Every day, people in America go missing. Parents abduct babies. Teens drink too much and crash their cars in desolate areas. Anguished adults slip off to take their own lives. Whatever their history, age, or education, they are here one minute, gone the next.
Some, like paperboy Johnny Gosch, who disappeared in Iowa in 1982, become front page stories. Some, like kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart, make it home. Others, like pregnant California woman Laci Peterson or Minnesota boy Jacob Wetterling, are found murdered.
But the stories of most missing people slip away as quietly as they did. Those people have a champion in Marissa Jones, a former paralegal and longtime true-crime aficionado who hosts a popular weekly podcast called The Vanished. Each episode focuses on one missing-person case, featuring interviews with people involved with an investigation, from law-enforcement officials to parents and siblings.
She has a loyal audience: The Vanished has uploaded 180 episodes and has logged 40 million downloads since June 2016. Each episode gets between 250,000-400,000 downloads.
That puts her podcast in rare company. Statistics from Libsyn, the oldest podcast-hosting company, say the average podcast gets downloaded about 1,458 times per episode, and any podcast with more than 34,000 downloads per episode is in the top 1 percent of podcasts available. Listener support has been so strong, Jones was able to leave her paralegal job in 2017 to work full time on the show.
Stories of the missing
Many true-crime podcasts focus on murder, which often has some kind of resolution — a body found, a criminal trial. But a missing-persons case is rarely solved at the end of an hour-long episode.
“Did they leave on their own?” Jones wonders. “Self-harm? Murder? If so, then who?”
Jones’ urge to tell stories of the missing comes naturally to her — her own great-grandfather disappeared from Philadelphia in 1928 and was never seen again. Unlike the people at the center of many of her cases, it seems he left willingly.
“The story as I know it today is that he had tried to talk my great-grandmother into leaving the kids behind and moving out west,” Jones says. “She wasn’t having that. One day, he left some money on the table and never returned.”
She’s tried digging into his disappearance, including DNA searches in genealogical databases, but with a nearly century-old case, that’s not easy.
“It is likely that he changed his name, it was pre-Social Security,” she says. “He was only 28, so it is likely he would have started another family.” But even years after he vanished, she says his son, her grandfather, would become “so emotional” talking about it. It’s just one more reminder that no matter how long someone is gone, they’re not forgotten.
From babies to senior citizens
The youngest missing person featured on The Vanished was three-month-old baby Lillianna Pagano, whose story was told on the June 17 episode. Hers is the rare missing-person story that has not just an ending, but a happy one. Pagano and her mother disappeared from tiny Rocheport, Missouri, (population 239) in 2013, and her father, Tyler, has been searching for her ever since. Lillianna, now nearly 6, recently was found safe with her mother in a rented cabin in North Carolina days before her episode aired. Her mother is in jail, and Lillianna, who had been going by the name Nadya, has been reunited with her father.
Jones had to quickly update and edit the episode before releasing it. Pagano’s recovery makes the fourth case where a person covered on the podcast was found alive, she says.
In contrast to baby Lillianna, the oldest subject of an episode was Minnesota farmer Peter Achermann, 82, who vanished in 2009 when he left home to pick up groceries and medication for his wife of more than 50 years. His vehicle was found abandoned, but no sign of Achermann has ever been found. Although his body has never been recovered, his family held a funeral for him in 2018.
“That was a really interesting one to cover because he had written a memoir and his family mailed me a copy, so I had his life in his words,” Jones says of Achermann. The memoir even spoke of what kind of funeral Achermann would like (simple, with cold beer if it was summer, and hot alcoholic drinks if it was in winter).
Stories of missing people aren’t for podcast listeners who insist on a satisfying ending, all questions answered. Most cases are like Achermann’s, where few clues come in after the initial disappearance, and families may live for years without answers.
“Many of my cases have an ending eventually, but they rarely seem to wrap up in the way one would expect from watching television,” Jones says. “Often bodies are eventually found but since they have been in the elements so long, cause of death isn’t able to be determined.”
And sometimes, answers are grim. Jones covered the disappearance of Antonio Jordan Neill in 2018. The 22-year-old disappeared from Everett, Washington, in 2016. On New Year’s Day, 2019, a severed foot later identified as belonging to Neill was found, and he is now presumed dead.
“So much of him is still out there, and how can you tell what happened to him when just a foot washes ashore?” Jones says.
A touching case
It’s hard for Jones to choose one case that has affected her the most. “I take a little piece of each case with me,” she says.
But she was especially touched by the case of Dona Mae Bayerl, who vanished from her Wisconsin home in 1979 after arguing with her husband, John, leaving behind two daughters, then 4 and 7. Jones was so involved with that case it turned into a rare three-part episode.
Bayerl’s husband John hadn’t talked to the police in decades, Jones says, but for some reason, he decided to speak to her for The Vanished.
“I was slightly intimidated because he has a history of abusing women. He gave me a statement though,” she says. After the podcast aired, John Bayerl spoke to police. On June 26, a Wisconsin jury unanimously found him guilty of Dona Mae’s first-degree murder. Dona Mae’s body has not yet been found.
When asked if she feels her work has contributed to the solving of this or any case, Jones waves it off.
“I don’t like to take credit for solving things because the police do that,” she says. “My goal is to get the story out there and maybe someone will remember something they didn’t think was important.”
Making a difference
Podcasts can make a difference, says Meaghan Good, administrator of The Charley Project, a massive online database of missing persons, mostly Americans.
“They can fill in the gaps that don’t get reported elsewhere,” Good says.
And a podcaster can cover cases in a way that newspapers can’t, Good points out, sometimes spending multiple hours covering one disappearance, and interviewing family members and others who may have additional information about a case.
Gregory Mann, known as Keith, was just 20 when he went missing in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1997. His father and stepmother, Gregg and Debra Mann, contacted The Vanished, and were interviewed for an episode on Keith’s disappearance, which aired in 2018.
The podcast didn’t solve Keith Mann’s case, but his family appreciates how it raised awareness of the decades-old mystery.
“Many listeners from all around the country joined our Facebook page and have also joined in the efforts of continuously sharing Keith’s flyer for us,” Debra Mann says. “They have also shared many different theories of what might have happened and this has helped us to come up with some new questions to ask the detective on the case.”
At first, Jones came up with her own topics, but since about mid-2016, all the cases are submitted by a friend or family member of the missing person. The podcast’s site has a case-submission form and Jones says she’s received thousands over the years. Even law-enforcement officers have begun sending her suggested cases.
Not all suggestions make it on the show.
“I can’t cover anyone if they aren’t officially reported missing,” she says. “(And) sometimes there just isn’t enough information, or I have found someone being dishonest and I no longer felt comfortable moving forward.” And often, she says, a friend or family member will submit a case for consideration, but never responds to her follow-up phone calls and emails.
She researches a case for several months before releasing an episode, contacting multiple sources and plowing through case records. Right now, she’s reading a 400-page file for an upcoming episode, a 1990s case where two people disappeared together.
The cases on Jones’ podcast are complicated. Some people may want to be missing. Some likely have died by suicide. Many involve missing persons with criminal records or drug addiction.
For those cases, she seeks to interview addiction experts who can explain the situation in a relatable way. And while she sometimes receives nasty messages blaming the victims, she also hears from those who are thankful she’s not ignoring reality.
“I get a lot of messages thanking me for covering these stories from people who are in recovery or love someone who is struggling with addiction,” she says. “I feel like it is important to remember that those left behind, searching, did not choose this. They deserve our empathy and they deserve a voice.”