This month to honor Pride, we will be covering all LGBTQIA+ cases. To submit a case for consideration for next season, please see our google form here.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Kaitlin Akens, please call Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office 540-582-7115
Katelin Michelle Akens was born September 2nd, 1996, and was raised in Virginia with her sister Gabriella and her mom Lisa Sullivan. Growing up, Kaitlin was described as nurturing, adoring little kids and loving to help others in any way she could. She was unique and had no problem just being herself, a trait her family loved about her. She was also extremely smart and a quick learner. In fact, Katelin was so bright and hard working that she doubled up on her coursework and was able to graduate highschool at just 16 years old.
Katelin’s biological father moved out of state when she was just a toddler, and when Katelin was 7 years old, Lisa remarried to a man named James Branton. Katelin’s sister says that his relationship with Katelin could be a little rocky while they all lived together, mostly because he was a bit more strict than Katelin appreciated. The family says that when her mom and step dad split up, their relationship actually improved and became much stronger, now that he was no longer her disciplinarian. They all kept in friendly contact, Lisa eventually remarried again, and all the family relationships seemed to be going well.
One constant in Katelin’s life was her best friend Amber Rios. They had grown up pretty inseparable and the girls were heartbroken when Amber’s family moved to Arizona. But the two friends kept up constant communication which eventually evolved into something more. When Kaitlin announced to her family just how in love she and Amber were, the family was more than supportive. In 2014, just after her 18th birthday, Katelin moved to Arizona to live with her best friend who had become her fiance. Lisa says that the distance didn’t change their closeness as a family unit one bit- Kaitlin still called and texted multiple times a day, for big things but also small little conversations like ”how do I make pumpkin bread?” Gabi says that they typically texted all day everyday.
Growing up, Kaitlin was adventurous and free spirited. She was constantly changing her hair and experimenting with different colors and styles. This hobby had grown to a passion and Katelin had made a plan to go to cosmetology school. Her first course was scheduled to begin December 7th, 2015, and Katelin needed one final piece of paperwork to make her acceptance official- her high school diploma, which happened to be at her mom’s house all the way back in Virginia. Rather than mail it to her, they all decided it was the perfect time for a visit. Katelin’s sister Gabi had just had a baby, and so everyone was absolutely thrilled to have Katelin make the trip home for some newborn nephew snuggles with 2 week old baby Landon!
Katelin arrived back home in Springfield Virginia on December 1st, ready for a whirlwind four days of visits with family and friends. She spent most of the time holding her new nephew and enjoying some quality time with Lisa and Gabi. She also did her best to squeeze in some visits with friends- the night before she was scheduled to fly back to Arizona she’d spent the night at a friend’s apartment after an evening of beer and board games.
Since Katelin was scheduled to start her new cosmetology school on Monday, she had booked her flight back to Arizona for that Saturday evening, December 5th, at 5:40pm out of the Reagan National Airport in Arlington. Lisa had to work that day, so they had arranged for Katelin’s former stepfather James to take her to the airport. James was happy to oblige but he had to work in Fredericksburg at 3pm, so they agreed that Katelin would arrive at the airport a little bit early and just hang out until her flight. Lisa dropped Katelin off with James at 9:20 that morning before work, and they had a great chance to catch up at home for a few hours before they made the drive 60 miles out to the airport from Partlow where James lived.
At 1:52pm that afternoon, Lisa got a text from James:
“I dropped Katelin off.”
A few moments later at 2:00 pm Lisa got a text from Katelin:
“I’m at the airport. Battery dying so won’t be able to text for a bit.”
Disclaimer: the sources I used have a lot of variation in the order of this next group of incoming texts, which one came first, which one caused alarm first, when they realized she was missing. I don’t think it matters too much, but I just want to say that you’ll notice different timing on these things depending on which source you look at.
This all sounded great, and like things had gone smoothly but as Lisa continues to chat with James things become a little confusing and unclear to her. She asks how the traffic was and that’s when James tells her something that surprises her:
“I dropped her at the Springfield metro station. She was going to take the metro to the airport since there is a stop at Reagan.”
Immediately this gets Lisa’s intuition going and she knows something is wrong. James told her that Katelin had wanted to kill some time at the mall, and she’d planned to just take the metro herself to the airport. According to Lisa- The mall is not one that Katelin was familiar with, and neither was the metro. She didn’t feel there was any way at all Kaitlin would be in a strange new place and then try to navigate an unfamiliar train system with her suitcase. This behavior was all completely out of character for Katelin and Lisa simply didn’t understand what to make of it. Furthermore she thought it was strange that James would have even complied with this request, as the dad figure in her life.
