a local business offered up a five thousand dollar reward for information leading to Zachary’s recovery. This gesture hit the media and caused the case to go national, and as a result, investigators were flooded with new tips. Their phones began ringing off the hook and each report was noted, detailed and assigned to an officer to track down. Sadly, all tips were followed up on but each one failed to yield any results relating to Zachary and what may have occurred. Days began turning into weeks, weeks into months and then, suddenly, in May of 2001, some eight months after Zachary vanished, the Clearwater Police received the 741st tip in the case, and it would change the entire complexion of the investigation.
A confidential informant reached out to the Clearwater Police and had a disturbing story to tell them. According to the caller, he knew a man who he believed to be a pedophile and who was telling stories and making claims about abducting, sexually assaulting and even murdering children. The suspect had allegedly been going around boasting about his sadistic activities and, on more than one occasion, had mentioned that he was always on the prowl for a child to abduct. The caller claimed that he had been approached about joining in on these activities, but had declined and felt it necessary to notify authorities. He later identified the subject as Kevin Jalbert.
Police utilized uncover officers in an attempt to infiltrate Jalbert’s life. Through the use of online forums known to be frequented by pedophiles, as well as by utilizing confidential informants, they were able to get an undercover officer into Jalbert’s confidence. The officer was able to gain Jalbert’s trust, and though in the beginning he was reserved, the more time they spent together, the more Jalbert became boastful and he began to speak more about his activities, which he alleged, involved the abduction, assault and murder of young boys. On one occasion, Jalbert met up with the undercover and asked him to take a ride. He explained that he was planning to find a child to abduct that day, as it had been a while since he’d done it and he felt the urge to get his hands on a young boy. The officer went along, and throughout the ride, Jalbert talks of his twisted exploits while driving through Clearwater. He further tells the undercover that he utilized bleach to clean up after himself and to destroy DNA evidence. Then, shockingly, Jalbert stops the car. He explains that he abducted his last victim from an apartment complex, and he points out the window at Savannah Trace, where Zachary and Leah had lived.
The undercover officer, in hopes of gaining more information, begins to ask Jalbert questions, looking for details. Jalbert points to an apartment in the complex and explains that he abducted a young boy from it. When asked for more information, he thoroughly described what the boy was wearing at the time he took him. While the story is compelling, if not extremely disturbing, there are problems with it. Jalbert pointed to the wrong apartment, and his description of the boys clothing does not match what Zachary was known to be wearing the night he disappeared. The night eventually comes to an end, with the undercover officer being dropped off. He does note that, at the time of exiting the vehicle, there is bleach and a funnel in the car which seems consistent with Jalbert’s story about destroying DNA evidence. The undercover reports all of the information he had gained, and though none of the information about Zachary can be verified, police do feel they have enough to looking further into Jalbert and, hopefully, gain a search warrant.
On June 22nd, 2001, just a little over a month after this conversation, Jalbert was arrested by Clearwater police on a charge of solicitation for murder in relationship to offers he made the undercover officer regarding abducting and murdering a child. When Jalbert is brought into custody, investigators conduct a multi-pronged search. Several investigators are sent to the home of Jalbert’s mother, during which time she is shown a photo of Zachary, asked if she’d ever seen him before, which she denies. They then ask her about Jalberts whereabouts in September, as well as asking for permission to search her home and vehicle, to which she consents. The vehicle is swept for blood, hair and fibers while the tires are examined for their tread pattern. Ultimately nothing is found in the mothers possession and she alibis her son, alleging that he was at his home in Citrus County at the time Zachary was abducted. Citrus County is located approximately eighty miles north of Pinellas County, where Clearwater is.
The second group of investigators begin searching through Jalbert’s home and vehicle. They find Clorox brand bleach and a funnel in the vehicle. In addition to the bleach, officers find a receipt for a landfill in the glove compartment. The receipt is dated and shows that Jalbert had driven to the landfill and dropped off waste just two weeks after Zachary had gone missing. A search team is immediately dispatched to the landfill. In his home, everything seems to be in order, until they search his computer. They find an extensive collection of child pornography, though again, none of it is connected to Zachary in any way.
Regardless of the lack of a connection, they now have Jalbert on possession and distribution of child pornography. While teams are conducting a search of the landfill, Jalbert is brought into an interrogation room. When confronted by the information presented by the undercover officer, Jalbert alleges he’s never abducted nor harmed a child and that they are just fantasies. He denies any connection to any kidnappings, sexual assaults or murders. Jalbert is processed at this point, and he refuses to give up any more information. Search teams complete their examination of the landfill and fail to find any traces of Zachary, though the area is broad and filled with refuse making it difficult to examine every square inch as thoroughly as they’d like to. After further questioning, police are unable to establish a link between Jalbert and Zachary. DNA evidence collected from the initial crime scene of Zachary’s disappearance did not match Jalbert. Detective Dawe would later say “Mr. Jalbert was investigated thoroughly by the Clearwater Police Department. There was nothing that linked him into this case whatsoever.”
