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13 years later: Where is Leah Roberts?

Investigation Discovery
Missing North Carolina woman Leah Roberts was last seen in Bellingham, Washington in March 2000.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – There have not been many detective-oriented TV dramas (well, maybe the new Sherlock series with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes) that have captured my attention in recent years, except for CBS’s award-winning Cold Case, which was canceled in 2010.

I found it to be a well-scripted, engaging drama focusing on cold cases in the Philadelphia area and starring Kathryn Morris as Det. Lilly Rush, among others.

Seeing the flashbacks to different eras of the 20th century was fascinating. “The Sleepover” episode, taking place in 1990 and “The Woods” episode, taking place in 1972, both aired in 2005, were haunting, particularly when accompanied by period music.

And while we have fictional TV shows to draw upon, we also have very real disappearances taking place here in Oklahoma. Case in point: missing Weatherford teen JaRay Wilson, missing since Oct. 15, 2012.

Anyway, I thought back to that show while watching Investigation Discovery’s 2011 episode of the Unsolved Mysteries-styled program Disappeared and the episode titled “Soul Searcher.” I was inspired to dig into this cold case after reading this article "10 Mysterious Disappearances With Bizarre Clues." Leah Roberts was number 3 on the list. I was intrigued.

This episode focused on 23-year-old Leah Roberts, of Durham, North Carolina. It’s March 2000. And while she has only a few credits left to get her degrees in Spanish and Anthropology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Leah would “disappear,” taking off in her white 1993 Jeep Cherokee, heading to Mt. Baker in Washington state.

But Leah didn’t tell anyone about her plans, other than via cryptic notes left behind, including a sketch of the Cheshire Cat smile, references to Jack Kerouac and On the Road, hanging out in coffee houses and statements Leah had made about wanting to travel across the country.

She lost her mother and father over the course of a few years and with her philosophical outlook and interest in creative pursuits – music, photography and writing – Leah, an “old soul,” as her brother Heath Roberts describes her, up and takes off on March 9th and takes off on I-40, all the way out to California and then up I-5 to Bellingham, Washington, where she was last seen at a movie theater where she went to see American Beauty.

It was not clear what Leah’s frame of mind was as she raced across the U.S. She did stay in a hotel in Lebanon, Tenn. and even passed through Oklahoma, stopping once at a gas station in Okemah. She loved music, and particularly alt-rock and alt-country were among her favorites, particularly when noting a sticker on her Jeep promoting Georgia/N.C. band The Backsliders and a poster referencing the defunct Mammoth Records band Collapsis.

The following week, Leah’s Jeep would be found in a ravine off of Canyon Creek Road in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, not far from the Canadian border, in Whatcom County, Washington.

Why was Leah in this area, 3000 miles from home? She had withdrawn several thousand dollars from the bank, according to her sister, and with the Jack Kerouac obsession – she loved The Dharma Bums – she wanted to be on the road, be a free spirit and figure things out, like Kerouac did. And one of the places Kerouac notes is the Mt. Baker area.

Was this why she was in the Bellingham area? Who had Leah run into? Was someone else with Leah on the trip? Did she run into foul play? Was she too open to strangers about traveling alone?

The vehicle would be found abandoned off of the remote forest road. Clothes and other personal belongings were found scattered around the crash site off of the ravine. Cat food was found in the Jeep, leading investigators to suspect that Leah had taken her kitty cat Bea with her on the trip. The program did not mention this detail or if a cat was found near the crash site.

No blood. No evidence that she was attacked. Her beloved ring that had belonged to her recently-passed mother was found in the car and this detail disturbed her friends and family who knew Leah never took off that ring.

Was Leah actually in the car when it crashed? Did someone jack up the engine to drive and crash without someone behind the wheel? It’s likely, when detectives made a discovery in the wrecked Jeep six years later. Why Whatcom County Sheriff’s detectives didn’t notice this back in 2000 is a mystery in itself.

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office detective investigated the Leah Roberts case and come up with few leads, other than a couple of men who spoke with Leah as she ate at a restaurant in the Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham. This was a few days after she was caught paying for gas at a service station in Brooks, Oregon.

One of the men acted very suspicious when questioned by police and it is suggested this man may be linked to Leah’s disappearance, although he has since moved to Canada and DNA evidence does not directly link this mystery man to the Jeep or Leah’s belongings.

Was Leah trying to get to Mt. Baker when she went off the road, traveling approximately 40 mph? $2,500 was found in her clothing. Her guitar, CD’s and checkbook were found at the scene. The wrecked Jeep also appeared to have coverings on the busted-out window, indicating that Leah – or someone – was in the vehicle after the crash.

And while there was a spike in interest in Leah Toby Roberts’ case after the Investigation Discovery program aired in February 2011, and back in 2001 when Unsolved Mysteries did a similar program a year after Leah’s initial disappearance, there are no known updates to this cold case.

Knowing free spirits like Leah Roberts much of my adult life and appreciating her love of the Beats, coffee shop culture, cool North Carolina rock bands, writing and travel, I can relate to Leah Roberts. Sounds like a friend I’d have in college. Someone out there knows what happened to her. To learn more or if you have information of this case, there is a $10,000 reward for more information. Go here.

Copyright 2013 Red Dirt Report

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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