Jeremy Lybarger | Longreads | 4,160 words (17 minutes)
From the outside, it’s just another mobile home in a neighborhood of mobile homes on the northwest side of Fort Wayne, Indiana. There’s the same carport, the same wedge of grass out front, the same dreamy suburban soundtrack of wind chimes and air conditioners. Nothing suggests this particular home belongs to a 32-year-old woman whose encyclopedic knowledge of missing persons has earned her a cult following online. The FBI knows who she is. So do detectives and police departments across the country. Desperate families sometimes seek her out. Chances are that if you mention someone who has disappeared in America, Meaghan Good can tell you the circumstances from memory — the who, what, when, and where. The why is almost always a mystery.
A week after she turned 19, Good started the Charley Project, an ever-expanding online database that features the stories and photographs of people who’ve been missing in the United States for at least a year. She named the site after Charles Brewster Ross, a 4-year-old boy kidnapped in 1874 from the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. His body was never found, and his abduction prompted the first known ransom note in America. Like Charles Brewster Ross, the nearly 10,000 people profiled on Good’s site are cold cases. Many fit the cliché of having vanished without a trace, and if it weren’t for Meaghan Good, most of these cases would have faded into oblivion.
Good’s website is a record of what some in law enforcement have described as a “mass disaster over time.” Almost 2,000 people are reported missing every day in America, well over a half a million each year. The majority are eventually found, either dead or alive — teen runaways, down-on-their-lucks hoping to make a clean start somewhere else, the mentally ill who stray out of their neighborhoods and onto the evening news. But tens of thousands more remain missing, often for decades. The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) currently lists more than 88,000 active missing persons cases. And Nancy Ritter of the National Institute of Justice estimated in the mid-2000s that 40,000 unidentified remains have turned up in the United States. The actual number could be far higher.
As the cold cases have multiplied, so have sites like the Charley Project, offering armchair detectives an opportunity to flex their investigative muscles and crowdsource leads. The best known are WebSleuths and NamUs, the latter of which is operated by the federal Department of Justice, as well as the many missing persons groups on Reddit. There are also start-ups like the Murder Accountability Project, which tracks unsolved homicides via computer algorithm. But unlike these sites, the Charley Project isn’t updated by a ragtag army of volunteers or paid staffers. It’s entirely the work — the obsession, really — of Meaghan Good, who has been known to log 14-hour days in front of Orville, the computer that fans of the site raised $1,000 for her to buy.
Good does not investigate cases herself. Instead, the Charley Project’s “irregulars” — Good’s nickname for the site’s diehards, an homage to Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars — have helped match a handful of previously unidentified bodies to missing persons. In a dramatic finding from 2014, a woman in Ireland matched a man who’d gone missing in Texas 10 years before to the body of a John Doe in Arizona. It was a bittersweet occasion, the woman said. Solving the puzzle was gratifying, but it also meant that parents on the other side of the world were notified that their son would never come home.
As cold cases multiplied, so have sites like the Charley Project, offering armchair detectives an opportunity to flex their investigative muscles and crowdsource leads.
“I hope she continues to run the site for as long as she’s on this earth, because the true crime community needs her,” says Ed Dentzel, a friend of Good’s who hosts a weekly podcast about missing persons. That sentiment is echoed on Reddit, where entire threads are devoted to the strangest Charley Project cases. Users of the site are also active on Good’s personal blog, where they’re granted unfettered, sometimes harrowing access to Good’s inner life. “I was going to do a [list] yesterday of people who disappeared on the Fourth of July, but life intervened,” she wrote last summer. “I got more and more manic over the weekend and as a result I was awake for two and a half days in spite of lying quietly in bed most of the time.”
Good is candid about her mental and physical illnesses, which include autism, bipolar disorder, suicidal ideation, insomnia, and the bouts of “stark raving madness,” as she calls them, that trigger hallucinations and paranoid delusions. She’s also outspoken about being raped in 2009 and the PTSD that followed. As alarming as these conditions are for Good, they’re also necessary for her work. One of the conditions experienced by people with autism is all-consuming interest in a narrow or esoteric topic. Good’s exceptional focus has helped the Charley Project become the second-largest missing persons database online behind NamUs. Her attention to detail is also why researchers, reporters, and even the FBI consider the site a living archive of information that might otherwise be forgotten.