Jalbert was eventually tried and convicted on four separate counts. In Citrust County he is found guilty of Producing, Directing and promoting a sexual performance by a child as well as the possession of child pornography. In Pinellas County he is found guilty of soliciting to kidnap or to commit a felony, in relation to his conversation with the undercover officer. He is also found guilty of Sexual Battery by an adult on a victim less than twelve years of age. Due to the age of the victim, the details of this conviction are not for public viewing. Jalbert is ultimately sentenced to more than forty years in prison, and at the time of his conviction, is forty-eight years old. While one more predator is off the streets, the case in relation to Zachary remains a mystery, and investigators are set back to square one. Then, in August of 2001, just two months after Jalbert’s arrest, a new piece of disturbing evidence surfaces in Bolder, Colorado, more than 1800 miles away.
In early August of 2001, eleven months after Zachary vanished, a shopper at a City Market grocery store in Dillon Colorado, located in Summit County, just fifty-five miles west of Bolder, came across a very disturbing photo lying in the parking lot. In a situation disturbingly similar to the Tara Calico case, the image showed a young boy, with blond hair, bound and bruised. The child’s wrists and ankles are bound with duct tape, and he is lying on his back. The angle of the show shows the top of his head, with his face being partially obscured. He is dressed in a light red t-shirt with a darker red collar and lines running down the short sleeves. To his immediate left, at about the height of his hip, is a large rock and he appears to laying on dirt that is covered with pine needles. The boy was estimated to be eight or nine years old. The image is disturbing and raises many questions, but for the Colorado police, their first concern was to try and identify the boy in the photo.
Upon receiving the photo, the Colorado police issued a nation wide bulletin to all police departments. When the image is seen by the Clearwater police department they immediately see a resemblance to Zachary Berhardt. Detectives reached out to the Colorado police and spoke with Sgt Wendy Kipple. In a statement to the media, Kipple said “It’s the most likely tip that we’ve gotten so far. The child in the photograph and that child looked very similar.” Examination of the photograph led investigators to believe that, wherever the photo was taken, it had not been taken in the area where it had been found. Kipple would explain “We don’t think the photograph was taken in this county, the pine needles shown are not indigenous.” The photograph was processed for evidence, but unfortunately, it had rained in the hours leading up to its discovery and no legible prints or DNA could be lifted. The image was enhanced by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in hopes of being able to try and determine more detail about the area and possibly narrow down a location, but as of yet, no new information had been revealed.
Upon receipt of the image, the Clearwater police began to investigate whether or not the child was in fact Zachary. In hopes of getting a confirmation of his identity, Zachary’s grandmother Carole and Aunt Billie-Jo was brought in to view the photo. In the moments leading up to showing them, investigators explained that the photo may or may not depict Zachary and that it was disturbing to look at. Both women viewed the photo and expressed, initially, that it depicted Zachary, but the longer they looked at it, the more difficult it was for them to be certain. Carole would later state “It was horrible to look at it. It was a blond haired little boy laying there. Then as you stare at it it was more and more that it wasn’t Zach.” While Carole and Billie seem to agree that it isn’t Zachary, investigators aren’t convinced. The face is difficult to make out and, according to Detective Dawe, “The boy did have some features similar to Zach.” The photo, ultimately, can neither be ruled in or out in their investigation, and so it becomes another piece of evidence filed away Zachary’s ever expanding folders.
The next month, Zachary’s family organized a candlelight vigil to take place on the one year anniversary of Zachary’s disappearance. They had hoped to garner national attention and to, hopefully, bring in more tips related to the case, but their event was overshadowed by a national tragedy. On September 11th, 2001, while the Bernhardt family made last minute plans for their vigil, the day would be brought into infamy with the devastating attacks of 911. While millions around the world watched the horrors of taking place at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and in Shaksville, Pennsylvania, the Berhardt family watched on in horror as well, and also become quickly aware that any attempts to gain attention for Zachary’s story that day would bring in no response from any media outlet.
Several more months would pass, and Zachary’s case, now over a year old, began growing colder. Tips were still coming in, but what had once been a deluge was now a trickle. The media had moved away from the case within months of the disappearance, and few if any stories or articles were written. Leah had withdrawn and moved away, no longer wishing to take part in any of it. Whether this was as a result of the accusations against her, or her own personal trauma over the loss of her son, is still hotly debated today. Then, on December 31st, 2001, a crime would be committed which once again shocked the Clearwater Police into action, but which would also resound with echos of Zachary’s disappearance.
On New Years Eve, at 6pm, at the Savannah Trace Apartment complex, three boys were having fun on the playground. A white truck pulled up and a man exited the vehicle. He approached the boys and offered them ice cream. The two older boys didn’t respond, but the youngest, five years old at the time, walked towards the man. Once he was within reach, the suspect grabbed the boy, placed him inside the truck and drove off with him. The other two boys immediately ran for help and the police were contacted. The Clearwater police issued an all points bulletin on white trucks and began their desperate search. An Amber alert was issued and for hours, police across the state began searching for the vehicle, but as each hour passed, they were frustrated with a lack of results.
