On March 9, 2000, Leah Roberts abandoned her life in Durham, North Carolina, and embarked on a voyage of self-discovery. Nine days later, however, her car was found wrecked near a rural highway on the other side of the country. Roberts herself was nowhere to be seen, and her sister, Kara, has been searching for her ever since.
Born in 1976, Roberts was raised in the suburbs of Durham and was the youngest of three children. She was a 20-year-old college sophomore when she experienced the first of three life-changing events – events that would radically transform her outlook and prompt her to search for life’s deeper meaning.
The first of these transformative moments was the death of her mother from heart disease in 1996. The loss apparently shook Roberts so badly that she took time off from her studies at North Carolina State University. She returned to college in 1998, only to suffer a second difficult, life-changing experience.
Yes, during the fall of that year, the North Carolinian was involved in a major car accident. Roberts hit a truck which had pulled out in front of her, and the crash left her with a punctured lung and a badly fractured femur, requiring surgery. At this point, Roberts began to seriously question her own mortality.
In fact, Leah told Kara that in the moments before the crash, having realized that she was about to hit the truck, she was convinced that she would die. Roberts survived, however, and after she recovered, she professed to feeling “born again.” She was now resolved to get the most out of life.
But in early 1999, when Roberts was due to depart on a college field trip to Costa Rica, a third major event radically shook up her life: her father, who had been suffering from chronic lung disease for several years, suddenly passed away. Now orphaned, Roberts began to contemplate spiritual matters.
Despite the misgivings of Kara and her brother Heath, Roberts abandoned her Spanish and anthropology degree and dropped out of college – just six months before she was due to graduate. Instead, she spent her time writing poetry, playing guitar, hanging out in coffeeshops and reading beatnik literature.
On 10 March 1999, Roberts failed to turn up to a babysitting job that she had agreed to do with her roommate, Nicole. Moreover, Robert’s car was gone, too, so when she didn’t return home that evening, her family started to worry. Subsequently, on 13 March, Kara contacted Durham police to report her sister missing.
When Kara and Nicole searched Leah’s room, they discovered a note which read “I’m not suicidal. I’m the opposite.” A large amount of clothes were missing, as was her cat, Bea. Along with the note was enough cash to cover the rent for a month, indicating, perhaps, that Leah intended to return in the not-too-distant future.
As she had power of attorney over her sister’s accounts, Kara was able to track Leah’s expenditure. The soul-searching young woman had apparently driven west through Tennessee, eventually arriving in California. Roberts’ purchases along the way included food and motel bills, while at around midnight on March 13, she bought some gasoline in Brooks, Oregon. After that, all activity ceased.
Kara and Leah’s best friend, Susie Smith, began making enquiries at Durham coffee shops to try and find out where Leah was headed. And their investigations soon yielded results. The pair learned that Leah’s probable destination was Desolation Peak – an area of Washington’s Cascade Mountains that Jack Kerouac had written about in his memoir “The Dharma Bums.”
Then on March 18, 2000, Roberts’s 1993 Jeep Cherokee was spotted by two joggers near a highway in Whatcom County, Washington. The outlook, however, wasn’t promising: the car was wrecked at the bottom of a forested embankment. Moreover, there were a number of articles of clothing that were strewn by the road, while some had been tied to tree branches.
A forensic examination of the crash site revealed that the car had been travelling at roughly 40 miles per hour when it veered off the road. It appeared to have then rolled multiple times as it went down the slope. Intriguingly, however, there was no blood in the vehicle. In fact, there wasn’t any indication that the car had been occupied when it crashed.
Furthermore, the windows were draped with blankets, suggesting that the vehicle had served as a shelter following the accident. Not only that but Roberts’s belongings – including her passport, driver’s license and more than two thousand dollars in cash – were also found nearby. Neither Roberts or her cat Bea, however, were anywhere to be seen.
Investigators soon honed in on Bellis Fair restaurant in the city of Bellingham, where Roberts had eaten on the day of the crash. Two men reported that they’d sat next to her at the counter, and the trio had apparently chatted about Jack Kerouac. More importantly, though, one of the men claimed that Roberts had left the restaurant with a third man called Barry. However, no other witness could corroborate his claim.
Meanwhile, there were other pieces of evidence that also suggested that Roberts may have, in fact, been the victim of foul play. Firstly, considering that Roberts had spent several days in Bellingham, the quantity of cash at the scene of the crash was too high. Secondly, Roberts’s mother engagement ring – which Roberts never, ever removed – was discovered beneath a floor mat.
But without any further breakthrough, the original case was closed. However, in 2006, two detectives reviewed the investigation and uncovered some startling new evidence. Yes, the cops discovered that the wire to the car’s starter relay had been severed, allowing it to accelerate without pressing on the gas. This, then, indicated that the “accident” had likely been staged. What’s more, the detectives also identified some male DNA on Roberts’s clothing and a fingerprint under the hood of the car.
With this new information in hand, the detectives resumed their hunt for the person called “Barry.” Eventually, they identified a mechanic with military experience – a skillset that seemed suspicious given the circumstances of the crash. However, because the man in question now resides in Canada, police have so far been unable to obtain a DNA sample from him. The fingerprint, though, does not appear to have been his.
Meanwhile, Kara has also been working tirelessly to try and make a breakthrough. Since 2005, she has worked with a volunteer group called Community United Effort to raise public awareness of her sister’s case. Every year on the anniversary of Leah’s disappearance, they stage a caravan that traces her journey west as far as Bellingham.“We’re just trying to, you know, keep Leah’s face out there as much as possible,” Kara told CNN in 2005.
However, despite all efforts to uncover the truth, no new evidence has surfaced lately and the case has now gone cold. While investigators suspect the worst, it also seems plausible that Roberts may be alive somewhere. Yes, she could perhaps have suffered an injury or breakdown that left her with amnesia, or, alternatively, she may have staged the whole thing. Her siblings, meanwhile, continue to suffer the anguish of separation without closure.