It’s a summer afternoon in California, and 16-year-old Hannah Anderson is practicing with her cheerleading squad. But when it’s time to leave she disappears without a trace, sparking a manhunt that will span three countries. The next day, police make a sinister discovery in a San Diego home.
Hannah was born on July 22, 1997, in National City, part of San Diego’s South Bay region in California. When she was seven years old, her parents Christina and Brett had a son, Ethan. While Hannah grew up to be a keen cheerleader, Ethan became an enthusiastic fisherman, who played for his local basketball and football teams.
By August 2013, however, things for the Andersons had started to go awry. Christina and Brett had separated, and Hannah, now 16, and Ethan, 8, were living with their mother in Lakeside, CA. Brett, meanwhile, was away working on the other side of the country in Tennessee.
However, Christina wasn’t quite alone when it came to looking after Hannah and Ethan. In fact, a family friend, James DiMaggio, lived just an hour away. Apparently, he was close to both Christina and Brett, and sometimes helped out with occasional chores such as driving Hannah to sporting engagements.
In fact, Hannah and James got on so well that they had recently taken a trip together, visiting Hollywood. On her Twitter account, Hannah had even posted a snap of herself taken by James. However, things might not have been quite as innocent as they seemed.
According to Hannah’s friends, the teenager was beginning to find herself uncomfortable in James’ presence. Apparently, he had confessed romantic feelings towards her in the past. However, Hannah continued to write to him for advice on her troubled relationship with her mother.
On August 3, James had invited Hannah, Christina and Ethan to visit him at his home in Boulevard, CA. Apparently, he told them that he was resettling in Texas, and that he wanted a chance to say his farewells. Meanwhile, he drove to the San Diego suburbs to collect Hannah from a cheerleading camp.
What happened next is still unclear. The following day, authorities arrived at James’ home to find it reduced to ashes. Inside, they discovered two bodies, burned past the point of recognition. On closer investigation, they realized that they belonged to Christina and Ethan.
However, the fire wasn’t solely to blame for the Andersons’ deaths. Apparently, Christina had suffered a blunt force trauma, possibly with a crowbar. Worse still, there was evidence that she had been tortured before she died. And, in a final sick twist, someone had shot and killed Cali, the family’s dog.
As the carnage in Boulevard unfolded, one fact was the most troubling of all – Hannah was nowhere to be seen. Soon, police issued an arrest warrant for James and an AMBER alert for the missing teenager. Named after the murdered 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, the alert is designed to spread information about missing children as quickly as possible.
With the alert issued, it wasn’t long before reports of Hannah and James began trickling in. According to border agents, the pair had been spotted in a car crossing south into Mexico. But as the investigation continued, some worrying facts about Hannah and James’ relationship began to emerge.
Apparently, Hannah and James had exchanged several text messages and phone calls on the day that she disappeared. Moreover, investigators discovered emails from James that suggested he was afraid Hannah was growing apart from her “Uncle Jim.” Had the older man’s affections finally gotten out of control?
Meanwhile, people continued to say they’d seen Hannah and James from around the country. But even though the FBI followed leads from Oregon to Canada, they were unable to find any trace of the missing teen. Then, on August 7, there was a break in the case.
That day, four people were out riding in the Frank Church–River of No Return, a wilderness area in central Idaho, when they spotted a man and a teenage girl acting strangely. Apparently, the pair seemed ill prepared for the conditions, and didn’t want to engage in conversation – unusual behavior for strangers meeting in the wilds.
Stranger still, the two appeared to be accompanied on their journey by a gray cat. Sure that something was amiss, the riders contacted the local sheriff. In turn, the information was passed to the FBI, who knew that James had owned a similar pet.
Latching onto the lead, the FBI focused in on Idaho. However, they were faced with a challenge – the Frank Church–River of No Return area covers some 2.5 million acres. With the help of hundreds of police officers, they located James’ car hidden in some brush near a trail.
Finally, on August 9, the search paid off. A hiker reported having seen two people matching Hannah and James’ descriptions camping on a nearby mountain, and a search plane was launched. Eventually, the pair were located, and a rescue team helicoptered in to the area.
It was getting dark by the time that the surveillance team spotted James heading into the woods in search of firewood. As rescuers closed in, he opened fire, and officers returned the shots. Eventually, James was killed, and Hannah was finally rescued, seven days after her ordeal began.
However, the story didn’t end there. In 2015, a Lifetime movie was released that dramatized the events of Hannah’s disappearance. Under the guise of revealing what really happened, the movie implied that Hannah had encouraged James’ feelings for her. Additionally, some claimed that the teenager had been acting inappropriately on social media, and had appeared to show little grief over her mother and brother’s deaths. Upset by the allegations, Hannah fought back.
In a post on Instagram, Hannah claimed that she had never given her permission for the Lifetime movie to be made, and that much of what was depicted was untrue. Today, the debate about what really happened continues, while Hannah tries to put the past behind her. In fact, she plans to study criminology and forensics at college, perhaps hoping to follow in the footsteps of those who rescued her from the mountains that fateful day.