Then, ten hours after the abduction took place, at 4am, a man was driving passed a closed fast food restaurant eighty miles from Clearwater when he heard a strange sound. He thought he heard a child screaming, and he stopped and exited his vehicle, following the sound to a dumpster behind the restaurant. Inside, he found the abducted boy, who had apparently been thrown into the dumpster hours earlier. He contacted the police who arrived on the scene and took the boy in. Details of what occurred have never been revealed due to the childs age, but it has been implied that he had been sexually assaulted. The boy was able to give a rough description of the suspect, depicting him as a Caucasian male with long, dark hair which has frequently been referred to as stringy. Unfortunately, authorities never managed to locate the suspect nor his vehicle.
While they were unable to get their hands on the abductor, the incident had brought up questions as to whether or not this could have been what happened to Zachary. His family felt this was a viable possibility, but investigators were quick to rule it out. They felt the manner of the crime, the timing and the behavior of the suspect didn’t fit Zachary’s case. Detective Dawe, now the lead investigator on Zachary’s case, later said “I don’t believe the facts of these cases match up. The way he was taken was nothing similar to what we had here. At this point, we just don’t know.” Leah’s sister, however, felt it wasn’t possible for this to be dismissed, stating “How can you rule him out if you never caught him?”
This particular incident is the last occurrence which has brought any attention to Zachary’s case, and soon, the years began passing with no information or tips. Zachary’s disappearance began to slowly fade into obscurity. For the Clearwater Police Department, it remains their largest unsolved case. In their office, Zachary’s files have grown thicker and thicker, being moved into binders. At the current time, Zachary’s case has more files than the previous twenty-years worth of homicides combined. Though there is a wealth of information, none of it has lead to Zachary, nor any answers about what may have happened to him. For investigators, they believe that the key to solving the case lie with Zachary’s mother, Leah. Chief Slaughter stated “We were never able to potentially exclude Leah Hackett from being involved, but we also don’t really have any evidence to be able to state that she is involved either.” When Dawe was asked what it was going to take to solve the case, he told reporters that the closest witness they had to the disappearance was Leah, and “She’s the one person who knows the most about this case.” For the family, though, they feel that after all these years, if Leah had done something wrong, it would have come out by now.
Of course, not all of her family supports Leah’s position. The disappearance of Zachary, while being incredibly heart breaking and tragic, drew the family closer together. Sadly, in the years that have passed, the family has slowly divided into two camps, one being those who support and believe Leah, and the other being those who feel that she was somehow involved in the disappearance of her son. Leah’s mother, Carole, has stated in several interviews that her family has been torn apart, and that with the infighting, she has children who no longer speak to each other and don’t wish to associate with them. Leah’s behavior in the years since Zachary’s disappearance has been considered disturbing by several, though its been debated whether or not this is her typical behavior or as a result of the loss of her son.
After Zachary disappeared, Leah moved to North Carolina where she would marry, divorce and then get married again. Over the next years she would travel around the country, working odd jobs and suffering through depressions, even becoming suicidal. In a rare conversation with the media, Leah opened up about her life in the aftermath of losing Zachary, stating “When Zach disappeared I lost myself, I don’t know who I am without Zach. After a while, you have to give up hope or wait for them to get home. I never gave up hope that Zach would come home, but I did give up hope that I could wait for him.” Leah went on to explain she does something for Zach every day, and thinks of him constantly. When asked about the investigation and the detectives working it, she stated “I’m pleased that they are dedicated to finding my son. I’m not pleased that my son is not with me. They are dedicated men who want to find my son.”
Leah would go on to state that she took a polygraph test early on in the investigation, though she claims to have never been made aware of the results. Whether or not this occurred is a point of contention as the Clearwater police have never made mention of a polygraph, which would suggest it never took place or they’ve elected not to release the results of that polygraph. When asked if she’d ever have more children, Leah responded that she didn’t know because she couldn’t bare ever finding one of their beds empty again. According to Carole Bernhardt, in the months and years following Zachary’s disappearance, Leah has been an emotional wreck but has managed to cobble a life together. She reports that her daughter cries every day, especially if she sees children, and that every Sunday, Leah stays up until 4am, the time Zach is reported to have disappeared.
Regardless of the different sides and the arguments for and against Leah’s innocence, they have never forgotten Zachary and his disappearance haunts them to this day. In the nearly eighteen years since Zachary vanished, they’ve grown up, moved forward with their lives and had their own children, but they still talk about Zachary. They try to remember the life he led, short though it may have been, and they focus on all of the smiles he gave them, even though often times, these conversations lead to tears.
They’re never given up. From early on in Zachary’s disappearance, many members of the family have worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. As the years passed, the Center was able to craft age progressed photos of Zachary, showing him grow from eight to eighteen. Once he would have turned eighteen, in December of 2009, they no longer produced the photos as he would not be an adult. It was extremely difficult for the family, watching the boy they loved grow up only on missing child posters, and images they printed on t-shirts and fliers. Billie-Jo captured the pain and confusion of searching for a child who would no longer be a child when she stated “You see these pictures and you think – that could be him. Is that what I’m supposed to look for now? But you’re still looking for a little boy.”
