More than half a million people disappear each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One day they are here, the next day they are gone, leaving a canyon in the lives of their families and a gaping chasm in the heart of every person who loved them.
But in 2021, an old fire reignited over how much attention is paid to those who vanish. People of color and ethnic minorities, it is argued, receive scant attention compared to pretty, female Caucasians. The phenomenon has a name: Missing White Woman Syndrome.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the reaction to Gabby Petito’s disappearance over the summer. Social media flamed with armchair crime solvers weighing in with their thoughts about what happened to the blonde, 22-year-old woman who vanished on a road trip with her fiancé. Her remains were eventually found in Wyoming.
The internet also boiled with rage from posters who noted there were also many Black women, children and men who simply vanished, receiving little or no attention.
Others pointed to a University of Wyoming study that found 710 indigenous people were reported missing during a yearlong period ending in 2021, in the same state where Petito’s body was found.
Here is a look at the some of the women, men and children who went missing this year, and the desperate searches that followed.
One of the year’s most heart-wrenching missing person cases involved 5-year-old Samuel Olson, who was reported missing in May. Five days later, his battered body was found stuffed inside a plastic tote bin in a Texas motel room after an extensive search, police said.
The girlfriend of Olson’s father has been charged with murder in the case. She has pleaded not guilty and is in custody pending trial.
“Who are these people?” an anguished Tiffany Clark Farmacka, Samuel’s maternal grandmother, asked in a July interview with Inside Edition Digital. “Who kills a little baby and puts them in a container?”
“He was my first grandchild. He was a very special boy. He was such a good boy. He always did what you asked him to do. He was never a discipline problem,” she said, breaking into tears. “It doesn’t make any sense. What could he have done to make her so angry?” she said, referring to the girlfriend of Samuel’s dad.
An autopsy concluded Samuel’s death was a “violent homicide” caused by blunt trauma to the head.
Maya Millete was reported missing on Jan. 7 by her sister. The California mother of three young children had been planning to leave her husband and her last known phone call was to a divorce attorney, police said.
More than nine months later, her husband, Larry, was arrested and charged with her murder, authorities said. He pleaded not guilty and is being held without bail pending his trial. Millete’s body has not been found.
“If anything happened to me, it would be Larry,” relatives say Millete told them during a camping trip earlier this year, just days before she went missing, Fox News reported.
District Attorney Summer Stephan said prosecutors can file a murder charge without having a body, CBS8 reported.
“California law, similar to across the nation, is very clear that we can file murder charges despite not having a body,” the prosecutor said. “In fact, the law is so crystal-clear that we cannot let someone murder someone and gain a benefit by hiding the body in a way that we can’t recover it.”
Authorities also said the husband allegedly consulted “spell casters” to place hexes on the woman so she would become injured or get into an accident that would force her to live at home.
Geologist Daniel Robinson disappeared on June 23. He was last seen in Buckeye, Arizona, leaving his work site. A month later, his Jeep was found by a rancher, with both air bags deployed, authorities said. Robinson’s keys, cell phone, wallet and some items of clothing were discovered with the vehicle.
Robinson has not been seen since, despite several searches. His father, David, journeyed across the country to search for his son, and was critical of the attention paid to Gabby Petito, who went missing around the same time but drew far more attention than Daniel’s case.
“Of course, that was devastating just to hear another family is going through the same thing I was at the same time I was going through,” David told Inside Edition Digital. “And when I found out she was my son’s age, just reading, that’s horrible, so it was a horrible thing. And I’d already know what the family is going through, my family knows what the family is going through, and I don’t wish it on anybody.”
According to Robinson, this experience has turned him into an activist for the families of missing persons.
“I run into families all the time that email me and text me and tell me their story,” he noted. “And you’ll just be amazed, the pain that people go through.”
The highly publicized case of Gabby Petito began on Sept. 11, when her mother reported her missing after not hearing from her in several days. The young woman and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, had been on a cross-country trip, which Petito was documenting on social media.
After Laundrie returned, alone, to his Florida home and refused to cooperate with authorities, the strange saga created mass speculation and media attention, leading to renewed criticism about “Missing White Woman Syndrome” generating more interest than missing people of color.
Petito’s body was discovered in Wyoming on Sept. 19. An autopsy determined she had been strangled.
Laundrie’s skeletal remains were found on Oct. 20 in a Florida nature preserve. A coroner ruled his cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Hiker Josh Hall was reported missing on Feb. 3, when he failed to return from a Colorado trail. One week later and 13 miles away, his dog, Happy, was found wandering a highway. “The pup has been reunited with family and is getting some much needed food and love,” the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office tweeted at the time.
Hall’s remains were found July 1 by a volunteer searcher. An autopsy determined he died from hypothermia or exposure. Authorities and volunteers spent more than 700 hours looking for the 27-year-old, who was described by his family as person who lived life to the fullest, loved nature and made others laugh.