When I meet Meaghan Good at her home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on a hot weekend last June, she’s just returned from a tour of Nazi death camps in Poland. Books from the Auschwitz gift shop line a shelf, and a shard of pottery from Treblinka sits on her desk. We settle into her home office, which looks out onto a sun-scorched street and a neighbor’s flag-bedecked house. Good’s cats, Aria and Carmen, weave around empty Pepsi bottles stockpiled for her father’s home winery, cheekily named “Chateau Good.”
Good seems to have her mind on mortality — not her own, but that of the Charley Project. Recently, she’s begun to think about recruiting other writers to help expand the database. “Ninety-five hundred cases is a lot, but it’s not enough,” she says of the site’s current archive. Her boyfriend, Michael, relates a terrifying thought that gnawed at him during their flight to Poland: If their plane crashed, that would be the end of the Charley Project.
Despite 14 years of work, and anywhere between five and 20 new case files added per day, Good has barely begun to capture the scale of America’s missing persons. By the end of our two days together, another 4,000 people had disappeared. It’s a cycle that never ends — it barely even slows. Yet the prospect of inviting outsiders into her inner sanctum makes Good uneasy. There’s the threat of a coup, or of shoddy research, fates that have befallen other missing persons databases over the years. Still, she knows that an entire shadow nation of distraught families looks to the Charley Project and the grassroots investigations it inspires.
Sometimes it seems like every small town in America is home to someone searching for a lost loved one. “I’ve never been a big believer in the idea that that sort of thing doesn’t happen here,” Good says of people who seemingly vanish into thin air. “That sort of thing happens everywhere.”
It can also happen to anyone. Good considers herself the kind of person — vulnerable and mentally ill — who could disappear without much fanfare. Comparing her life to the lives of the missing persons on her site, she is often struck by the survivor’s proverb: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Browsing the site’s case files, I’m struck by the eerie randomness of the disappearances; how easily missing people can stay missing, even in an age of smartphones, GPS tracking, surveillance, and almost constant contact online. The stories rattle some primitive part of our brain, one where the world is bigger, more mysterious, and more inexplicable than our daily grind suggests. The Charley Project reminds us it’s still possible to fall off the face of the earth.
Consider the case of Brian Shaffer, whose disappearance from Columbus, Ohio, in 2006 reads like grim Midwest folklore. He was partying with friends at a bar near the Ohio State University campus in the late hours of April 1. He was last seen speaking to two college-aged women inside the bar, but security cameras don’t show him leaving it. His personal belongings disappeared along with him; his cell phone, credit cards, and bank accounts weren’t used after that night. Some speculate that Shaffer’s body is still in the bar, perhaps interred in the walls.
Or consider Christene Seal, a 22-year-old wife and mother who vanished from her Verona, Missouri, home in 1972. “Bloodhounds traced her scent only as far as the driveway,” writes Good — many of her descriptions have the pacing of a thriller. “The mailman had stopped by the Seal home at 9:30 a.m. and saw their child just inside the screen door crying, indicating Seal disappeared sometime before that.”
Then there’s Korrina Malinoski, who disappeared from Mount Holly, South Carolina, in the winter of 1987. A year later, her 11-year-old daughter, Annette, also disappeared. Her stepfather discovered a penciled note left behind at a bus stop: “Dad, momma came back. Give the boys a hug.”
Charlotte Heimann, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student, checked herself into a Rochester, New York, psychiatric hospital in 1981 to get away from a man who she claimed was stalking her. She told nurses she was afraid to go home, but they released her 72 hours later, and she was never seen again.
There’s Maria De Los Angeles Martinez, a 17-year-old from Phoenix who advertised her babysitting service on the radio in 1990. An unidentified man responded and picked her up, presumably so she could look after his kids. She’s been missing ever since.
And there’s 9-year-old Asha Degree, who disappeared from her Shelby, North Carolina, bedroom early Valentine’s Day morning, in 2000. Truck drivers “reported seeing her walking south on Highway 18 north of Shelby between 3:30 a.m. and 4:15 a.m.,” writes Good. “She left the highway at this point and walked off into the darkness. It was the last confirmed sighting of the child.”