On September 11th, 2015, two Clearwater detectives traveled to Tallahassee Florida for Florida Missing Children’s Day Ceremony, during which Zachary’s case would be featured. It had been fifteen years since the last time Zachary was seen, and at this time, he would have been twenty three years old. This would not be the first, nor last time, Zachary was focused on during the annual event. At the 2017 event, Carole Bernhardt was present and stated “Whenever you get an amber alert, or you see a child who is missing, or you see a child alone sitting there crying, go ask them if they are alright. Keep looking for these missing children.”
In May of 2017, the television show Disappeared focused on Zachary’s case an interviewed members of the family and several investigators, though Leah chose not to participate. Channel 10 news in Florida reached out to Leah, who uncharacteristically responded with a few statements. When asked what happened, Leah said “My son disappeared. Someone came into our home or lured him out and he’s missing. I had nothing to do with my son disappearing.” Clearwater Police Lt Mike Ogliaruso, who was involved in the search efforts for Zachary the day he vanished, was asked about whether or not Leah was a person of interested. He responded “I don’t know if we called her a person of interest so much, as we call her someone we would like to refocus the investigation.”
Ogliaruso went on to explain that cold case investigators had been looking over the files again and that they wanted to speak with Leah, but that she had elected not to speak with them. Leah countered this, stating “They can call me no matter what, and I’ll take whatever they have to give, I have nothing to hide.” Oligaruso contradicted this, saying they were at a Stalemate because Leah wouldn’t answer their questions nor participate in their investigation any further. According to the article, Leah had remarried, now known as Leah Hanson, and refused to reveal where she was currently living. While I have managed to locate Leah Hanson, I’ve elected not to share the state she currently lives in, as she is not technically a suspect and I don’t want to subject her to further duress, but she still resides in the United States. She told reporters that she was moving on with her life and hoping to live in a way which would make Zach proud.
In December of 2017, the Clearwater Police Department issued an unsolved Amber Alert in regard to Zachary’s disappearance, and at this time, he would have been twenty-five years old. This was done in hopes of garnering more attention and tips, but little came through to investigators. While the family has never stopped searching for Zachary, neither have the Clearwater police department. At this time, all investigators can truly say, is that he disappeared under mysterious circumstances. In the absence of solid information or evidence, several theories have been presented as possibilities in Zachary’s case.
The first theory is that Zachary may have woken up during the early morning hours and wandered out of the apartment, looking for his mother, and found himself lost or possibly even fatally injured in a tragic accident in an area at or surrounding the apartment complex.
The second theory is that Zachary was abducted by a stranger who either entered the apartment, lured the boy out, or found him wandering outside of it in the early morning hours while Leah was out for her walk and swim.
The second theory suggests that Zachary may have been abducted by a member of his own family who disagreed with Leah’s parenting style and felt that she needlessly put her son at risk as expressed in previous incidents with ex boyfriends.
The fourth and final theory is that Zachary’s mother, Leah knows exactly what happened to her son that night. Some argue that Leah may have murdered her son, given him away or covered up a tragic accident.
The disappearance of Zachary Bernhardt is a haunting cause. A bright, beautiful little boy who was loved by all and adored by his family simply vanished under mysterious circumstances. According to his mother he was fast asleep when she decided to take a walk and a swim, and upon her return, he was gone without a trace. At the time of his disappearance, Zachary was described as being 4’6” tall and weighing approximately 60 pounds. While nearly eighteen years have passed, and if Zachary is still alive, his physical description will no longer match those details, some distinguishing details would remain. Zachary has blond hair and blue eyes. He has scars under his chin, between his eyes on the bridge of his nose and on the right upper side of his lip. Age progressed photographs are available on his Charley Project Page as well as through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In the years since Zachary disappeared, there have only been more questions than answers. Each year brings about more curiosities and, sadly, after so much time has elapsed, investigators are not very hopeful that they will ever find him alive. They continue their hunt regardless of the outcome and are determined to find the truth, one way or another. For Carole Bernhardt, each year is more difficult than the last and she refuses to give up, despite the heartbreak. When asked about Zachary’s whereabouts, she tearfully said she hoped that if someone had taken him they were raising him well and treating him properly, but that if he was in a bad situation, she prayed he was dead rather than experience that. She broke down after that statement, explaining that it was impossibly difficult to say but she can’t bear to imagine him being harmed. When asked if she believes they will ever find Zachary, she responded “My greatest hope is that, before I die, I see Zachary.”
[Thoughts & Theories]
The disappearance of Zachary Bernhardt is a case which has haunted me since I first learned of it in late 2000. I’ve kept an eye on it over these past eighteen years, despite there being few if any developments. There is something about the disappearance of a child that ups the stakes and heightens the emotional impact. Many true crime podcasts shy away from stories about children, be it due to their listeners being more disturbed by them, or their own feelings on the matter, but I feel compelled to cover them. Their lives mattered, still matter, and they are due the same justice all unsolved cases will hopefully receive, someday.
Zachary’s story is frustrating, it’s heartbreaking and it is all consuming. An eight year old boy was tucked into bed one night, and sometime during the next five hours, he mysteriously vanished. His mother was the last person to see him, and regardless of how she has been portrayed, be it the devious slant given to her by the media, or the angelic light cast on her by family members. For many, Leah is the key to solving the case. For others, she is another victim of a tragic set of circumstances which remain unresolved. Unfortunately, due to a lack of information, this case isn’t discussed as often as many others. There are far fewer news articles, less debate on forums and, for the most part, this is a story which has been lost in a sea of others which are devastatingly similar. There are, though, several theories which have been discussed amongst the family, investigators and online researchers alike.
