MISSING: Zachary Bernhardt

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Episode Summary

In September of 2000, Zachary Bernhardt went missing from his mother’s bed while she was out for a brief walk. Is his mother hiding something or could Zach have been the victim of a local predator?

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Episode Info

This episode is dedicated to Stephanie.

The world lost a beautiful, smart, and artistic Crime Junkie
but she will not be forgotten


Ashley: Hi, Crime Junkies! We recorded this episode a few weeks ago, but just a few weeks ago we had a note posted on our patreon wall that we would like to share with you, because we would like to dedicate this episode to a really special fan. And I apologize, I have tried reading this like 8 or 9 times, and not crying, but it doesn’t work. So please just bear with me.

Ashley reading the note: Hi, Ashley and Brit. I’m joining your Patreon in honor of my little sister Stephanie who passed away two weeks ago. She fought a courageous 8-year battle with cancer and your podcast has been a shared love of ours. As her health and mobility declined, it remained one of the few things we could still do together. I spent many days the past few months next to her in her hospice bed listening to the stories you tell so well. You both are always so soothing and suspenseful. She was a crime junkie till the very end. I’m so grateful that she and I had your show. I can’t seem to find the words to explain how special those opportunities to bond with my sister were to me. I guess I just wanted you to know you played an important role for us in these last few months. Thank you so much.

Ashley: So, everybody, hug your sister today, and this episode is for Stephanie.

Intro music

Ashley: Hi, Crime Junkies, I’m Ashley Flowers.

Brit: And I’m Brit

A: And today we’re going to cover a case kind of like one that a lot of you have been requesting. Brit, you are in our suggestion form all the time.

B: All the time

A: And we get how many requests for Casey Anthony?

B: Uh, it’s probably easily in our top 10 if not our top 5. We get requests for Casey all the time.

A: All the time, but I’m not sure what benefit could come from us doing this case. I’m not saying we never will, but the case is one of the most publicized of our generation I think, and there have been numerous documentaries and podcasts since. And the case I want to talk about today is pretty close to that one, but it doesn’t get nearly the same amount of attention. Instead of rehashing a chase you all know, I want to bring attention to a lesser known case that is very similar but has got a fraction of the attention. It’s a story that takes place in the same state, Florida, and it’s about a child who’s gone missing while in the care of his single mother. This is the story of the disappearance of Zachary Bernhardt.

A: Our story starts on a sunny day in Clearwater, Florida of September 10th, 2000. This whole story centers around Zachary Bernhardt and his mother, Leah Hackett. You know I think one of the reasons this case stuck out to me so much is because Zachary, to me, looks so much like my own little brother, David.

B: Aww

A: And to anyone who doesn’t know, David does all of our editing. So, Hi David!

B: Hiii

A: I just felt weirdly attached to this story and Zach, because I kept picturing my own little brother at age 8. He’s now 20, but that’s what I was seeing.

B: No, he’s not, he’s 100% 8, right?

A: He’s 8, he edits our episodes, but he’s 8. So, Leah is a single mother in 2000, and she’s living at Savannah Trace Apartment Complexes with her 8-year-old son, Zachary. It’s just the two of them living there and a lot stuff I watched or read about this case said they had a very close bond and they spent a lot of time together. Some of Zach’s cousins said that they loved to go over to Leah’s apartment, because she was like the cool aunt. She let them stay up and eat junk food, that sort of thing. Leah would always let the kids stay up late, because she herself was a night owl. She actually worked nights at a Telemarketing campaign, so that was just the schedule she was on.

B: That’s got to be so hard as a single mom working nights. I’m a night owl, but I also like coming home and sleeping while my kids are sleeping. It’s kind of nice.

A: Yeah, it’s hard having off schedules. But I think it’s something a lot of single moms have to deal with. Because when you work nights you make shift differential, and those couple extra bucks an hour is huge when you are the sole provider. So, her normal schedule is to sleep during the day while Zach is at school and go to work at night. And when she’s gone, there’s actually a person in her complex who kept an eye on Zach. Well on the day of our story, Sunday, Leah had the night off. She cooks Zach dinner and they watch a movie together until Zach falls asleep around 11pm. She said that when she was awake, he had said that he wanted to sleep in her bed. So, when he fell asleep, she takes him in there and tucks him in, but she isn’t tired. She’s used to being awake, so she goes downstairs, watches some tv, maybe on the internet. I know she was chatting with people for a little bit. Based on her statements later made to police, around 1am she uses her car to take her garbage to the dumpster.

