The Missing: Leah Roberts
Leah Roberts was inspired by beat poets and wanted to take some time on the road after experiencing unspeakable trauma. She set off on a cross-country trip to find herself and get away from it all. So how did her car end up in a ditch, with no sign of Leah to be found? Let’s explore.
Who Is Leah?
Leah Toby Roberts was born to Nancy and Stancil Roberts on July 23, 1976, in Durham, North Carolina. The youngest of three children, she was known to be adventurous and precocious. She was outgoing and kind to everyone she met. At age 17, Stancil was diagnosed with a lung condition that allegedly strained family relations. Around this time, Leah also began attending North Carolina State University, which was in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The bad luck kept coming for the Roberts family. The next year – 1996 – Nancy passed away from heart disease unexpectedly. This hit the family hard, obviously, and led to Leah taking some time off of school to be with her family and attempt to heal from the sudden loss. She did not return to school for two years.
In 1998, Leah was in a serious car accident, in which she sustained several injuries, including a shattered femur, which required a metal rod to be inserted into her leg. Leah later told family that she was certain the accident was going to kill her, and her survival led to a renewed sense of vigor in her. She felt as if she were being given a second chance at life, and wanted to live it to the fullest.
Just months later, in early 1999, Stancil passed away. Leah was set to head to Costa Rica with her college. After much debate. She decided to still go, hoping to learn more about her spirituality in order to cope with the massive losses she had been dealt. Before leaving, she gave her sister Kara power of attorney over her bank accounts, though it is unclear why she felt the need to take this step. In Costa Rica, Leah immersed herself in the culture and seemingly was avoiding the grief of her father’s passing, according to her friend and roommate. When Leah returned home, she began to slowly withdraw and cut off friends.
The next year, Leah dropped out of school completely, despite being a senior and within reach of graduation. She was near completion of both Spanish and Anthropology degrees. Her sister Kara believed that school didn’t feel to Leah like she was living her life to the fullest. Kara believed that at the time of dropping out, Leah was likely feeling lost.
But Leah did not stagnate in depression after dropping out. She hung around a local coffee shop, often reading Kerouac or other Beat writers and trying her own hand at writing poems. She started taking up photography. She learned guitar. And she adopted a little kitten that she named Bea.
Leah told a friend, Jennifer Quiller, about her desire to see the country during a discussion about the Dharma Bums. Leah had also spoken about this to Nicole, her roommate about taking such a trip, even going so far as to invite Leah along.
In March of 2000, Leah decided to set out on this trip. On the 9th, she spoke to Kara, and made vague plans to meet up. She spoke to Nicole, her roommate, about possibly babysitting the next day. Leah agreed. When Nicole returned home from work later that night, Leah and her car were gone. Leah did have a habit of coming and going at odd hours, however, so this did not raise red flags.
On March 10, when Leah did not show for their babysitting plans, Nicole began to worry a bit. Leah wasn’t one to make and break plans. So she called Kara, and let her know she hadn’t seen Leah, and that Leah hadn’t come home. Kara searched the town and Leah’s usual haunts for any sign of her, but found nothing.
On March 14, 2000, Kara was able to check Leah’s bank for withdrawals, thanks to Leah giving her financial power of attorney. She discovered transactions for a hotel and food, all heading west. The last transaction on any of Leah’s accounts was a gas purchase in Brooks, Oregon around midnight on March 13.
After this, Kara reported Leah missing to the Durham police department. She gave them Leah’s vital statistics, the make and model of her car, and any other pertinent information she could think of. Despite the fact that Leah was an adult and could voluntarily go missing, they promised to look into it. During their investigation, they came across Jennifer Quiller, who notified them of Leah’s dream trip.
Frustrated, Kara went back to Leah’s apartment to check things out, and found something strange in Leah’s room. Not only were many of her things missing – such as some jewelry, many of her clothes, and her new cat – but there was also a bizarre note featuring a cheshire cat grin and the words: “I’m not suicidal. I’m the opposite. Remember Jack Kerouac.” The note also included cash to cover rent and utilities. She then visited Leah’s favorite coffee shops in an attempt to find a reason for the trip. Kara also met Jennifer Quiller, who told her all about Leah’s fascination with Jack Kerouac, the Dharma Bums, and Desolation Peak.
With that answer, Kara was satisfied that she understood where Leah was headed and why. She felt certain that Leah would contact her within the next few days, as it was nearly her birthday. She eagerly awaited the call, but it never came.
On March 18, 2000, two joggers in rural Whatcom County, Washington came onto the scene of a car accident. On the shoulder of the road, they could see articles of clothing. When they went to inspect the clothing, they could see a white jeep at the bottom of the embankment on the side of the road. It was very damaged – with many dents and scratches, broken windows, and the roof was dented in particular. Due to the damage and how far the car went into the trees, accident reconstructionists estimated the jeep was going 30 to 40 miles per hour when the accident happened, and likely rolled over several times. However, there were no signs of a passenger within the car at the time of the accident – no seatbelt stretching, no impact marks on anything, and no blood.
At the bottom of the hill, the car itself looked as though it had been made into a makeshift shelter, with blankets tacked up over the broken out windows. There was no sign of Leah or her cat, Bea, though. The police ran the plates and ended up contacting Kara, letting her know that the jeep had been involved in an accident, but Leah was nowhere to be found.
Kara and Heath, their brother, flew to Washington immediately to assist the investigation. They made and hung missing persons posters around nearby towns, but their big lead came from a box of what seemed to be keepsakes among Leah’s belongings. In it, there was a movie stub for a theater from March 13 – which is again coming up as the last day she was seen.
