There are nearly 90,000 missing persons in the U.S. alone, at any given time. And most cases will remain cold, as people disappear into different lives, some filled with unimaginable terrors. But what happens to the small percentage of missing people who one day show back up? Where did they go and what happened to them? Missing people found alive are stories that capture the nation’s attention whenever they break. Often inspiring and devastating at the same time, and sometimes downright eerie and bizarre, these narratives of men and women who return after years of absence are all-around fascinating.
Some tales are so fantastic, you would think there’s no way they could be true, like the story of Gabriel Nagy, the missing man found alive several years after disappearing and suffering severe amnesia, or the incredible events leading to Elizabeth Smart’s rescue and return to her family. Kidnapped people who escaped, missing people found off the grid, others living double lives, each story manages to shock one after the other. For the devotedly curious creep-seekers, here are several stories about real life missing people who were found alive, despite all reasonable doubt.
Rescuers Found A Boys’ Soccer Team Nine Days After They Were Trapped In A Cave
A boys’ soccer team and a coach were found nine days after going missing in the Tham Luang Nang Non caves in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province. After a soccer practice on June 25, 2018, the mother of one of the players became worried when her son did not return from practice.
The team, 12 boys ranging from 11-16 years old, took shelter in a cave during a downpour. The boys and their coach became trapped by the flood and got lost in the meandering cave system. A rescue unt comprised of Thai Navy SEALS, technical experts from around the globe, and praying citizens all contributed to the effort. All 12 boys and the coach were found alive on July 2, 2018.
Elizabeth Smart Saved from Kidnapper by Her Little Sister
One of the most high-profile child abductions cases in modern times, Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping was talked-about all across America. In 2002, a former handyman, hired by Smart’s parents, broke into their home. Brian David Mitchell, who had gone by “Emmanuel” to the Smart family, abducted Smart while she slept in bed next to her younger sister, Mary Katherine, who pretended to sleep so that the intruder would not harm them. Only 14 years old, Smart was taken from her home for 9 months.
It wasn’t until then that Mary Katherine realized the man who had entered their bedroom was in fact “Emmanuel.” When police released a sketch of the handyman, which aired on Larry King Live and America’s Most Wanted, Mitchell’s family recognized his likeness and provided the police with additional photos. While walking on the street, disguised in a wig and veil, someone recognized Mitchell and his accomplice, Wanda Ileen Barzee. The police were notified and Smart finally reunited with her family. Today, Smart is involved with activism and journalism geared towards ending human trafficking.
Missing Cleveland Women Saved from Kidnapper by Neighbor
Commonly referred to as the Cleveland Abductions, the story of serial kidnapper Ariel Castro broke headlines in 2013. For nearly eleven years, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina DeJesus were imprisoned by Castro, who repeatedly beat and raped them. Berry even bore Castro’s child. Because the women were considered runaways by police, their cases were never thoroughly investigated.
It wasn’t until 2013, when Castro’s neighbor Charles Ramsey heard Knight, Berry and DeJesus crying for help inside the house, that officials realized they were in fact NOT runaways. With the help of other neighbors, Ramsey broke down the cellar door and freed the women inside. Castro was sentenced to life in prison, but shortly thereafter committed suicide by hanging himself with his bedsheets.
Philip Sessagero Fakes His Own Death to Rebuild His Military Career
Philip Sessagero always aspired to join the SAS of the British military. He applied multiple times, but failed to make the cut. In 1993 ,while in Croatia, Sessagero faked his own death, allowing many to believe he perished in a car bomb attack. He adopted the name Tom Carew, and rebuilt his reputation as a “Special Forces” member. He even wrote a book about his experiences in the service called “Jihad! The Secret War in Afghanistan,” which received critical praise.
But in 2001, a BBC program revealed “Carew’s” identity. Seven years after this exposure, Sessagero was found dead in his garage. Although examiners determined the cause of the death to be suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning, his daughter believed he could have been murdered, as he “made enemies easily.”