B: Is that normal? I haven’t lived in an apartment for a while, but I used to just walk it out there. Was the car thing necessary?

A: You know, I don’t know. I can’t find what apartment they lived in or how far the dumpster was. I think this is normal if you live a good distance away. I was actually in a complex once, and the whole place had one dumpster. So, I would actually drive my trash on my roof to the dumpster. But I agree it is one of those things that I come back to and question, but you’ll see why later. So, she says she comes back right after taking the trash out, maybe watches some TV and goes back online. But she’s getting super restless and can’t fall asleep. So, some time, and there’s actually a ton of conflicting reports put this anywhere from 2 to 4, but police believe it’s sometime between 3 and 4. Leah decides she wants to go for a walk to kind of burn off energy and see if she can fall asleep. So, before she leaves, she checks on Zach and he’s still sleeping on her bed. So, she leaves the apartment, without locking it, and walks down the stairs to go walk around.

B: I’m sorry at 4am she’s going to leave her apartment unlocked with her kid sleeping there?

A: Yeah and you know, honestly that’s not even the strangest part to me. So, while she’s on this short walk, we think it’s probably, according to her story, 15 minutes. She says, all the sudden, she gets an urge to go for a swim. Like just on a whim.

B: What??

A: Yeah. so, she goes to the pool without a suit or towel and just jumps in. She swims from one end to the other, then gets out and goes back to her apartment. She also says she has no idea why she did this, because she makes statements later to police that she doesn’t even like swimming. So, should we break down everything that’s wrong with this?

B: You can’t see me but, I have a very skeptical face right now

A: Well yeah, and honestly not even everything is wrong with this, because I can’t explain human behavior, especially for someone I don’t know. But there is one thing that really sticks out to me. I have lived in a few complexes in my day and never ever has there been one with a pool open all hours of the night. Now perhaps it was closed but unlocked. I’ve seen this happen before, so maybe she was able to get in and because it was quick, she didn’t make a sound, and no one noticed.

B: I mean, maybe, but I don’t know. I feel like the pools are usually near some apartments, and they splash at least when you get in. I don’t know.

A: Yeah. So, I couldn’t find anything from police or the apartment complex about what time the pool closed back in 2000, I would assume this is something the police checked this out. The fact that there’s nothing on it maybe leads me to believe they couldn’t find anything definitive. Yeah, maybe they closed at 10pm but didn’t lock it up. So, after she jumps in the pool and goes back to her place. She right away wanted to take a shower, because it was cold due to her AC. So, she walks in and she’s freezing. She hustles into the shower, and it doesn’t say what shower and I can’t figure out which one. Because if I can tell by looking at layouts today, I don’t know what it looked like in 2000, it looks like there would’ve been a shower in her room and in the guest bathroom which would’ve been Zachary’s bathroom. I don’t know which one it was, but I think it’s important to know eventually. She goes in, takes the shower, and when she comes out that’s when she realizes Zachary isn’t in her bed anymore. So, the question I have is if she was in the shower in her room and Zachary was in her bed, was she just going so fast that she didn’t notice her bed was empty?

B: So, devil’s advocate, assuming she’s coming in and turned on some sort of lights. She’s coming in through her bedroom into the bathroom and its dark, maybe her eyes didn’t adjust?

