The Unsolved 2000 Disappearance Of Leah Roberts Explained

Vanishing without a trace might seem impossible, especially in these modern cell phone-wielding times. But according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), over 600,000 people go missing in the United States every year. Of these, some return alive and well, others are found deceased, and many more are never seen again, their fates unknown. Such was the case for 23-year-old Leah Toby Roberts, a young woman from Durham, North Carolina, who left home in her white 1993 Jeep Cherokee on March 9, 2000 (per the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office).

As The Charley Project notes, sandy-haired Roberts was 5'6" and 130 pounds when she was last seen. A vegetarian, fluent Spanish speaker, cigarette smoker, and former soccer player, she spoke with a thick Southern accent and had noticeable dimples when she smiled. According to her older brother Heath in a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," she "wanted to see the world and spread her wings." Leah Roberts would have turned 46 in 2022.

While the nature of her departure was unusual, Roberts' family members do not believe she intended to vanish forever. Over the years, they have presented her case on episodes of "Unsolved Mysteries," "Larry King Live," and "Disappeared," in the hopes that increased exposure will lead to new information. Because cell phones and Ring cameras weren't yet the norm in 2000, each detail is vital to the case and every set of eyes helps. Here is the unsolved disappearance of Leah Roberts explained.

A series of tragedies altered Leah Roberts' outlook and behavior

Young Leah Roberts' life was marked by tragedy. According to a 2011 episode of "Disappeared," her father was diagnosed with a serious respiratory disease when she was 17 years old. Three years later, in 1996, while Leah was studying anthropology and Spanish at North Carolina State University, her mother died unexpectedly of heart disease. Leah took time off to grieve and told her older sister Kara Roberts that she felt "born again ... into this new life without a mom." Then, in 1998, a semi-truck pulled out in front of her while she was driving. Leah suffered a punctured lung, and her right femur was so badly broken that a metal rod had to be inserted into her leg. She later told Kara that she had felt certain she was going to die in the accident.

One year later, in 1999, a recovered Leah was enthusiastic about an upcoming college trip to Costa Rica, but right before embarking, her father died. She decided to go anyway. Following the adventure, she dropped out of college just months before graduating – a decision her older siblings felt was rash. They urged her to complete her degree, but, instead, she took up guitar and photography, bought a lot of books and music, journaled, and adopted a kitten named Bea (per The Charley Project). 

Leah was intent on living life to the fullest, but, according to her close friends, she was also constantly going out alone, meeting a lot of new people, and pulling away from her core friend group.

She became enamored with the writings of Jack Kerouac

Leah Roberts had inherited money from her late parents and did not have a job (per a 2011 episode of "Disappeared"). As her friend Suzie Smith notes, she spent a lot of time at a local coffee shop called Cup-A-Joe. There, she worked on her computer and chatted with like-minded people. According to her sister Kara Roberts, Leah also wrote at Cup-A-Joe frequently and "would have loved to write the next great American novel."

She was also reading a lot. According to a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," Leah had developed a fascination with Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac's 1950s road trip books – specifically "The Dharma Bums," a semi-autobiographical novel partially based on Kerouac's enlightening stay in the fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State's North Cascade Mountains (pictured). As The Seattle Times notes, Kerouac famously hitchhiked to Washington and spent 63 days meditating, smoking, and writing on the peak in the summer of 1956. It was a key event in his life and is also referenced in his books "Desolation Angels" and "The Lonesome Traveler."

According to Jeannine Quiller – a friend Leah met at Cup-A-Joe – Leah had discussed wanting to visit Desolation Peak and expressed a desire to take a solo soul-searching journey. On "Disappeared," Quiller said, "I totally knew that she was going to take off and go to the mountains because she wanted to go where Jack Kerouac had gone. She wanted to go on the road and be a free spirit and ... figure herself out."

Leah Roberts left town without telling anyone

According to Kara Roberts in a 2011 episode of "Disappeared," she called Leah on the morning of Thursday, March 9, 2000. On the phone, her little sister seemed to be in good spirits and gave no indication that they wouldn't speak again. Leah then made plans with her roommate to babysit the next day. But that same afternoon, she withdrew $3,000 cash, loaded her most valuable possessions into her car, and likely left town around 6 pm.

Her roommate Nicole Weeks first noticed something was amiss when Leah failed to show up for the babysitting gig on Friday, March 10, but assumed she had probably just forgotten. Then two days passed. There was still no sign of Leah or her car, and friends had started calling the house looking for her after she missed plans. Worried, Weeks called Kara at around noon on Sunday, March 12. The two spent the next day calling everyone who might know Leah's whereabouts but were left stumped.

On the morning of Monday, March 13, a concerned Kara searched Leah's room and discovered that many of her clothes and other belongings were missing, suggesting she had packed and left voluntarily and likely wasn't the victim of a crime. As a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" notes, it appeared that she had also taken her cat, Bea. Still, due to her recent bout of strange and impulsive behavior that friends found out of character, Kara reported her sister missing that afternoon.

