When missing person flyers show up around town, faces from happier times haunt us. We know from experience the longer these flyers stay up, the less likely the stories behind them are going to end well. Bethany Correira, Samantha Koenig, the family from Kenai, all of them eventually found murdered.
It's not looking so good for one of the latest, Jael Hamblen, a 20-year-old single mother who woke up Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014 shuffled about her Anchorage apartment in undies and a T-shirt, checked Facebook, had her usual breakfast of coffee, sugar and creamer and went about her day without a hint of what was coming.
Around two in the afternoon, her best friend's mom, Lissa Lake, met her in the Best Buy parking lot to pass along a box of Pampers she'd bought for Jael's six-month-old baby. Jael was in a great mood. She'd recently dyed her hair pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and even her mother had told her that after multiple hair-dying experiments, she might have finally found her color. That was her nickname in middle school-Pinkie. Her pink hair was especially flattering with her green eyes.
Jael and Lissa spent about an hour together shopping and catching up. Jael was looking forward to her roommate's Halloween wedding and the bridesmaid costume she planned to wear, a bridal gown she'd found at Value Village, accessorized with a pair black of angel wings. She was about to get a place of her own and was excited about reaching that milestone in her life.
As was often the case, her baby, Joel, and her roommate Kendra Vincent's two kids were spending the weekend with Kendra's mother, who lived in the same apartment complex, so the kids could get some "grandma time" and the two mothers could get a break. She and Kendra met that night for dinner at TGI Fridays, but by then Jael's mood had taken a turn south. A guy she was interested in had let her know he wasn't. Kendra suggested she go out that night to cheer herself up. Back home, Jael took a shower, and headed back to her room wrapped in a towel. Around 10, Kendra called out from her bedroom to wish her goodnight.
Sunday morning, at 10:32, Kendra texted Jael from the next room about going to see a movie together. She didn't respond. At noon, Kendra knocked on her bedroom door. No answer. She opened it. Jael's leopard print sheets were tossed aside and her bed was empty.
She says she didn't think much of it at first. With her baby looked after, it wasn't unusual for Jael to stay out all night. Or maybe she'd headed out early that morning.
At 2:02 p.m. Kendra texted Jael again: "Hey where are you? I didn't even realize U left the house."
At 3:45 p.m., she tried again. " I haven't heard from you all day what's the deal?"
Calls to her cell phone went straight to voicemail.
It's been more than seven months since anyone has seen or heard from Jael. Sometime between 10 that night and noon Sunday morning, she vanished into thin air.
ACHE OF THE UNKNOWN
When someone goes missing, those left behind ache for answers when there are none to give. In the best of worst-case scenarios, they wait for weeks or months or years. In the worst, for decades, generations or forever. For many, their hearts and heads are at war with each other-their hearts half expecting the person to walk through their door, their heads knowing that's not going to happen. The unknown gnaws on their bones.
Soon after it sunk in that Jael was in trouble, Lissa Lake created the Facebook page Jael Hamblen Missing for sharing information, ideas, hopes and fears. And Richelle Lund added yet another missing person flyer to the page she manages, Seeking Alaska's Missing, or SAM, founded in 2012 by Samantha "Sam" Koenig's father, James, in honor of his 18-year-old daughter, who was kidnapped from an Anchorage coffee stand and murdered by serial killer Israel Keyes.
After a flurry of phone calls, texts, and social media exchanges, Team Jael rallied to do something, anything, to help find her. While the police launched an official investigation, they launched their own, searching the woods behind Jael and Kendra's apartment, hitting places Jael liked to go. They put up missing person flyers on streetlight posts, bulletin boards, anyplace anyone could think of, from Homer to Fairbanks.
Tiffany Stroman has Jael's flyer in the backseat windows of her car, and a laminated one taped to her trunk. She carries a stack with her always, and keeps a roll of duct tape handy for putting them up, hot pink duct tape, in honor of the friend she has known since Jael's "Pinkie" days at Teeland Middle School in Wasilla.
"She was always the brightest person in the room," Tiffany said. "She always had this big cheeky smile on her face."
Jael had a way of gravitating toward people who were hurting, and, in the eighth grade, Tiffany was one of them, having just moved to the Valley and knowing no one.
"She noticed I was kind of alone so she would come over and brighten up my day. She seemed to have this radar for unsmiley faces."
Lissa Lake's daughter, Layn Bosman, also met Jael at Teeland, in an eighth grade science class. Their teacher had asked everyone to partner up for a project, and once everyone did, they were the only two left. They have been best friends ever since.
