A pregnant Toledo lawyer was reported missing on Dec. 5, after she failed to pick up her son from a day care center. Karyn McConnell Hancock's frantic husband soon took to the media, pleading for the return of his wife, who is six months pregnant. While supporters held prayer vigils and passed out missing persons fliers, police and volunteers scoured Toledo for Hancock. She was found three days later, near a Georgia amusement park 700 miles from her home.
Hancock told police that she had been kidnapped in front of a downtown Toledo court building and driven to Georgia at gunpoint by two white men and one black woman. During her terrifying journey, she was blindfolded, bound, and allowed to eat once per day. Her kidnappers threatened to kill her and her unborn child if she tried to escape. They eventually released her, and she was able to flag down a motorist who called 911.
It was a baffling crime. And, as Hancock admitted, it was all a lie.
Toledo police stated that "The investigation has conclusively shown that Ms. McConnell Hancock was not kidnapped....She traveled to Georgia alone and by her own free will."
Less than a month before Hancock disappeared, a Missouri woman named Debra Robertson also went missing. Hours after dropping off her children with a babysitter, Robertson sent panicked text messages to her family from her cell phone telling them she had been kidnapped by several men and was being held captive in a red sports utility vehicle headed for Virginia. Police searched for the young mother, who was eventually located by her cell phone.
She was found unharmed at a friend's house, where she admitted she had made up the story and was never in any danger.
Perhaps the most famous faked abduction was Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, who vanished from her Duluth, Georgia, home in April 2005. The long-distance runner, who was to be married in less than a week, was last seen preparing to go jogging. Wilbanks soon became the focus of a nationwide search which ended four days later when Wilbanks called 911 and her family from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Through sobs and stammers, she reported that she had been kidnapped and raped by a Hispanic man with a gun, along with a Caucasian woman.
She eventually admitted to FBI investigators that she had not been kidnapped nor raped, and had simply left town on the spur of the moment because she "needed some time alone."
Official statistics on the numbers of false kidnappings are not kept, though I have researched the topic for years following the hoaxed abductions of Dar Heatherington (a Canadian politician who vanished while on a trip to Montana in 2003 and reappeared a week later claiming she had been abducted and sexually assaulted) and Audrey Seiler (a Wisconsin college student who falsely claimed that a man had abducted her at knifepoint and held her for four days in 2004).
Hoaxed abductions occur far more often than most people realize. Though high-profile cases such as those of Hancock and Wilbanks are widely reported, lesser-known faked abductions occur about once a week somewhere in the United States.
Every hour that police waste searching for a person who lied about being abducted is time that could have been spent solving cases and helping victims of real crimes. Police investigations are often very expensive, in some cases wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Those who file false reports are rarely prosecuted, and often they are treated as victims instead of criminals.
Albuquerque police were sympathetic to Wilbanks, and gave her gifts (including free clothes, a teddy bear, an FBI hat, and a tote bag) during her stay. (The reaction in Georgia--where hundreds of volunteers had spent four days and nights searching wooded areas, riverbanks, alleys, and sewage drains--was somewhat different.)
In recent years, several states including New York, Mississippi, and Michigan have addressed the problem of false abduction reports with legislation toughening penalties for those offenses.
Benjamin Radford is LiveScience's Bad Science columnist. He wrote about faked abductions in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." This and other books can be found on his website.