“In May and August 1989, two toddlers vanished from the same New York City park. A search turned up nothing- but their families haven’t given up hope.”
Have you ever gone to the park when you were a kid, and there was a silver aluminum slide; that, in the dead of summer, would literally burn your skin if you ever went down on it? Well, that kind of slide comes into the camera’s focus first as a mid-50’s to early 60’s woman walks past it as she mentions that she’s a mother of a missing child. “As a mother of a missing child, some days you just don’t wanna.. You don’t wanna go on.” As she’s giving an interview sitting down in a chair across from the camera, the look of devastation, worry and sadness is prevalent on her face. She even mentions how she frequently finds herself in a place of “heaviness.” With a voice full of longing and helplessness, she says, “You want answers, but you don’t have any.” She says that she wouldn’t ever wish this- this, being what she’s had to go through- on anyone. Cue the title credits.
We’re in Harlem, NYC for this case. And, from what we’re told, the year is 1989. Immediately a WPIX-TV reporter named Mary Murphy comes on screen, and she’s informing us that in ‘89, the city was racked with crime. “It was really a bad time.” Old news footage displays what some neighborhoods looked like, and I can’t help but notice that they’re only really talking about the inner-city, basically alluding to the fact that African-Americans (and lets just say it- non-whites) are the cause of such behavior in those neighborhoods. Now that we’re over thirty years removed from the news coverage, it’s easier to see the discrimination that has plagued the way that some might have covered a story. We meet Rosa Glover, a Harlem resident, who gives testimony of some of the things she has witnessed over the years in her neighborhood. She mentions walking down the street watching people indulge into heavy drug use and witnessing people run buck-naked down the sidewalks.
And… just like that, we meet a white, male, (retired) NYPD inspector named Ken Lindahl. One of the first things he says is, “Harlem was one of the toughest areas. It was a very violent place.” But then he mentions that although Harlem was full of rough and tough mobster-like people, it’s also just as full of people that work hard for the things they need to survive. Valdree Manley, another Harlem resident, says “We had a lot of children, a lot of kids, a lot of families. People tryna’ go to work, come home and make a livin’ for their families, and struggling to do the best they can for their families.”
From the start, it’s hard to feel any sort of optimism from this episode, because in a way, you already kind of know what’s gonna happen. That feeling gets a little heightened as images of a stroller and the sounds of children playing in the park come on screen. We’re taken to Martin Luther King Towers, which is located in central Harlem. We meet the woman again from the beginning of the episode, and she’s Allison Dansby and she’s here because she’s Christopher’s mother. She first speaks on the fact that she lived at the MLK Towers, as did most of her immediate family. She made the statement that we’ve all heard before, “It takes a village to raise a family.” And boy. She ain’t lyin’. She notes that she was 26 years old at the time (as old family pictures come on screen) and that she had two sons just one year apart from each other. We meet Carolyn Manley and she’s Christopher’s aunt. She first speaks on the nickname the family had given him, (JuJu) but as she does, she has the same aura of sadness and longing as Allison. It’s very obvious (at least to me) that this family is hurting. As we see more baby pictures of Christopher, Carolyn lets us know that Christopher wouldn’t normally gravitate to just anyone, and if he did, it was to his mother. If Allison would enter a room that Christopher was in, he would light up like a Christmas tree the second he laid his eyes on his mother. And Allison tells us that he was a cuddler. At the time, Christopher was starting to say words, and knew how to say “Mama” and his brother’s name. Allison says that the family frequented the outdoors, especially the park that was close by to the family’s apartment.
We make our way to the park that she’s referencing, and she says that “The last memory I have here is um… unbelievable.” A caption comes across the bottom of our screens, letting us know that the last time she was there was on Thursday, May 18th, 1989. The day started off as any other days did, with Allison taking her kids to the park. Allison says that she and Christopher went down the slide a few different times and that he was having a blast. Allison’s sister Carolyn was also at the park and was at the swings with a couple of her own children. It’s very obvious that this is something the whole community did. And as they should. New York has nice, decent weather for about six months out of the year, so you know that all families of all shapes, sizes and colors took every advantage of getting some use out of the park. Carolyn says that on that day, it was a scorcher- muggy, hot and humid. Carolyn notes that it seemed like everybody was at the park that day. “It was so crowded.” Carolyn says that that day has stayed with her and will probably always stay with her. And again, I can’t help but get a sense of apprehension from our commentators- that they know that they have to talk about it, but it’s almost like they want to put it off as much as they can. You can sense that Allison and Carolyn want to stay in the feelings of when things in their lives were going well, when their kids were happy and all they did was go up and down on park slides or swing on the swing set. But it’s clear that we’ve reached the point in the documentary and this is when things began to take a turn for the worse.
