Everyone loves a good whodunnit. But what if the culprit is never unmasked and the end credits roll with the mystery unsolved? Such is the peculiar charm of Unsolved Mysteries, the venerable American true crime show resurrected by Netflix.
The original Unsolved Mysteries verges on national treasure status in the US. It aired for the first time in 1987, with Raymond “Perry Mason” Burr and Karl Malden presenting. However it truly came into its own when Fifties TV actor Robert Stack took over and was anointed face of the franchise. His authoritative yet ever-so-slightly hokey style endeared him to viewers (if you look carefully you can see his silhouette in the credits to the Netflix version).
Unsolved Mysteries also gained a reputation as a show with true crime-fighting potential. In 1989 mother Patricia Stallings was absolved from charges of poisoning her newborn children after a biochemist watching an episode about her case correctly adduced the babies suffered a rare genetic disorder. A 1995 instalment, meanwhile, presented the case of “Gigi”, a woman with amnesia and no idea as to her true identity. Within a week, a viewer got in touch identifying “Gigi” as 31-year-old medical secretary Belinda Lin.
And then there was the horrifying case of child-kidnapper Georgia Tan, who, through the Twenties and Thirties, exploited her position as county director of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society to seize infants from poor households and sell them to wealthy families for adoption. After the broadcast, 50 new cases of children snatched by Tan and unaware of their family heritage were identified. A silly true-crime caper changed their lives.
Stack passed away in 2003 aged 84. However, Netflix has explicitly connected the new Unsolved Mysteries to his legacy. It has set up a tips website – unsolved.com – where viewers can contribute to the investigations (you’ll have to provide your name and other details). Already Netflix customers are answering the call : with 50 “substantial” leads submitted as of last month.
Netflix has, in addition, rolled out an Unsolved Mysteries “expanded universe” by sharing with website Reddit a Google drive full of outtakes and interviews. And it is on Reddit that you can read the many, many theories – both crackpot and perceptive – that have bubbled up in the wake of the reboot.
The six-part series is essentially a crack-it-yourself murder mystery kit. The facts of the case are laid out, family members, police and eye-witnesses interviewed. Several theories are even floated. And then the trail goes cold. The sleuthing is left to the viewer.
The new Unsolved Mysteries debuted on July 1. Since then, it is fair to say the public has not been found wanting in terms of filling in the blanks. Here are the half dozen cases covered by the season and some of the crazier theories that have since surfaced.
Mystery on the Rooftop
How did 32 year-old aspiring screen writer Rey Rivera come to take a fatal plunge from the baroque Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland’s Mount Vernon neighbourhood in May 2006?
The police ruled his death as probable suicide. However, the internet reckons there is more to it. On Reddit one student of the case has posited that Rivera, whose body was found in an abandoned room in a second story annex, was actually killed by masonry falling from the hotel.
The theory was that he had exited the Owl Bar located at the Belvedere (the hotel is now a block of apartments) and was taking a side-stairs towards Charles Street. Down fell the chunk of debris, killing him and punching Rivera through into the empty conference room below. Hence the hole in the ceiling directly above his remains.
Another idea doing the rounds is that Rivera, who disappeared after a mysterious phone-call, was obsessed with David Fincher movie The Game. That film concludes with Michael Douglas’s character jumping from the roof of a tall building, through a glass ceiling.
The “evidence” is a reference to the film in a confused note left behind by Rivera, which also contains allusions to the Freemasons.
The note begins: “Brothers and Sisters, Right now, around the world volcanoes are erupting. What an awesome sight. Whom virtue unites death will not separate.” The last sentence is apparently a Masonic phrase.
Another part reads: “I stand before you a man who understands the purpose and value of our secrets. That’s why I cherish them as secrets.”
But Unsolved Mysteries co-creator Terry Dunn Meurer says Rivera’s widow, Allison, has rejected the idea.
“I spoke to Allison Rivera about that – she’s spent a lot of time with that note, as did the FBI, just going through the note trying to figure out if there were any clues or anything else in there,” she said. “She doesn’t place any significance on the movie The Game.”
Another unanswered question is how Rivera could have made it to the top of the building unseen in order to jump, as per the police theory. Could he have been in fact thrown out of a helicopter?
