In a nursing home in Massachusetts, a 78-year-old woman smiles to greet her guests. But rather than family, the men are police officers, and their visit marks the end of a 42-year mystery. Flora Stevens first went missing in 1975, but nobody knows how she ended up in a home hundreds of miles away – not even Flora herself.
Flora was born in the late 1930s and grew up in Yonkers, a suburb of New York City. After attending high school there, she traveled 90 miles north to find work in the Catskill Mountains. A resort-strewn region about two hours from New York City, the picturesque area was a tourist hotspot even then.
There, Flora began working as a chambermaid and found a position at The Concord, a luxurious resort in the region’s Borscht Belt. With some 1,200 rooms, the hotel had plenty of jobs to keep her occupied. However, she still found time to enjoy herself and even attended the famous Woodstock Festival, held on a nearby farm in 1969.
At The Concord, Flora made $2.25 an hour – one of hundreds of people who flocked to the resort to find work every summer. Over the years, she worked several seasons there, cleaning the rooms of the wealthy visitors who vacationed among the mountains and lakes. At the same time, a man named Robert Stevens was also working at the resort.
By 1975, Robert and Flora appeared to be married, and the young woman referred to herself as Mrs Flora Stevens on a job application. However, their marriage seems to have had its challenges. Apparently, Flora had psychiatric issues and sometimes needed to see a doctor for treatment.
It was evening on August 3, 1975, when Robert gave Flora a lift to the hospital in Monticello, a tourist town located just a few miles from the hotel. But when he returned to collect her, she was nowhere to be seen. Mysteriously, Flora had vanished into thin air. She was just 36 years old.
When his wife failed to appear, Robert reported her missing to the police. But when they investigated, the mystery only deepened. Apparently, Flora had never turned up for her appointment at the doctor’s that day. And even though it was common at the time for seasonal workers to disappear, the local detective paid extra attention to Flora’s case.
But despite the enthusiasm of law enforcement, Flora’s disappearance was never solved. Meanwhile, the world continued to turn. In the Catskills, tourists abandoned the resorts in favor of suburban living and cheap foreign holidays. By the 1980s, The Concord had been forced to reinvent itself as a boxing venue to make ends meet.
Then, in 1985, Robert passed away, without ever learning what had happened to his wife. The Concord closed its doors for good 13 years later. But as the years ticked by, the mystery of Flora’s whereabouts refused to be solved. Had something awful befallen her, or had she simply run away, never to return?
Amazingly, more than four decades would pass before any light could be shed on the case. Then, in September 2017, the skeleton of a woman was discovered in Orange County, one state away from where Flora had disappeared. Tasked with identifying the remains, senior investigator Yan Saloman began trawling through missing person reports.
However, it was tough going. Apparently, there are more than 20,000 missing women unaccounted for in the United States today. But as he searched the records, Saloman realized that Flora could be a potential match. Hopeful, he contacted police in the Catskill’s Sullivan County for more information.
If Flora had any living relatives, Saloman reasoned, their DNA could be tested to see if it matched the remains discovered in Orange County. Duly, the case was assigned to Detective Rich Morgan, and he attempted to establish if there was a link between the two cases. However, Flora and Richard had never had children, and no family of the missing woman could be found.
Despite this disappointment, Morgan did manage to uncover one interesting piece of information. Apparently, someone in Massachusetts was using Flora’s social security number. Eventually, he was able to trace them to Lowell, Massachusetts, a city some 250 miles away. There, a woman going by the name Flora Harris had been residing in an assisted living facility since 2001.
Tellingly, Flora Harris also had the same birthday as Flora Stevens – although she appeared to be going by a different name. Could the two Floras be one and the same? Morgan was determined to find out. On October 24, he made the trek from Sullivan County to Lowell accompanied by Ed Clouse, another detective.
When the detectives arrived, they were greeted by a smiling woman with shoulder-length gray hair. Showing her a photograph of Flora Stevens taken before she disappeared, they waited to see if she would recognize the young woman in the picture. Amazingly, they were not disappointed.
“She says that’s me, or me, she responded with one word, me,” Morgan told CBS News in 2017. Similarly, when shown a photograph of Robert, the woman recognized him by name. And when the officers gave her a postcard depicting The Concord back in its glory days, Flora reacted with delight.
To the officers, it was clear that Flora Stevens had finally been found. But what had happened over the past 42 years, and how had Flora ended up so far from home? Sadly, the 78-year-old was suffering from dementia, and was unable to shed any light on her mysterious past. “Most of the secrets are locked inside Flora,” Morgan told The Associated Press in 2017. “And I don’t think we’ll ever get them.”
Festus Mbuva, who helped care for Flora at the home, agreed. “To be honest, I don’t think she ever really wanted to be found,” he said. “You can tell something happened in her past that she didn’t want any part of.” And although no one can know for sure, Mbuva claims that Flora told him her marriage had been an abusive one.
Morgan also suspects that Flora might have planned her disappearance from the start. “She had just been paid, probably had a weekend full of tips in her pocket,” he noted. Additionally, Morgan pointed out that a bus station was located not far from where Robert had dropped Flora off that day.