The pair followed the ticket stub to Bellingham, and its Bells Fair mall. After asking around at various shops, they pieced together that it was likely Leah had spent a few hours at the mall after her long trip up from Oregon. Following this logic, they went to the only sit down restaurant at the mall. Investigators took over the questioning when it was discovered that Leah was last seen at the restaurant with two men. A call was put out for both of these men to come forward to give information regarding Leah’s last known whereabouts.
One of the two men came forward and described Leah and a conversation they had about Kerouac. He also claimed that she left with a third man who may have gone by the name Barry. Police put together a sketch of this “Barry,” but neither he nor the other man from the restaurant have ever been identified.
With forensics in mind, the jeep had been towed to a police garage to further comb it for evidence. With FBI evidence technicians, more was found. Leah’s belongings appeared untouched – while going through the clothing left behind, investigators found somewhere around $2,500 cash in the pocket of a pair of pants. Leah had taken $3,000 with her on the trip. Because she had spent so little money, Leah may have been sleeping in her car – which would explain the car as a makeshift shelter. Beneath one of the floor mats, investigators discovered Leah’s mother’s engagement ring. That ring was something that Leah never took off, according to her friends and family.
The police kept the car, hoping to find more evidence in the intervening years. Investigators reexamined the jeep in 2006 – and actually looked under the hood this time, where they found a “cut” wire. This wire being disconnected would allow the car to accelerate without the pedal. This all but confirms the accident was staged – it also supported the investigator’s assertion that no one was in the car when it crashed. They found a fingerprint on the underside of the hood and some DNA on a few pieces of clothing. Neither the DNA nor the fingerprint have been matched to anyone to date.
The renewed effort did, however, lead them back to the man from the restaurant that they’d originally spoken to. (Note: this is how all the sources described it, no details about how – my guess is they were trying to retrace the situation and decided to press him harder). They ran a DNA and fingerprint test to see if they could connect him to the jeep – neither came back as a match.
In 2014, a body was found in rural Whatcom County. The remains were mummified. Investigators estimated the person had been a male between the ages of 33 and 55. The height was estimated to be 5’5. Leah is about 5’6 and was 23 at the time of her disappearance and is female. However, mistakes can be made with decayed remains. The biggest thing with the doe is that there was a metal rod alongside its right femur. Sound familiar? The serial number on the rod was traced back to 1998, which lines up with Leah’s accident. In April 2022, the doe’s page on NamUs was removed, suggesting that they had been identified, though nothing public has been announced as of the writing of this post.
Like our last Missing Persons post, this case has an abundance of theories, each with its own nuance and offshoot theories. The theories in Leah’s case fall into two categories: she was murdered, or she wasn’t. This isn’t really a case where there is a lot of hope that the person left to start a new life, unfortunately.
Our first theory is that Leah was murdered. The biggest suspects here are the two men who sat with Leah at the food court restaurant and “Barry.” Though one of those men came forward and made claims about the last time he saw Leah, the first never did. However, we do need to remember that this is not necessarily an indicator of guilt. It doesn’t seem like this case got much nationwide coverage, so if he was also visiting the area, that could explain his silence. We can’t really speculate on the reason why.
Along with the murdered theory comes a large and looming name in true crime: Israel Keyes. To me, he’s really nothing more than the True Crime Boogeyman – I don’t think he’s responsible for nearly as many crimes as some others do. As for this theory – which is mostly the result of discussion boards spit balling – it’s not the case. In March of 2000, Keyes was in the military. In Egypt. Not in Washington.
Regardless of the who in the murder theory, the general consensus is that someone tampered with the car, which caused Leah’s accident. They then took her from the scene and killed her.
Our second theory is that Leah was disoriented and wandered into the wilderness, where she lost her way and succumbed to the elements. This mostly comes from the idea that she may have been in the car when it ran off the road. She then would have suffered a head wound or a post-traumatic reaction and wandered off into the woods as a result, according to this theory. However, the lack of blood in the car doesn’t point to this. With the state of the glass in the car, it seems unlikely to me that Leah would have escaped without a scratch. However, the post-traumatic aspect of even being near the car accident is something I do find intriguing.
Our third and final theory is that Leah went to the woods to end her life. This one is the most contentious to me, as there are many signs that Leah was planning to live. If she was planning to head to somewhere her heroes went – like Desolation Peak, which she mentioned often – why did she bring so much stuff with her? Of course, the suicidal mind isn’t necessarily logical. This could have been a goodbye trip of sorts. After the accident, Leah could have hitchhiked away in an attempt to get to Desolation Peak. However, there were no other glaring warning signs of suicide in what we know about Leah – which is not to say this theory is impossible, just that it seems less likely to me.
Personally, I have see-sawed between all of these theories. As more and more time goes on, I lean more towards Leah being in the woods. Maybe she was in the car and hit her head. Maybe she went into a form of dissociation and wandered off. Maybe she was taken by ”Barry.” And then there’s the body from 2014. It had the metal rod in the right femur. The rod was traced back to 1998, when Leah had her accident. While the remains were identified as male, they were decomposed and mummified, which could have led to misidentification. I personally, truly believe that body was Leah Roberts, and I hope further testing is undertaken to either rule her out or prove it once and for all. That rod is just too much of a coincidence.
Despite the fact that it looks like the answer to this case has been found and discarded, we still must consider all new information. If you or anyone you know has information regarding Leah’s trip or disappearance, please contact the proper authorities. The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office can be reached at 360-676-6650.