Kristen Modafferi disappeared in 1997, aged just 18. She was last seen leaving her workplace, before vanishing. To this day, there continues to be no sign of her.
There have been various theories put forward, albeit with no clear evidence of what happened. The case is also known for helping to create “Kristen’s Law” – a law signed by President Bill Clinton that was aimed at putting more resources into missing persons cases.
In this article, we take a look at this disappearance. Theories will be discussed, and we invite you to vote on our reader’s poll at the end of the article. This will present us with an idea of what the overall consensus is on what happened.
Kristen Modafferi was born in 1979 in the state of Connecticut, United States. She grew up in North Carolina, and completed a year of study at the North Carolina State University.
That summer, Kristen travelled to San Francisco, California, to complete a Photography course at the University of California, Berkeley.
While there, she managed to get two jobs. Firstly, she worked at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at a coffee shop in the Crocker Galleria mall.
Kristen visited California full of hope, but this would soon change. On 23rd June 1997, Kristen finished a shift at the coffee shop at 3pm. She informed her colleagues that she may visit the famous Baker Beach – which sits below the iconic Golden Gate bridge – for a party.
Kristen normally left the area immediately after work. However, on this occasion, her colleagues saw her with a blonde woman on the second floor of the mall around 3.45pm. In terms of CCTV, the last time Kristen was seen is withdrawing cash at an ATM.
The photography course at Berkeley commenced the next day, but Kristen – who had already paid her tuition fees – did not show up. Moreover, she didn’t pick up a paycheck that had been waiting for her at the coffee shop.
Her roommates at the time – four men whom she had connected with on Craigslist – noticed that she hadn’t returned on the night of the 23rd. But there was initially no cause for concern.
It was only when Kristen’s father Bob left a voicemail on the landline of the house three days later, that concern was raised. After they called Bob back to tell him that they hadn’t seen Kristen in three days, her parents were left aghast.
The Modafferi’s flew to San Francisco right away, and reported Kristen as missing on 27th June – four days after she was last seen.
The Police had initially believed that she had ran away on her own accord – rather than any foul play being involved. However, after a week had elapsed, on 30th June, the Police started investigating the case as a disappearance.
Because it was an entire week between Kristen disappearing and her disappearance being treated as such – the Police were already on the backfoot. Local areas were searched, with houses canvassed.
The Police placed importance on finding who the blonde woman was that Kristen was last seen with. But given the sheer size of San Francisco and the surrounding area, finding any leads proved difficult. To this day, the woman has never been located, nor has come forward.
Police search and rescue dogs traced Kristen’s scent to a certain bus from a bus stop outside the mall. However, the scent was lost towards the end of the bus route – when it reached Sutro Heights Park – located around six miles from the mall.
This was an important finding however, as it was consistent with a recollection of an employee, who said Kristen had asked them directions to Sutro Heights. This does suggest that Kristen visited there.
When going through rubbish from Kristen’s room, the Modafferi’s found an advert that had been posted which Kristen had seemingly taken, or potentially written. The advert read:
In an age before social media, using adverts like this to make friends in a new area was the norm. It looked as if Kristen wanted to, or did, contact the advertiser. Alternatively, she may have been the advertiser herself.
Unfortunately, the Police were unable to locate whomever placed the advert. It is unknown if Kristen did certainly reply to the advert. It has been proposed that the unknown blonde woman may have been the person that placed the advert.
Meanwhile, the Modafferi’s hired a Private Investigator to do their own analysis. Unfortunately, the investigator was unable to find any new leads. Despite a $50,000 reward being offered for Modafferi’s return, again – there were no leads.
The only main development was when a caller named Jon Onuma spoke to a local TV show to say that Modafferi had been murdered by two women, with her body disposed of under a bridge. The bridge he mentioned was searched, but nothing was found.
However, Onuma later said he was lying – having falsely implicated the women, as he was trying to get one of the woman fired from her job for allegedly mistreating his girlfriend. Onuma was believed to have never met Modafferi.
Onuma was looked into. He did provide some inconsistencies in his interviews with the Police, which caused some suspicions. However, he wasn’t ever considered a concrete suspect.
This case proved very difficult to solve. While the week’s delay didn’t help at all, normally the Police can uncover at least some clues. But this case was notorious for nothing concrete appearing.
For the Modafferi family, losing Kristen proved to be difficult to live with. Down the years, there has been sporadic hope, though there have been no extensive leads.