Elijah Lewis was reported missing Oct. 14 by staff of the New Hampshire Division for Children Youth and Families. Social workers were unable to locate 5-year-old Elijah during a home visit, authorities said. Why they visited the family home was not disclosed.
Three days later, the boy’s mother, Danielle Dauphinais, 35, and her boyfriend, Joseph Stapf, 30, were arrested in New York City’s the Bronx by transit police, authorities said.
They face charges of child endangerment and witness tampering in connection with the case, officials said. The latter counts represent allegations that the pair asked people to lie about Elijah’s whereabouts knowing that child welfare authorities were looking for the child, according to a statement from New Hampshire Senior Assistant Attorney General Susan Morrell.
They are being held without bail and have pleaded not guilty. The court case has been filed under seal.
Little Elijah’s remains were discovered by searchers on Oct. 23 in Massachusetts, more than 70 miles from his Merrimack home. An autopsy determined the child died from “violence and neglect, including facial and scalp injuries, acute fentanyl intoxication, malnourishment and pressure ulcers,” according to a statement released by the New Hampshire Department of Justice in November.
The investigation into Elijah’s homicide is ongoing, prosecutor told Inside Edition Digital.
Jashyah Moore, 14, was reported missing by her mother on Oct. 14.
The disturbing story of New Jersey teenager began with her mother’s desperate pleas for help in finding the missing teen and concluded with the girl being found safe in New York, where she told authorities she had run away after being abused for years by her mom, police said.
Jamie Moore, the girl’s mother, led community efforts to help find her daughter, establishing a GoFundMe page and issuing emotional appeals in several press conferences, where she was surrounded by East Orange police and neighbors. In November, she was charged with child endangerment.
According to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, the mother has been charged with two counts of second-degree endangering the welfare of a child.
The alleged abuse includes striking the girl with a frying pan, stabbing her in the shoulder with a steak knife, pouring bleach in her eyes and pulling the braids out of her hair, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement. The girl and her 3-year-old brother are now in the custody of the state, authorities said.
Jamie Moore, 40, was released from the Essex County Jail on Nov. 23, pending her next court hearing on Dec. 20. She was ordered to have no contact with her daughter and son, was confined to house arrest and ordered to wear a monitoring device, NJ.com reported.
Her attorney, Durran Neil Jr., said his client would not interfere in the ongoing investigation and would abide by the court’s ruling.
“They laid out a bunch of allegations that are unproven,” Neil said of the charges.
Jelani Day had graduated from Alabama A&M University with a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology.
The confounding case of graduate student Jelani Day, 25, has stretched for months, with his mother and civil rights leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson saying the young Black man was murdered, and that federal investigators should take over the case.
Day’s family and a professor reported him missing on Aug. 25. He was pursuing a master’s degree in speech pathology at Illinois State University and planned to become a doctor, his mother said.
Nearly a month later, a badly decomposed body was formally identified as belonging to Day. The bloated remains had been pulled from the Illinois River 10 days after he vanished. They were floating some 60 miles from where he lived in Bloomington.
The case took on national media attention after Day’s grief-stricken mother, Carmen Bolden Day, said “Missing White Woman Syndrome” caused the disappearance of Gabby Petito to receive far more attention than her missing Black son.
As a mother, she said, she empathized with the Petito family’s pain, she told a local station two days before her son’s body was identified. She only wanted the same recognition for her child, she said
“But do you not see us? Do you not see me? Do you not see my son? He is loved,” she said. “He is wanted. He is important.”
County medical examiner Richard Ploch wrote in an autopsy report, “The cause of death of this positively identified 25-year-old male, Jelani Jesse Javonte Day, is drowning,” in the autopsy report. How the speech pathology student at Illinois State University ended up in a river some 60 miles from his home has not been determined, he said.
“There was no evidence of antemortem injury, such as manual strangulation, an assault or altercation, sharp, blunt or gunshot injury, infection, tumor, natural disease, congenital abnormality or significant drug intoxication,” Ploch said.
A multi-jurisdictional task force including the Illinois State Police, local police departments, the LaSalle County sheriff’s office and the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit are probing Day’s death, which has been deemed as “suspicious” by local authorities.
Two days after Day was last seen, his car was discovered near a YMCA, close to a wooded area in Peru, Indiana. And from there, things have gone cold, authorities said.
“We’re empathetic with Jelani’s family. If I was in her shoes I would probably feel the way she does,” Bloomington Police Department spokesman John Fermon told Inside Edition Digital, referring the man’s mother. “If it was my son, I’d want answers yesterday,” he said.
Jelani’s mother said at her son’s Oct. 19 burial that his funeral brought her no peace. “I just saw one of the best things that God blessed me with, go into the ground, and I’ll never get to talk to him or see him again. I do not even have words to tell you how it is,“ she said after the service, CNN reported.
The investigation is ongoing.