Allison says that she needed to make a trip to the grocery store. Carolyn claims that this was a normal habit- that they would all go to the park and play for awhile, then one of the adults would head to the store to grab a few essentials and a few things for the kids. (I’m thinking candy, ice cream or maybe chalk.) Allison says that she left Christopher with her mother (who also lived at the MLK Towers) and told him that she’d be right back. “He told me, “I love you mommy!” Something like that.” Her voice is beginning to fill up with tears, and as a mother myself, I’m starting to feel the tug at my own heart strings. Allison blinks back tears as we’re informed that she was gone for 30 minutes. When Allison returned to the park, she noted that not too much had changed. It was still crowded and still hot out. She began looking around for where Christopher was, hoping to find him going down the slide or swinging on the swing set. She started asking people and kids she knew if they had seen Christopher, but wasn’t getting the answer that she was hoping for. Carolyn says that when Allison asked her where Christopher was, she replied that yeah, she had seen him, but it’s been a minute because he was always with another family member. She claims that he was with a bunch of people. Carolyn claims that there were at least five adults in the park with the kids. Unfortunately however, out of all the kids, Christopher was the only one missing.
The family members and other members of the community split up and began taking different areas of the park to search for Christopher. At this point, Allison explains that she began getting really nervous and felt extremely anxious and she knew deep in her gut that this wasn’t going the right way. Carolyn tells us that she was shook, and that she too was beginning to panic. “One minute he was there, and the next he was gone.”
Ken Lindahl is back, and lets us know that the police take this kind of matter very seriously. He notes that it’s kind of an all hands on deck type of situation. “Everybody knows how critical those first few minutes, first hour are…” Ken says that the first step in a case like this is the initial canvassing of the area. That’s sweeping the park, asking people in the area if they had seen anything, knocking on doors to places within the vicinity of where Christopher was last seen. Then, the police would do a building by building search- looking in every apartment, closets, hallways- anywhere where Christopher might have gone to hide. And lets not forget- he’s two. He could be anywhere. The police search the buildings also looking for any evidence that would prove a struggle- blood on the floor, broken furniture or belongings- things of that nature.
Mary Murphy is back and informs us that MLK Towers was quite expansive. There were ten towers in the development (meaning that each tower had 14 floors) so that meant that the task of sweeping every apartment was going to be gruelling for the investigators. Mind you, this task only works if it’s done in a timely fashion. And I don’t know about you, but searching ten towers with 14 floors each is just an uphill battle. Ken says that although the work was intimidating, the fact that it was a missing child fueled the investigators and police to get the work done that much quicker.
Carolyn says that the next thing she knew was that helicopters were up in the air searching the area where the family and police believe Christopher went missing. For the second time, the word “unbelievable” is used. Ken lets us know that the search area for Christopher was 24 blocks. He notes that where the playground is located is near Harlem Meer- a marshy pond-like area not too far from MLK Towers and a place where investigators and a scuba team checked to make sure that Christopher hadn’t fallen into and drowned. Carolyn says that the family was extremely panicked and worried at this point because it wasn’t like Christopher to just get up and walk off with someone. It’s the first time in the documentary alluding to an abduction.
Allison says that she had to get some of Christopher’s clothes from her apartment for the dogs to try and track down his scent. One of the tracking dogs did in fact get something, and took investigators out of the playground and down to 110th Street. But once he reached the end of the street he unfortunately lost the scent. Allison says that after hours of no Christopher she began to ask herself if this was all really happening. It’s no question to me that on that day, at this point in the search, Allison was inconsolable.