"I end up crying myself to sleep most nights thinking of Jael," Layn said via email. "Every little thing reminds me of her, whether it's a movie I'm watching, or a song I think she'd like. I can't escape it. She's a mother, a daughter, a best friend. It's terrible not knowing whether she's dead or alive."
It's been hard for Kendra not to blame herself.
"If I had just gone out with her, or I had just stayed up and told her not to leave, or if I'd just There are umpteen bazillion different things I could have done that night to have changed the outcome."
"Your mind is your worst enemy. Your mind will eat itself up."
Sadly, Jael has lot of company in the realm of the missing. With more than 650,000 square miles to disappear in, from mountaintops to lake bottoms, people go missing in Alaska by accident, foul play or design.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety has 89 active missing person bulletins posted on its website, including Jael's. But that's a fraction of those who've disappeared here since Jan. 1, 1960. As of the beginning of May, there were 1,214 open missing person cases, of which 76 are children and teenagers, 109 are juvenile runaways and 1,029 are adults, according to Megan Peters, spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers.
Of the missing adults, 747 made the list when their planes disappeared, or they fell overboard, or they vanished in the wilderness or otherwise met some tragedy that launched a search and rescue effort where no body was found. There are also 85 unidentified remains.
It's a rare day in Alaska when no one is reported missing. Last year on average, law enforcement agencies around the state received more than 40 cases a week, more than half of them runaways. In roughly 93 percent of these cases, the person eventually turned up.
Some go missing because they don't want to be found- from women hiding from abusive boyfriends to deadbeats on the run from the law. One thing Jael's friends and family are certain of is that she didn't go missing on purpose. She would never abandon her son.
Jael had troubles in her life, some big ones. She craved love and acceptance, and went looking for it in dark and dangerous places. But that baby gave her life meaning and a reason to start changing her ways.
Jael's son, Joel, is in Wasilla now with her mother, who's been granted temporary custody. Jael has missed his first birthday. She's missed his first steps, his first teeth. His first words come next.
Maybe she had an accident, has amnesia, is lost somewhere and can't find her way back. Maybe sex traffickers got her or she's otherwise being held against her will. Those who haven't given up grasp for straws of hope.
In March, after an excruciating period of silence came some disturbing news. Her purse was found in the snow near a Chugiak-area trail. It's highly unlikely Jael decided to go hiking on a dark October night with temperatures dipping into the 30s. Besides, she was a "girly girl," not the hiking type. And definitely not in the high heel shoes police believe she was wearing the night she disappeared.
Someone knows exactly where Jael is. And James Trull, the homicide detective working her case, intends to find out who that someone is.
Jael's case ended up in the Anchorage Police Department's homicide unit because that's where missing person cases go. Detectives have to look at each one as a possible homicide case, Trull explained, so that if it ever turns into one, they won't be behind the curve.
"Do I know for certain that it's a homicide? Absolutely not," he said. "But it is certainly is suspicious."
Trull has conducted numerous searches for Jael, including one with a trooper helicopter. But he can't say where.
"I don't want people up there tromping around, destroying evidence, getting involved. Leave it to the professionals. I don't want stuff planted. I don't want stuff removed. That could seriously screw up the investigation.
"It's a complicated case. I'm working on it constantly. I want nothing more than to find out the truth."
"Somebody did this," Kendra said, "and either we get her back and she's a fragmented person or we get her back in a bag. Either way it's not going to be a fairy tale ending."
When Kendra's son and daughter were younger, they asked their mother if monsters were real. She couldn't lie.
"Monsters are real," she told them. "Unfortunately they look just like regular people. And you never know."
As her mother tells it from her home on Wasilla Lake, the deck was stacked against Jael before she was born.
Colleen Vague and her now former husband adopted her in Washington state through a private agency, though she was in foster care at the time. She was 14 months old. Her name was Tiara. She was sickly and malnourished, and had been through six different living situations by then.
"Bottom line is, she had already been through more than most people in a lifetime at a very young age."
Her birth mother chose Colleen and her husband to adopt her daughter. The first time they met, in a Division of Family and Youth Services office, Colleen sat on the floor and Tiara toddled right up to her.
"She curled up in my lap and just fell asleep. And she slept through the whole thing. That's when Bob and I said we've got to adopt her."
They kept Tiara as her middle name and gave her a new first one from the Bible. The name comes from the story of Deborah in the Book of Judges, a story Colleen's father read to her not long before he died. Jael was the heroine who put an end to Sisera by hammering a tent peg into his temple as he slept, a strong woman who did what she thought was right by God.
"The day we brought her home we were all excited. I was getting ready to put her down for bed that first night so I was drawing a bath. I put her in the bathtub-she was 14 months old-and she scooted up and put her head under the faucet while it was pouring. So we knew right away we were going to have to give her swimming lessons."
