The Strangest Places Kidnapped Children Have Been Found

In early 2022, 6-year-old Paislee Shultis, who had been missing for two years, was found hidden under a staircase in a rural New York home. She was living with non-custodial parents who are also believed to be responsible for her abduction, as NBC News reports. Shultis was returned to her legal guardians, and three individuals — including her biological parents and paternal grandfather — were charged with her 2019 disappearance. They have all pleaded not guilty, according to People Magazine.

As reported by Reuters, roughly 365,000 American children under the age of 17 were reported missing in 2020, per the FBI (while worldwide, some 8 million children go missing each year, according to the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children). Also according to Reuters, far fewer than 1% of those children are typically abducted by strangers, and most of the children reported missing turn out to be runaways. Following that, a large number of missing children are kidnapped by non-custodial parents or relatives, as was the case with Shultis. Amazingly, a 2002 U.S. Justice Department study found that nearly all children reported missing are recovered alive. Here are just some of the strangest places these kidnapped children have been found.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

In the hospital

According to The Guardian, Austrian Josef Fritzl (pictured above) asked his daughter Elisabeth Fritzl to help with a project in a cellar he had been building under their garden. The year was 1984, and Elisabeth was only 18 years old, per The Sun. After the task was complete, Fritzl knocked his daughter out with a cloth soaked in ether, and she remained captive in this cold and dark cellar dungeon for 24 years; Josef Fritzl said his daughter had run away. In this time, she was repeatedly raped by her Josef, and she delivered seven children while in captivity. Three of Elisabeth Fritzl's children lived with her in the cellar, while the rest were allowed to live upstairs with their biological grandmother and a grandfather, who was also their father. One of the children died shortly after birth.

Eventually, one of Josef and Elisabeth's children, Kerstin, who was 19 at the time, became sick and needed medical attention. Josef Fritzl brought Elisabeth and Kerstin to the hospital, where doctors suspected child abuse and neglect. Fritzl said Elisabeth and her children were recently released from a religious sect that had abducted them. Elisabeth told authorities the truth: She had been held in captivity for more than two decades in a cellar built by her father. More than 70 years old, Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in jail.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

At a parole meeting

In 1991, Jaycee Dugard (pictured above) was abducted from outside her home in South Lake Tahoe when she was only 11 years old. Horrifically, Dugard's stepdad witnessed the abduction but was unable to catch up with the vehicle (via Biography). Try as they might, no trace of the young woman could be found. Dugard, who was renamed "Allissa," was held for nearly two decades by Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy. Dugard was repeatedly raped and impregnated twice by her abductor. Dugard and her children lived in captivity in a studio built in Garrido's backyard, and they were completely cut off from the outside world.

In 2009, Garrido visited the campus of UC Berkeley with the two daughters he had fathered with Dugard. He was there to seek permits to hold a religious event. Suspicious, event managers at the school and campus police officers ran a background check on Garrido, which uncovered that he was a registered sex offender. Berkeley representatives contacted Garrido's parole officer, who was surprised to learn that Garrido had children. Incredibly, Garrido brought his wife, Dugard (who was referred to as "Allissa"), and all of their children to his next parole meeting, where he claimed Jaycee and the children were just relatives. Eventually, that story fell apart, and Jaycee and the children were rescued, per The Denver Post. Phillip Garrido is serving more than 400 years to life in a California State Prison, while Nancy Garrido is serving 36 years to life.

While they were hitchhiking

In 1972, Steven Stayner was only 7 years old when he was lured into a car near his California home, as Santa Rosa newspaper The Press Democrat reports. For eight years, Stayner was held captive and sexually abused by Kenneth Parnell, who told others he was Stayner's father. After living in a few different locations around the state of California, Parnell kidnapped then 5-year-old Timmy White in 1980 when Stayner was only 14 years old. Shortly after White's abduction, both boys escaped, and the two young children managed to hitchhike to the local police station, where they turned Parnell in. "I brought in Timmy because I didn't like what was happening. It happened to me, and I didn't want to see it happen to anyone else," Stayner said (via The Press Democrat).

Following that, Parnell — who had a criminal record of child molestation — was sentenced to a seven-year sentence for kidnapping, of which he only served five. He was later sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy to steal a child, and he died in 2008. Despite their miraculous escape, which led to a 1989 TV movie called "I Know My First Name Is Steven," the Stayner and White story ended tragically. Stayner died in a motorcycle crash at the age of 24, and his brother was later revealed to be a serial killer. In 2010, Timmy White died from a pulmonary embolism at age 25.

Behind a false wall

In 2010, Gregory Jean was allowed by his mother to visit his father, Gregory Jean Sr., from whom she was separated (via The Guardian). Jean's mother, Lisa Smith, lived in Florida, and Jean Sr. and his wife, Samantha Davis, lived in Georgia. Gregory Jean never returned from that trip. His mother was a Haitian immigrant, and although she notified some authorities that her son was missing, she never contacted the police, possibly because of her immigration status. For their part, Jean Sr. and Davis withdrew Jean from school, claiming they would homeschool their son. While in captivity, Jean was forced to clean and beaten with a stick. He was also deprived of food and only allowed to use a bucket for a toilet, among other abuses.

The young boy was allowed to call his mother occasionally but never allowed to reveal the full extent of his predicament. He was finally able to seek help from his mother and sister through a Facebook friend request. To accomplish this, Jean managed to connect a cell phone to a Wi-Fi connection and also download an app with which he could call his mother in secret. After doing so, Jean's mother contacted the police, who visited the home of Jean Sr. and Davis. While there, they found Jean living behind a false wall in squalid conditions. Both Jean Sr. and Davis were charged with child cruelty and false imprisonment, per the Daily Mail.

In plain sight

In 2002, 11-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was abducted by Michael Devlin (via the Daily Mail). Four years later, Devlin abducted another boy named Ben Ownby, who was 13. In the intervening time frame, Hornbeck was living with Devlin, sometimes as his son and other times as his godson, among other covers. He was also sexually abused. A witness, however, had seen Devlin's truck at the time of the Ownby abduction. That truck would later be spotted by police while on an unrelated call at Devlin's apartment complex.

Eventually, both Hornbeck and Ownby were returned to their families alive. Devlin is currently serving 71 life sentences in western Missouri for kidnapping and the sexual abuse of a child. What's also amazing about the Shawn Hornbeck abduction and recovery is how much freedom he was allowed to have by Devlin while he was in captivity. Per the Daily Mail, Devlin at first kept Hornbeck restrained and even tried to kill him. But after pleading for mercy, Devlin eventually allowed Hornbeck to have a cell phone and social life and even go on some dates. Shawn Hornbeck, however, was not allowed to attend school.