The Mysterious Disappearance Of Christina Whittaker

Hannibal, Missouri, bills itself as "Smalltown USA." According to WGEM, it holds the Travel Channel title of "Missouri's most charming town." The birthplace of literary giant Mark Twain (via the Mark Twain Museum), the town's supposed to be as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer as it gets. But there's a darker side to the city. According to Crime Grade, those on the east side of the town have a one-in-17 risk of becoming a crime victim. And no story may better illustrate this point than the disappearance of 21-year-old Christina Whittaker, according to Missing Persons of America.

Dig more deeply into this strange case, and you'll quickly realize a few things. Eyewitness accounts contradict each other. Details don't make sense, and local secrets simmer beneath the surface. Trying to sift through these inconsistencies proves bewildering. Why? Because the stories of those most closely involved with Whittaker (aka Tina Young) keep changing. And they don't always add up.

Unfortunately, the young mother remains gone after vanishing without a trace on November 13, 2009 (via KHQA). Some would say her case has gone cold. But again, there's more to this true crime tale than meets the eye.

From whispers of domestic violence to human trafficking, more happened that night than many people prove willing to let on. While some may wish to see these secrets remain buried, others desperately want closure for the Whittaker case more than a decade later.

A night of fun turns into a nightmare

On that fateful Friday, November 13, 2009, Christina Whittaker was last seen outside of a couple of sports bars in Hannibal, Missouri. The night began at Rookie's, located at 611 Broadway, on the east side of town. Some accounts say she initially met her friends at the bar, as reported by the Las Vegas World News. According to My True Crime Stories, it marked the young mother's first night out since having her baby. 

But things took a dramatic turn for the worse at roughly 11:45 p.m. According to some accounts, Whittaker got rowdy after drinking too much (via Charley Project). So, the bartender kicked her out. Inexplicably, her friends refused to leave with her. Whittaker found herself inebriated and alone on a cold November night.

Whittaker's mother, Cindy Young, claims her daughter begged the bartender to speak to her friends (still inside the bar) and let them know she needed a ride home. How Young, who was out of town at the time (via the "Steve Wilkos Show"), came by this information, she hasn't explained. That said, it's a small town, and rumors have a way of traveling quickly. 

Despite her please, Whittaker's friends still refused to leave. Her friend, Bree Anna, would later claim on the Steve Wilkos Show that she didn't go outside to offer Whittaker a ride because she "didn't need to go to jail."

The details surrounding her disappearance offer few clues

After exiting Rookie's, Christina Whittaker headed next door to the Sportsman's Bar and then River City Billiards, according to Jerrie Dean of Missing Persons of America. She begged people for a ride along the way. Both acquaintances and strangers refused her, a strange indictment on "America's Hometown," as people often bill Hannibal.

Of course, hindsight proves 20/20, as they say. And there's no way to gauge how Whittaker behaved that night apart from eyewitness testimony. That said, fathoming the unwillingness to help a local girl in a town of nearly 17,500 also requires a stretch of the imagination. Especially since she started the evening in the company of friends. This detail represents just one of many that has people scratching their heads.

What happened next? Unable to secure a way home, eyewitnesses last saw Whittaker sobbing and running out the back entrance of Sportsman's (via My True Crime Stories). No one has seen her in Hannibal since.

Later, authorities recovered her phone a few yards from Sportsman's, in front of an apartment complex on the 200 block of Seventh Street near Church Street. Although Whittaker's frantic flight took place in a commercial area with multiple bars, no surveillance video from that night has emerged.

A vulnerable young woman with nowhere to turn

Christina Whittaker didn't have proper clothing to ward off the cold of a November night. As reported by the Charley Project, people last saw her wearing jeans, a pink tank top, a white half-sleeve shirt, and white and pink Nikes. She stood about 5-feet 5-inches tall and weighed between 120 and 130 pounds. She had brown eyes, red hair, and a variety of distinctive scars and tattoos, including a Care Bear with a marijuana leaf on her ankle and a large angel with a raised middle finger on her back. 

She lived with her mother in the Oakwood neighborhood, roughly a six-minute drive from Rookie's and a 52-minute walk (via Google Maps). Recently, she'd been arrested for driving with a revoked license. Due to her disappearance, she missed a court date on December 18, 2009, and now has a warrant out for her arrest.

My True Crime Stories notes that Whittaker suffered from fibromyalgia, anxiety attacks, and bipolar disorder for which she took daily medication. Could the meds she took have interacted badly with alcohol? According to Drugs.com, interactions between bipolar medications and alcohol can prove incredibly dangerous. After all, bipolar medications impact specific chemicals in the central nervous system, resulting in memory loss, dizziness, increased risks of falling, and confusion.

What's more, Very Well Mind reports that drinking and consuming bipolar meds "impairs your judgment and makes you more impulsive and increases the risk of suicide, injury, hospitalization, and sexually transmitted infections ..."