While Lisa was trying to talk herself down from panic, she received another alarming text from Amber Rios in Arizona. Amber had gotten a text from Katelin that she felt confused and upset by and she wasn’t returning her calls:
“Something came up.
I’m not coming back today, I’ll let you know when I get a new flight.
I won’t be able to text for a bit.”
At this point, Lisa was completely reeling- what is going on? There’s no new flight. They called and called Katelin with no response at all. Finally at 7:15pm that night came a new round of texts. Lisa’s final text from Katelin read
“I’m staying with a friend.
I need some time alone.”
Amber’s final text from Kaitlin read:
“I can’t come back. I cheated on you.”
Fraught with worry, Lisa knew something was very wrong with her daughter and began calling every contact she could think of. They confirmed with the airport that Katelin had never in fact made it on the plane, and they attempted to report her as a missing person to the police. She was told initially of course that it was too soon to and that if Katelin wanted to be missing she could. Reluctantly, sleepless and scared, Lisa carried on searching for her daughter on her own for the weekend and returned to the police station first thing Monday morning.
Lisa immediately got the sense that her daughter was being considered a runaway- but while she was in the middle of filling out her report a phone call came in about a mysterious find in a drainage ditch by a road crew worker. He’d unknowingly discovered the biggest clue- Katelin’s suitcase, scratched and missing a wheel, as if it had been thrown from a moving vehicle. Inside the suitcase was Katelin’s wallet, her cash, her debit cards, and her plane ticket. Not inside the suitcase were any of her phone, her clothes, or her high school diploma.
Adding to the mystery was the location of the suitcase- Though it was more than 50 miles away from the airport, it was located within a few miles of Katelin’s hometown. The discovery of the suitcase quickly takes this from possible runaway to endangered missing person, and the investigation kicks into gear with Detective Rob Marshall in the lead.
The first thing to rule out in a missing persons investigation is the idea that they’re missing of their own free will. While there’s a lot of evidence in this case to make it seem like that might be what happened, there’s not enough to verify it. For example, the contents of the suitcase are strange things to take if you were disappearing, and her family also insists she had never run away before and they can’t fathom that she would do that now. She’s never used any of her accounts or her phone, and I haven’t seen one source that indicates they get a lot of calls about sightings of Kaitlin. She’s currently classified as an endangered missing person, which indicates that police don’t think she left on her own free will either, and we can assume that they probably have more evidence than we’re privy to.
Let’s talk about these cryptic text messages and her relationship with Amber. According to my sources, Amber didn’t feel there were any signs of trouble in the relationship at all before Katelin left for Virgina, so she felt pretty blindsided by the texts. As police began to investigate the hours leading up to her disappearance, they interviewed the friends she had stayed with the night before who confessed that they did actually all sleep together- the night had gotten carried away, and they all agreed it was something that shouldn’t happen again. In another interview, Katelin’s friend Kevin alleges that she confided in him the next morning that she had felt pressured or maybe even forced to join the couple, and that she felt immense guilt over that decision. Though her family doesn’t think she’d hide from them to avoid a breakup, the police arrange an intense stakeout just to be sure she’s not hiding with any of her friends. They watch and watch and there’s no sign that Katelin is cooling off somewhere locally.
Though those circumstances explain why she might have sounded like she was feeling out of sorts, it really didn’t seem to fit the evidence at hand beyond the text messages. And to add to the uneasy feeling this was giving her family, Lisa says that the text messages simply weren’t sent in Katelin’s style of texting. She wasn’t talking like herself. It didn’t sound like her.
Even more disturbing were the cell phone tower pings that the investigators looked at to determine the location of Katelin’s phone when she sent those text messages. The results validated all of Lisa’s fears because her phone was found to have been pinging all day off towers more than 50 miles from the airport, but less than 5 miles from where her suitcase had been located. Katelin’s phone had never left the Fredericksburg area. Katelin’s phone had never been to the mall, to the metro, or to the airport.
If Katelin’s phone never went to the airport or the mall, if those texts weren’t her, that leaves one explanation- foul play. There was a brief window where the rumor mill in Spotsylvania county worried there might be a serial killer among them, because right around the same time period the body of a young blonde woman was found locally. The body was later identified as 21 year old Heather Ciccone. Some sources indicate that the discovery of the body was thought to perhaps BE the body of Katelin Akens, but in an interview by Ashley Flowers for Crime Junkie, Katelin’s mom Lisa clears up that rumor saying that Heather was found first- She actually knew her, they worked at the same company. They never thought she was Katelin, but the fear was that they may have met the same fate. Eventually this theory was ruled out entirely, and two men have since been convicted of first degree murder in Heather’s death.