The first theory is that Zachary disappeared as a result of leaving the apartment while Leah was out for her walk and swim. According to this theory, after placing Zachary in her bed that night, Leah continued about her nightly activities while he slept. By her own statements, she says that she decided to go for a walk at approximately 4am, though this time has been debated. After looking in, she finds Zachary asleep in her bed, safe and sound. She then proceeds downstairs, exits the apartment and leaves the door unlocked. She brings nothing with her, and she alleges, she had planned merely to go for a walk and to get some fresh air in hopes that it would settle her restlessness and give her the ability to sleep.
Sometime during the walk, Leah decides that she is going for a swim. This has been a point that has been hotly debated as Leah confessed she didn’t like swimming very much, and by the fact that she had no bathing suit or towel with her. After her swim, Leah states that she went back into the apartment, went upstairs and took a warm shower. When she exits the shower and returns to her bed, she discovers that Zachary is missing. So, where could he have gone? Proponents of this first theory suggest the possibility that Zachary may have awoken during the night, while Leah was out. In his half asleep state he may have been somewhat disoriented and called out her name. When she failed to answer, many have considered the possibility that he could have searched the apartment for her, and not finding her, may have elected to walk outside.
Had Zachary chosen to leave the apartment, there are a number of possibilities of what may have occurred. He could have wandered through the apartment complex looking for her, and when he failed to find her, continued going until he ended up someplace where he couldn’t find his way back. Be that the wilderness not far from the complex, on a street or even in an area where he may have been injured or lost. The terrain in that area can be treacherous for an adult, let alone an eight year old boy who was likely frightened and not familiar with his surroundings. The possibilities are endless when considering this option, and some have suggested that he may have drowned, gotten lost in the wilderness or even been struck by a car which resulted in the driver disposing of his body and moving on. Sadly, these are possibilities and while it cannot be completely ruled out that Zachary left the apartment by his own choice, there are theories which contradict this possibility.
Firstly, many believe that Zachary wanted to sleep in his mothers bed that night due to fear. We don’t know exactly what movie they were watching, but it has been theorized that it may have been one which frightened him and that is what resulted in his desire to share her bed that night. While possible, there’s not enough information to know for certain. However, the idea that an eight year old child would wake up, unable to find his mother, which is likely a frightening experience, and choose to leave the comfort of his home in a search for her, in the darkness of the 4 to 5am morning hours, seems unlikely. If Zachary were worried about his mother, would he have walked out of the apartment to look for her, and if he did, why wouldn’t he elect to knock on the door of his babysitter for help?
We can’t know for sure if Zachary did try to wake the neighbor, we do know from Leah’s account that she had to bang on the windows and scream to wake them up, so it’s possible Zachary could have tried and failed. But the idea of him wandering too far away seems like the least likely scenario. He played in the area, he had friends, he likely knew the complex well enough to navigate it at night, so why would he choose to walk out of the complex and into an area where he wouldn’t know where he was? One possibility which has been put forth is that Zachary had witnessed his mother in situations in the past where she had been attacked, and he may have been looking for her, concerned that she could be in trouble. Then again, Zachary was a smart boy, and if he had that concern, many believe he would likely have picked up the phone and dialed 911 rather than to go wandering out into the night on the off chance that he might find his mother, who if she was being attacked, he knew he wasn’t physically capable of helping.
It’s very difficult to comprehend a situation where Zachary would have left by his own choice, for whatever reason, and gotten far enough away, in such a short amount of time. If Leah’s story is to be believed, he would have had to have exited the apartment prior to her return. She exited her shower at approximately 4:30am, and according to the official timeline, left it at 4am. This only leaves Zachary a window of thirty minutes during which time he could have left. We don’t know how long Leah was in the shower, but if she was merely washing off the pool water before bed, it could have been as short as give minutes, which actually shrinks the window and gives Zachary only from 4 to 4:25am to have disappeared. Police were notified at 4:47am and arrived on the scene prior to 5am. How far can an eight year old travel, in the darkness, not knowing where he is going, in an hour? By 5:30am, the police and neighbor were on the scene, media was arriving and the search was being arranged. This seems like a very small window of time for a child to disappear without being seen.
The closest body of water is Old Tampa Bay, located approximately 1.5 miles to the east of the apartment complex. There are some wooded area, swamp-like conditions and wetlands at a similar distance. It is important to note that there are alligators known to be in this area, and this certainly wouldn’t be the first time a young child was attacked and taken by one. Perhaps unlikely, but something which needs to be considered as well. Ultimately it becomes a question of whether or not Zachary could have traveled the distance, without being seen, before the search could begin. Though it is physically possible, it seems unlikely that a smart young boy would continue walking that far away from home in search of his mother, but given the unknowns such as his level of panic and concern, we can’t truly calculate much. While it is entirely possible that Zachary could have wandered off on his own, it seems unlikely considering many of the factors that would be involved. Some have suggested the possibility that Zachary may have been taken by someone after leaving the apartment complex, which would more logically explain his disappearance occurring so quickly, and that brings us to our second theory.
