"People don't just disappear. Other people just stop looking for them."
It was the 5th of December 2015. A Saturday. Nineteen year old Katelin Akens was in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, United States. She had been there since the 1st of December and was visiting her mother Lisa Sullivan and her sister Gabriela. Gabriela had a new baby, a baby boy, and Katelin wanted to meet her nephew so she arranged to go back home to Virginia on a four day trip. Katelin also needed to collect her High School Diploma as she was starting a cosmetology course in Arizona.
Katelin moved to Arizona in 2014 to live with her girlfriend Amber Rios. She was due to start the new cosmetology course on the Monday, the 7th of December. Katelin had her flight booked back to Arizona from Virginia for the 5th of December on the 5.40pm flight. That day, the 5th of December, Lisa couldn't drop Katelin off at the airport as she had to work. She asked her ex husband, James Branton, if he could bring her instead.
Lisa and James were married when Katelin was young. He wasn't Katelin's biological father but he helped to raise her. After Lisa and James separated, it took a while for things to settle between them all but they did and everything seemed fine. So much so, that when Lisa asked if he could bring Katelin to the airport, he said that it was no problem and he would be happy to do it. He advised he would have to drop her off early though as he had to be in work at 3pm that day.
Lisa dropped Katelin off at James' house at 9.20am that morning. Katelin told James about the new course that she was starting. James was happy to see Katelin and to catch up with her. Lisa left shortly afterwards.
Lisa next heard from James at 1.52pm that day. He told her he dropped Katelin off and she thanked up. James told Lisa that Katelin wanted to be dropped off at the mall, the Springfield Mall, as she would be early. She wanted to look around for a while instead of just waiting inside the airport. The mall was beside a metro station so James told Lisa that Katelin planned to get the metro directly from the mall to the airport. He said that he dropped her off after 1pm and gave her $20 to get the metro.
A few minutes after she received a text from James, Lisa received a text message from Katelin's phone at 2pm:
"I'm at the airport. Battery dying so won't be able to text for a bit."
Later that day, Amber reached out to Lisa. Amber had also received a text message from Katelin that morning, at 11.56am, which said:
"Something came up. I'm not coming back today. I'll let you know when I get a new flight. I won't be able to text for a bit."
At 7.15pm that evening, Lisa received another text message from Katelin:
"I'm staying with a friend. I need some time alone."
Neither of them knew what was going on and none of it made sense. As far as Lisa was aware, Katelin was getting the metro to the airport to get that 5.40pm flight home. So what happened when James dropped her off at the mall? Both Amber and Lisa called Katelin multiple times and told her they were worried about her via text messages but she didn't answer the calls or the text messages.
Lisa spoke to James again to let him know that Katelin did not make it to the airport and she asked him what happened when he dropped Katelin off and if she told him if she was meeting anyone at the mall. But James said she did not mention meeting up with anyone and she simply wanted to waste a bit of time at the mall before going to the airport. Lisa reported Katelin missing.
The police had to establish where Katelin was last seen. They gathered that Lisa had dropped her off at James' house but they could not confirm that James dropped Katelin off at the mall. He said that he dropped her outside the JCPenney store but there was no CCTV in the area so at that time, they could not determine if she was at the mall at all that day. They also did not know if she was at the airport at any stage, the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, but they knew she did not get on the flight back to Arizona. So if she wasn't on the flight home, then where was she?
Police spoke to people she knew but nobody knew where she was and she wasn't staying with any of her friends in the area.
Lisa told police that it would have been unusual for Katelin to ask to be dropped off at the mall as it was not a mall she went to and the last time Katelin was on a metro was when she was six or seven years old. Lisa wasn't sure she would even know how to get the metro. Police spoke to James and searched his house and car but they didn't find anything that could assist with their investigation into Katelin's disappearance.
Katelin's phone was missing so police looked at the location records and discovered that when she sent Lisa the text message saying that she was at the airport, her phone pinged at a location more than 30 miles from that Springfield Metro stop. She wasn't at the airport or the mall at that time. Her last text message pinged off a cell tower in Stafford. Police believed that she never left the Fredericksburg area. And they also could not determine that it was Katelin herself that sent the text messages.
Just one day after Katelin disappeared, the body of a young woman was found. Everyone initially feared it was Katelin. But it was the body of 21 year old Heather Ciccone. Her body was found slumped over the steering wheel of a vehicle parked outside a Spotsylvania residence. She died as a result of a gunshot wound to he head. Were the two cases connected? And if so, where was Katelin?
Two days after Katelin disappeared, and just one day after Heather's body was found, Katelin's luggage was found in a drainage ditch in Spotsylvania County near the Fredericksburg city limit. Her luggage was found five miles from where Heather's body was found.
The luggage was found around 50 miles from the airport but just a few miles from Katelin's hometown. So police had to establish if she went to the airport and returned or never left the area in the first place. Due to the condition of the luggage, the wheel was broken and the bag was scuffed, police believed that it may have been thrown out of a moving car. Police found Katelin's wallet, identification and phone charger inside the bag. Her clothes, phone and High School Diploma were missing.
Despite the similarities in the cases, namely that they were a similar age and in the same area, police were able to establish early on that the two cases were not connected. So that meant, they had to focus on the person who was the last known person to see Katelin. And that person was her stepfather James. James stuck to his story that he dropped her off at the mall. But when police looked at the location records for James' phone, they discovered that his phone pinged close to his home when he sent Lisa the text message to say he had dropped Katelin off. His phone was nowhere near the airport or the mall. He decided not to take a polygraph test and it was reported that he would not give police the password for his phone.
Furthermore, James had told Lisa he was due at work at 3pm on the 5th of December and that was why he would have to drop Katelin off early but James never went into work that day and did not return to that job at all. He didn't work for six months after Katelin's disappearance and after that six month period, he got a new job. But there was one big question when it came to James. Why would he want to harm Katelin in any way? According to Lisa, who saw them last together, they were getting along well and catching up with each other.
Police looked into whether Katelin decided to leave of her own accord. One of Katelin's friends said that on the night of the 4th of December, one night before she went missing, Katelin went out with two friends. He claimed that Katelin told him there was a lot of drinking involved and she believed they forced themselves on her. They had a threesome and she felt guilty that she had cheated on Amber. There were questions as to whether that may have prompted her to leave. But her family don't believe that as they saw her the morning of the 5th of December and she was fine. They believed that an app on her phone that has encrypted messages may hold some answers as to what happened to her. To date, Katelin has still not been found and her family have asked that everyone keep talking about her and keep sharing her story so that she will not be forgotten. They need answers and will continue to search for her.
Katelin is described as 5 feet, 4 inches tall and 122 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes. She has distinctive butterflies tattooed on her left forearm and stars on her right foot.
Anyone with information about her disappearance is asked to contact the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office at 540-582-7115 or Spotsylvania Crime Solvers at 1-800-928-5822.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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