Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Merle Vanderheiden

Real Name: Merle Marie Vanderheiden
Aliases: Jacqueline Smith, Pat Doherty, Mary Jean Hamm, Kara Johnson, Kara Cochran
Wanted For: Abduction
Missing Since: June 22, 1990


Details: Francis Walsh and Merle Vanderheiden met in Maryland in 1979 when they were both in the army in Intelligence Units. They married in 1980 and their daughter Therese was born four years later; however, by then, their marriage was failing. Their problems apparently stemmed from Merle's rigged rules.
By 1987, the family had moved to Hawaii. However, the couple's relationship did not improve. In May, Francis moved out and filed for divorce. Merle claimed that Therese was being sexually abused by Francis, although there was no evidence whatsoever to support the allegations. An investigation by a social worker and a psychologist determined that Therese was being brainwashed by Merle into believing she had been abused by her father. They also felt that if Merle had custody, she would most likely take Therese away from Francis and never bring her back.
After the divorce, Francis began dating Janice Anderson; during their first date, Merle appeared and began screaming at the couple. She and Francis talked for a few minutes while Janice stayed in Francis's car. Suddenly, Merle got into their car, shouted obscenities at her, and tried to attack her with a stun gun. Fortunately, the stun gun's battery was low so Janice was not injured. However, Merle did rip out the car's distributor wire, disabling it completely.
In 1988, Francis was given custody over Therese and Merle was not permitted any unsupervised visits until she took a mental evaluation. Eventually, Merle left Hawaii and went back to the mainland United States; Francis and Janice married and made a happy living environment for Therese in Hawaii. Although she was shy and quiet at first, she soon blossomed in her new home.
Merle made regular phone calls to Therese but stayed in the mainland United States. Francis believed that Merle would finally be out of their lives, but everything changed on June 22, 1990. That day, Therese went to her day care center in Honolulu; in the morning, they went out for recess, and at 12PM, the group was to head back inside. However, as they walked back, Therese was abducted by a woman wearing sunglasses and a hat. When the owner of the day care center called Francis, he was certain that he woman was Merle; a warrant was soon issued for her arrest.
Francis soon learned that Merle was probably aided in her flight by the Children of the Underground, headed by Faye Yager. Authorities believe that this group may have given Merle false identification papers for her and Therese. Francis is still hoping to find his daughter even though years have passed. Neither Merle nor Therese have ever been located.
Merle is wanted by both the state of Hawaii and the FBI. Investigators believe she may be armed and could be dangerous. She is 5'5", has green eyes, brown hair, and weighs 120 pounds. She was born on August 5, 1950 and would now be sixty-eight.
Extra Notes: The case was featured as a part of the March 14, 1997 episode.
Results: Wanted. Neither Merle nor Therese has ever been located. It is unclear if Merle is still considered a wanted fugitive, as a profile of Therese that appears on the official website for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children neither mentions Merle by name nor contains a photo of her.