A cryptic note was found in her room

According to a 2011 episode of "Disappeared," Kara Roberts searched her sister Leah's room again on Tuesday, March 14. This time, she found a folded piece of paper featuring an illustration of the Cheshire Cat's grin (pictured) on the dresser. According to Kara, Leah was a fan of "Alice in Wonderland," and she believes the drawing was meant to convey her intent to spontaneously disappear and eventually reappear, just like the Cheshire Cat comes and goes mysteriously.

Inside, a strange note dated March 9, 2000, is addressed to Leah's roommate Nicole. It includes cash covering a month's worth of expenses, leading Kara to believe that Leah planned to return within a few weeks. Parts of the note – such as the bit about leaving money for bills – make perfect sense, while others are vague and even ominous. After a brief introduction, Leah wrote: "While I am gone, remember – everyone is together in thoughts and prayers and time passes quickly. Have faith in me, yourself, everyone."

In various asides, she offers her room and laptop to others, explains that she had no choice, announces that there are cookies in the freezer, instructs Nicole to give everyone her love, and asks her to tell Kara not to worry. As noted in a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," Leah also declared, "No, I'm not suicidal. I am the opposite. Remember Jack Ker-o-wack." According to Kara, this reference – along with a mention of his novel "On the Road" elsewhere in the note – communicated her sister's possible plan to follow in Jack Kerouac's footsteps.

Bank activity revealed that she traveled west

Prior to her Costa Rica trip, Leah Roberts had granted her older sister Kara power of attorney over her accounts (per a 2011 episode of "Disappeared"). Kara used this ability to review Leah's bank statements in the days leading up to and following her sudden departure and discovered that she had spent one night at a hotel in Lebanon, Tennessee, on March 10 before bee-lining west on I-40, using her debit card only to purchase gas. According to Kara on a 2005 episode of "Larry King Live," Leah made it to Oregon in just three and a half days.

From there, she headed north on I-5, where her activity trail dead-ended at a gas station in Brooks, Oregon, at 12:57 am on March 13, 2000. Surveillance footage from the Pilot gas station in Brooks (pictured) shows Leah alive and well, donning a brimmed hat while paying the cashier, though, as police later observed, she does pause to peer outside several times. Because there were no outdoor cameras in place, what she was looking at remains a mystery.

Leah Roberts' wrecked car was found in the Washington wilderness

Kara Roberts' concern for her sister deepened when Leah failed to call her on her birthday (per a 2011 episode of "Disappeared"). Then, on March 18, 2000, Leah's wrecked Jeep Cherokee was found at the bottom of a ravine off a remote logging road in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington state – just 100 miles from Desolation Peak. According to a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," a pair of joggers discovered the car after noticing clothing hanging in the trees along mountainous Canyon Creek Road.

Based on the pattern of broken tree branches, police concluded that the car had left the road traveling uphill at 30 to 40 miles per hour and rolled several times before coming to rest at the bottom of a steep embankment – an accident that would likely result in serious injury. Yet they found no blood, seatbelt strain, windshield damage, or other signs of passenger injury, leading them to consider the possibility that no one had been in the car when it crashed. Even more baffling, there was no evidence that the car was pushed or the wheel tied.

Police believe it was unlikely anyone jumped out of the moving vehicle, and no blood was discovered nearby. Perhaps most puzzling of all, blankets and pillows had been placed in the car's broken windows after the crash, indicating it may have been used as a makeshift shelter at some point. A thorough assessment of the vehicle revealed no evidence that anyone else had traveled in the car on the trip. And Leah herself was still nowhere to be found.

All of her valuables were found with the car

Most of Leah Roberts' belongings were found in the car or strewn near the crash site. According to a 2011 episode of "Disappeared," her clothes, passport, driver's license, credit card, checkbook, guitar, CDs, and $2,400 cash were all found with her Jeep, meaning wherever she was, she had very little with her. To the police, this also revealed that she had not spent much money since arriving in Washington and indicated possible foul play. Cat food (per The Foothills Gazette) and a cat carrier (per a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries") were also discovered at the scene, but Roberts' cat was never found.

Most disturbing to her loved ones, her mother's diamond engagement ring – said to be Roberts' most valued possession – was later discovered beneath the Jeep's floormat. As her friend and roommate Nicole Weeks told "Disappeared," "That was a very, very sacred item for her. And I don't care what kind of emotional state she was in ... she would have never left that ring."

The forest around the car was searched twice

Police considered the possibility that Leah Roberts had somehow survived the jarring crash and walked into the surrounding wilderness. According to a 2011 episode of "Disappeared," a search and rescue team, including trained dogs, was brought in immediately. Aerial surveys using helicopters were also performed. Two weeks were spent combing a large radius of dense forest around the crash site, and, per a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," crews also searched up and down Canyon Creek Road, but no sign of Roberts or anyone else leaving the car was found.