A message to her boyfriend, Travis Blackwell

Later, more pieces would get added to the puzzle. The Las Vegas World News reports that Christina Whittaker's then-boyfriend, Travis Blackwell, received a call from Whittaker at 10:30 p.m. to check in with him. Blackwell stayed at Cindy Young's house that night to babysit Whittaker's six-month-old baby girl, Alexandria, in Whittaker's absence. Whittaker told Blackwell she had a ride home and would return around midnight after stopping at a restaurant to pick up food for him.

Whittaker never showed up. The following day, Blackwell notified Young that her daughter never returned home. He stayed with the baby until he could find a family member to watch her. Young waited until Sunday to file a missing person report. 

Again, dissonance surrounds the details. As Chellie Cervone, writing for the Las Vegas World News, observes, "A 21-year-old girl who is the mother of a 6-month-old baby and who allegedly either speaks to or sees her mother daily just ups and disappears, but she wasn't reported missing right away can, I'll admit, seem strange."

Whittaker also missed taking her meds, which meant further cause for alarm. Why didn't police learn of her disappearance sooner? Cervone hypothesizes that Whittaker may have disappeared more often than the family let on. But Young told Steve Wilkos that Whittaker had "never been gone for more than two days in her entire life."

The aftermath of Christina Whittaker's disappearance

Cindy Young described her daughter as mentally fragile, naïve, and prone to childlike behavior, as reported by True Case Files. In an interview with KHQA, she said Christina Whittaker might also suffer from depression exacerbated by postpartum depression. This characterization of Whittaker's genuine vulnerabilities only serves to underscore her potential for endangerment. According to Las Vegas World News, it also sheds a harsh light on Whittaker's friends and family, raising questions about why they waited so long to contact the police. 

Why no alarm by Saturday night when the mentally fragile woman hadn't shown up? Why no next-day calls from the "friends" out with her that night? As for Travis Blackwell, why didn't he wait up for the takeout Whittaker promised him? Perhaps these details could be explained away, but they feel inconsistent. 

The Hannibal Police Department played devil's advocate, claiming neither Young nor Blackwell acted outside of the norm. According to Capt. Jim Hark, "It's not uncommon to have a person gone for a day or two, but after that, we start taking a hard look at what is going on."

Nevertheless, even the casual onlooker realizes holes exist in the stories spun by Young and Blackwell in the hours and days following Whittaker's vanishing. 

A dramatic appearance on the "Steve Wilkos Show" yields conflicting stories

Eighty-two days after Christina's disappearance, Steve Wilkos invited her family and friends to appear on an episode of his show titled "Did You Kill Christina?" Many previously undisclosed details surfaced. 

Cindy Young accused Travis Blackwell of showing no concern or emotion following Christina Whittaker's disappearance. She also stated that the 10:30 p.m. call between he and Whittaker likely involved a heated argument. Young also claimed her caller ID showed Whittaker had telephoned again, and that other family members in the house heard the phone ring. But she said Blackwell refused to answer. According to a later interview, Young said the other family members at the house included Whittaker's brother and his girlfriend. Why they didn't pick up the phone remains unexplained.

Whittaker's friend, Bree Anna, corroborated the phone call fight in her interview with Steve Wilkos. She said Whittaker got removed from Rookie's for yelling over the phone. She also claimed a history of extreme domestic violence existed between the two. The show culminated with the results of Blackwell's two failed lie detector tests regarding Whittaker's disappearance. It looked like a slam-dunk case until Young rescinded everything.

In a Herald-Whig interview published after the February 2010 airing of the show, she said Blackwell would never hurt her daughter. She also claimed he had passed a lie detector test through the Hannibal Police Department. Young even used the presence of her son and his girlfriend at the house that night as an alibi for Blackwell. Young's contradictory testimony proved mind boggling to viewers of the show. It also begged the question: Was anyone telling the truth?

Preying on a vulnerable, mentally ill girl

If Travis Blackwell wasn't involved in Christina Whittaker's disappearance, then what happened to her? As days stretched into weeks, Cindy Young's concerns grew that her daughter had fallen prey to a predator.

According to My True Crime Stories, within two weeks of Whittaker's disappearance, an informant gave the Hannibal Police Department its first solid lead. The informant claimed a group of men dealing in sex work and drugs had trafficked Whittaker to Peoria, Illinois, where she worked in the sex trade. So, Young started spending time in Peoria, questioning locals about her daughter's whereabouts, and a private investigator also scoured the city (via KHQA). 

According to KHQA, Officer Doug Burgess of the Peoria Police Department stated, "We do have prostitution and drug activity. As far as human trafficking, we don't see it all that much. I've never seen it in my career here." 

