LeeAnna Warner: Vanished While Walking Home

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17th March 2024  •  7 min read

On 14 June, 2003, five-year-old LeeAnna Warner was walking home from her friend's home when she disappeared...

LeeAnna Warner: Vanished While Walking Home

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Chisholm is a city located in the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range that is deeply intertwined with the region’s mining legacy. It’s nestled amidst forests and lakes, and quickly grew over the course of the 19th century alongside the burgeoning iron ore industry.

The city of Chisholm was home to Kaelin Whittaker and her boyfriend, Christopher Warner. The couple had been married before, and shortly after they began dating, they moved in together towards the end of 1996.

Then on the 21st of January, 1998, they welcomed their daughter, LeeAnna Warner, into the world. She was a familiar face in the neighbourhood, where she made friends with all of the children. She was known to be outgoing, friendly, and brave. Her parents said that had survival instincts that were quite advanced for her age.

On a typical Saturday morning on June 14, 2003, the family had just returned from scouring the Side Lake Rummage Sale when five-year-old LeeAnna asked if she could go over to her friend’s house just around the corner to play. Her parents told her that she could go, but with the stipulation that she be back home in time for dinner at 5PM.

In the late afternoon, LeeAnna left her home alone barefoot, and walked over to her friend’s home. It was a walk LeeAnna had made numerous times before, but when she arrived this time, nobody was home. One of the neighbour’s saw LeeAnna at the front doorstep, and then saw her turn around and head back in the direction of her own home.1

5PM came and went but LeeAnna still hadn’t returned home. Kaelin asked LeeAnna’s half-sister, Karlee, to go and collect her from her friend’s home, assuming she had lost track of time. However, when Karlee arrived, she found that neither LeeAnna nor her friend were there. Karlee widened her search to the neighbourhood but found no trace of her younger sister. After she returned home without LeeAnna, Kaelin and Christopher rallied neighbours to join their search for their daughter, yet she was nowhere to be found.

By 9PM, the gravity of the situation sank in, prompting Kaelin and Christopher to report their daughter missing. Detectives swiftly descended upon the family’s home, gathering statements and launching a search effort. Retracing LeeAnna’s steps yielded no clues, prompting the investigation to expand outward. Every nook and cranny, from bins to drains, was meticulously examined, yet LeeAnna remained elusive.

Given Chisholm’s dense woodland surroundings, detectives speculated on LeeAnna’s potential fate, considering scenarios where she may have wandered off and become lost or fallen into one of the nearby lakes. During a search of Longyear Lake, not far from where LeeAnna was last seen, child-sized footprints were discovered, prompting further investigation. Despite efforts to drain and scour the lake for evidence, no significant findings emerged.

Local residents added fragments to the puzzle, recounting sightings that afternoon. One witness described a mid-30s man standing at around 5’10” with a weight of approximately 155 pounds, sporting a dark tattoo on his right arm resembling a star or sun. Another reported a blue two-door Cadillac driven by a black man in his twenties or thirties, with a bald or shaven head. Additionally, a rusty brown pickup truck driven by a Caucasian man with black curly hair was sighted by another neighbour. Despite repeated appeals from detectives, none of these individuals stepped forward.

In the ensuing weeks, detectives diligently pursued over 1,300 leads, yet each one led to a dead end. The detectives had spoken with a neighbour of LeeAnna’s friend, who verified she arrived at the home and then left when her knock on the door went unanswered. This confirmation narrowed the scope of her disappearance to a mere block and a half. As her mother, Kaelin, lamented: “It’s like she disappeared into thin air or someone zapped her somewhere with a laser. Or that she was abducted by aliens. Just vanished. Gone.”

LeeAnna Warner: Vanished While Walking Home

Eventually, the weeks turned into months, and another theory began to take shape: that LeeAnna was abducted. By August, detectives believed that LeeAnna had been kidnapped by a stranger as she walked back home from her friend’s home. They told her parents of their theory, prompting Christopher to remark: “We knew it in our hearts. But it’s not an easy word to hear.”

Naturally, both Christopher and Kaelin were interviewed and investigated, but detectives could find no evidence to indicate that they were anyway involved in their daughter’s disappearance. As part of their investigation, detectives dug up parts of their pasts that they had wanted to forgert, including an incident that took place the year LeeAnna was born.

Christopher and his ex-wife had gotten into an altercation which resulted in them both seeking restraining orders. In the petition, Christopher claimed that his ex-wife had threatened Kaelin and her two daughters from a previous marriage, and even LeeAnna. However, detectives didn’t believe that this had any connection with LeeAnna’s disappearance.

The family had been hit by criticism from people who questioned why it took them so long to report LeeAnna missing. It was discovered that she was missing just after 5PM, but Kaelin and Christopher didn’t report her missing until about four hours later. According to Christopher, he said that in such a small community as Chisholm, he didn’t believe that something nefarious could have happened, that it never crossed his mind LeeAnna could have been abducted. “It’s such a different way of life up here. Until you live up here, you can’t understand. You can’t pass judgement,” said Kaelin.