According to Detective Jamie Collins – newly assigned to the case in 2006 after the original detective retired – a second search of the forest was performed in the late 2000s, this time using cadaver dogs and metal detectors. Police hoped to find the metal rod in Roberts' leg, which would not decompose and would contain a serial number that could positively identify her. The second search, like the first, turned up nothing.

Leah Roberts spoke to two men at a mall restaurant in Washington

Hidden within a keepsake box in Leah Roberts' car, police found a movie ticket that led to a break in the case. According to a 2011 episode of "Disappeared," Leah had purchased a ticket to a 2:10 pm showing of "American Beauty" at a movie theater located at the Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham, Washington – 30 miles from the crash site – at 1:33 pm on Monday, March 13, 2000. Police suspected that she had likely made the drive from Brooks, Oregon to Bellingham in five to six hours, meaning she probably spent some time there before the afternoon movie. While handing out missing person flyers at the mall, Leah's sister Kara Roberts noticed a sit-down restaurant at the food court that her sister would likely eat at and inquired within. Sure enough, staff members recalled seeing Leah.

On the afternoon of March 13, Leah had dined alone at the bar between two male patrons before her movie. One of these men later called the police to provide information, claiming Leah had been talkative and friendly and had spoken with him and a second man seated on the other side of her before leaving the restaurant alone. 

But when police contacted the second man, his story was slightly different. He claimed Leah had chatted about Jack Kerouac and her travels before leaving with a third man named Barry, who he was able to describe in such detail that a composite sketch was rendered (pictured). The first man did not mention seeing Barry, and police suspected he might not exist, making the second man a possible suspect.

A mysterious caller claimed to have seen Leah Roberts near Seattle

One week after Leah Roberts'  car was found, detectives received a bizarre tip. According to a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," an anonymous man called the police and claimed that his wife had seen Leah acting disoriented at a gas station. But before providing more information, he panicked and hung up. As The Foothills Gazette notes, this gas station was a Texaco in Everett, Washington, located about 30 miles north of Seattle and, per Trippy, about 60 miles south of Bellingham. Police have not heard from the caller since but considered the tip credible.

According to Leah's sister Kara Roberts in a 2005 episode of "Larry King Live," both family members and police had considered the possibility that Leah had survived the car crash but suffered a head injury that resulted in amnesia. But according to a 2011 episode of "Disappeared," no one matching her description was found in the nearby hospitals. As speculated in "Unsolved Mysteries," it's possible that a confused Leah wandered from the crash site and hitchhiked, where she met with foul play or was transported far away from the scene with no knowledge of who she was.

New evidence found in Leah Roberts' car suggests foul play

As Leah Roberts' case went cold, her sister Kara insisted that the police keep her car and belongings in the hope that they contained additional evidence or that advances in technology would someday result in a lead (per a 2011 episode of "Disappeared"). This paid off. A new detective team was assigned to the case when the original detective retired, and, in reviewing the evidence at hand, discovered that the car had not been fully processed. They also realized that during the original investigation, the car's hood had never been opened.

Upon examining the Jeep's engine in 2007, they quickly discovered signs of tampering. The starter relay's cover had been removed, which would enable a person outside the vehicle to push on the relay and accelerate the car without a driver so long as the key was in the ignition. Such an alteration could only be accomplished by someone with advanced mechanical knowledge, which led the police back to the second man at the restaurant, who happened to be a mechanic with a military background. Fingerprints were also found on the underside of the hood, allowing police to bring the man – now living in Canada – back in for fingerprinting and DNA testing. 

In 2008, police determined that his fingerprints did not match those found on the car, taking the investigation back to square one.

Male DNA was found on clothing recovered at the crash site

As part of their evidence overhaul, the Whatcom County detectives sent several articles of Leah Roberts' clothing to the FBI for DNA testing in 2007 (per a 2011 episode of "Disappeared"). According to a 2001 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," the original investigators had already tested the vehicle and all of Roberts' belongings for the presence of hair, fibers, and blood. But with recent advances in forensic technology, the new detective team hoped to discover trace DNA on Roberts' belongings that forensic analysis would not have been able to detect back in 2000.

In 2010, male DNA was discovered on an article of clothing retrieved from Roberts' car – further evidence that she may have been the victim of a crime. As of the last update in 2011, police were still awaiting a match. No updates have been issued since, and, as of 2022, no arrests have been made in the case. 

Still, it's possible another key piece of evidence may eventually be discovered in Roberts' car. As Detective Jamie Collins explains in "Disappeared," "That car has something to tell us. Because we don't have a crime scene, we don't have a body." In the meantime, Leah Roberts' Jeep Cherokee remains in police custody – a decades-old time capsule of a soul-searching road trip that ended before it began.