A: Perhaps, that’s a really good point. So, she comes out of the shower, realizes Zachary isn’t in the bed anymore and her first thought maybe he fell off the bed? But he isn’t on either side. So, she decides to get dressed and search her apartment, but when she can’t find him, she thinks, Maybe he woke up and not knowing where I was and went looking for me. Or more likely he went to the babysitters who lives in the apartment complex. So, she runs over to the babysitter’s apartment and bangs on the door until they wake up, but he wasn’t there either. This is when she calls 911, unlike a lot of the missing persons cases we follow, this is a case that the police took seriously from the beginning. This is an 8-year-old boy seemingly taken in the wee hours of the morning from his mother’s bed. When police alive, they establish a perimeter and start searching the complex. The apartment is labeled a crime scene and they start taking evidence. They take pictures, finger prints, and looking for DNA. But there was something off about the scene, it was like too undisturbed. There was no blood, forced entry, which makes sense since the door was unlocked, but there was nothing even out of place. If Zachary was taken, he either walked out willingly or more terrifyingly someone picked him up in his sleep and carried him out of the apartment with Zachary not even knowing what was going on. While the search is going on, police interview Leah for hours. One of the first things they want to know is where is Zach’s dad? We all know in missing children cases that they’re usually abducted by someone close to them, and usually a parent. Especially if that parent isn’t together with primary caregiver. Leah says the dad has never been involved and wouldn’t be the one to take him. Police obviously have to verify this. When they track him down, they learn that he lives out of state and has lived out of the state for some time. But even more than that, when they find him this is the first time he’s even heard of Zach. He had no idea he had a son, but he had little interest in being involved after he found out, even if police were to find him. So they rule him out. We know that they continue to interview Leah for hours, but I don’t know exactly what they asked her or what subjects they pushed. We do know that police say she stuck to the same story, but her demeanor, was off. She would look really upset, but then she would laugh at the most inappropriate times. But even though they didn’t’ love how she was acting and felt like she knew more being the last person to see Zach. They didn’t have anything to hold her, so they let her go. Now police let her go, but she’s still on their radar. Every media outlet in the area was reporting on this story and every single one had questions for her, because this whole situation seems crazy. You go for a swim at 4 am when you hate it, in your clothes, with no towel. And in that brief 15-minute window you claim to be gone, someone watching your home and saw you didn’t lock your door. Goes and grabs your son? The more people dug into Leah’s life the less she looked like a wholesome mother that her family painted her. She had multiple evictions and her and Zach had been bouncing around for every year of Zach’s life. She partied a lot and spent many nights at bars. This relates back to the Casey Anthony case, because she was a mother who didn’t really want to be one. Her family defended her, by saying she was always a responsible parent. I think there’s some evidence that refutes this. Zach wasn’t Leah’s only child. After Zach was born in 1991 and she didn’t list the father on the birth certificate, she spent most of her pregnancy living in Michigan with her boyfriend’s family. After Zach was born, the family requested a paternity test, which showed that this boyfriend wasn’t the father. So, she moves out with Zach. In 1994, she gets pregnant again with her 20 yr old boyfriend in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the kid was studying at the University of Michigan for engineering. Now I don’t know how their relationship became contentious, but she ended up suing and won custody of her daughter after she was born. And she moved with both of her kids to Florida. However, shortly after her daughter’s dad had come down to visit and at some point, they meet up and Leah asks him to watch both kids, because she was going to go out that night.

B: I mean as weird as that sounds, she’s a single mom. It doesn’t sound completely unordinary that she needs a night off.

A: Oh, that’s not the part that makes her look bad. Allegedly, she dropped them off and didn’t return for days. Nobody could get ahold of her, and her family filed a missing person’s report. She finally showed up, and her daughter’s father said there was no way she was leaving her daughter here. So, he took her back with him to Michigan where he petitioned the court for full custody and won.

B: Uh yeah, that’s really intense. I have to assume that there was some substance abuse involved. Or is that me being presumptuous.

A: I think that’s definitely possible, but her reasons for disappearing were never said in anything I read. I think it shows that she has a clear history of not putting her kids needs first. To me it makes me question what actually happened the night Zach went missing and makes me scratch your head when neighbors saw her car coming and going from the complex sometime between 3 and 345. Which is when she was at home.

B: I mean that’s definitely not when she was taking out the trash

A: Right. So, she said she took the trash out at 1. So, if people see her leaving later, I think the theories online that are very sinister think that perhaps if she had done something to Zach, she was possibly moving him. I think in a less sinister, but more in line with her past, what if Zach was left and she was just going out for the night

B: Back to the substance abuse, she could be looking to score at that point.