It’s a new day. Another day without Christopher. Ken lets us know that there were a few different entrances into the park, and that at any point someone could have parked a car close to an entrance and had someone else coax Christopher out of the park by any means necessary. Allison says that Christopher wouldn’t have voluntarily taken a stranger’s hand and walked off to parts unknown- again alluding to the fact that he was abducted. Allison says that Christopher must have started to cry, but realizes that he probably didn’t attract enough attention because… well, kids cry. Allison notes that the playground isn’t a happy place for her to be at anymore. She still can’t seem to grasp the same questions that we ask ourselves in any case- the who, the why, and the how.
Ken says that it very well could have been a family member involved in Christopher’s disappearance. He says that families can have a volatile situation, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if one of Allison’s other family members might have gotten mad at her, or a situation she was in, and took it out on her by kidnapping Christopher. He says it’s very easy for something like this to happen to someone of such innocence, even if that person had nothing to do with the matter at hand. He brings up the fact that it could have been a custody issue. Allison notes that Christopher’s father was living in Florida at the time of Christopher’s disappearance. He wasn’t really in Christopher’s life, but suddenly she says, “He came back up.” Christopher’s father did meet with police and answered any questions that they had for him. Ken says that after Christopher’s father was questioned, it was determined that he wasn’t the one responsible in his son’s disappearance. “We were back at square one.”
Ken turns the conversation and mentions that Christopher’s disappearance could be a result of someone using drugs. “The mom did have a problem in the past.” Allison comes clean and admits that she had a drug problem. She says that she’s been filled with guilt and shame over her use of drugs in her past, but as quickly as it was brought up, Carolyn shoots it all down by saying that she’s absolutely positive that Christopher’s situation has no bearing on Allison’s past drug use. Carolyn says that it was hard for people to see past Allison’s indiscretions, and that it was easy for other people to just blame the family. Allison says that yes, she was an addict, but she loved her children. “And I would never hurt ‘em. I would never do nothing to hurt ‘em.”
The screen fades to black, and when it comes back, we’re told that we’ve moved on… by three months. This means that we’re now in August of 1989. We meet Rosa Glover again, but this time she says, “I didn’t know that boy was missing from that park until my son got taken from that park.” Rosa says that if she had known that Christopher went missing from that playground, then she would have never taken her son Shane there.
Rosa introduces us to her son Shane, who was a little over a year and a half at the time this all happened. She was a 35 year old single mother who for a while, never thought that she could ever get pregnant. But once she did, she referred to Shane as special, because to her, he was. Rosa shows the camera old baby pictures of her son, explaining that she did what any normal mother does- by distracting the child with a toy so that she can get cooking and cleaning down around the house. She says that she loved his hair, and vowed to herself that she wouldn’t get it cut until he turned two. “I never got the chance.”
Rosa says that she normally worked five days a week, leaving two days to spend with Shane. She notes that she usually would take Shane to the park on those days. But everything changed on Thursday, August 10th, 1989. Rosa remarks that the playground was crowded that day, and it was a little after 5 p.m. She had first taken Shane to the store and got him some snacks to have while he was in the park, then they had made their way to the playground. She says that while they were there, two other children approached Shane and asked for him to play. Rosa makes a note that the girl was around 10, while the boy she was with was around the age of 6. At first, Shane didn’t seem interested in playing with the other children, but after some time, Rosa told him to go ahead and play over by the sidewalk. Rosa took a seat on a park bench and watched her son interact with the two children until a man took the empty seat next to her. She turned her head to look at the man for a second, and when she turned her head back to Shane, he was gone. She immediately got up and started looking around the playground for her young son. After a few long minutes, she came about the two children that were playing with Shane, and asked them what they did with her son. They simply responded that they left him in the park, presumably to go play somewhere else. Rosa had told those two children that if they had in fact left him in the park, then he’d still be there. Rosa went into total Mama Bear mode, and I don’t blame her. She started yelling out for Shane, begging him to come back or to stop hiding. Other park goers began to sense and see Rosa’s desperation and started to help her search for little Shane. “He wasn’t there.”