In an exposé of human trafficking published in Peoria Magazines in May 2018, Carol Merna presents a different picture: "Millions of women, men and children around the world — including here in central Illinois — are modern-day slaves. We have seen with certainty that the inhumane practice of human trafficking is prosperous in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties." According to Merna, 15% of human trafficking victims in central Illinois come from out of state (not counting foreign-born individuals).

Sightings of Christina Whittaker after her disappearance

There have been reported sightings of Christina Whittaker in Peoria, Illinois, adding fuel to the speculation about her vanishing. 

The Las Vegas World News reports a waitress named Beth Taylor, who worked at Raedene's Country Café in Creve Coeur, sore she saw Whittaker just days after the young mother's initial disappearance, stating, "It was definitely her. I'm 110 percent sure." As reported by My True Crime Stories, a Peoria Police Department (PPD) officer reported seeing her, too. A woman said she even spent time with Whittaker in a local mental hospital where the traumatized, missing girl related details about her life as a forced sex worker.

Yet, according to PPD's Officer Doug Burgess in a 2012 interview with KHQA, "We don't have any confirmation that she's in the area." Burgess did discuss the possible police sighting. According to Burgess, a female looking similar to Whittaker ran from a PPD narcotics officer after he made initial contact with her. As a result, the officer couldn't confirm her identity. 

The official narrative from the PPD has evolved over the years. On November 21, 2018, the PPD posted a Crime Stoppers video about Whittaker's disappearance via its Facebook page. In the video, Detective Sherrell Stinson spoke briefly about "confirmed" sightings in Peoria over the years, offering a $1,000 reward to anyone with information leading to her location.

A complex investigation yielding few answers

After vanishing with few traces, Christina Whittaker left behind Alexandria, her mother Cindy Young, and hundreds of unanswered questions, according to Missing Persons of America.

On the 10th anniversary of her disappearance, KHQA ran a story revisiting the case. Reporter Rajah Maples interviewed Whittaker's mother and two officers from the Hannibal Police Department (HPD), Lt. Jennifer Grote and Lt. Jacob Nacke.

Grote has handled the case from day one. She says HPD has interviewed more than 200 people in connection with the investigation, including individuals incarcerated for other crimes. She notes the family has their DNA registered through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a nationwide database where unidentified remains get matched with missing persons. About two months into the initial investigation, the FBI even stepped in. Grote remarked, "They said we had done more than what they would've done in some instances. Because some of the leads that we follow up on are things like with psychics and just very strange and odd tips."

The collaborations wouldn't end there. More than 45 different agencies weighed in on the case. HPD also conducted a dig in autumn of 2018, but no evidence or human remains turned up.

What happened to Christina Whittaker takes the internet by storm

But human trafficking isn't the only theory people have about this case. Users on Reddit have theorized Whittaker could have drowned. There's a significant geographic detail often overlooked in articles about Christina Whittaker — the location of the bars in question. Whittaker vanished half a mile from the Mississippi River. Broadway, the street Rookie's bar sits on, dead-ends at boat slips. Google Maps reports the average pedestrian could make the trek from Rookie's to the Mississippi River's banks in just nine minutes.

Turning right or left could result in falling off a ledge into the river, especially when drunk and disoriented. Currents in the river prove powerful, making swimming to safety nearly impossible. The river also represents an ideal location for those considering suicide or homicide, as reported by Twin Cities. When bodies end up in the water, accidentally or intentionally, fast-moving currents wash them hundreds of miles or more downstream. 

Others in the thread also note the rural nature of Hannibal's setting. Had Whittaker tried to walk home through the woods, hypothermia might have set in. Almanac reports that on November 13, 2009, Hannibal experienced a low of 39.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Is that cold enough to kill someone? Live Science reports that between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, body temperatures can drop dangerously low. Factors like sweating and inebriation speed up the process. According to the article "Alcohol and Cold," by researcher P. O. Granberg, "Alcohol is a dominant cause in urban hypothermia." Nature remains the wild card in all of this. 

Many pieces of the puzzle still don't fit

Eight years after her daughter's disappearance, Cindy Young stated that Christina Whittaker is alive and most likely the victim of human trafficking, as reported by Hannibal's Courier-Post. In an interview with Theda Person for "Christian Ferguson Looking for an Angel" in January 2021, Young discussed the trafficking narrative, disclosing new details based on alleged street interviews in Peoria.

With so many twists and turns in this case, it would be easy to assume the disappearance of Whittaker will remain unsolved. But a six-part true crime series by Christina Fontana called "Relentless" promises to shed new light on the case. According to Cord Cutters News, Fontana spent more than 11 years investigating the case.

She collected in excess of 400 hours of footage from video diaries and field investigations, and Fontana promises viewers explosive revelations. What can you expect from the show? According to MSN, everything from police corruption to human trafficking, organized crime to very deep, very dark family secrets.