Steven Stayner Escapes a Child Molester
After being approached by Kenneth Parnell and Ervin Murphy, seven-year-old Steven Stayner was kidnapped and taken to a remote cabin. Parnell had convinced the “simple-minded” Murphy to orchestrate the abduction, posing as church members seeking help. Parnell molested Stayner and convinced him that his parents had given him up because they had too many children to take care of.
Parnell renamed Stayner Dennis Parnell, and proceeded to enroll him in various schools. Stayner had the opportunity to come and go as he pleased, and many acquaintances had no clue that he was ever abducted by Parnell. When Stayner reached puberty, Parnell organized another kidnapping of a boy named Timothy White. Fearing White would fall to the same pattern of abuse he experienced, Stayner orchestrated their escape. After being taken into police custody, Stayner and White were reunited with their families. Stayner had been in captivity for eight years.
Stayner’s story was developed into a TV movie, I Know My First Name Is Steven.
Gabriel Nagy Loses His Memory and Disappears
After losing his memory in a car accident, Gabriel Nagy, confused and disoriented, wandered off without saying a word to anyone. When Nagy didn’t return home that evening, his family began to panic. Police found his vehicle in flames on the side of the road. Two weeks after his disappearance, Nagy’s credit card showed a charge for some camping supplies, but this transaction did not lead to his discovery.
When a police officer located Nagy’s name registered under Medicare, he sought him out. For the past twenty years, Nagy had been suffering severe amnesia working odd jobs. He had effectively started over from scratch. But after reuniting with his family, many of his memories came flooding back. Scarring on the back of his head correlated to the condition of his car accident, and medical examiners believe it caused a state of Dissociative Fugue, which can cause people to wander off.
Nguyen Thi Van Gets Locked out of Her House and Winds up in China
In 1992, Nguyen Thi Van, a resident of Vietnam, was locked out of the house by her mother as punishment for coming home past curfew. Unsure of what to do, Van met up with some friends at a karaoke bar. After catching a ride with an older woman, Van and her friends awoke to find themselves in China. The woman told them they would be sold into marriages with Chinese men or killed.
Van spent decades married to a Chinese farmer in Guangdo, but she eventually escaped by hitching a ride in a truck. After twenty-one years, Van finally made it home. Her parents were horrified that their petty punishment had gone so terribly awry.
Bowe Bergdahl Goes AWOL
The latest subject of the hit podcast Serial, Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance and subsequent capture by the Taliban garnered national attention and debate. In 2009, Bergdahl, having expressed frustrations with American nationalistic attitudes within the army, and disappointment in the U.S. intervention in the Middle East, walked away from his platoon.
He was eventually held as a prisoner of war by the Taliban, though his capture has become a point of contention, since Bergdahl initially claimed he fell behind on a patrol. The Taliban stated that they found him stumbling drunk, and U.S. forces reiterated that Bergdahl willingly left post. Missing and hidden for five years, Bergdahl was brought back to the U.S. in a trade deal made by the Obama administration. He is currently being tried on desertion charges.
Steve Carter Discovers He’s a Missing Person
Steve Carter didn’t realize he had been kidnapped until he was 35 years old. After reading a story about a similar case, Carter researched his own records out of questions that had nagged at him his whole life. When Carter found a picture on a website depicting a digitally-aged conceptualization of missing child Marx Panama Barnes, his jaw dropped: the doctored photo was his spitting image.
After contacting investigators and law enforcement, Carter learned that his mother had run away with him when he was a baby. His father never located them because his mother changed their names. From there, his mother was checked into psychiatric care and Carter became a ward of the state. His mother eventually disappeared, yet again, but this time did not come back. Carter was adopted by new parents at age 4. After his discovery, Carter reached out to his biological family, ending a lifetime of mystery.
