Unsolved disappearances that will haunt you

Unsolved! It is a word that will inspire different reactions in different people. Some, who love a new mystery to dig into, might grow obsessed with each detail that does exist. Some, who prefer closure and riddles with solutions, will feel an itch in their brain every time they think of a scenario with no satisfactory conclusion. Others might tremble in fear (of experiencing such a tragedy) or sympathy (for those who have already been there).

Whatever the reaction, unsolved mysteries are an obsession for many of us. Heck, a large section of the podcast industry depends on it. But while unsolved murders are the obvious candidate for obsession and investigation, unsolved disappearances are perhaps even more mysterious and haunting. With a murder, the crime itself is clear: There is a body, and a murder has happened. But with disappearances, not even the crime itself is known. Was it a kidnapping? A murder? Was there even a crime at all? Did someone just run off? Were they under duress? Did they just want a new life?

What follows is a list of some of the strangest and most mysterious unsolved disappearances in history, each of which includes some strange piece of evidence — a phone call, a letter, a photograph — that will get that brain itch going something awful. Maybe don't read this list while you're alone … especially if you only think you're alone.

Sodder children

The disappearance of the five Sodder children in 1945 is one of the strangest vanishings ever. There are so many twists and turns to it that you should definitely read this very thorough write-up in Smithsonian magazine about it (after you finish reading this list, of course).

Here's the short version: In the middle of the night on Christmas 1945, a fire broke out at the Sodder home in Fayetteville, West Virginia, and within 45 minutes the house had burned down. Parents George and Jennie escaped with half of their children, but five never made it out of the house. George tried to get back in to help them, but his ladder was mysteriously missing. He tried to drive his trucks next to the house so he could climb to the upper windows, but neither of his trucks would start. Calls to the fire department received no response from the operator. By the new year, the coroner had issued five death certificates for the Sodder children.

But here's the thing: There were no bodies. No bones, no remains of any kind. Signs pointed to arson and to their phone lines being cut. George, who was actually Italian immigrant Giorgio Soddu, remembered a number of encounters in which he was threatened for his vocal criticism of Mussolini. The Sodders never believed the children died, as evidenced by a billboard looking for information that stood by the highway for nearly 40 years. And really, we're only scratching the surface of the weirdness. This case is quite a rabbit hole to get lost in.

Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers

In December 1900, a ship landed at Eilean Mor, one of the seven islands of the Flannan Isles near Scotland, to drop off a lighthouse keeper and relieve one of the three currently stationed there. But as Mental Floss explains, there were no lighthouse keepers there to greet them. All three — Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur — were gone, and things at the lighthouse were … not right.

An untouched dinner was set on the table, and a nearby chair was overturned. The clocks were all stopped, and the lamps were prepared for lighting but were unlit. Two of the three men's coats were missing, and the doors and gate were tightly shut. Signs pointed to the men having been gone for about a week by the time their disappearance was discovered.

It was strictly against the rules for all three keepers to leave the lighthouse at the same time, and these were experienced men who wouldn't flout safety rules lightly. Investigators concluded they must have gone to secure a crane and been blown off a cliff or swept out to sea by an unexpected wave. And in fact, the final logs at the lighthouse did note storms so severe that the three seasoned mariners were crying and praying.

On the other hand, there was no record anywhere else in the area of bad weather during this time period, and of course no bodies were ever found. Certainly, the island's reputation as a strange, supernatural place had nothing to do with it, right?

Asha Degree

On the night before Valentine's Day in 2000, sometime after 2:30 a.m., O'Bryant Degree was awakened by the sound of his older sister Asha's bed squeaking in the room they shared in Cleveland County, North Carolina. Thinking that she was simply rolling over in her bed, he went back to sleep. However, as ABC News reported, 9-year-old Asha was actually getting dressed and grabbing a backpack she had already filled with clothes and other items and preparing to leave the house, never to be seen by her family again.

She was seen, however, by a number of motorists who spotted a girl fitting Asha's description walking down the highway at about 4 a.m. in pouring rain. One driver, rightly figuring that a 9-year-old girl walking down the road in the middle of the night in a rainstorm was something worth looking into, turned their car around to check on the girl, only for her to run off into the woods.

