One May morning in North Carolina, a 15-year-old girl leaves her home. As usual, she joins her friends on the bus. But Rachel Owens never makes it to school that day. Instead, she disappears into thin air – the start of a mystery that would haunt her family for the next five years.
Back in 2011, the Owens family were living in Supply, a small town in Brunswick County, NC. Parents Kenneth and Kathy had six children, with Rachel being their youngest daughter. In short, the family appeared to live a normal life.
According to Rebekah, the eldest of the Owens siblings, Kenneth and Kathy kept a close eye on their daughters. “We would go to church and our parents kept us busy,” she recalled in a 2016 interview with the Daily Mail. “They wouldn’t allow us to go out with boys and that was that for all of us.”
Apparently, however, Rachel had trouble sticking to these rules, and the teenager was known to have an independent streak. Soon, the family began to hear rumors that Rachel was sneaking into nightclubs in nearby Wilmington despite her young age.
According to Rebekah, Rachel started lying to her parents, telling them that she was meeting friends to watch a movie. But when her family asked her questions about the film, it was clear that she had been somewhere else. Then, in the summer of 2010, events took a turn for the worse.
Rachel had been attending a school dance when she was spotted leaving in a mystery vehicle. Later, when police pulled over 21-year-old Santos Pacheco-Sarmiento, they found Rachel in the passenger seat. On another occasion, the teenager ran away from home – only to return a few days later.
But although the Owens were struggling with Rachel’s behavior, nothing could have prepared them for the events of May 5, 2011. That morning, Rachel had left the house as usual and boarded the bus to school. “It was just like any other day,” Rebekah told the Daily Mail. “We had no hint anything was wrong.”
However, when the bus arrived at South Brunswick High School, Rachel hung behind as the other students disembarked. Then, when she finally left the vehicle, she didn’t head inside to join her classmates for the start of school. Instead, a security camera filmed her climbing into the passenger seat of an unidentified car.
When Rachel failed to return home, the alarm was raised. From the security footage, police could tell that the car Rachel had left in probably had South Carolina plates. But there the trail went cold. The Owens had no idea where Rachel had gone or even if they would ever see their daughter again.
Initially, police suspected that Pacheco-Sarmiento might have had a hand in Rachel’s disappearance. The Owens knew that Rachel was a fan of Mexican culture and that she had a number of Hispanic friends. Apparently, she had even dyed her hair black and begun referring to herself as Raquel.
So could Rachel have been guided by her love of Mexico and arranged for Pacheco-Sarmiento or another party to spirit her out of the country? Unfortunately, these theories came to nothing, and the Owens were no closer to finding their missing daughter. As the years went by, however, they never gave up hope that Rachel would one day return.
Every Christmas, the Owens hung a stocking with Rachel’s name on it over the mantelpiece in their home. And when the family moved from Supply to Shallotte, some ten miles away, they worried that Rachel might not be able to find them. Indeed, Rebekah wondered, “What if she turned up at home and there was no one there?”
For five long years, the Owens wondered about Rachel’s fate. And, ultimately, they began to fear the worst. “There is always the thought in the back of your head that she is buried in a field somewhere,” Rebekah confessed. “We would hear that a body had been found and we would all hold our breath until they identified it.”
Rebekah also found herself looking for Rachel wherever she went. If she saw a vehicle with South Carolina license plates, she would instinctively look into the car, hoping to see her lost sister inside. Once, her daughter Harley – Rachel’s niece – spotted someone she thought was Rachel in a store, but sadly she was mistaken.
Then, on December 9, 2016, five years and seven months after Rachel’s disappearance, the Owens received the news they had been waiting for. Following a tipoff that Rachel had been spotted in Columbus, Ohio, the FBI had finally managed to track down the missing girl. And thankfully, she was in good health.
Agents had traced Rachel to an address in Columbus, some 500 miles from where she had first disappeared. She was living under an assumed name, but when an agent began questioning her she soon cracked. Quickly, she confessed that she was indeed Rachel Owens.
Yet although the search was finally over, the mystery was in many ways just beginning for the Owens family. Just why had Rachel left without so much as a letter or a phone call all those years ago? And how had she survived on her own hundreds of miles from home?
“I just wonder how she did it,” Rebekah said. “How does a 15-year-old even have the knowledge to get herself a new ID? That is my big question for her. She didn’t even know her own social security number, she could never remember it.”
For now, the true story behind Rachel’s disappearance remains a mystery. Police in Brunswick County have refused to release any information and have said they want to move on from the incident. The Owens family, meanwhile, have finally received a phone call from their long-lost daughter.
Rachel, who is now engaged, spoke to each of her family members in turn. She also sent them an updated photograph of herself. The last anybody heard, the Owens were planning a reunion – although Rachel’s disappearance will doubtless be a difficult subject. “I think the first thing I would do is rush up and hug her,” Rebekah admitted. “But my big question is just, ‘Why?’”