Ken says that back at headquarters, they all began to get really concerned as to what was happening. He notes that Christopher and Shane’s cases were similar. The timing of the day when each of them went missing, the day of the week (both on a Thursday), the time of year (with the fact that the sun doesn’t set till real late), and the fact that the park was packed full of other people were some of the similarities between the two. Ken says, “Once again the bells got sounded…” and an immediate search began in hopes that this time they’d find the missing child. So here we are again, canvassing the area, investigating, inquiring to those who lived and worked in the area. It’s almost like Groundhog Day, only this time it’s not a comedy. It’s more like a horror picture. And again, I find my heart aching for Rosa. Investigators looked in garbage chutes, dumpsters- anywhere a small child would hide, or where someone could hide a body. Police and investigators searched every building “from rooftop to basement” in the search for Shane. Rosa informs us that they had gotten a tip that her son was buried “out there” so then the police and investigators “tore this whole place apart”. Ken says that they did in fact tear down buildings in the search for either boy, but again, came up empty.
An old headline comes on screen from an old newspaper that read: “Search for missing tots goes cold.” Ken says that they went to extreme lengths to find either Christopher or Shane. Rosa says that it’s a little more than ironic that the first time she let Shane go play with kids she didn’t know, is the time that he went missing and hasn’t been heard of since. Rosa theorizes that the two children who took Shane quickly gave him up to an adult who then hastily took Shane out of the park and presumably into a car. To her, there’s no other way to explain Shane’s disappearance than that. Ken mentions that the two children were in fact, interviewed “at length” and the children’s parents were also interviewed and looked at and everything came back “clean.” Mary Murphy is back for the third time, and brings up the random man that sat next to Rosa on the park bench. She mentions that he too was interviewed and Ken says that “there was no indication that he was involved.”
The police put up posters of both Christopher and Shane, letting the public know that there was a $30,000 reward for the information leading into either boy’s disappearance. A task force was created, and a police van patrolled surrounding communities with a horn asking the public if they had heard or knew anything about Christopher or Shane’s disappearances. When Allison had heard about Shane’s case, she couldn’t believe that another mother was experiencing what she’s gone through for the past three months. “It was living it all over again.” She says what we’re all thinking- that it was in the same community- the same projects and asks, “What are the odds of that?”
Rosa says that it’s been hard for her not to blame herself because she was there. She starts to break down, telling the camera that she couldn’t even protect her own child. Allison says that she didn’t know Rosa, but could empathize with her since they were both enduring the same set of circumstances. Allison suspects that whomever took Christopher, also took Shane, stating that “they came back.”
Ken says that worst case scenario- it’s a pedophile or serial killer who abducted Christopher and Shane. He says that he knows it’s an awful thing to consider, but unfortunately, things like this do happen in our culture. Mary Murphy says that after Shane went missing, the NYPD seemingly “escalated things” (not quite sure what she means by that) and says that “it’s highly unusual not to find babies who go missing.” Mary brings up the idea that maybe both boys were abducted and possibly involved in a baby-selling ring. A few different people from the community gave old interviews stating that they believed that it was possible that the boys were taken and thrusted into the black market and sold. Ken says that the black market theory was investigated, but that it’s not something that can be easily proven, and not something that normally happens. He says that nothing surfaced in NYC that proved the black market theory.
Rosa tells us that she had her phone tapped in case Shane’s abductors tried to call her asking for any sort of ransom, but unfortunately, nothing came of it. Mary remarks that because that part of Harlem is so densely populated, it’s not surprising to her that Christopher and Shane vanished into thin air. She says that there were just too many people, and it was a time that surveillance cameras were not out front of every building or on every corner. Mary is hopeful- and so is Ken, that both boys are still alive. She theorizes that the boys were taken by people who couldn’t have children, and were desperate to have children. Ken says it could very well be a likely scenario that someone was just desperate enough and saw no other opportunity to have children, and thought that the only recourse was to take either child.
