PEOPLE Explains: Little Girl Vanishes Walking Home Alone at Night — and Is Found Dead Years Later
When 10-year-old Lindsey Baum set out one summer night in 2009 to walk the 10 or so blocks back to the house in McCleary, Washington, she shared with her mother and older brother, it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t return safely.
And yet — somehow — she vanished along the way.
Earlier this week, nearly nine years later, authorities announced that Lindsey’s remains had been recovered, confirming her final fate if not the remaining mysteries in the case, such as who was responsible and why.
“We are continuing to look at any and all possibilities,” Grays Harbor County Sheriff Rick Scott tells PEOPLE. “We’ll move forward as quickly as we can. The real work begins now.”
Here’s what you need to know about Lindsey’s disappearance and death.
Tips can be submitted to investigators by phone or online at 360-964-1799 or email@example.com.
1. She Was Alone and Walking Home Before Vanishing
Lindsey was with a friend when she walked away from her home about 9 p.m. on June 26, 2009, hoping for a sleepover with her pal. But when the other girl’s mom said no, Lindsey turned back alone down a path where she was a familiar face in the tiny, tight-knit community. She had left her cell phone charging at her house.
“It was a nice summer day,” Sheriff Scott told PEOPLE in 2009, when he was an undersheriff of Grays Harbor County. “She was walking home and never made it.”
Her disappearance — and the total lack of clues about what happened — forever changed the 1,400 residents of rural McCleary, a former logging town in western Washington surrounded by thousands of acres of timberlands.
“The innocence and the trust of that community has been lost,” Scott said in 2009. “There used to be little kids playing on the street all the time. Now they’re as guarded as in a metropolitan area.”
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2. The Mystery Made National Headlines, but Led to No Breakthroughs
Fifty minutes after the time Lindsey was due back, her mother, Melissa Baum, phoned the town police, who launched a door-to-door search.
The next day, the regional FBI office and the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office joined in. The case soon came to national attention when it was featured in a November 2009 cover story of PEOPLE.
Investigators reviewed “thousands of tips” but found no physical evidence to explain what happened to Lindsey.
Undaunted, Melissa spent her weekends leading volunteers through dense evergreen forests. Their intrepid searches turned up Prohibition-era cellars and bunkers — but no trace of Lindsey, who would have turned 11 just 11 days after she went missing. She was due to start sixth grade that fall.
“Lindsey is a bright, sharp-witted, creative little girl, with her whole life ahead of her,” her mom said at the time. “She writes stories and she illustrates her own stories. That’s her biggest talent. She’s a very creative writer. She’s kind of one of a kind.”
The family had lived in McCleary for just over two years when Lindsey disappeared. It was a conscious choice by Melissa, a single mom, to settle herself and her kids in a place that promised to be safer than a bigger city.
“It’s just a very small town,” she said in 2009. “And I’m ashamed to say I developed a false sense of security. Before this happened, nobody locked their doors here. … It’s a town where nothing happens.”
3. Lindsey Was Found in the Fall in ‘Remote’ Part of the State
Speaking at a Thursday news conference to announce the discovery of Lindsey’s remains, Scott said she was “unknowingly” found in September by hunters in Eastern Washington, after which her body was sent to an FBI crime lab for DNA analysis.
Testing confirmed Lindsey’s identity in recent weeks, he said. (The delay was because the remains were randomly discovered and didn’t appear linked to any investigation, so they were not prioritized over other materials at the lab.)
Scott did not identify the exact area where Lindsey was found — beyond noting that it was largely used for hunting, with no one living there — or further describe the condition of her remains. He said the “vast majority” of questions people were going to have about the case would be unanswerable at this time due to the ongoing investigation.
Speaking to PEOPLE on Friday, Scott declined to discuss any potential suspects or motive or Lindsey’s cause of death but said more information will likely be released in the coming weeks.
4. Remains Will Help Narrow the Investigation
The discovery of Lindsey’s body serves as a roadmap to hone investigators’ efforts after years of uncertainty about what happened to her, Scott says.
He says that one imminent next step in the investigation will be a forensic examination of the area where Lindsey was found.
“There’s going to be a group of detectives that are going to go back over everything,” he says. Such as: “Is there somebody that we looked at, that we dealt with in the thousands and thousands of contacts and tips and pieces of information … is there something that we find that’s going to link someone to the area in which the remains were found?”
In the nearly nine years since Lindsey went missing, around 40 people have been investigated, Scott says. The case has never been far from his mind.
“At least now we have a course,” he says, noting that authorities are leaning more toward casting a wide net instead of focusing in on a particular person of interest.
5. Behind a Mother’s Grief After Years of Hope
In the decade until she learned the truth, Melissa Baum, Lindsey’s mother, did not stop believing her daughter had survived her disappearance.
“I know my daughter’s alive, and I’m not going to quit looking for her until we find her,” Melissa told PEOPLE in the November 2009 cover story. “I just know she’s out there waiting for us to find her. … I just feel it.”
Last year, in an interview with NBC News, she said: “I believe 1,000 percent that Lindsey is alive.”
Sheriff Scott told PEOPLE this week that he personally delivered the news to Melissa that Lindsey had at last been found. Melissa still lives in the area, though she has moved several times.
“When I knocked on her door and she opened the door and saw I was standing there, and not the normal detectives who meet with her and talk to her, she knew,” Scott said. “She knew when I knocked on the door.”
Authorities subsequently shared confirmation of Lindsey’s remains with her older brother, Joshua, who also lives in Washington, and her father, a National Guardsman who was training at the time.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Scott said Lindsey’s family was understandably rocked by the development and asked for “some time to themselves in order to get their heads wrapped around what’s happened.”
While they were grieving, they also thanked the public for its support.
“The prayers and hopes of the family were that we would some day find her alive and bring her home,” Scott said. “Now, the reality is we need to find a homicide suspect.”
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