In the second theory, many have put forth the possibility that Zachary may have been abducted. This abduction is surmised to have taken place in one of three ways: either Zachary left the apartment and was grabbed by someone, or someone lured him out of the apartment with the intention of abducting him or someone may have entered the apartment and taken him while he was still asleep. Considering the first option, that Zachary was abducted while outside of the apartment, this is certainly possible. If indeed Zachary left to look for his mother, or for some yet unknown reason, it wouldn’t have been hard for someone to have grabbed him off the street, or even from the confines of his own apartment complex. An eight year old boy isn’t likely to put up too much of a struggle for an adult, and this person could even have befriended Zachary and offered to help him find his mother. This would have made him much more willing to go along with a would be abductor.
This first possibility has one flaw in it which has always bothered me. How many child abductors are hanging around looking for a child to grab between 4 and 5am when there is very little likelihood that they’re going to find a child simply wandering around by his or herself? It would seem to be a very strange and disturbing coincidence that a child predator would have simply been in the area at that time and have seen Zachary as a likely target. Of course, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to assume one could have been driving by and spotted Zachary and elected to grab him, but again, that’s a really unlikely coincidence. It cannot be ruled out as a possible scenario, but it does seem to fall into the less logical area of that spectrum.
Some have made the argument that Zachary could have been lured out of the apartment by someone, and while this is possible, it has similar issues to the previous example. Why would a child abductor choose this late hour to try and lure a child outside? In addition to this, how could someone have done it in the first place? They’d have no way of knowing that Zachary was not asleep in his own bed that night, nor would they know that Leah wasn’t there, unless of course they’d seen her leaving, or witnessed her elsewhere along the way. Of course, Leah has no recollection of seeing anyone else at this time. We also have to wonder why Zachary specifically would be targeted by this person, how they would have known this was the opportune night to do it and what their purpose was ultimately. This theory would seem to suggest that whoever may have abducted Zachary would have had to have had some involvement in his and Leah’s lives to have been able to make arrangements to attempt this, but again, it does seem like an odd convergence of coincidences.
The final angle of this theory is that Zachary may have been taken from the apartment, while asleep, and while Leah was gone. We know that police collected DNA evidence from inside the apartment that morning, and though they have never specified what that DNA evidence was, or where it was found, they have used it to rule out other suspects such a Kevin Jalbert. These seems to indicate that someone other than Leah and Zachary may have been in the apartment that night, which lends credence to the idea that Zachary could have been taken while Leah was gone. Of course, for this to happen, we are likely looking at someone who had familiarity with the apartment and who would have either planned to conduct the abduction that night, and simply got lucky because Leah wasn’t home, or someone who may have been watching and, when he or she saw Leah leave, utilized that moment as his or her opportunity.
Again we come back to motive. There doesn’t appear to be anyone who had a reason to take Zachary. Now, we could simply be dealing with a sick and twisted individual like Kevin Jalbert, or the man who later abducted the five year old from the playground, who has never been identified. But again, this is an odd set of circumstances. Whenever a child disappears from their home, in the middle of the night, it’s hard to imagine how it could happen. We have examples throughout history where this has in fact occurred, but if this were just a simple random occurrence of someone looking to abduct a child, this seems like a lot of effort to put in if the suspect did not have some previous connection to Zachary or Leah.
One option which has been considered is that, since Zachary often played outside, he could have met an adult who may have groomed him, assaulted him or began the process of setting up a situation where he could lure the child out. These options cannot be ruled out, though it seems unlikely that if you were going to try and abduct a child, that you would select this time to do it. And the window of opportunity is so small, with the abductor needing to enter the apartment once Leah had gone far enough away to not witness it, get Zachary out, which would likely lead a suspect to going into Zachary’s bedroom first, unless he was lucky enough to stumble upon Leah’s and find the boy in there first. He would have to not wake the child, unless of course he had a previous relationship with him where he knew Zachary wouldn’t scream, then get back downstairs, across the complex and to a vehicle all before Leah returned. If that is in fact what happened here, this suspect had multiple lucky breaks that night.
This is where we begin to look at the possibility that the suspect could have been someone Zachary knew and trusted. You’d have to imagine that an eight year old boy would scream and make a scene if he was being taken by a total stranger, unless we were dealing with a situation where the suspect were brandishing a weapon and threatening his life, or his mothers, but even then you’d imagine he’d be crying and someone may have seen or heard something. However, what if this person was not a stranger, and was either a friend, or even a relative? Some have suggested that Zachary may have been abducted by a member of his own family who simply disagreed with the way Leah was living her life, and raising her son, and wanted to offer him a better life.
This seems remarkably twisted, but it isn’t exactly an impossibility. We would have to assume that authorities thoroughly questioned all relatives who knew the location of the apartment and had a good relationship with Zachary, and considering the DNA evidence which was found, they would likely have been tested against this if investigators felt they may have played a role. As with the previous theories, we have the frustration of the timing. How a relative, or anyone for that matter, would have known they could gain entry to the apartment and grab Zachary without being seen or heard between 4 and 5am on Monday morning seems like a consistent roadblock. Now perhaps they didn’t know it would be that easy, but again, if this is what happened we are dealing with a remarkable coincidence.
