Case File Overview
Leah Toby Roberts was born in 1976 and raised in the suburbs of Durham, North Carolina. She loved spending time with her parents and her older siblings: brother Heath and sister Kara.
Leah had a typical childhood, but things took a turn for the worse when she was in her teens. In 1995, when she was seventeen years old, her dad was diagnosed with a chronic lung illness. Then, when Leah was a sophomore at North Carolina State University studying Spanish and Anthropology, her mom unexpectedly died from heart disease.
After taking some time off to mourn the loss of her mom, Leah returned to school for the fall semester in 1998. Shortly afterwards, however, she got into a car accident after a truck pulled out in front of her. Leah was left with a punctured lung and a shattered femur. Her leg was so badly damaged in the accident that surgeons had to place a metal rod alongside her thigh bone so it would heal properly.
When she survived the accident, Leah said she felt “born again.” She told her family that as the accident unfolded she was positive she going to die. This near-death experience gave Leah a new appreciation of life.
Around six months later, in the spring of 1999, Leah’s dad died. Although she was only around a semester away from graduating college, she left school against the advice of her siblings so she could “live life to the fullest.”
Leah, who was then twenty-three years old, stayed in Durham, North Carolina and moved in with her friend Nicole. She focused on self-improvement – learning both guitar and photography and adopting a kitten named Bea. She spent countless hours hanging out in coffeeshops, writing poetry, and journaling about the meaning of life.
On the morning of March 9, 2000, Leah chatted on the phone with her sister Kara and they made tentative plans to get together in the near future. A few hours later, Leah agreed to go babysitting with her roommate Nicole the following day.
Later that evening when Nicole headed out, she noticed both Leah and her vehicle – a 1993 white Jeep Cherokee – were gone. She thought nothing of it, though, as Leah kept a somewhat erratic schedule since she was no longer attending school and was living off an inheritance and not working.
The next day, Leah failed to show up at the babysitting job and never returned home. On Monday March 13, Nicole reached out to Leah’s sister Kara and explained Leah had vanished, and Kara called Durham police to report her missing.
Leah has never been seen or heard from again.
Case File Theories
Took a spontaneous trip but intended to return
On March 14, Kara and Nicole carefully searched Leah’s room and noticed a lot of her clothing was missing. Also, her cat Bea was gone, along with the animal’s cage and various other pet supplies.
They also discovered a note that read, “I’m not suicidal. I’m the opposite.” Leah decorated her message with a doodle of the Cheshire Cat’s grin, perhaps suggesting she was acting in a way that may be mischievous but that made her happy.
In the note, Leah also referenced Jack Kerouac – a Beat Generation author who wrote about travel and journeys of self-discovery using spontaneous prose. Leah had recently talked about Kerouac’s work with her friends, in particular his book The Dharma Bums – the sequel to the popular On the Road. The Dharma Bums recounts Kerouac’s time as a U.S. Forest Service Fire Lookout on Desolation Peak in the northern Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest.
Wrapped in the note, Leah left enough cash to cover approximately a month of rent and utilities. The money, the items missing from the house, and the content of the note led Leah’s loved ones to believe she had gone on a trip but planned on returning.
Leah’s sister Kara still had power of attorney back from when Leah had gone on a school trip to Costa Rica, so she was able to check her bank accounts. The transactions appeared to indicate Leah had indeed left on an unexpected road trip.
On the afternoon of March 9, just after she was last seen by her roommate, Leah withdrew several thousand dollars from her bank account. Kara could see in Leah’s bank statements that her debit card was then used to pay for a motel room close to Memphis, Tennessee. Numerous other transactions for gas and food helped Kara to trace her sister’s movements across the country, with the last transaction being a fuel purchase in Brooks, Oregon on March 13.
Kara was thankful her sister was alive and well. After looking through her financials and connecting with some of Leah’s friends from the coffeeshops where she had been hanging out, Kara was sure she had gone on a journey of self-discovery to the Pacific Northwest to mirror Kerouac’s trip in The Dharma Bums.