A Fake Nicholas Barclay Returns Home
Featured in the popular documentary The Imposter, Nicholas Barclay’s disappearance and sudden reemergence confounded both family and audience. French trickster and imposter Frédéric Bourdin convinced Barclay’s family that he was their son, who disappeared three years prior in 1994. Alleging that “Barclay” was sold into and escaped from a child prostitution ring, the missing boy’s family accepted Bourdin into their home.
Despite looking almost nothing like Barclay, as well as speaking with a French accent, many members of the family did not notice anything out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until a PI caught on that Bourdin made a full confession. The real Barclay was never found.
Brenda Heist Drops Everything and Takes off with Complete Strangers
Overcome with the failures of her life, Brenda Heist was bawling her eyes out when two strangers approached her and asked if she was alright. In that moment, Heist decided she had had enough and accepted the strangers’ offer to tag along on their adventures. Heist spent the next 11 years struggling with drugs, working odd jobs in hotels, and living out of an RV. Initially, police and family could not fathom an explanation for Heist’s disappearance. Her husband was even a suspect at the time of investigation.
However, when Heist showed up in 2010 to reunite with her family in Florida, she explained that shehad simply “snapped.” Heist’s family were more than reluctant to forgive and forget Heist’s abandonment. The reunion was and remains messy.
Declared Dead, Carlos De Salazar Is Discovered on a Remote Beach
When Carlos Sanchez Ortiz De Salazar went missing one day, many expected the worst. Described as severely depressed, many friends and family assumed he had committed suicide. After vanishing in 1995, De Salazar was officially declared dead in 2010.
Nearly 20 years later, two mushroom pickers wandering a remote Tuscany coastal line stumbled upon De Salazar’s secret encampment inside a nature reserve. Startled by De Salazar’s appearance, the two men ran for help. When they arrived with a ranger hours later, Salazar explained that he had been on this coast since 1997. Despite De Salazar’s requests that he be left alone, Spanish officials contacted his family. But when they arrived in Italy to reunite with De Salazar, he had already packed up his things and disappeared again.
After Man Admits to Murder, Petra Pazsitka Is Discovered Alive and Well
Petra Pazsitka disappeared at age 24. Expected to be home from university for a weekend visit, Pazsitka never showed up. When police started investigating, they began to think that convicted murdererer Gunter K was responsible. Gunter K, a court-assigned pseudonym, had previously admitted to killing a teenager in the same area. When probed by police, Gunter K confessed to killing Pazsitka as well.
But it turns out, Pazsitka wasn’t deadt. Secretly renting an apartment with money she had saved and taking on different identities, Pazsitka spent a long time planning her escape. Pazsitka was discovered when she called police to her apartment in Dusseldorf after her home was burgled. Since this revelation, Pazsitka has refused to share her reasons for wanting to disappear.
Danielle Cramer Found in Cabinet After Police Raid Home of Murder Suspect
Having been missing for almost a year, police were shocked to discover 15-year-old Danielle Cramerliving in a cabinet in the home of Adam Gault and Ann Murphy. The pair had kidnapped Cramer. Police found Cramer behind a dresser in a cramped, closet-like space. There was no bedding or indication that she lived in there.
At first unsure whether or not Cramer had joined the couple willingly or not, Cramer eventually clarified that she had been forced into performing for Internet sex shows. Gault and Murphy were later tried for the crimes.
Jaycee Dugard Gets Kidnapped and Brainwashed by Abuser
Before there was Elizabeth Smart, there was Jaycee Dugard, one of the most high-profile kidnapping cases covered by the media. Dugard was kidnapped in broad daylight, witnessed by several other students and her step-father. Her abductors, Philip Garrido and his wife Nancy, kept Dugard handcuffed to a bed. Garrido repeatedly raped Dugard, resulting in two pregnancies while held in captivity.
Almost 20 years later, Dugard was discovered after Garrido broke his sex offender regulations. According to police, Dugard had displayed intense symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. Garrido had spent the last 20 years convincing Dugard that she was his source of salvation from sexual deviancy. Although her reunion with her family proved difficult, Dugard spent years rehabilitating herself and defusing Garrido’s sick brainwashing.
