Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, a permanently life-altering event that turns their world upside down. Such tragedies are arguably at their worst when foul play is involved or when a child simply vanishes, leaving the parents deprived of closure.
Some parents who have lost a child in extreme circumstances will take their grief and channel it into a search for answers. These searches can last years (and may not bring closure), but all of the following victims’ parents followed their instincts and just refused to give up.
Jerry Michael “Mike” Williams went duck hunting on Lake Seminole on the Florida-Georgia border in December 2000 and never returned. His best friend, Brian Winchester, found his boat and car but no trace of his body. Police believed that he had probably drowned and been eaten by alligators.
However, Mike’s mother, Cheryl, had an instinct that they were wrong. She said of visiting the lake: “And all of sudden a voice comes in my head, Mike is not in Lake Seminole, he did not drown.” Mike’s wife Denise didn’t agree and pressed ahead with a memorial service and then collected $1.7 million in life insurance.
Cheryl spent her life savings searching for the truth. She took out billboard adverts and stood on busy streets with handmade signs appealing for help. Cheryl wrote to the governor of Florida every day for nine years. She finally had a breakthrough after meeting with experts who told her that alligators don’t feed in cold weather.
Denise eventually married Mike’s friend Brian and banned Cheryl from seeing her granddaughter unless she stopped digging for clues. The pair ultimately divorced, and in 2016, Brian kidnapped Denise at gunpoint. As part of a sentencing deal, Brian admitted that he had lured Mike to the lake and shot him—in a plot hatched with Denise so that they could be together. Denise was charged with murder and received a life sentence in 2019. In 2016, Brian showed police where he had hidden Mike’s body, and Cheryl was able to bury her son after a campaign lasting 16 years.
Photographer Julie Ward went missing from the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya in September 1988. Her father, John, immediately flew out to begin a search. It was the first of over 100 visits he would make in a personal investigation that would cost him around £2 million.
John hired spotter planes and found Julie’s abandoned jeep with the letters “SOS” scrawled in dust. Julie’s mutilated and burned remains were discovered nearby. Police claimed Julie had been the victim of an animal attack or suicide. John knew this was impossible, and he suspected Chief Warden Simon Makallah. Makallah claimed he had stumbled across Julie’s charred remains by following the direction of vultures and that John had a vendetta against him.
Police refused to launch a murder inquiry, so John appealed to the British government, who sent detectives from Scotland Yard. Two rangers were arrested for murder. The case collapsed, however, due to lack of evidence, with the judge declaring that there had been a cover-up to protect Kenya’s tourist industry.
John continued to expose the Kenyan police’s corruption, and in 1999, Makallah stood trial for Julie’s murder but was acquitted with no chance of a retrial. In 2004, a UK court ruled that Julie was unlawfully killed, not a victim of suicide or an animal attack. John has written a book called The Animals are Innocent.
On July 28, 1986, real estate agent Suzy Lamplugh, 25, went to meet a client and vanished. Witnesses recall a smartly dressed man in a BMW holding a bottle of champagne. He was thought to be the mysterious “Mr. Kipper,” whose name Suzy had written in her diary. Her disappearance is still one of the UK’s biggest mysteries.
By December 1986, Suzy’s parents, Paul and Diana, launched a trust in her honor. The charity was run from an office in the family’s garden, and Diana went on to become a household name in Britain. The case gave her a platform to talk about personal safety in a way that no one had before. They distributed hundreds of free personal alarms, known as “Suzy Alarms,” to students.
The couple worked to push through new laws for stalking and harassment victims and were awarded an OBE. In 1994, Suzy was declared dead. Paul and Diana have both since died, but the Suzy Lamplugh Trust continues their work.
In January 2013, Kendrick Johnson, 17, was found dead inside a rolled up gym mat at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. He had no apparent injuries, and police believed he became trapped after crawling in to retrieve his shoes. Kendrick’s parents believe he was murdered. Their campaign has included protests outside the court and school, where they appealed for Kendrick to be remembered on Graduation Day.
The family have issued lawsuits against the school, Lowndes County, and 38 classmates who they suspect were involved. Three autopsies have been performed, and Kendrick’s body has been exhumed twice at his parents’ request. Two autopsies found the cause of death to be blunt force trauma—contradicting the original ruling of accidental death.
The family owe nearly $300,000 in legal fees but continue their fight for justice.
On March 2, 1998, Suzanne Lyall, 19, caught the bus home from the mall. Witnesses saw the student get off near her campus in Albany, New York, but she was never seen again.
Suzanne’s parents, Doug and Mary, knew from the start that they had to keep the case in the news. Mary said, “If you don’t sit back and you don’t talk about what is going on, the case is just going to go cold.” They founded the Center for Hope in 2003 to offer advice to families of missing persons. They also pushed through “Suzanne’s Law,” which raised the age at or under which a missing person must be reported to the National Crime Information Center to 21. (It was originally 18.)