Even with further investigation, the details of Flora’s life since her disappearance remained sparse. Apparently, she had spent time in a New Hampshire nursing home, and had medical records going back 30 years. But beyond that, the trail went cold. And even though Morgan has finally been able to close a 42-year-old case, the details of Flora’s decades spent adrift will likely go with her to the grave.
But cases like this are even more common than you think. Back in 1984, for example, a woman named Petra Pazsitka vanished without a trace. And it sparked a 31-year mystery that would trouble everyone involved.
Just before her disappearance, 24-year-old Petra Pazsitka was studying computer science at university in Braunschweig, a city in the Lower Saxony region of Germany. With the holidays approaching, she planned to spend her time completing her thesis at her parents’ house in Wolfsburg, some 23 miles away.
On July 26 Petra was preparing for her visit home. She had asked a neighbor to take care of her plants while she was gone, giving no indication that anything was wrong. She then attended an appointment at her dentist, after which she apparently planned to catch a bus to Wolfsburg.
However, Petra never arrived at her parents’ home. Indeed, two days later, having missed her brother Carsten’s birthday party, she was still nowhere to be seen. Concerned, Carsten subsequently reported her missing, and the search for the student began.
By January 1985 police had still failed to turn up any sign of the young woman now dubbed “Petra P.” Stumped, investigators turned to the popular German television show Aktenzeichen XY for assistance. First aired in 1967, the interactive program had an impressive reputation for solving crimes.
As part of the show an actress played Petra in a re-enactment of her last known movements. True to life, the footage depicted a past visit by the student to her parents’ home in Wolfsburg during which she told them about her plans to finish her thesis.
After that, the re-enactment focused on Petra’s life in her student accommodation, showing her talking to a neighbor about her plants. Then she could be seen visiting the dentist and buying her brother a gift, after which the trail went cold.
Yet despite this detailed re-enactment, the efforts of the investigators were in vain. Sadly, the episode of Aktenzeichen XY yielded no useful clues, and police were no closer to finding out what had become of Petra. Hence, although they had not discovered her body, they began to suspect that the student had been murdered.
In 1985 the investigation consequently changed from a hunt for a missing person to a search for a killer. Finally, there was a break in the case. Two years previously, a 14-year-old girl had been assaulted and murdered in Wolfsburg – close to the very same bus stop that Petra would have used.
Then in 1985 a 19-year-old known only as Günter K., a carpenter’s apprentice, was arrested in connection with the teenager’s murder. Furthermore, two years after confessing to that crime, he made another startling revelation: he also claimed to have killed Petra back in 1984.
Nonetheless, despite Günter’s confession, the authorities had their doubts about his latest claim. By all accounts, there was very little evidence to connect Günter to Petra’s disappearance. Eventually the case went to court, but Günter was only convicted of the 14-year-old’s murder.
But although the authorities did not believe that Günter had murdered Petra, they were still convinced that she had met with a grisly end. As a result, four years later, in 1989, the student was officially declared dead. And for more than three decades, her disappearance remained unsolved.
Then in September 2015 something incredible happened. In Düsseldorf, more than 200 miles from Petra’s former home in Braunschweig, police were alerted to a break-in at an apartment. And when they arrived on the scene, they found a woman named Petra Schneider living there.
However, when the police asked for her documents, the woman was unable to prove that she was indeed Ms. Schneider. In fact, she appeared to have no identification whatsoever – no ID card or passport and not even a bank account or insurance certificate in her name.
Eventually, the woman made a startling confession. Under pressure from the officers, she admitted that she was in fact Petra Pazsitka – the same woman who had gone missing 31 years earlier. Amazingly, she was even able to produce old documents that confirmed her identity.
Gradually, a bizarre story began to emerge. According to the woman, she had planned her own disappearance from Braunschweig, saving up some 4,000 Deutschmarks in order to start a new life. In today’s money, that’s the equivalent of more than $2,000.
The woman claimed that after disappearing from Braunschweig, she moved to a rented apartment in Gelsenkirchen, a city some 35 miles northeast of Düsseldorf. From there, she had traveled across the country before finally settling in Düsseldorf. Indeed, by the time that the police arrived on her doorstep, she’d been living in the city for 11 years.
Yet how had the woman managed to survive for 31 years without any official documentation? Reportedly, police believe that she had been employed illegally, although they did not disclose the nature of her work. “She did not have a bank account and paid all her bills in cash,” Joachim Grande, of the Braunschweig police department, said in a 2015 interview with the Daily Mail.
Meanwhile, the woman appeared to have done everything she could to remain off the radar. Police claimed that she’d had little contact with her neighbors in Düsseldorf, preferring instead to keep to her own company. Moreover, even though her identity had now been discovered, she seemed to show no interest in reuniting with those she had left behind.
“Her family is devastated,” a police spokesman subsequently told the Independent. “We are trying to arrange a reunion, but Petra P is adamant that she does not want any contact with them.” Apparently, officers were also able to rule out any abuse or violence in her past. So why did this young student give up everything to live a life of anonymity outside of the law? The truth may never be known.