We meet Robert Lowery, the vice president for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He mentions that it’s very unlikely that if a child is missing for more than 30 years that he or she could be found alive, although, they’ve learned to “never give up on these children because we’ve seen amazing things happen.” For instance, Carlina White was abducted from the Harlem Hospital on August 4th, 1987. She was only 19 days old, but was admitted to the hospital with a fever. The parents met a woman who was dressed as a nurse who was comforting them- telling them that their daughter was going to be okay, and that the doctors were going to be able to get her fever under control. At some point, while the shift changes were happening, this same nurse who comforted the parents, seemingly just took Carlina and smuggled her out of the hospital. A massive manhunt for this newborn baby went underway, but Carlina had just vanished. Fast forward to January 2011, 23 years after Carlina’s abduction. CBS News covered the story detailing how a woman named Nettie Nance who had just gotten pregnant needed a valid birth certificate to get services and insurance. She brought her birth certificate (that she thought was valid) but learned that it was a forgery. She started to do some research, and found that the picture on a missing persons poster looked eerily similar to her own child and thought to herself that just maybe, that missing baby was her. As a result, NYPD conducted a DNA test and low and behold, she was in fact the missing Carlina White. The woman who dressed up like a nurse was arrested and charged with kidnapping. Turns out, this woman wanted to have a child, but had a series of miscarriages and was distraught over the fact that she might never have a child of her own. Carlina’s reunion with her biological parents became front page news- and gave hope to people like Allison and Rosa. Allison remarks, “The hope is that if it happened to her, it can happen to me too.”
Robert takes us inside the forensic imaging unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and notes that it’s definitely not uncommon for them to find missing toddlers and babies years after they’ve matured and even had families of their own. We meet Colin McNally, a forensic artist for the NCMEC and notes that they’ve done over 7,000 age progressions since 1989 (when the unit was founded) and tells us that it’s his job to come up with the most accurate description of what these children could look like. “Because the goal is to bring these children home.” He says that in a way, these missing children are growing up on his computer screen. Colin shows us what Christopher would look like now that he’s 33 years old. Allison says that Christopher has a birthmark on his leg that looks like the figure eight. She knows that he’ll always have that- indicating that his abductor wouldn’t have been able to get rid of it. In Shane’s case, Colin used up-to-date images of Rosa and noticed certain family characteristics while he conducted the age progression for Shane. He notes that for Shane, they’ve done an age progression of him for what they believed he looked like when he turned 11, then again for age 30. Rosa notes that Shane took a fall when he was little, and has a scar on his chin. He also has a birthmark on his right shoulder- just like she does. She says that the age progressions that she gets from the NCMEC gives her some sort of comfort because she feels as though he’s around her. “I’ve never given up hope.” She says that if Shane was to ever find her, she’d tell him that they need to go on a vacation to get away- to be with each other. To spend time with one another.
The last time we see Allison, she’s with her grandchildren, singing the ABC’s. She updates us on her life- that she was able to move out of the MLK Towers, but visits her mother who still lives there. She says that she dislikes going to the Towers because it’s too much of a reminder of what she’s lost. She now has three grandchildren who have an uncle that they don’t know. She trusts in God that she’ll be reunited with her son Christopher. She says it’s just been really hard on her knowing that she has a child out there that she hasn’t been able to watch grow up. She’s devastated to know that she’s missed out on the crucial years of his life. Allison starts to cry- speaking to the camera as though it’s her son, telling him that she misses him, but tells him that she’s never stopped trying to find him. She says that wherever he’s at, she just hopes and prays that he’s okay. It’s truly heartbreaking to watch her fall apart.
Ken still thinks that there’s hope that Christopher and/or Shane will be found. He says that because they’ve had success in other cases, there is a possibility that a DNA sample will eventually lead them into the direction of closing either or both of Christopher’s and Shane’s cases. “Hope for hope.”
“If you recognize Christopher, Shane or any of the following faces; email: HOTLINE@NCMEC.ORG or go to unsolved.com.”
The missing faces (and age progressions) that come on the screen are of:
- Andre Bryant: Missing since 1989 from Brooklyn, NYC
- Cherie Barnes: Missing since 1987 from St Louis, Missouri
- Amber Nichole Crum: Missing since 1983 from Dallas, Texas
- Corey Edkin: Missing since 1986 from New Columbus, Pennsylvania
- Desiree Carroll: Missing since 1983 from Kosse, Texas
- Ke’Shaun Vanderhorst: Missing since 1995 from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Aaron Anderson: Missing since 1989 from Pine City, Minnesota
- Chris Abeyta: Missing since 1986 from Colorado Springs, Colorado