In a city in central Tennessee, a couple abandons their life and flees with their grandchildren in tow. For 20 years, Debbie and Mark Baskin search for their son and daughter, but no trace is ever found. Then cops in California receive a tip-off – and the next chapter in a baffling mystery is revealed.
To begin with, the Baskins appeared to have a relatively normal family life.
Debbie was one of three daughters born to Marvin Maple, from Michigan, and his wife, Sandra. In time, she met Mark, a Southern Baptist. The couple married and started a family of their own.
Eventually, Debbie and Mark went on to have three children: Christi, Bobby and Michael. Meanwhile, Mark had decided to pursue a career as a minister and embarked upon a program of theological study.
In 1987 Mark planned to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. While he and Debbie settled there with Michael, Marvin and Sandra offered to take care of Christi and Bobby for a time. Sadly, it was the beginning of a rift that would tear the family apart.
For several months, Christi and Bobby lived with Marvin and Sandra in their home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. But when Debbie and Mark attempted to regain custody of the children, their grandparents were reluctant to let them go. Apparently, they believed that the Baskins had been subjecting Christi and Bobby to all manner of abuse.
Shockingly, Marvin and Sandra accused Debbie and Mark of being involved in a satanic cult. They claimed the couple had exposed the children to terrifying rituals. The authorities duly began an investigation. While they looked into the accusations, Marvin and Sandra were granted temporary custody of Christi and Bobby.
At the time, the Baskins were far from the only family facing accusations of ritual abuse. In fact, the United States was in the grip of what has been dubbed the “Satanic Panic” – a period of time beginning in the 1970s when claims of abuse at the hands of mysterious cults began to appear across the country.
However, despite the hysteria that these cases inspired, little evidence was uncovered to support even the most widely publicized claims. Nevertheless, the era saw hundreds of bizarre accusations leveled at daycare centers, schools and individuals across the U.S.
For the next year, the Baskins found themselves at the heart of an extensive investigation. However, the authorities could find no evidence to support the claims of abuse. With this in mind, Debbie and Mark expected to soon take back custody of their children.
However, before the case could be resolved, Marvin and Sandra took matters into their own hands. On March 10, 1989, attorney Karen Hornsby arrived at the Maples’ home in Murfreesboro to check up on the children, then aged seven and eight. Shockingly, she found that the house was for sale and the family was nowhere to be seen.
For the next 20 years, authorities searched fruitlessly for Christi and Bobby. They had help from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, but they continued to draw a blank. The case even featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, a television show that dealt with mysterious crimes.
However, even that exposure was not enough to bring authorities any closer to the truth. Meanwhile, Debbie and Mark continued to search for their missing children, often appearing in the media in order to keep the case in the public eye. On their answerphone, they recorded a message imploring Christi and Bobby to get in touch.
Finally, in February 2009, a tip-off led police to Marvin. He was alive and well in San Jose, CA. Apparently, the family had spent two decades living under assumed names, using the cover that Marvin and Sandra were Christi and Bobby’s parents.
As John and Frances Bunting, Marvin and Sandra had been raising Christi and Bobby, now known as Jennifer and Jonathan, in California. Apparently, they had tricked everyone from social security offices to doctors into believing their story. For two decades, they had managed to avoid the law.
Shockingly, the truth was only uncovered when a patron in a San Jose cafe overheard Marvin complaining about being referred to as a kidnapper in a newspaper. They notified police, and Marvin was arrested on February 1. By that time, Sandra had passed away.
After the arrest, it didn’t take long for police to track down the two children. They were still living under their assumed names. Bobby, then 27, had started a family of his own while Christi, 28, had become a nurse and still lived at home with Marvin. But for Debbie and Mark, any hopes of a reunion were soon quashed.
After the children’s disappearance, Mark had left the seminary and begun selling insurance. By the time of Marvin’s arrest, the family was living in Vidalia, Georgia, where Mark taught band at a local high school and served as pastor at a nearby Baptist church. When they found out that Christi and Bobby had finally been located, they traveled to California to see them.
However, Christi and Bobby have shown no signs of wanting to reconnect. Although the Baskins believe that their children were brainwashed by their grandparents, Bobby – who insists on being known only as Jonathan – maintains that Marvin and Sandra were heroes who rescued the siblings from an abusive environment.
“I just remember there was always a level of fear,” Jonathan said in a May 2017 interview with local news channel WSAV. “I remember just never knowing when something horrible was going to happen to me or to my sister or to my brother.” And when asked about a potential reunion with his birth parents, he was blunt. “There’s nothing that could come from it that would be good,” he insisted.
With their children refusing a reunion, Debbie and Mark eventually returned home. Meanwhile, a judge dismissed the decades-old kidnapping charge against Marvin and placed him on probation for four years. After a battle with dementia, Marvin died in 2016 – perhaps taking with him the last opportunity to find out the truth about what really happened all those years ago.