In multiple interview, both Leah and her mother have made a bizarre statement which many feel suggests that this theory may be exactly what happened. While it’s hard to know what a parent or relative is going to say when a small child vanishes, many feel it’s strange that Leah, and then Carole, on separate occasions, have both said that they hope that whoever took Zachary raised him properly and gave him a good and happy life. That just seems odd, and while it may simply be grief talking in the hopes that nothing horrible happened to him, you don’t hear that often in the case of a missing child. Is it possible that Zachary was taken by a total stranger, or even someone he knew, trusted and loved? Absolutely, and it certainly seems that the abduction angle of this case is much more likely than the idea that Zachary simply wandered off into the unknown.
The final theory, and one of the most controversial and popular ones, is that there is one person who knows exactly what happened to Zachary on the morning of September 11th, 2000: The last person to see him, his mother, Leah. Her actions during the early morning hours have been consistently debated and questioned, her behavior following Zachary’s disappearance has been picked apart and examined by everyone from law enforcement, to the media to online researchers. When it comes to Leah, it all seems to stem from her past, which is described as troubled at best.
Leah had a history of bad choices and bad luck. In the years leading up to Zachary’s birth she garnered a reputation as a partier and was often referred to as hanging out at bars into the late hours of the night. She had a series of on and off relationships with various men, and all evidence seems to indicate that Zachary was ultimately conceived through one of these not so serious relationships. When Zachary’s father was contacted by authorities in order to establish whether or not he played a possible role in the disappearance, not only was he able to provide an alibi for his whereabouts during the time it happened, but he is alleged to have not even been aware that he had fathered a son with Leah. The details of their association has never been fully disclosed, outside of the fact that Leah never spoke about him and most people in her life were not quite sure who Zachary’s father was.
In the years after his birth, there has been a great amount of rumor and speculation that Leah continued her partying lifestyle. Multiple witnesses have recounted tales of nights where Leah would drop Zachary off with a babysitter, or at a relatives house, while she went out to continue her partying ways. There is also the account of her time in Michigan, where she had a somewhat more serious relationship with a man, through whom she would eventually birth a daughter. Leah’s daughter ended up in the custody of her biological father, though the reasons why have never been made crystal clear. There has been speculation about drug use, disappearances and a partying lifestyle leading to the change in custody. Much of this cannot be verified through facts, though court records do indicate that after a visit to Florida, the father of her daughter did file for full custody and was awarded it by the court.
Leah was known to move from job to job and she changed address eleven times in the previous fourteen years of her life, eight of which Zachary was present for. Many have taken these moves, her inability to hold a steady job and her previous lifestyle as indications that she was a bad mother, but those around her, including but not limited to her family, friends and Zachary’s teachers, all have told a different story. Leah was argued to have made mistakes in the past, but she had gotten her life together and was working toward providing for her son, whom many referred to as the light of her life. Age has to be brought into consideration here, and it’s important to note that Leah gave birth to Zachary when she was twenty-one years old. How many twenty-one year olds have it all together, at least together enough to raise a son without making a few mistakes along the way? While Leah’s past certainly indicates struggles, adjustments and poor choices, it does appear that in the last few years before Zachary disappeared, she was settling things down and making better choices.
On Zachary’s last night with Leah, she tells the story that she made him dinner, the two watched a movie together and then she put him to sleep, in her bed, at approximately 11pm. From 11pm to 4:30am, Leah conducted various activities. She finished the movie, watched TV, surfed the internet and then made the decision to go for a walk, and while walking, elected to take a swim in the apartment complex pool. All of this was done while Zachary allegedly slept in her bed, upstairs, behind an unlocked front door. Many of these details have been debated, the timeline has been argued against and neighbors would state that they witnessed Leah’s vehicle exiting and entering the apartment complex between the hours of 3 and 4am, though Leah has stated she never left that night and the only time she drove her vehicle was at 1am, taking the garbage to the dumpsters in the complex. The witnesses stories about her vehicle coming and going were unable to be verified.
According to her official narrative, she arrived back at the apartment and took a warm shower, exiting at 4:30am at which point she noticed Zachary was gone. She searched the apartment, went to a nearby neighrbors apartment wondering if Zachary had wandered over and by 4:47am had called 911 to report her son missing. During the 911 call she acknowledged that she had gone out for a walk, and a swim, and had left the apartment unlocked, only to return home and find her son missing. She cries on the call, she sounds emotionally disturbed and the dispatcher has stated that she felt Leah’s behavior fit that of a mother who was greatly concerned about her child and she didn’t believe that there was anyting out of the ordinary on the call.
It isn’t until investigators arrive that they begin to question this story, and Leah’s behavior. She’s interrogated for several hours, and later asked to run police through the events that morning in front of a camera so that they can attempt to further understand what exactly occurred. Investigators have stated multiple times that there are inconsistencies in the story, things which simply don’t make sense and details that they find troubling. They haven’t been very forthcoming with what specifically bothers them, outside of the idea that Leah decided to go swimming, something she claimed to not enjoy doing, without a bathing suit or a towel.