Duggard wrote a memoir of her experiences titled A Stolen Life.
Timothy Carney Cuts Ties with His Family
After calling into work reporting he’d be late, Timothy Carney was never heard from again. He never made it to work, and his car was found abandoned on the side of the road. His family worked tirelessly with a missing person’s organization to track down Carney, but to no avail. They even posted billboards throughout the area with Carney’s face plastered on them.
In 2011, Carney was finally located, but he refused to disclose his whereabouts to his family. Why Carney decided to vanish and cut ties with everyone he knew remains a mystery. However, Carney’s friends and family have expressed theories that Carney is being heavily influenced by a religious organization called the Gospel Outreach. Carney was ultimately taken off the missing persons record, but some have asked the question whether he was ever really missing at all?
Robert McDonough Found on Live Camera
Robert McDonough was suffering from dementia when he went missing. The elderly man didn’t return home one night, alarming his family. A massive search party was organized, and police scouted his hometown in Maine.
The next day, reporters from ABC showed up to run a story on McDonough’s sudden and dangerous disappearance. But as the crew filmed reporter Norm Karkos, McDonough appeared in the shot. When Karkos noticed McDonough walking by, he was both shocked and humored by the coincidence. McDonough was reunited with his family, although he is still unsure of where he went or what he did.
David Leggat Gets Locked in the Bathroom
When David Leggat snuck away to use the men’s room., he was surprised to find the hinges jammed, preventing him from opening the door from the inside. With no cell phone to call for help or any family members to realize he was missing at all, Leggat spent the next four days in the bathroom. Everyone having retired from the bowling club for the evening, Leggat was left to his own devices. Spending nearly 16 hours a day in darkness, Leggat struggled to keep his spirits up.
It wasn’t until a cleaner heard his cries for help that he was saved. Surviving only on tap water from the sink, Leggat was eager for a drink. Ever an optimist, Leggat’s main take away from the predicament: “At least there was a toilet to use. The only thing I regret is not getting trapped behind the bar.”
Unnamed Woman Accidentally Joins a Search Party Looking for Her
When an unidentified woman left her tour of an Icelandic volcano to freshen up and change her clothes, she was reported missing. It appeared no one had a clear look at the woman, however, because when she returned, she actually joined the search party. The woman, described only as “Asian, but fluent in English, about 5’3, and wearing dark clothes,” helped her tour group feverishly scour the area.
It wasn’t until it clicked in the woman’s mind that she was also Asian, but fluent in English, about 5’3, and was previously wearing dark clothes that she made the connection. Following her groundbreaking revelation, the woman reported herself as the “missing person.”
12 Missing Children Found in House of Horrors
In 2011, Philadelphia police discovered a child trafficking ring hidden in a dilapidated home. Twelve of the children found in captivity had previously been reported missing, and assumed dead. Conditions in the home were incredibly dire, dirty, and abusive. After uncovering the ring, police located up to fifty more victims elsewhere.
Four of the twelve inside were described as having disabilities. Police believe they were imprisoned so that the perpetrators could cash in their assistance checks. Four suspects were held responsible for the children’s capture and restraint.
Julian Hernandez Asks Reddit for Help
Missing for 13 years of his life, Julian Hernandez had no idea he was a victim of kidnapping until he tried filing his university paperwork. Wile applying for a scholarship, Hernandez’s name did not match his social security number. When a counselor tried to help him figure out the issue, they discovered his listing on a national missing person’s database. Hernandez was kidnapped by his own father when he was five years old.
Against court orders, Hernandez packed up his things, changed both his and his son’s social security numbers and names, and started over. Bobby Hernandez, the father, was taken into custody and is facing abduction charges. Meanwhile, Hernandez’s mother was overcome with joy and relief. Devastated by the revelation, Hernandez took to a Reddit subthread to express his frustrations. In the now-deleted post, Hernandez discusses his shock, but assures readers that he forgives his father.