A: Right. If that was a possibility, again, total speculation, I think that it’s an assumption made by many people, because of her behavior. Up to this point the media speculation has gone wild, because no one has heard from Leah. After he disappears, she goes relatively quiet. She avoided interviews, but on the 15th she makes a public statement asking everyone to keep looking for Zach. It was brief and to the point, basically asking people to not give up and they were still looking. After that first statement, she goes quiet again. Two weeks later, detectives tell the public they don’t believe she is telling the full story, but every time they talk to her, she never changes her story. A few months later, Leah does something I’ve never seen a parent do in the case of a missing child. She moves to another state.

B: Uhhh… What?

A: Yeah, right? This is something that I’ve never seen happen. I’ve even seen cases, not that this is something that everyone has to do,

B: Where they live in the same place forever

A: Same house, phone number, just in case they ever try to look for them, they know where to go. But to move completely…

B: Yeah. Isn’t that like what Johnny Gosch’s mom did? She has the same phone number and has been living in the same place forever?

A: Yeah. So, this is super weird to everyone. It’s one thing to not talk to the media because they’re criticizing you, but to go move out of state? I heard that she moved to North Carolina and got married and then divorced, then remarried. And then there are rumors that she ended up in Hawaii. Like the furthest you can go.

B: Uhhh, yeah. That’s really difficult to track from Florida.

A: Right. And this is just a few months after he’s gone missing. At this point, she isn’t in the spotlight, she does a couple interviews here and there in the last 18 years. She changes her name, and says she wants to live a quiet life away from all of that. She just wants to live a life that he would be proud of. I don’t understand where she’s coming from, but it’s definitely strange.

B: Yeah, I was going to say, we obviously follow a lot of missing people and children cases, and I feel like every year at least we see media presence from the family, parents saying this is the anniversary, year after year, to get the word out. I don’t know any who want to live a quiet life. They just want their kid back

A: Yeah, and I get that if years later you think that they have passed, but this is just a couple months after he goes missing which is what stands out to everyone in this case. Now luckily, his family in Florida was advocating for him and trying to keep his story alive. A local business actually put up a small reward for any information, and it got national attention that brought in a lot of tips. But none of them were useful. But the biggest break comes from Tip 746; A confidential informant tells police that they need to check out Kevin Jalbert. He was going around telling people that he has raped and killed a bunch of area children. Whether or not this has anything to do with Zach, this is super messed up, so the police put an undercover officer to meet up with Kevin. And sure, enough this guy is able to get close with Kevin, and one night he takes him on a little road trip around Clearwater. As they’re driving, he’s bragging about all the horrible things he’s done to children, and just when he thinks it can’t get weird. Kevin pulls into the parking lot of an apartment complex. But not just any complex, he pulls into the Savannah Trace Apartment Complex where Zach and Leah lived.

B: No way

A: And he points to an apartment and says do you see that one over there. The last time I took a kid it was from that apartment.

B: *Gasps*

A: Now this is more than enough for police to bring him in and bust this operation. They bring him in and there are a few problems with connecting him to Zach. First, even though he pulled into the right complex he didn’t point to the correct apartment. Also, when they get to questioning him, he gives the wrong description on what Zach was last wearing. But they definitely say he isn’t connected when he isn’t linked to the DNA.

B: Whoa, whoa, whoa!. Did I miss something? Was there DNA?

A: Exactly, I researched this case. I was deep in and watched a documentary. I was in these articles and there were just a couple reports of Jalbert not matching the DNA, but no one says where this DNA is from.

B: The DNA is very ominous. Whose DNA? Where was it from? Where did they get it?

A: I have all the questions too. And this kind of makes me wonder why they are saying that his mom is someone that they think has answers but isn’t the person. I have no idea what kind of DNA, where they got it, I have to think it’s a male’s DNA since they took the time to test Jalbert. If it were female, we would know if its matched Leah. It obviously doesn’t match her. This is a big question mark hat I think is key to this case but is just thrown out there randomly. Like, hey we know he isn’t the guy because of the DNA, but we have no answers.

B: It feels like such a Law and Order line. Like he isn’t the guy because of THE DNA. Like oh, ok, the DNA, got it.

A: Even though he is cleared. They aren’t letting him go, because he was going around town telling people he’s killed kids. And did I mention that he had in the back of his car a bunch of bleach to “clean up”

B: Naturally

A: He had bleach to clean up, even though he tells cops he was just fantasizing. They find loads of child porn in his home. They arrest him on solicitation of murder. There is one piece of evidence that comes up in connection to Jalbert. They find a receipt in his possession for dumping something at public dumpster 2 weeks after Zach went missing. When police look into this, they didn’t find anything after searching the dumpster. But if you’ve ever seen a landfill or dumpster you can understand why people can’t let this go, because a lot of people think that they just didn’t find what he put there.

