The Missing Persons Investigator Who Went Missing Herself
Andrea Knabel spent countless hours searching for missing people. Then one day she was the one who disappeared. Her family and friends—and half the internet—are still searching.
When Andrea Knabel’s friend Heather went missing outside Lexington, Kentucky, on September 1, 2017, no one knew exactly what to think. Some of Heather’s friends and family back home in Louisville (about 80 miles away) suspected a kidnapping, that perhaps her boyfriend, who they say was a drug dealer, may have been holding her against her will. Others knew that Heather, who was last seen leaving a Salvation Army shelter, was battling a mental health episode, was homeless, and could veer toward self-harm. Moreover, she had an active arrest warrant against her, and, her friends said, openly struggled with alcoholism.
Knowing the trouble Heather often found herself in, frequently announced via her own Facebook posts, some of those who knew her wrote her disappearance off as just another erratic episode. “She had some really crazy paranoia going on,” a friend who was close to Heather in college, tells me. “I knew there were drugs [involved].” With Heather missing, “to be 100 percent honest? I just shut it down” and stopped thinking about it, the friend says.
Andrea Knabel did not. One of Heather’s best friends since childhood, she reported Heather missing to the Lexington Police Department. A mother of two boys, and the oldest of three sisters, Andrea had long been known among friends and family as someone who tended to overlook a person’s demons in light of their angels. (Growing up, her sisters called her “Mother Andrea” for her unconditional caretaking, a name that stuck in adulthood.) Andrea spoke with a soft Appalachian drawl, sometimes laughing with a voluminous snort, and in pictures she often had parted ash-blonde hair and a smile that appears unmistakably genuine. “Andrea was just really, really high energy,” Suzzette Rodriguez, Andrea’s friend for the past decade, says. “You could be in the worst mood ever, but when she walked in the room your mood just changed.”
Soon after filing the police report, Andrea heard from Nancy Schaefer, the founder of Missing in America, a group of volunteer missing persons sleuths, who offered to help with Heather’s case. Andrea accepted Nancy’s offer and, near the end of that September, they got together and made it their mission to find Heather and either rescue her or, if she had skipped town willingly, convince her to return home.
“We fear that she is a victim of human trafficking,” Heather’s friends wrote on Missing in America’s page, “and that there is only a small window of time that we have to help save her life.”
Andrea was afraid that someone might have taken Heather against her will. She and the other volunteers convened in Lexington to pursue a tip that Heather had been spotted wandering alone underneath a viaduct in the Loudon neighborhood on the east side of town. Because Andrea’s sister Sarah Knabel and her boyfriend, Ethan Bates, knew Lexington well (they were living there at the time), Andrea directed them to comb the Loudon area. They eventually came across Heather, who promised them that she and her boyfriend would meet them all back at Sarah Knabel’s house in Louisville.
Heather did not show up. Four days passed. Suzzette and Andrea kept looking and ended up spotting Heather’s boyfriend at a Speedway gas station. The two women confronted him and — according to a Facebook post Andrea later wrote — somehow managed to get ahold of one of his diamond earrings. They told the boyfriend that he wouldn’t get his earring back until Heather came home. It worked: She finally showed up later that day.
It was during this search for Heather that Andrea befriended Nancy Schaefer. Nancy is a former accountant from New Jersey, who says that she put her entire savings into Missing in America’s grassroots method of search and rescue — think Guardian Angels meets overactive Facebook group — to take, as Nancy likes to put it, “the cases that are unpleasurable for others.” Nancy had already helped investigate the murder of 29-year-old Tromain Mackall, she says, and she assisted local activist LaCreis Kidd in the search for her daughter, Nayla, the case that first brought her to Louisville. During her time there, Nancy brought on several new volunteers, but she was most wowed by Andrea.
“She was like a chameleon,” Nancy says, explaining that Andrea could switch from being “very professional” to talking “street lingo.” “She was able to turn herself into these two roles.”
“From here on I can just hope that my friend chooses to make better choices,” Andrea wrote on Facebook. “And I want her to know that she has so many friends and family that love her and are here for her.” In a photo accompanying the post, Heather stands embraced by Andrea, Sarah Knabel and another friend. It’s still unclear exactly what happened to Heather during the time she was missing. “Andrea finding her made her feel like she really had a friend,” says Diane Stumph, a former member of Missing in America. “That somebody cared for her.” (“Heather” did not respond to requests for comment but expressed to friends that she does not want any publicity. So, given the sensitive nature of this case, Narratively opted not to publish her real name.)
Nancy, who would develop a tight relationship with Andrea over the next two years, says that the particular thrill of the search for Heather awakened a new purpose in her newest volunteer. But Andrea’s investigations would eventually come to run parallel with her own unfortunate downfall.
Nearly two years after Heather’s disappearance, in the early hours of August 13, 2019, Andrea herself went missing.
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