There are thousands more stories like these, many of them banal in their particulars: A man goes to the grocery store and never comes home; a woman enters a phone booth to call her boyfriend and vanishes. What gives the stories the frisson of campfire tales are the three haunting words embedded in the heart of each: they were “never seen again.” Good’s retellings are addictive because she casts herself as the omniscient narrator who has interrogated every witness and knows everything except where the cold trail leads. Her descriptions have a literary tone, but remain neutral and objective, as if a short story writer tried her hand at police reports instead.
It’s impossible not to feel spooked by the Charley Project’s vision of America as a vast black hole. And it’s impossible not to wonder what kind of person would choose to spend her life immersed in other people’s tragedies.
Meaghan Good grew up in Venedocia, Ohio, a village of fewer than 200 people, about an hour from Fort Wayne. There’s not much by way of scenery in Venedocia: miles of flat cropland broken by a huddle of houses and wind-tossed trees, all of it seeming to emanate from the century-old Salem Presbyterian Church on Main Street. A sign in the rambling graveyard on the edge of town notes that “wolves, panthers, and other wild beasts” used to scratch at settlers’ doors in the night. It’s possible they still do.
Although Good describes the town as being “safe as a cradle,” her childhood there was unhappy. Children bullied her, both because they sensed her then-undiagnosed mental illnesses, and because of her peculiar pastimes. She liked to hang out alone in the cemetery, straightening lopsided headstones and buying flowers for the dead people she’d adopt as confidants. Her half-brother, killed in a car accident in 1988, is buried there too. “Every stone tells a story,” Good explains to me, likening these unknown narratives to those of the missing persons she profiles.
She traces her fascination with death to a near-drowning in Lake Michigan when she was 5 years old. She was clinically dead when the adults dragged her to shore. “It was like falling asleep,” she recalls. Good was supposed to start kindergarten the following week and finally learn how to read; none of that would happen if she was six feet underground. She still remembers the trauma of coming back to life. “I was a very strange person,” Good says. “Rural Ohio is not a nice place to very strange people.”
The whole Good clan was strange, as far as locals were concerned. Colin Good, Meaghan’s older bother, carved swastikas into his arm and slept in a coffin that he made in his high school woodshop. A local Christian TV station filmed the coffin for a segment about goth teenagers, which was innocuous enough, until the station rebroadcast the program the week after the Columbine High School shooting. Like the gunmen, Colin often wore a trench coat to school.
When a student told the high school principal that Colin threatened to bring a gun to class and commit “suicide by police,” Charles Good was instructed to seek professional help for his son. Without his father’s consent, Colin was admitted to a psych ward in western Ohio. “It took me three days to get the kid sprung,” Charles says, still outraged years later. “And so I had a very, very dim view of mental health professionals.”
Colin also verbally abused Meaghan on a regular basis, while their mother had her own toxic issues. After a boy touched Meaghan inappropriately on the bus, she complained to her mother but was met with a shrug. “She didn’t ask any questions.” (Good’s parents are now divorced.)
Sometimes Good stayed up all night to chat with strange men online. One of those men sent Good his credit card number and encouraged her to buy whatever she wanted. Packages arrived at the door, mostly books, and Good’s parents never asked what they were or how she paid for them.
Good eventually dropped out of public school because of the relentless bullying. “This probably doesn’t sound like it has to do with missing people, but it does,” she says about her experiences of family neglect and abuse. “That kind of thing is what leads to kids dropping out of sight and nobody noticing for years.”
Good calls the mass disappearance of children a “modern day horror story,” and it’s clear that she sees herself in these lost kids. When she was around 12, Good became obsessed with the late writer Robert Cormier, whose young adult novels are unusually pessimistic and defy happy endings. She soon began writing her own stories about children in peril. It was while searching online for pictures to use as illustrations that she stumbled on a website that featured missing kids.
A light went on inside of her.