The swimming and shower aspect of this story has led many to believe that Leah may have done something that night for which she needed to clean up. Speculation has run rampant around Leah, but many believe there was no swimming that night and that it was used as an excuse for why she had taken a shower, and that the entire story she told is an elaborate cover up due to one of two possible reasons: either Zachary was fatally injured in an accident, or Leah elected to commit a crime against her son which resulted in his disappearance. Some, though, believe that Zachary was in fact abducted, but that it simply didn’t happen in the way Leah told the story. To them, Leah’s vehicle being seen exiting and entering the complex that night may be more indicative of the fact that she may have gone to a bar, a club or to meet someone, and simply left her son home alone, only to return hours later and find him missing. This is again where the 2am time discrepancy has been addressed, with many believing that rather than being gone for a fifteen or twenty minute walk and swim, Leah may have actually been gone for two to two and a half hours. For many, Leah is the one person who holds the answers to this investigation, and even authorities have stated that Leah is the one witness who may be able to assist them in breaking this case.
But it’s all speculation at this point. There is no hard evidence which links Leah to Zachary’s disappearance or any crimes being committed by her that night. Her car was checked, her apartment was examined and processed from top to bottom and she herself was questioned and interrogated for hours. It’s difficult to imagine that had she made the choice to do something to Zachary, that she’d have been able to cover everything up with such a level of sophistication as to not have made a single mistake. In addition to this, police recovered DNA evidence from the apartment that night. What that evidence is, we still don’t know, but it does seem to suggest that it was not related to Leah as they’ve tested this DNA against at least one other suspect. This is simply another detail in a complex case that leads to more confusion and does little to sharpen the focus.
In the weeks and months after Zachary’s disappearance, Leah withdrew from the public, moved out of the apartment and eventually moved out of the state. Now, I’ve seen it stated multiple times that Leah ceased participating in any activities related to bringing attention to the case, or searching for Zachary, but I’ve also found interviews with her that took place during Marches for Zachary as far as a year after his disappearance, which seems to contradict the idea that she up and ran off immediately after. I know that in the years following Zachary’s disappearance, Leah has moved through different states and been married at least twice, though she elects to try and remain hidden away. While for some, this is as a result of the media depicting her as a child murdered, for others, it’s a suspicious sign where as many parents of missing children don’t change their phone numbers for twenty years, Leah moved nearly as far away from Florida as you can get.
It’s impossible to determine how a parent should, or will, react to a situation as heartbreaking as the loss of a child. While it’s easy to sit back in judgement and say how she should be behaving, that’s simply not how the human mind works. It seems clear that in Zachary’s absence, Leah was devastated and went down a self destructive path before ultimately finding her footing and putting her life back together. Perhaps the memories in Florida are just too difficult to face, or the division in her own family is too frustrating to deal with. Regardless of the reason, it’s difficult to judge her for how she reacted and behaved in the aftermath. We have to work with facts, and they don’t depict her as the person responsible for this terrible tragedy. Not all of the facts seem to perfectly line up with her story, but that doesn’t necessarily make her a killer either.
Leah’s involvement in, or knowledge of, what happened to Zachary that night cannot be known for certain and there is no hard evidence which links her to the vanishing of her son. Often times in cases where a child disappears from the home with no evidence of forced entry, the parent or parents are viewed as the most likely suspect. That’s simply good basic police work, you begin with the last person to see the victim, you begin with those closest to the victim. In this case, Leah happens to be both and while I understand the speculation and rumor against her, again I don’t have anything which proves that. So many have argued that Leah did something to Zachary, but it’s hard to argue that point. She appears to have been a loving mother, and even during her most difficult periods, there aren’t any examples of her being abusive, at least not physically or consciously, but in fact being very loving and caring. The ultimate clincher for me is… this is not a desperate woman in a bad situation who needs an out. Her family loved Zachary, he had a lot of cousins and aunts and uncles. If she no longer wanted her son, she had plenty of options of people who would likely have taken him in.
Of course, logic isn’t always at play in these situations and any number of factors could have contributed to something occurring that night which resulted in Zachary’s disappearance, or possible death. Unfortunately, without further clues, more information from Leah or any other potential witnesses, or a hit being made on that DNA that was found, we may never know for sure. Leah remains the subject of speculation, both in the public and in the minds of the investigators who to this day are looking to the answers as to what happened to Zachary Bernhardt.
A sweet, kind and caring young boy who had everyone around him completely enamored simply vanished in the middle of the night. The last person to see him was his mother, who would later become the most likely suspect in the minds of the public around her. Eight years old when he vanished, Zachary would be turning twenty-six years old this year. His family has missed his entire life and has watched him grow up only through the troubling lens of age progressed photographs and missing persons posters and fliers. While it is hopeful to imagine he may still be out there, perhaps being raised by someone who has provided for him, it becomes continually less and less likely that he is ever going to be found alive. For the family, they remain hopeful that they will again someday see their newphew, their grandson, their cousin, but short of a break in the case, the discovery of Zachary, who if he is alive, may not even know his own true identity, or a confession, the disappearance of Zachary Bernhardt remains open, unsolved and extremely cold.