Various searches and excavations have taken place in the years since Kristen’s disappearance, but nothing has ever been found. Most presume Kristen to have died at some point on the day of her disappearance.
Unfortunately, no one seems to know where her, or her remains, are. In 2015, cadaver dogs indicated that human remains were present in the basement of the house where Kristen had stayed in.
In 2017, investigators announced that blood had been found there. DNA tests suggested it could belong to Kristen, having partially matched her parents. But strangely, there has been very little in the way of updates since this development. More tests are typically needed to confirm DNA findings – but there has been no updates on what is happening with this.
This raises the possibility that Kristen returned home on the night of her disappearance as normal, but was killed in the basement of her house, before her body was taken elsewhere and presumably disposed of.
Republican Representative Sue Myrick put forward Kristen’s Law in 1999, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 2000. The law – named in Kristen’s honour – ensured that more assistance and resources would be put forward to assist in missing persons cases.
The law took effect in 2001. It ceased in 2005 after federal funding ran out. However, as part of Kristen’s legacy, it surely helped in many other missing persons cases.
The case has been featured on numerous television programmes – including on Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted – and more recently, podcasts. Despite the case being many years ago, interest remains high.
This is especially true given the fact – that, as one investigator said in the America’s Most Wanted section on the disappearance – that “the possible scenarios [of what happened to Kristen] are hundreds if not thousands of things”.
The Kristen Modafferi disappearance is ominously known for its lack of evidence or leads. This means there are many different potential explanations – of which we provide a few below.
We take a look at the evidence for them below:
Theory One: Kristen Modafferi died by foul play
Surely the most obvious theory is that Kristen died while at the Sutro Heights Park. The area is rather secluded, and could easily have been a place for a murder to have taken place.
Perhaps the blonde woman seen with Kristen was either responsible or involved. For her not to come forward, there must be a reason that she doesn’t want to. Surely you would want to help, unless you had done something wrong?
The search and rescue dogs are reliable, and had navigated to the park, where it is believed Kristen was heading anyway. Whatever happened, probably happened here. Sadly, it seems to have resulted in her death.
If someone disposed of her body, they effectively had a week’s head start, given the various circumstances that led to the Police’s slow start to the investigation. With the sea there and plenty of land around California, her body could have been easily disposed of.
While any event that results in a disappearance is terrible, it is horrible to think about what Kristen might have gone through. But the fact that the blonde woman that she was seen with has not come forward, surely something amiss must have happened.
Theory Two: Kristen Modafferi was killed by Jon Onuma
Jon Onuma had no reason to get involved in the Kristen Modafferi case. It is strange that he chose to – even if it was just to try and get an enemy of his to lose her job.
Onuma gave conflicting information in his interviews with the Police. At the time, many people came forward to call Onuma a scam artist on the internet, whilst others accused him of trying to extort them.
While Onuma seemed to attract controversy and was seemingly involved in crime – there is actually no proof that he was in any way involved in the disappearance, nor that he even ever met Kristen.
But, given his decision to get involved in the case and his subsequent inconsistencies when interviewing, there is always a chance that he was involved.
Theory Three: Kristen Modafferi intentionally vanished
A lot of the time, this sort of theory can easily be discounted. But given just how little in the way of evidence there was – this theory is a possibility in this case.
For there to be no evidence at all of foul play is bizarre for a case like this. With this in mind, it wouldn’t be improbable for her to have decided to vanish intentionally.
However, the chances of her not being recognised is rather remote. Her face became very well-known, and she surely would have been spotted. Moreover, there seemed to be no discernible reason why she would travel across the country and pay for a Photography course – only to intentionally disappear. This does make this theory difficult to get behind.
Theory Four: Kristen Modafferi was swept away by the sea
Another theory is that Kristen was unfortunately swept away by the sea and drowned – causing her death. When the search and rescue dogs found Kristen’s trail, they stopped at what one investigator called “a very treacherous part of the San Francisco waterline”.
It is likely that it was getting dark at the time of Kristen’s disappearance. She might have accidentally fallen into the ocean. The powerful waves could have gotten hold of her, and ultimately caused her death.
Given just how few clues there have been in this case – this is a potential explanation of what happened. But some have countered by saying that due to how many tourists are usually in the area, someone would’ve seen something.
With the above theories in mind, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
Tragically, Kristen Modafferi’s disappearance remains unsolved. It is simply not known what happened to her. The lack of clues or evidence have made it very difficult for law enforcement officials to find her.
There is always a chance that one day the truth will be known. But as time continues to fly past, it is looking increasingly doubtful.