That was the last time anyone saw Asha Degree. A search of the woods near where she was seen running by the helpful driver revealed a shed that held candy wrappers, pencils, markers, and a Mickey Mouse hair bow that Degree's parents identified as Asha's. In the spookiest, "this is probably not just a runaway situation" detail, a year later, Asha's backpack was found buried, wrapped in garbage bags, 26 miles away. Her family hasn't given up hope, however, and the investigation was even ramped up in September 2017.

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce is probably the one person on this list more famous for what he did before he disappeared than for the disappearance itself. He was an author famous for his cynically satirical The Devil's Dictionary, which gives definitions such as "Politeness, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy," and supernatural stories such as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "The Damned Thing. Alternatively, you might know him for writing the stories that inspired the stories that inspired Season 1 of True Detective.

When you combine his penchant for cynicism and the macabre with his history as a veteran of the Civil War, it may not entirely surprise you that he had what Time describes as a "morbid fascination with horror and death." This led to him making the pretty wild decision at age 71 to leave behind his life of boredom in the United States to witness Pancho Villa's Mexican revolution in 1913. He sent his cousin a super reassuring letter saying, "Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stars."

He was never heard from again once he set out for Mexico. Some believe he was killed in the siege of Ojinaga in 1914, while others believe it was all a ruse and he never went to Mexico at all, but just ran off and committed suicide somewhere.

Rachel Trlica, Lisa Wilson, and Julie Moseley

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Trlica went to do some Christmas shopping on the morning of December 23, 1974, with her friend, 14-year-old Lisa Renee Wilson, and Wilson's 9-year-old neighbor Julie Moseley, at the new Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth, Texas. According to an article on a website maintained by Trlica's brother, the girls were supposed to be home by 4 p.m., but they were never seen again.

Trlica's car was found parked outside Sears, and witnesses placed the three girls inside the shopping center during the day. Locked inside the car were all the gifts the girls had bought, which makes it seem unlikely they just ran away. Why would you pay for your layaway before starting a new life?

The last sign of life from the girls came in the form of a letter sent to Trlica's husband (yes, the 17-year-old high school student was married, which seems creepy in its own way, but this was Texas in the 1970s, so, you know) that read, "I know I'm going to catch it, but we just had to get away. We're going to Houston. See you in about a week. The car is in Sear's upper lot. Love Rachel." Besides the other errors in the letter, it looked as if Rachel had misspelled her own name on the first pass, and one of the numbers in the postmark was backward.

Over 40 years later, the families have not given up hope, and they release pigeons in their honor each year.

Diane Augat

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Diane Augat disappeared in April 1998 in Pasco County, Florida, and was reported missing by her mother on Good Friday of that year. In the years before her disappearance, Augat had struggled with mental illness and addiction, and according to her mother, "was very trusting and liked men with money."

It's hard to say whether her issues or personal associations had something to do with her disappearance, but the things we do know are pretty disturbing. A few days after Augat went missing, she left a message on her mother's answering machine in which she can be heard saying, "Help, help!" followed by the sounds of a scuffle and someone saying, "Hey, gimme that" before hanging up. The caller ID simply said "Starlight" and when Augat's mother called the number back, there was no answer.

Wait, it gets worse. Two days after the phone call, the tip of Augat's middle finger was found on the side of the same highway she had last been seen walking down five days earlier. And then, a week after that, a bag of Augat's clothes were found neatly folded inside a bag that had been placed in the totally normal location of a convenience store freezer. And according to the Charley Project, the day after the Times reported all that stuff in 2000, another bag was found in another convenience store, this one a Ziploc bag full of makeup labeled "Diane."

Who's freaking out now? Everyone? Yeah.

Tara Calico

As detailed by Crimefeed, 19-year-old Tara Calico went out for a bike ride in Belen, New Mexico, the morning of September 20, 1988, and planned to meet her boyfriend for a tennis date at noon. When her mother didn't hear from her by the afternoon, she went looking for her daughter and started to worry when she found the tape Tara had been listening to in a ditch by the side of the highway. Things got worse when police found bits of Tara's Walkman and bike at a campground 20 miles from her home. Witnesses said they saw Tara on her bike and a truck suspiciously following her, but there were no real conclusive leads.