B: Yeah definitely. If it’s a public dumpster it’s massive.

A: Right. So, people continue to speculate, but I think it’s unrelated. It’s not till the next year in August of 2001, when a new lead pops up in Boulder, Colorado, in the parking lot of a sporting goods store. In this parking lot, someone finds this photo. So, Brit I just sent you the photo can you describe it?

B: Uh it’s a kid, who has blonde/red hair, bowl cut, male, laying on the ground on straw or pine needles, there’s a rock nearby. The kid’s arms are crossed over his chest, he’s lying on his back, and the hands are duck taped. Your kind of looking at the picture from his head down, and you can’t see much past his waist. If that provides a perspective.

A: Yeah, and even his face you can see his nose, and kind of the left side of his cheek.

B: Like his chin, and left ear, but nothing of the right side of his face.

A: Yeah, it’s definitely not straight on. This photo comes forward a year later and people start to wonder if this is Zach. The police in Colorado share this with the police in Florida. They bring the family in to look at it, his aunt, grandma, and after staring out it over and over. They say they don’t think it’s him, to us this is not Zach. And police aren’t as confident, they still to this day have never ruled this out as Zach. They also to this day have no idea who this boy is or where this picture came from.

B: Ok so, this is kind off track, but this reminds me of the polaroid from the Tara Calico case.

A: Oh my god, so much and it was kind of found in a similar way, right?

B: Yeah so it was kind of just found like randomly, and listeners if you aren’t familiar with the Tara Calico polaroid. There was this polaroid found in June of 1989, and in it, it’s shot in the back of a van. There are two people bound and gagged, and it’s a teenage girl and a tween-early teen boy, and they have tape across their mouths. Their hands are behind their back and you can’t tell if they’re bound. They’re just lying there looking at the camera. A lot of people think this is Tara Calico, based on how she looks and the scar on her leg, but nothing definitive has ever come from it. There have been other photos that may or may not have come from the same girl and boy in the photo. That’s pretty much all we know.

A: Yeah, and I have obviously people have been bringing up, “Oh my gosh, is he the boy in the Tara Calico case?”

B: I don’t think so.

A: No, 100% not. That photo was taken before Zachary even went missing. It’s definitely not even this boy in the picture we don’t know who he is.

B: It doesn’t even look similar.

A: And he’s the same age so he wouldn’t have aged in several years? So, but what I think is really strange, is I kind of wonder, in the back of my head, if this is a weird MO from somebody who likes taking these strange pictures of children they’ve abducted and leaving them in random places for people to find. It is so eerie. And again, I think another rabbit hole in this case, because I don’t think it’s related, but police again didn’t totally rule it out. So, this photo was really all they had for the first year, and as things start coming up on the 1st year anniversary. The family plans a vigil, but can you guess why that never happened?

B: Was it the mom?

A: No, the first-year anniversary would’ve been September 11, 2001.

B: Aww, I feel terrible. I didn’t even think about that.

A: Right, so, obviously all the attacks happened here in the U.S. So, the family in the morning were making all kinds of preparations for this vigil and

B: And then they had to stop

A: And then the towers were hit. And then of course after that getting any kind of press for a missing kid, as tragic as that may be, was the furthest from the media’s mind. So, it took a long time for them and as a country to get past that and start thinking about these smaller cases that may have fallen to the wayside. So, the first anniversary was September 11th and on New Year’s Eve of that same year 2001, Zachary’s case gets brought up again because there is another attack in the exact same apartment complex. But this time there are witnesses. So, at this point it’s been 15 months since Zachary’s disappearance, and life has moved on for the neighbors in the complex but not for Zachary’s family. But people are starting to think that there is nothing they need to be worried about, because has happened. Maybe it was the mother, and our kids are safe. But 6pm on New Year’s Eve 2001, all of that changes. Three young boys are playing on a playground at the apartment complex when this truck pulls up and a man gets out of the vehicle and offers these children some ice cream. Never take ice cream from a man in a truck or anybody who you don’t know. I feel like that should be a rule, right?