“I know it sounds crazy, but this is the kind of case that makes you look at more strange theories,” investigative journalist Stephen Janis explains in bonus footage from the episode released by Netflix.
“You’ve got no real evidence. Given the hole and given that nobody saw him enter the building – he had to come from somewhere else.”
And what about the argument that the suicide was staged? Rivera’s phone and glasses were intact – which would surely be impossible had he plunged from a height. Moreover, there were only three possible places from where he could have jumped. The roof, the parking garage or an 11th story ledge.
The first two are agreed to have been inaccessible. And to reach the ledge he would have had to have entered via a room or office. There is no evidence he did so. Was he killed elsewhere and his body dumped?
This brings us back to that note discovered by Allison behind Rey’s computer and seemingly written the day he vanished. It lists movie industry figures who have died, including Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Reeve. It also begins and ends with phrases related to the Freemasons (which Allison discovered when she entered them in Google).
Rivera is said to have had a fascination with the Masons and its reputation for secrecy. He even inquired about joining the Maryland Lodge. On the weekend of his disappearance he read The Builders, a book about Freemasonry. And on the day he vanished he bought a copy of Freemasons For Dummies. Was this obsession linked to the death?
Not everyone is buying into the sensation, it should be noted. This week Porter Stansberry, the childhood friend who persuaded Rivera to move to Baltimore to join his financial publishing company, accused Netflix of hyping a tragedy.
“I think what’s really sad about this is that there are people in Hollywood who will do anything to craft a story to get attention, even when it comes to destroying someone’s reputation and trying to sensationalise the tragedy of a death of a 32-year old man.”
Patrice Endres vanished from her salon in Dawson County, Georgia in the space of 13 minutes in April 2004. Her body was found 600 days later. What grisly events had transpired in the intervening period?
Many viewers were struck by the behaviour of her husband Rob Endres, who asked for her skeleton to be reassembled so that he could say goodbye and then embraced her skull. He also revealed that he brings the jar containing her ashes to bed each night, describing it as his “teddy bear”.
In the 16 years since Patrice Endres’s death suspicion has fallen on two serial killers, Jeremy Brian Jones and Gary Michael Hilton. Jones actually confessed to the murder, stating he kidnapped, assaulted and killed Patrice and then dumped her body.
But he later claimed he “made up the story to get better food and extra jail visitation and phone privileges”. Both men have been ruled out by police.
If the internet is to be believed, the chief suspect is Rob. However a receipt proves he was buying petrol at a service station 45 minutes away from Patrice’s salon during the crucial 13 minute window. One theory is that Patrice was merely the unlucky victim of a robbery gone wrong. Her wedding ring has never been recovered. Is that because a thief stole it?
House of Terror
One of the most shocking crimes details in Unsolved Mysteries is the 2011 murder of the Dupont de Ligonnès family in Nantes, France by blue-blooded dad Xavier.
The bodies of his wife and their four children (the eldest of whom had a different father) and two dogs were found in bin-bags underneath their swanky home. Xavier was long gone. The widely accepted version of events is that, despairing of his precarious financial situation, he killed his family with a hunting rifle inherited from his father.
The episode suggested Xavier had evaded the authorities and was living under an assumed identity, potentially in South American. There is also the theory he killed himself. “We will be sure of it the day we discover his body,” Prosecutor Brigitte Lamy said in 2013. Several remains have been connected to the disappearance but none has proved a successful match.
Another possibility touted online is Xavier became involved with some dangerous people in a desperate attempt to clear his debts and stave off the bailiffs. It was they who killed the family – and Xavier – and then made it look as if the dad had done it.
In the episode, the accused’s lawyer insists his client could not have buried the bodies under the house owing to his bad back. But could he have hired someone else to commit the murders? Was he feigning his back troubles? And is it possible that his aristocratic family is sheltering him and that he is still hiding somewhere in France? Reddit isn’t ruling it out.
And then there is the idea it’s all a huge cover-up and that the family is still alive. Xavier in a letter once claimed to be a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent who had entered the witness protection programme. The theory is that the family was relocated again and that five bodies were dumped under the house to make it look as if Xavier had killed them. In reality, they’re living free and happy somewhere. The clincher, conspiracy theorists believe, is that no DNA tests were conducted during the autopsies.