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In the 1990s, the world of amateur web sleuths was on the rise. Hit TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted, which debuted in the late 80s, had whet the public’s appetite for DIY investigations. One of the most important of the early missing persons sites, the Doe Network, went online around 1999, the brainchild of a self-described former journalist from Michigan named Jennifer Marra.
In 2001, Marra founded the Missing Persons Cold Case Network, and Good began sending in newspaper articles and updates about missing persons from across the country, becoming one of Marra’s most trusted and prolific contributors. A year later, Marra turned over control of the website to Good, who was then only 17 years old. About 10 months later, the database was hacked, and its 4,000 case files had to be taken offline. By October 2004, the site was resurrected and rebranded by Meaghan Good as the Charley Project. (Marra is no longer in contact with Good, nor active in the missing persons community.)
Good threw herself into the website but couldn’t ignore what was happening in her brain. Her depression lingered, and she struggled to connect with other people. “I was much more interested in spending time with a book than I was spending time with a person,” she says. The exception was Michael Lianez, a fellow student she met in an English class at Ohio State when he was 27 and she was 16. They were introduced during a heated argument about the death penalty: Good called him an asshole, but he was charmed by her, and his intelligence was undeniable. (Lianez says that he also falls somewhere on the autism spectrum.) They shared a taste for books and dry British humor, and they soon began dating.
In those days Good preferred to sleep fully clothed on a bare mattress. “I had to help make her into a person,” Lianez says, recalling how he taught her how to wear pajamas and use bed sheets. She learned how to wash dishes and to have a back-and-forth conversation rather than what Lianez dubbed the “Meaghan Report,” in which she would update him about her mental or physical state in a rushed monologue and then retreat.
When Good was 23 she had a breakdown that required hospitalization. Doctors diagnosed her with autism, finally giving a name to the introversion and compulsive behaviors that had perplexed her family. Finding the right medical regimen proved tricky, however; drugs interacted in unpredictable ways. In one episode during the dead of winter, Good tried to walk through a plate glass door several times wearing only a turtleneck and underpants. In other instances, she thought she had multiple phone conversations that she later discovered never happened. Once, the police called Good’s father to say that she had been in a fender bender and wouldn’t stop throwing herself against a tree.
“I’m afraid she’s going to end up dead,” her father says. “She could walk into a gun store, buy a gun, and shoot herself.” In 2014, Good wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper in which she argued that mentally ill people like herself shouldn’t have the right to bear arms. Discussing the letter on her blog, she added, “I’ve found that there are more good things that come from being open about my conditions than bad things … I can connect with people who have similar problems.”
That connection also extends to the trolls who harass Good online. She has been stalked online for months at a time, criticized because of her appearance, and threatened with more than a dozen lawsuits. She’s received at least one death threat, and her website has been plagiarized so often that she finally disabled copying and pasting. But the most painful situations, and the most delicate, are those in which the families of missing persons object to an unflattering detail in a case file.
In one example, Good suggested that a woman who worked at a strip club, and who was last seen leaving that club with a suspicious man, was herself a stripper. The missing woman’s sister asked Good to remove the “trashy” information, and when Good refused, arguing that it was relevant to the disappearance, the woman badmouthed Good on other websites. These incidents are rare but not exceptional. If you Google Meaghan Good’s name, one of the top results condemns the Charley Project as a site that exploits missing and abused children, the “morbid obsession of a mentally ill young woman.”
“I try not to take any of this personally because I don’t know what they’re going through,” Good says of the families of missing persons. “That kind of stress would make a person a little bit irrational.”
Donald Ross knows what it’s like to search for a missing loved one. His son, Jesse, was last seen alive in the early hours of November 21, 2006. The 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Missouri–Kansas City was in Chicago for a mock United Nations summit, along with a thousand other college students from across the country. At approximately 2:30 a.m., Ross left a conference room in a Sheraton hotel downtown and was never seen again. None of the surveillance cameras outside captured him, and his cell phone and credit cards haven’t registered any activity since that morning.
“It’s almost indescribable,” Ross says. “You have families like us all over the country who are just waiting for something. And you’ve got police waiting for somebody to walk through the door and give them the answer.”