In addition to swimming, there were piano lessons, soccer practices, cheerleading classes, summer theater programs and church on Sunday. Jael did ballet for a while, too, until the dog ate her ballet slippers and then that was that. There were family trips, including to Disneyland, and camping, fishing and exploring Southcentral Alaska in her father's Cessna 152.
But for Jael, it was all about clothes. From the time she was old enough to dress herself, she wanted to wear everything in her closet-all at the same time.
Jael's aunt Sharon Sanford tells of the last time Colleen, Jael and her brother, Owen, visited in Washington a little over a year ago.
"Colleen was a single mom raising two teenagers alone, so we loved helping out by buying Jael and Owen an outfit or two each During the last visit, we were waiting for Jael to get ready for our day when suddenly she appeared from her room dressed in a long, white, formal gown like she was going to a school prom. She looked at us and said, 'Okay guys, I'm ready.'
"We turned to her and told her how beautiful she looked and headed to the mall, we in our jeans and she in her gown. She proudly walked through Target and Macy's dressed like a queen, turning curious heads, but she felt beautiful.
"That is our Jael. She walks to a different drummer, but we love that about her."
Jael went to Wasilla Lake Christian School, where her mother was principal, then Matanuska Christian School when Colleen became principal there. Then to Teeland for the 8th grade, and on to Mat-Su Career and Technical School, where she entered the school's culinary arts program.
But school never came easy. Early on, Colleen, a former Mat-Su Borough School District school board president with a master's degree in high school counseling, began seeing signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. (Jael's birth mother, now married with two children, adamantly denies drinking during her pregnancy.) Colleen had Jael tested by a child psychiatrist.
"There are a lot of markers and she had most of them," she said. "So she struggled with the cognitive, social and developmental delays that come with that.
"Kids with fetal alcohol, they're very impulsive. And they don't always follow a conscious decision of right and wrong.
"But I will tell you she was one of the most compassionate people you will ever know. She just hated to see people teased. I think it's because she was teased. She was teased about her weight, she was teased about some of her odd behaviors. She was just this really sweet girl who couldn't bear to see people get hurt."
Jael lived by her own rules, rules in direct conflict with her mother's. And there were consequences for that.
To former Teeland friend Alexis Doty, it seems Jael was constantly being grounded.
"I felt really bad for her," she said. "It seemed like she was always struggling."
"She was a troubled girl," her mom said. "Her dad couldn't stand to discipline her so I was the one who did all the discipline. I had to be a parent. So there were struggles. We had some real screaming matches at times.
"I know I wasn't a perfect mom; there's no such thing. The frustration of dealing with behaviors I didn't understand and couldn't curb because I didn't know how to handle them, all of it led up to this. From an unfortunate birth circumstance right up to now, she just never could get a break."
In January 2007, the family's house burned down. Then the marriage started falling apart. Her parents' divorce devastated Jael. Things at home and school spiraled downward from there.
"I think Jael kind of lost herself her junior year," Lissa Lake said. "Everything just kind of started crumbling apart."
After Jael's father moved to Washington and remarried, she went to live with him for a spell. That didn't work out. When she returned, she enrolled in Burchell High School. That didn't work out, either. At 17, she ran away.
"Jael was easily persuaded and just starving for attention and love," her mother said. "And that made her a prime target for online predators."
Jael and Kendra met on a Smartphone dating app, the social media version of a pickup bar. Jael was 17, Kendra was 32. And she was married. This is no secret. Kendra speaks freely of her bi-sexuality and open marriage. Polyamorous is the term.
"I called the police when I found out about this stuff," Colleen said, "and basically was told it was a consensual relationship, there's nothing we can do about it because she was over 16."
To hear Kendra tell it, their relationship started off sexual but evolved into something more meaningful.
"We tried it, it didn't work. It didn't work because I was too much like a mom. She said I was mommying her. So we decided we were better as friends.
"That wasn't really what our relationship was based on, so no one really understood it. But we did have intimacy because I would hug her and I would hold her when she cried. Intimacy isn't just about sex."
Jael moved in with Kendra and her husband. (They have since divorced; Kendra remarried on Halloween.) Although Jael's mother has a whole different take on the relationship-at best as manipulative of a vulnerable young girl, at worst as sinister-they became, as Kendra paints it, one big happy family. She was Auntie Jael to her kids.
"We spent a lot of time together at home, playing with the kids, or doing little cooking parties," Kendra said. "She would do goofy things, like dress up with the kids looking completely ridiculous, having some oddball fashion show with just the most outrageous looking clothing. Like mixing plaids with stripes. Like wearing shorts with leggings with a skirt with some weird purple sash and a crown on her head."