The Lyalls have used their imagination to publicize cold cases. They created a deck of playing cards featuring missing people and placed flyers in tax forms. Doug died in 2015. Mary is working with the Cold Case Analysis Center at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, looking for answers for her and other families of the missing.
Keith Bennett 12, was walking to his grandmother’s house in Manchester, UK, when he was lured into a van driven by Myra Hindley. She drove him to Saddleworth Moor, where her partner, Ian Brady, was waiting. Keith was murdered and buried on the vast, open moor. In 1966, Brady and Hindley were jailed for killing a total of five children. All the victims’ bodies were found on the moor—except for Keith’s.
His mother Winnie then began a search for his lonely grave that would last her lifetime. The family have made thousands of trips to the moor, sometimes with sniffer dogs and psychics. Winnie appealed directly to the killers by DVD and letter for any scrap of information that could help.
In 1991, Brady told Keith’s brother Alan that he had written a letter, to be opened after his death, revealing the exact location of the body. Brady died in 2017, leaving two locked briefcases with his solicitor. Police went to court to obtain a warrant to open the cases but were refused.
Winnie died in 2012 without finding her son. The Bennett family are still searching for Keith.
On April 15, 1989, 53,000 football fans began arriving for a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough in Sheffield, UK. Supporters were separated into two standing areas. Liverpool fans were sent to the Leppings Lane terrace, which had just seven turnstiles for 10,000 people to file through. No checks were in place to count the numbers, so crowds began to build.
Police chief David Duckenfield signaled for the match to begin, despite some fans being trapped in the entrances. Barriers collapsed, and people were crushed due to sheer numbers. Ultimately, 96 people lost their lives. In the aftermath, police altered witness statements and blamed the fans. Newspapers printed false allegations that fans had robbed dying victims and stopped paramedics from getting through.
An inquest found that the deaths were “accidental.” The furious families who had gathered at court formed a protest group to challenge this ruling. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign raised funds and brought a private prosecution against Duckenfield. The manslaughter trial began in June 2000, but the jury failed to reach a verdict.
In April 2016, a new inquest that had lasted 267 days found that the 96 had been unlawfully killed. David Duckenfield will be retried in October 2019 for gross negligence manslaughter. The families’ campaign has now lasted for 30 years.
Susan “Su” Taraskiewicz was 27 when she became the first female ramp supervisor at Northwestern Airlines. Su had a tough time in the male-dominated industry. Some employees were involved in credit card fraud at Boston’s Logan International Airport and suspected Su was a police informant. She suffered daily intimidation and abuse. Sinister graffiti appeared around the airport—including a coffin with her name on it.
On September 12, 1992, Su left work at 1:00 AM to pick up sandwiches for her crew. When she didn’t return, no one raised the alarm, and 36 hours later, her body was found in the trunk of her car. She had been murdered. Police confirmed that Su was not an informant, but no arrests were made.
A year later, Su’s mother Marlene finally found the courage to look through her daughter’s bedroom and found a diary detailing the abuse Su had suffered. Marlene used this evidence to bring a sexual harassment claim against the airline and won $75,000. The airline also offered a $250,000 reward for information.
On the 25th anniversary of Su’s death, Marlene held a vigil at Logan Airport. The district attorney has vowed to keep the case open, and Marlene has said, “I am a very healthy woman and I am not going away.”
Helen McCourt, 22, disappeared while walking home on a rainy night in 1988. Hundreds of villagers turned out to search for Helen in Billinge, UK. Police interviewed pub landlord Ian Simms, who appeared nervous. They searched his car and found Helen’s earring and spots of her blood. Helen’s body has never been found, and Simms is a rare example of someone who was convicted of murder despite investigators having no body. He received a life sentence in 1989.
Helen’s mother Marie and her family have since spent every weekend looking for Helen in fields, sewers, and ditches. They have drained ponds and crawled through mine shafts in their search. Marie has campaigned for “Helen’s Law,” which stipulates that murderers will not be granted parole unless they reveal where they hid the victim’s body. This was made law in July 2019.
Simms was recently photographed out shopping on day release. He has never spoken about the murder.
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were murdered outside her home. Nicole’s ex-husband O.J. Simpson was arrested. Millions watched Simpson’s acquittal live on TV and saw the Goldman family react with shock and despair.
Ron’s father Fred launched a wrongful death lawsuit. The jury heard Simpson testify for the first time, and he was found liable and ordered to pay the families $33.5 million.
Simpson failed to pay, and when he wrote a book called If I Did It, Fred seized the copyright, media, and movie rights. When the publishers pulled out, Fred got it published himself, now titled If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer, as he felt the book was an important confession. The Goldmans donated some of the profits to their charity, the Ron Goldman Foundation for Justice.
I’m a true crime enthusiast and a lover of words and all things off-kilter.