The Rosses have been waiting for more than a decade. Despite several leads over the years, the Chicago Police Department hasn’t made much headway. The case has bounced from one overworked detective to another. The family’s $10,000 reward sits unclaimed. The best explanation police have offered is that Jesse, possibly intoxicated, drowned in the nearby Chicago River. His father doesn’t buy it.
“If that’s your theory, get out there and prove it,” he says. “Anything you can prove to us is fine, but if you think that, as his parents, we’re willing to accept something that is unsubstantiated …” His voice trails off.
Ross looks to sites like the Charley Project for help. He believes that if Jesse is found, it will be through the legwork of amateur sleuths. The Rosses now have a network with the families of other missing persons, and every year they host a gathering on the anniversary of Jesse’s disappearance to shine a light on cold cases. In May 2017, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office in Chicago held their first Missing Persons Day to help families provide DNA samples and receive counseling.
Ross considers missing persons to be an “epidemic” in America, and like other so-called epidemics that require law enforcement’s vigilance, there’s a hierarchy to which cases get pursued. If Chicago cops had investigated Jesse’s disappearance as if he were the son of the mayor or one of their own, Ross argues, perhaps there’d be some solid leads by now. Instead, Ross remains in a state of permanent standby. He used to send postcards to detectives to remind them that Jesse is still out there, until the police department asked him to stop.
Henrike Hoeren, a Charley Project follower from Germany who lives in Ireland, has her own suspicions about how police prioritize missing persons. She echoes what the late PBS newscaster Gwen Ifill famously defined as “missing white woman syndrome”: first come young children, then beautiful women (“blondes get a lot of attention,” Hoeren says), followed by mediocre-looking women, young white males, older white males, Asian males, and, finally, at the bottom, young black men. Sites like the Charley Project exist, at least in part, to countervail the pattern of police bias and indifference. “The internet opens up the world,” Hoeren says, adding that she looks for older cases that detectives have likely sidelined because of heavy caseloads or shrinking budgets.
The cases rattle some primitive part of our brain, one where the world is bigger, more mysterious, and more inexplicable than our daily grind suggests.
Not all police departments are blasé about solving decades-old cases. In May 2017, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in Florida conducted an unusual experiment in the investigation of Marjorie Christina Luna, an 8-year-old girl who vanished from Greenacres City, Florida, in 1984. On the 33rd anniversary of the girl’s disappearance, the Sheriff’s Office sent a series of tweets in Christy’s voice, sketching a ghostly real-time simulation of her possible abduction. “Wait, something doesn’t feel right…Someone keeps looking at me…Something is wrong; my heart is pounding…#Justice4Luna,” read one tweet. Others included photos of Luna, along with pleas to share her story. Such tactics aren’t far removed from how some police departments uploaded photos of unidentified bodies in the early 2000s — a controversial practice at the time that nonetheless helped resolve some cases. According to Deborah Halber’s 2015 book Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, one independent website, Las Vegas Unidentified, matched nearly 30 John Does to missing persons.
Each year Good purges hundreds of resolved cases from the Charley Project, either because a missing person was found safe or because their body was recovered. The latter scenario offers an answer but doesn’t necessarily bring peace. “I think closure is a myth,” Good says. “After certain things happen, you’re never going to be the same person again.”
Donald Ross says something nearly identical: “I’m a different person. I’m not that person I was before. Now, everything is colored by Jesse.”
Ross has no option but to wake each morning and begin his long vigil all over again. Just as Good has no option but to settle in front of her computer for another long day of combing through newspapers and police databases, cataloging a national catastrophe that’s hidden in plain sight. And her irregulars all over the world seem to have no option but to chase whatever scattered clues they find in hopes that the missing will finally be brought home, one way or another.
“I always believe that answers are on the internet,” says Hoeren, who has helped resolve three cases.
You just have to know where to look.
Jeremy Lybarger is the features editor at the Poetry Foundation. His journalism and essays have appeared in Rolling Stone, New York, Esquire, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, The California Sunday Magazine, and more.
James Hosking is a San Francisco-based documentary photographer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Mother Jones, The California Sunday Magazine, San Francisco Magazine, The Advocate, and many other publications. His films include Beautiful by Night and Even in Darkness.