Died as a result of a car accident
On March 18, 2000, Kara hoped her sister would call her to wish her a happy birthday. Instead, she learned distressing news from the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office in Bellingham, Washington. Earlier that day joggers had located a Jeep at the bottom of a ravine in a dense wooded area alongside Canyon Creek Road – a road that connects rural residences and remote logging camps near Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to Mount Baker Highway.
During their run, the joggers noticed clothing on the side of the roadway and tangled in tree branches by a slight curve in the road near the top of a small hill. The pair picked their way down the embankment, found a badly damaged vehicle, and called police. Authorities quickly matched the plate number, JVP-2881, to Leah’s missing Jeep.
Oftentimes locating a missing person’s vehicle results in a break in the case, but initially evidence in and around Leah’s Jeep painted quite a confusing picture for investigators.
Leah’s passport, cheque book, credit card, debit card, driver’s license, clothing, guitar, and other personal items were tossed around in the Jeep and on the ground in the surrounding area. And $2500 in cash was discovered in the pocket of a pair of pants. Cat food and a cat carrier were also in the vehicle but Bea, Leah’s cat, was missing.
Assorted vehicle contents
Under a floor mat, investigators found Leah’s mother’s engagement ring – a piece of jewelry Leah’s loved ones said she cherished and would never willingly leave behind.
When police examined the accident scene the damage to the trees and Jeep indicated the vehicle was traveling approximately 40 miles per hour (64 kilometres per hour) when it left the road. The extent to which the contents of the Jeep were strewn about suggested it had rolled over multiple times.
Yet it appeared as though the driver was uninjured in the accident. No blood was found in the Jeep, the windshield was cracked and broken but there was no obvious impact mark where a head had hit it, and the driver-side seatbelt was not stretched from abruptly stopping a body from being propelled forward during a crash. Police wondered if somehow the accident had been staged. They thought the Jeep could have been purposely crashed without an occupant inside, but at the time there was no solid evidence demonstrating how this could have been done.
Even more perplexing was the discovery of blankets and pillows hanging across the Jeep’s windows, suggesting someone used the vehicle as a shelter after the crash. This implied someone was indeed in the Jeep when it went down the embankment and then sought refuge at the accident site afterwards.
Investigators thought Leah may have been injured in the accident, despite the lack of evidence in the Jeep supporting this, and had wandered off into the woods. They spent two weeks combing the area for the missing woman with a search and rescue team, dogs, and helicopters, but they never found a trace of Leah.
Supporting the idea that an injured Leah may have left the scene of the accident, a witness called police and reported he and his wife had seen Leah at a Texaco gas station in Everett, Washington shortly after her Jeep was found. He told authorities Leah had been spotted around the gas station acting disoriented and confused. However, after passing on his tip the man panicked and ended the call before providing his name. Police thought the tip may have been credible and wished they were able to get more information from the witness.
Over the years, investigators have repeatedly searched the woods surrounding the crash site with cadaver dogs. They have also used metal detectors to try to find the metal rod that was placed in Leah’s leg after her accident. But they have yet to uncover any sign of the missing woman.
Investigators believe there is a fifty/fifty chance Leah was murdered.
If that is the case, the question remains if she walked away from the accident scene and was murdered later or if she was killed first and then accident was staged to cover-up her disappearance.
Leah may have been injured in the accident, spent some time recovering in her Jeep, and then made her way to the road to get assistance. She could have flagged down a passing motorist on the nearby Mount Baker Highway who took advantage of the situation – someone passing through the area who abducted and murdered Leah and disposed of her body somewhere far from the crash site.
Alternatively, Leah could have been murdered after she arrived in the Pacific Northwest but before her Jeep went off the road.
A ticket stub from an afternoon showing of American Beauty on March 13 at the theatre in Bellingham’s Bellis Fair Mall suggested Leah arrived in the area at least five days before the car was found.
When Kara and Heath flew to Bellingham to search for their sister, they learned about the ticket stub. The pair went to Bellis Fair Mall and asked shopkeepers if they recalled seeing Leah. They had no luck, so they checked out the restaurants in the area. They were pretty sure Leah would have grabbed a bite to eat before or after the movie.