B: Yeah, it’s ice cream, candy, puppies, kittens, anything. If you don’t know them, don’t take it.

A: Oh yeah, “Come help me find my puppy” is numero uno for how someone would’ve gotten me if I’m being honest.

B: Oh yeah, totally.

A: So, he does convince this 5-year-old boy to approach his car. And when he approaches, the man grabs the boy and puts him in his truck and just takes off with him. Even though these two other boys saw him. Now, this obviously gets reported immediately and law enforcement spring into action again. And this time they have a description, so people at least knew to look out for a white pick-up truck, knew kind of what kind of guy to look out for. There was a state-wide Amber Alert that brings in absolutely no sitings. And people think that this boy could be gone for a year like Zach was. 10 hours after the abduction, there is this guy driving down the street and is close to a fast food restaurant. This is late at night, and he is like 8 miles away-ish from where the boy went missing. And as he is driving, he is kind of like slow or stopped, and he hears what sounds like crying from a dumpster. Someone is crying out. And this guy is brave beyond belief, because he like decides to go look in the dumpster with the crying and he finds that a child had been left there. It turns out was the boy who had been abducted. He had been sexually assaulted, and they have not released any other details about what exactly happened to him or who he was. They just say, because he was a minor at the time you can’t release that information. We just know that he was abandoned by this guy. The boy was actually able to give a description of a white male with dark stringy hair. The Clearwater Police look for a connection to this kid’s case and Zach’s case like, is this just like a good apartment complex to take kids from? Or could there be any connection? To me it seems a little strange that this kid was found 10 hours later, alive, and we still have no idea where Zach was. But they never found this guy, and police say that it probably wasn’t connected, but the family says how can you know it’s not connected until you find this guy? We don’t believe that definitively until you can find this guy and show us that it’s not connected. Does that make sense?

B: Yeah, I think so.

A: So that leads was New Year’s Eve 2001. There have been no newsworthy leads since then. Some people still point to Kevin Jalbert, a lot of people point to the mystery man from New Year’s Eve. But I truly don’t think that it’s either. I’m with the police, and I think that Leah holds more answers than she is giving. I don’t think that night went like she said, maybe she was just gone for longer than she wanted to admit. Fearing that if Zach did come back, she’d be charged with negligence. Neighbors reported her coming and going out of the complex, maybe she wasn’t doing anything with Zach. Maybe she was just going somewhere on her own. But here is what I can’t get past, and the one thing that makes me think maybe she didn’t do something. If you had done something to your son, why not wait until the morning. Like how much easier her story would have been if her story had been, I put him in his own bed and when I woke up, he was gone. To me that is a way easier story to believe than I left my apartment, went for a swim I wasn’t planning on, left my apartment unlocked, and when I got back my son was gone. Like why go with that story, when it would’ve been way easier to go with the other one.

B: Right, I totally agree. But again, Devil’s advocate. Maybe she started out wanting to be truthful, but then panicked, because it didn’t make sense.

A: True, and if you believe that substance abuse was involved, maybe putting together a story didn’t 100% make sense but to her it did. I also can’t get past that DNA that keeps coming up. And I wonder, because police won’t call Leah a suspect and they won’t call a person of interest. I sometimes wonder, say we could say it’s male DNA. I wonder if the police think she knows someone who did something to her son, but I don’t know why she would be protecting that person.

B: That’s a really good point, but there is a chance that she thinks she knows but isn’t sure. I’m like super defense lawyer today, I apologize.

A: Yeah, I can’t piece it together, because even if she knew who it was, like you turn that person in unless you were working with them. But for as many questions I have to Leah about that night and what happened, to your defense attorney stance, this kind of reminds me of one of our patreon episodes. That was about the single mom whose son was attacked in his bed in the middle of the night while they were sleeping for seemingly no reason.

B: Yes! Little Joel.

A: Yeah, and everyone said that it had to be the mom, because who would just come into your house in the middle of the night and just stab a little boy. Nothing about that made any sense.

B: Turns out there was someone.

A: Yeah, she was accused of it and went to prison until the real killer came forward. Unfortunately, like so many of our cases, even when someone looks suspicious, we will still never really know.