Jael continued going out with guys. A lot of guys. When she found out she was pregnant, she wasn't sure what to do.
"I knew deep down she wanted him, but she did consider adoption a few times," Kendra said. "She didn't think she would be good enough. I told her she could do whatever she set her mind to, and that she would be an amazing mother, that I would support her with whatever she decided to do.
"Me and Layn were the ones who took her to the hospital. I cut the cord. And I assumed the role of the father. We referred to him as 'our son.'"
Kendra says she urged Jael to get her GED, then to enroll in Alaska Career College, where she was studying massage therapy. And Jael talked of more college. She wanted to make a better life for Joel.
"Her life was that baby," Lissa Lake said. "She had somebody to take care of, she had somebody that would love her unconditionally. And that motivated her to get to where she needed to be."
Jael had a meeting set up with Alaska Housing Authority, and if everything had gone as she'd hoped, she and Joel would have had a place of their own by Thanksgiving. Things were looking up for her. The only thing missing was a boyfriend.
"She was the kind of girl that just wanted to be loved, she really did, so she tried to find it from anybody," said friend Katie Kerr. "She's a sweetheart. She would do anything for anybody. But there were personal choices she made that weren't the greatest. I know she met people off Craigslist. I know she would meet people off dating apps."
It's unclear whether Jael was using dating apps the night she disappeared. What is known is that she was upset about that guy who'd rejected her and was looking for some company that night. At one point she texted her buddy, Gabriel Larson, saying she was on the verge of tears, hoping to get together. As he recalls, he asked what was going on, but she didn't elaborate. According to phone records, their last exchange was at 1:40 a.m.. Friends say she then exchanged texts with a JBER soldier a little after three in the morning. And that was that last anyone heard from Jael Hamblen.
Jael has now been missing for half her son's life. Friends, acquaintances and some who don't know her at all have grieved, speculated, accused and fumed all over her missing person Facebook page. Lissa Lake even commissioned a tarot reading on Jael. Frustrated and desperate, they demand to know what's being done to find her.
"I totally understand," Detective Trull said. "If I had a missing child or a missing spouse or somebody, I would be absolutely crazy wanting to find them. But there is some information I can share and some I can't.
"We watch TV and we see a homicide or a cold case or a missing person. It unravels and within an hour's time it's all wrapped up in a bow and they've thrown the bad guy in jail. It just doesn't work that way. Sometimes it takes years to put cases together.
"These cases are exhaustive. Often times they're the first thing you think about in the morning and the last thing you think about when you go to sleep."
Trull has nearly 27 years of police work behind him, his most recent as a member of the APD's homicide unit. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Ted Bundy country. Having a sadistic killer, rapist and necrophile who confessed to murdering 30 women and girls so close to home played a role in drawing him to this line of work.
His aunt and uncle actually knew Bundy before the truth came out. They had him to their house. They thought he was nice guy.
Bundy duped not only Trull's aunt and uncle, but everyone around him. He preyed on women who were trusting.
Jael wasn't just trusting, friends say, she was way too trusting. She wanted to believe everyone was inherently good.
"You're putting yourself into bad situations when you're meeting total strangers," Trull said. "I mean, you don't know if you're meeting Ted Bundy or you're meeting Prince Charming."
Colleen last saw her daughter about a week before she vanished when she, Jael and Jael's brother went to dinner to Chili's at the Dimond Center.
"There was a long line so Owen decided to wait for our name to be called, and she and I went to Forever 21 and did some shopping, just kind of talking, pulling out clothes. 'Oh gosh, mom, I could see you wearing this.' She couldn't wait for Halloween because she wanted to dress up the baby and go trick or treating with him. She wanted him to be pumpkin. We were talking about how cute that would be and just being kind of silly. I was trying to keep it light, you know."
The last Colleen heard from Jael was the afternoon before she disappeared when she texted her a selfie she'd snapped of her newly dyed hair, eyebrows raised, left eye peeking through pink bangs. It's one of the photos that now stares out from her missing person flyer and haunts us.
Colleen has had some potshots lobbed at her on Facebook for not posting flyers or joining searches organized by Jael's friends. Some think she doesn't care.
"All these people are bad mouthing me because I'm not doing anything," she said. "I'm doing what the police are asking me to do. They're the professionals. She was my daughter for 18 years, and until you have a daughter who is missing, and probably murdered, don't you tell me how I should be acting.
"And they always refer to me as 'the adoptive mom.' I'm her mom. This is my daughter and I love her."