Ruling out all connections to the Heather Ciccone case, the investigators went back to local field and aerial searches. They also interviewed those closest to her. Given that James was the last person to see Katelin alive, he became the investigator’s next stop. According to James, he dropped Katelin off at the Springfield mall with her intending to take the metro to the airport. Initially he cooperated fully with investigators, and everytime he shared his explanation of the events they say his story stayed consistent. So just to confirm the story of a concerned father, Detective Marshall pulled security cam footage from inside the mall and the mall parking lot, the metro station, and the airport. They combed through hours of this footage from multiple cameras, and there were no sightings of Katelin, James, or James’ car.
At this point, James was requested to participate in a polygraph test just to conclusively rule him out and move on to other options. He agreed, but his appointment time came and went with no James, and he indicated that on the advice of his lawyer he would not be participating in a polygraph afterall. James told the detectives that he feared he was being looked at as a suspect and he ceased all cooperation with the investigation from that moment forward.
Without his cooperation Detective Marshall was forced to execute a search warrant on James’ house being that it was Katelin’s last known location. His property was around 10 acres in a rural area near Fredericksburg. They searched the home and land, as well as seized his technology and vehicles. No evidence was recovered that indicated anything suspicious had occurred on his property at all.
However Lisa is more concerned with the property James owns that police didn’t search, a fact that most sources leave out but Lisa clears up in that interview with Ashley Flowers. She says that James owns a second home and piece of land which his mother lives in, and Detective Marshall has been unable to obtain a search warrant because James doesn’t reside there and it’s legally considered a rental property with a tenant.
As far as the seized technology goes, its less about what they did find and more about what they couldn’t find. James was a complete techie, and everything that he had including his cell phone was built and coded by him. They were all full of encryptions that he has to this day refused to help unlock. What they didn’t need his help to uncover were those cell phone tower pings, and they indicated that James’ phone also never pinged anywhere near the airport, and seemed to be at his home all day. They were also able to determine that while all of Katelin’s loved ones were frantically calling her trying to find her on the day that she went missing, James never reached out to her again. Not one concerned call or text. Lisa found this alarming behavior from someone who was supposed to be a loving dad figure.
To add to the mystery of James’ whereabouts on the day that Katelin disappeared, you’ll remember he told everyone that he had to drop Katelin off early because he had to work at 3pm. After he told Lisa that he had dropped Katelin off, he also told Lisa that he went to work. But it turns out that he didn’t go to work that day. He was a no call no show, and he actually never went back to work there again. In fact, he didn’t go back to work anywhere at all for more than 6 months after Katelin’s disappearance.
Despite his very odd behavior, due to the lack of physical evidence, investigators have been unable to label James an official suspect to this day. They say they want to leave the door open for him to come forward with whatever information he has to clear up the discrepancies within his story. Detective Marshall feels he may simply be covering up for his step daughter- maybe he helped her. Maybe he’s keeping secrets for her.
Katelin’s sister Gabi seems to think there is a strong possibility that James helped her meet up with someone she’d been talking to online and that person turned out to be someone evil who hurt her. Katelin’s phone records don’t corroborate this theory, but there is an encrypted messaging app on her phone which police do not have access to. Its totally possible that she’d been communicating with people online, but if she’d been communicating with anyone, no one knew then, and we may never know.
Lisa doesn’t seem to be granting James quite as much grace these days, and she says he still will not speak to her or to any of the investigators. She believes fervently that her ex-husband holds the key to finding Katelin. A new billboard has gone up this spring near Kaitlin’s hometown seeking information on her disappearance. Lisa also hopes it will pull on James’ heartstrings to come forward and share what he knows. Regardless, they continue their search to this day, making every effort to spread awareness and find her.
Kaitlin Akens was last seen in Springfield Virginia on December 5th, 2015. At the time of her disappearance she was approximately 19 years old, 5’4”, 120 lbs with blonde hair and blue eyes, and was wearing a dark gray fleece pullover sweatshirt with a Bass Pro Shop emblem, black pants and pink and black Vans shoes. Kaitlin has a tattoo of five butterflies on her left forearm and a tattoo of three red stars bursting on the top of her foot. She wears eyeglasses with dark frames. Her nose and navel are pierced and the right side of her lower lip is pierced. She also has gauge-type piercings in her ears. Kaitlin would be 25 years old today.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Kaitlin Akens, please call Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office 540-582-7115
Like and follow the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HelpFindKatelinAkens/
You can listen to the full episode anywhere you find your podcasts or on Spreaker at https://www.spreaker.com/show/lost-souls-of-america