Teen vanishes after ex-stepfather agrees to give her a ride to the airport

Fatim Hemraj

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Katelin Michelle AkensHuffPost

Katelin Akens lived in Arizona with her fiancée, Amber. The 19-year-old is described by her loved ones as kind, strong-willed and intelligent.

On December 1, 2015, Katelin flew to Virginia to meet her newborn nephew and to retrieve her high school diploma from her mother, Lisa. She was supposed to board a flight home four days later, but she never made it on the plane and no one ever saw her alive again.

December 5, 2015 — The Day Katelin Vanished

Unable to get the day off, Lisa asked Katelin’s ex-stepfather, James Branton, to drive Katelin to Washington’s Reagan National Airport. James agreed but stated he would have to drop her off early at 1 pm since he had a shift at 3.

Katelin's biological father left when she was just a baby. Lisa married James when she was 7-years-old and although they divorced six years later, he continued to celebrate the holidays with Katelin and her sister Gabby. Despite their seemingly close relationship, Katelin told friends she felt uncomfortable around James, that he made her nervous and that he was verbally abusive.

At 9:20 am, Lisa dropped Katelin off at James’ house on Oakcrest Drive in Partlow, Virginia. Sadly, she never saw her daughter again.

According to The Vanished Podcast, what followed were a series of bizarre text messages from Katelin’s phone — messages that many believe were written by someone else.

1:52 pm

James: I dropped Katelin off

Lisa: OK, thank you. How was the traffic?

James: Not too bad

James told Lisa that he dropped Katelin off at Springfield Town Center. He claimed she wanted to kill some time at the mall before her 5:40 pm flight and that she planned to take the Metro to the airport.

This immediately stuck out as odd to Lisa. The commute from the mall to the airport is over an hour; if he dropped Katelin off at 1 pm and she wanted to “kill time” before her flight, how did she get to the airport by 2? Additionally, Lisa claims Katelin hadn’t taken the Metro since she was six and that it was unlike her to travel in unfamiliar places.

2 pm

Katelin: I’m at the airport. Battery dying, so won’t be able to text for a bit.

Lisa: OK let me know when you get on the plane

Minutes later, Amber received a concerning text from Katelin’s phone that read, “Something came up. I’m not coming back today. I’ll let you know when I get a new flight.” Amber was beyond confused. Why would Katelin need a new flight? She asked, but never received a response.

7:15 pm

Katelin: Staying with a friend.

Katelin: I need some time alone.

Lisa: Call me.

Lisa: I’m very worried about you.

Lisa: Please call me

A short time later, Amber received a Facebook message from Katelin that read: I can’t come back. I cheated on you.”

Katelin’s Luggage Was Found in a Ditch

Both Lisa and Amber insist the messages didn’t sound like Katelin; they claimed her punctuation was off and that the messages were cold and short, which was unlike her usually bubbly and talkative personality.

Lisa called Katelin several times but her phone went straight to voicemail. She then contacted the airport who informed her that Katelin never boarded her flight. Even more disturbing, surveillance footage proved that Katelin was never at the airport or at Springfield Town Center on the day she disappeared.

Neither was James or his vehicle.

Panicked, Lisa and her other daughter Gabby rushed to the local police station to report Katelin missing but they refused to create a file, stating that since Katelin was 19 she was “allowed to go missing” if she wanted to.

The authorities finally agreed to file a missing persons report two days later after a work crew found Katelin’s blue suitcase dumped in a drainage ditch on River Road just outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, 20 miles from James’ house.

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Google Maps

According to The Charley Project, the suitcase was covered in scuffs and missing a wheel, as though it had been thrown out of a moving vehicle. Katelin’s identification card, bank card, phone charger, toothbrush and return ticket home were found inside her suitcase but her phone, clothes, glasses and high school diploma — that she needed in order to register for Cosmetology school — were missing.

The discovery of Katelin’s luggage started what was the beginning of an intense investigation that uncovered several lies by the very person who saw her last.

Katelin’s Ex-Stepfather Lied About Dropping Her Off

At first, James was cooperative with the investigation and he even agreed to take a polygraph test — but that all changed once his lies were unveiled.

According to True Crime Daily, authorities pinged Katelin’s phone and discovered that when she texted her mother that she was at the airport, she was actually 50 miles away in Stafford, Virginia, near James’ house. Disturbingly, James' phone also pinged near his home and an investigation revealed that he never went to work that day at all.

Once the truth was revealed, James quickly hired a lawyer and stopped cooperating. He refused to take the polygraph test or aid in the search for Katelin. Lisa claimed that he was unemotional over her disappearance.

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Katelin’s mother Lisa made a plea on Facebook asking James to come forwardFacebook

Authorities retained a search warrant for James’ home and seized his vehicle, guns, computer and phone, which is encrypted. He refuses to provide the passcode and to this day, authorities have never been able to access his phone which might contain the missing puzzle piece to locate Katelin.

Did Katelin Truly Run Away or Was She the Victim of a Heinous Crime?

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In 2021, Katelin’s loved ones had a billboard put up in town featuring her disappearanceFredericksburg

Katelin was excited about being a new aunt and getting married. She was set to begin Cosmetology school two days after she vanished. While some speculate that she left voluntarily to start over, her loved ones are confident that she wouldn’t have abandoned everything and everyone she knew.

If Katelin did run away, James would have had no reason to lie or refuse access to his phone. He longer speaks to her family and he never returned to his job. Although he has never been charged in connection to the case, he remains the prime suspect.

At the time of Katelin’s disappearance, she was 5'4" and 120 pounds with short blonde hair and blue eyes. According to the FBI, she has five butterfly tattoos on her arm, three stars on her right foot, and several piercings including her ears, navel, nose and lips. If alive, Katelin would be 25 today.

If you have any information regarding the disappearance of Katelin Michelle Akens, please contact Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office at (540)-582-5822 or submit an anonymous tip to the FBI.

Sources: FBI, The Vanished Podcast, CBS News, NBC News, True Crime Daily, Help Find Katelin Akens, The Charley Project

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Hi, I'm an independent crime journalist covering missing person investigations and resolved cases. I also publish on Medium. To reach out, contact me at fatimhemraj@gmail.com.

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