“When the autopsies were done on the body, it was pretty obvious to everyone involved that we were missing a mother and four children and two dogs, and low and behold, here’s a mother, and four children and two dogs,” episode director Clay Jeter told the You Can’t Make This Up podcast. “They roughly matched ages and genders, so there’s no real need to go and dot every “i” and cross ever “t” on this, because it’s kind of obvious what happened here.”
No Ride Home
Young African-American Alonzo Brooks was the suspected victim of a racial attack after his friends left him alone at a party in a Kansas town notorious for its white supremacist tendencies, in 2004.
The theory floating around the internet is that two men from a well-connected family killed him after he was seen talking at the gathering to a female relative. It is alleged they abducted and tortured Brooks – possibly with a dog collar – before murdering him and storing the body in a meat freezer. Then, when the fuss had died down, the remains were abandoned at a creek for his family to discover (his body and personal effects showed little sign of decomposition).
The reason authorities have been so slow to take action, it is speculated, is because the killers have friends in high places. “It seems like a lot of people didn’t want to talk to law enforcement…They felt like the law enforcement around that town was holding back on the investigation.” wrote one sleuth on Reddit.
“Some of the rumours…are that his body was put in a freezer, he was maybe kept alive for a while, and that later on, he was killed and his body was placed there a month later.”
However this may not be the end of the case. The FBI recently announced it was reopening the investigation and has exhumed Brooks’s body.
Did extra-terrestrials really pay a visit to the All-American small town of Sheffield, Massachusetts in 1969? In the episode several eye-witnesses, who did not know each other at the time, recalled seeing a bright disc-like object in the sky. They also described disappearing into a beam of light and of blacking out for several hours. Their claims were not generally believed. They were widely mocked and even shunned.
Was there any truth to their accounts? The obvious conclusion is that, for reasons best known to themselves, they made up the whole thing. After all, there are no reports of strange lights in the sky in police dispatches. Nor was the incident mentioned in local newspapers. But why would the witnesses, all children, fabricate such an account?
One far-out suggestion is that the entirety of Sheffield saw the lights but that the aliens somehow wiped the memory of the majority. Only several witnesses, children at the time, recalled what had transpired.
Even wackier – which is saying something for UFO sightings – is the theory the US government was carrying out LSD experiments on the local populace. It wouldn’t be the first such occasion, according to conspiracy theorists. The CIA is accused of experimenting on the citizens of Pont-Saint-Esprit in southern France by introducing hallucinogenics into the water supply in the Fifties. During the Cold War it was speculated LSD and other mind-altering substances could be deployed as biological weapons. Were the Berkshire UFO sightings the result of a CIA exercise gone too far?
Lena Chapin claimed her mother, Sandy, had killed her husband of several years, Gary, after he threatened divorce over her infidelities. Lena vanished from her home in Missouri in 2006, not long after receiving a subpoena to testify in court about her allegations against Sandy. Her mother has never been charged. She has, however, been found liable for damages arising from Gary’s 1999 death in a lawsuit by his family.
As a teenager, Lena stated she had been made to help Sandy clean up after she shot Lena’s stepfather, Gary, as he sat on the couch. Later, she shared the story with her former step-father Albert (Gary’s brother). The widespread assumption is that Sandy killed Lena to prevent her testifying against her. Sandy is now raising Lena’s son, Colter, as her own – the little boy she alway wanted but never had, according to her estranged family.
“Based on my interviews with Brandi and Robin [Lena’s sisters], I believe Sandy had two motives for making Lena disappear,” said Detective Rick Letchworth, one of the officers investigating the case. “Lena helped make Gary disappear. She had first-hand knowledge of what happened. And if Lena talked, what that could potentially do. Also, Lena had a son, Colter, that Sandy desperately wanted. So much that Sandy would, by accounts, make him call her 'mom'.”
The case would seem relatively cut-and-dried, then. That hasn’t prevented the internet speculating feverishly. One possibility is that Sandy was telling the truth when she said Lena had declared out of the blue she was going to Florida to be with a new boyfriend and entrusted Colter to her mother. Then again, she left all her possessions behind – along with her beloved son. And nobody else in the family recalls her having ever mentioned a boyfriend in Florida.
Unsolved Mysteries is available to stream on Netflix now