The next summer, however, across the country in Port St. Joe, Florida, a woman who had been shopping found a Polaroid picture on the ground in the grocery store parking lot. In the picture were a teenage girl and a young boy tied up with tape over their mouths on top of a mattress in what appeared to be the back of a van. Tara's mother was convinced that this girl was Tara, due to the resemblance and the presence of a scar on the leg of the girl in the picture similar to one Tara also had.

As KRQE News related, there has never been a conclusive link between Tara and the picture, nor has the boy ever been identified. However, Tara's case is the subject of a popular podcast, so you can check there for more information.

Brian Shaffer

The scary thing about most of these stories are the details we don't know. Who made that phone call? Where did the person run? Was there someone else in the house, or was this an accident or foul play? If only there were a series of strategically placed cameras that could show what happened.

Well, uh, it turns out that may not help either. As Cleveland's Fox 8 News reports, there were cameras all over Columbus, Ohio's Ugly Tuna Saloona (side note: this is a terrible name) on April 1, 2006, but that hasn't helped anyone discover the whereabouts of Brian Shaffer since he disappeared that day. In fact, the cameras show him going in the bar but never show him going out.

The recordings account for every other person in the bar, both entering and exiting. Shaffer is seen going in at 1:15 a.m., but he never comes out any of the exits. Searches through the bar, the adjacent alley, nearby trash cans, and the nearby river turned up nothing.

Despite a number of hoax tips, hope for Shaffer has been kept alive. His girlfriend would call his cell phone every night, and every night it would go straight to voicemail. One night about six months after his disappearance, however, it rang, pinging a cell tower just outside Columbus. This slim hope has been enough to keep his family and friends going, more than a decade later.

Maura Murray

The disappearance of Maura Murray in February 2004 is so long, complicated, and baffling, we couldn't possibly cover all the details here, but the case has been covered in length by E! News as well as in a six-part documentary series and an ongoing podcast with over 60 episodes as of this writing. So there's no shortage of information out there.

But here's the short version: 21-year-old nursing student Maura Murray emailed her professors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that she would be missing class due to a death in her family. This was a lie. She emailed her boyfriend, packed up a bag, took $280 out of an ATM, spent $40 of that at a liquor store and started driving.

Between 7 and 7:30 p.m., Murray skidded off the road into a snowbank where she got stuck, 140 miles north of Amherst in Haverhill, New Hampshire. A school bus driver stopped to ask if she needed help. She said no, but he called 911 anyway. The police arrived 10 minutes later, and in that 10-minute window, Maura Murray vanished from the face of the Earth.

The police found her textbooks in the car, together with a spilled bottle of wine and a printout of MapQuest directions to Burlington, Vermont. But there was no wallet, no keys, and no cell phone. Oh, and strangest of all: no footprints in the snow anywhere around the car. Is it aliens? This one might be aliens, to be honest.

Joan Risch

Most of these stories are terrifying mega-bummers, as you might expect from a series of unsolved disappearances whose solutions are probably kidnapping or murder or human trafficking or something. Not very cheery or inspiring fare, to be honest. But while the disappearance of housewife Joan Risch from her home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 1961 is also unsolved and involves a not insignificant amount of blood, we feel it has a somewhat different flavor. Maybe you'll agree.

As reported by the Boston Globe, on the afternoon of October 24, 1961, Risch's 4-year-old daughter went to a neighbor and said, "Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint." If you're more than 4 years old, you know the paint was actually Risch's blood. Police also found the telephone ripped out of the wall and a bloody fingerprint that has never been identified. The blood trailed into the driveway, but no body or weapon was ever found.

Further investigation led the police to looking into Risch's borrowing history at the local library. It seems she had checked out and read a shocking 25 books that summer, most on a similar theme: unexplained disappearances. These books included one called "Into Thin Air." One guess what it was about? Yeah. A woman who went missing, leaving behind only blood smears and a towel.

Run free, Joan Risch. Find that new life, unshackled from the burden of a mid-century suburban housewife life. We hope you found happiness and libraries for the rest of your days.