In their quest to identify potential persons of interest, detectives shifted their focus towards attendees of a concert and charity fundraiser motorcycle rally held in the city during the weekend of LeeAnna’s disappearance. Scouring records from gas stations, hotels, and campgrounds, they meticulously compiled names, yet their exhaustive efforts failed to unearth any promising leads.

On the 16th of August, LeeAnna’s family came together for a prayer and praise service in her honour at the Grace Luterhan Church in nearby Hibbing. LeeAnna’s grandmother, Lois, said the service wasn’t a memorial service, but instead “to give a message of hope that we have not given up, that we have faith that she’s coming home.”2 The community came out in droves to offer support for the family, and to pray that LeeAnna come back home safely.

By this point in the investigation, detectives had spoken to several men in the area who were considered persons of interest. Among them was 24-year-old Matthew Curtis, a local man who had recently been charged with possession of child pornography. He had been identified as a person of interest – along with the other men – when detectives began looking into local convicted sex offenders. Curtis lived just a couple of doors away from LeeAnna and her family, and she would have walked past his front door to get back home that afternoon.3

However, on the 12th of September, he was discovered dead in a gravel pit, having taken his own life by placing a plastic bag over his head. Detectives announced to the public that he was no more of a suspect than any of the other people they had talked to, with Department of Public Safety spokesman Kevin Smith stating: “There were a lot of things going on in this man’s life, so it’s not clear why he committed suicide. It may have nothing to do with LeeAnna Warner at all.” When detectives searched his home and car, they could find nothing to connect him to LeeAnna’s disappearance.

That same week, a reward of $25,000 for information about LeeAnna’s disappearance was put forward. LeeAnna’s grandfather, Butch, commented: “What we’re hoping is that somebody who knows something and there’ll be enough money to pry it out of them. Or maybe someone knows something and is waiting for the ante to go up.”4

The following month, Kaelin was arrested after she hit Christopher with her car following an argument. He wasn’t seriously injured, but she was charged with one count of criminal vehicular operation causing bodily harm and one count of hit and run, both of which are gross misdemeanours. Eventually, the charges were dropped and Kaelin and Christopher continued in their search for their daughter.

In June 2004, they hired Bob Heales, a private detective who spearheaded the searches that led to the bodies of two murder victims, Dru Sjodin and Erika Dalquist. Christopher commented: “It gives out family new hope because it brings a fresh set of eyes to the case.”5

The private detective led a renewed search for LeeAnna, scouring once more through the dense woodland that had already been searched the year beforehand. The families of Dru and Erika both assisted in the search. However, despite the renewed attempt to uncover the fate of LeeAnna, nothing of interest was found during the exhaustive searches.6

In 2005, Joseph Duncan was arrested after Brenda Groene, Mark McKenzie, and her 13-year-old son, Slade, were discovered dead in their home outside the city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Her two other children, nine-year-old Dylan and eight-year-old Shasta, were found to be missing, but Shasta was discovered in a Denny’s with Duncan. He had killed her family and then abducted her. Eventually, Dylan was found dead, having been killed by Duncan as well.

In the wake of Duncan’s arrest, detectives learned he had been in Chisholm at the time of LeeAnna’s disappearance, and detectives considered the possibility that he was involved. Duncan had kept an encrypted diary, and had even mentioned LeeAnna’s disappearance, writing that he thought detectives could make him the prime suspect if they learned he was in the area.7

In the wake of Duncan’s arrest, he confessed to the murder of two other girls in 1996, but neither were LeeAnna. Detectives ultimately ruled him out as a suspect. Christopher said of the development: “It’s a relief to know that an animal like that probably wasn’t involved in her disappearance. But on the flip side, it kind of puts us back to square one.”8

LeeAnna Warner: Vanished While Walking Home
What LeeAnna could look like today

As the years crawled by, the stagnancy of the case weighed heavily on the family. Age progression images of LeeAnna were periodically released, offering glimpses into what she might look like as time marched on. For Kaelin, these updated depictions proved to be an emotional ordeal. “Still to this day, I look for a five-year-old. I can’t get that out of my head,” she said.9 Christopher once commented that he had recurring dreams of LeeAnna crawling into bed with him and Kaelin at night, the way she used to do. He would reach out to her, but all he would grasp was air.

Tragedy struck the family once more on December 10, 2022, when Kaelin succumbed to inoperable lung cancer at Essentia Health St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth. Just a month earlier, she had received the devastating diagnosis, leaving her to confront her mortality without ever knowing the fate of her daughter, who remains missing to this day.

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  1. The Star Tribune, 3 August, 2003 – “Searching for LeeAnna”
  2. The Star Tribune, 16 August, 2003 – “Heads Up”
  3. The Star Tribune, 14 September, 2003 – “Man Questioned”
  4. The Star Tribune, 17 September, 2003 – “Ante is Upped for information on Missing Girl”
  5. The Bismarck Tribune, 30 June, 2004 – “Private Investigator Hired”
  6. Grand Forks Herald, 11 July, 2004 – “Searchers Find Little in Renewed Hunt”
  7. The Star Tribune, 20 July, 2005 – “Another Big Push to Find Chisholm Girl”
  8. Mesabi Daily News, 15 June, 2008 – “Five Years Later”
  9. Duluth News Tribune, 30 March, 2022 – “Without a Trace”


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