Kara and Heath homed in on the mall’s only sit-down restaurant. It looked like the type of place their sister would eat. After talking with the employees they learned they were right: Leah had been at the restaurant on the day she went to the movie.
Police became involved and were directed to two male customers who had been seen sitting on either side of Leah at the counter. While they ate, they made small talk. She shared with them her love of Kerouac’s books and explained she was in the Pacific Northwest on a journey of self-discovery.
One of the men said Leah had left with a customer named “Barry.” He even provided enough of a description that police had a composite sketch made. However, no one else in the restaurant remembered seeing “Barry.” Even the person who sat directly on the other side of Leah did not recall her talking to or leaving with this man.
This mysterious “Barry” was never found and Leah’s case went cold.
In 2006 the lead detective retired and Leah’s case changed hands. After reviewing the files, the new detectives realized Leah’s Jeep and its contents had never been fully processed. They decided to do a thorough inspection of the vehicle to see what they could turn up.
The detectives started by looking under the hood… what they found shocked them: a wire to the starter relay had clearly been cut. As a result, the Jeep could have accelerated without a driver in the vehicle pushing down on the gas pedal. This confirmed the suspicions investigators had when they first came across the accident scene and thought it looked staged.
A fingerprint was also found under the hood and male DNA was discovered on some of Leah’s clothing using technology that had not been previously available.
Right away detectives suspected the man from the restaurant was involved – the one who had been adamant Leah had left with a man named “Barry” who no one else recalled seeing. The man was a mechanic and could have easily staged the accident.
Investigators had to wait over two years to find out if their suspicions were right. It was a lengthy process to get his fingerprints and DNA because the suspect had moved to Canada sometime after Leah had vanished.
When the evidence collection was finally completed, his fingerprint did not match the one found under the hood of the Jeep. Although it has never been reported if the DNA evidence was a match, it is probably safe to say it was not as no arrest has ever been made.
What do you think happened to Leah?
In the summer of 2005, volunteers from the non-profit group Community United Effort (CUE) for Missing Persons organized a cross-country caravan to raise awareness of a number of missing person cases that had gone cold, including Leah’s. This has become an important annual event that brings missing person cases into the media spotlight that may otherwise get little attention.
Although no new evidence has been found for years, Leah’s loved ones continue their quest for answers. They hold out hope they can one day bring Leah home.
Leah is a 5’ 6” 130-pound Caucasian female with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. She has a surgical scar on her right hip and a metal rod alongside her femur. Leah has pierced ears and a beauty mark above her lips on the right corner of her mouth. She is a vegetarian and a smoker. Leah also has a strong southern dialect and is fluent in Spanish.
Anyone with information about Leah Roberts should contact the Detective Unit of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office at 360-676-6650.
Interested in mysteries? Check out our podcast episode on the disappearance of Dail Dinwiddie and our article on the murder of Samuel Lottery.
Sources and Related Reading
“The Disappearance of Leah Roberts Baffles Investigators as Well as Her Friends and Family.” Ranker, September 12, 2019.
“NC Wanted: Questions Surround Disappearance of Raleigh Woman.” WRAL, March 28, 2015.
“The Legacy of Leah Toby Roberts and the ‘On the Road to Remember Tour’ With the CUE Center for Missing Persons 2014.” Donna R. Gore – Lady Justice, August 17, 2014.
“Soul Searcher.” Disappeared, February 21, 2011.
“10 Years Later, Missing Person Case Remains Open.” Foothills Gazette, March 25, 2010.
“Missing for Years.” Larry King Live, November 25, 2005.
“The Searcher.” People, August 1, 2005.
“Leah Toby Roberts.” The Charley Project, October 12, 2004.
“Brother Heads to State of Washington in Search of Missing Sister.” WRAL, March 22, 2000.
“Leah Roberts.” The Kristen Foundation, n.d.
“Leah Roberts.” Unsolved Mysteries, n.d.
“Leah Toby Roberts.” The Doe Network, n.d.
“Missing: Leah Roberts.” Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, n.d.