It’s 1974 in the small town of Laurel, Indiana, and Lula Gillespie-Miller suddenly disappears from her family home. Leaving her young children behind, she vanishes, in fact, without a trace. And for more than four decades, the woman’s loved ones remain in the dark about her fate – until one investigator makes an incredible discovery.
Frustratingly, details about Lula’s life before her disappearance are scarce. According to some sources, she was a mom to three small children, including a girl called Tammy and a newborn baby. However, in December 2014 a post surfaced that offered a different account of Lula’s circumstances.
Written by a now-grown Tammy, the post claimed that Lula had four children, not three. What’s more, it stated that her husband, Joe Gambill, had died in a road accident back in 1969. If true, this version of events would have left Lula widowed at a tender age. And if she had given birth shortly before her disappearance, it would have been to the child of another man.
The post also went on to allege that Lula had been battered and raped while on a night out in Laurel in 1973. According to the account, she managed to survive and was able to tell the police the identities of her attackers. However, no formal report was ever registered.
In a 2016 interview with People magazine, Tammy confirmed the story about Lula’s troubled past, maintaining that her mother was a survivor of a vicious sexual assault. She further claimed that her mom had experienced issues with alcohol and was having difficulty coming to terms with her husband’s passing. And Tammy also added some more interesting strands to this already complex family history.
For one thing, Tammy alleged that her own birth had been the result of Lula’s affair with another man – but that the other children had been fathered by her mom’s late husband. Yet whatever the truth, Lula’s disappearance from Laurel one day in 1974 left the family devastated. And when she failed to return, they naturally filed a missing person report.
Again, accounts of what happened next differ. According to the police, Lula signed guardianship of her children over to her own mom and dad. And yet the report in People claimed that “Grandma Catherine,” the mother of the missing woman’s deceased partner, had raised Tammy and her siblings.
“My grandmother who raised me did an awesome job,” Tammy continued. “She never went one day without letting us kids know she loved us.” As the months passed, though, they heard no word from the mother who had apparently left her children behind. Then in 1975 a letter arrived that looked to shed some light on the mystery.
It appears that Lula had written the letter and posted it from Richmond, Indiana – a small city located an hour’s drive northeast of Laurel. But after that, the trail went cold. And as Tammy and her siblings grew older, they naturally wondered about the mother whom they had barely known. That being said, the family seemingly didn’t give the children many details about what had actually happened to their mom back in 1974.
According to Tammy, she grew up believing that Lula had deserted her and her siblings. But over time, she apparently came to think that there might have been a reason behind her mother’s disappearance. Given the rumors about Lula’s difficult past, could she have been running from some kind of threat?
International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons head Todd Matthews certainly agreed that this may have been the case. He told People, “It could be everything from trying to escape some type of family situation they feel is impossible to mental illness to crime. She might have been trying to protect her children for all we know.” But as the years passed, the family came no closer to learning the truth behind Lula’s disappearance.
At the same time, though, with no closure to speak of, Lula’s family also continued to hold out hope. And apparently, her mother, Emma, always held out hope that one day her daughter might come back. As Tammy told Indianapolis news outlet WTHR in 2014, “She always left her porch light on, every night. Because she always thought that Lula [would] come home.”
Tammy, meanwhile, often caught herself daydreaming over a photograph of Lula – the only thing that she had to remember her mother by. She continued, “You sit and analyze the picture. Do I have her eyes? Do I have her cheekbones? Do I look like her at all?” However, it seems that at least part of her presumed that the missing woman was dead.
Then in 2010 Tammy decided to do an internet search on her mother’s case – but what she found only served to deepen the mystery that had haunted her all those years. She told WTHR, “I Googled her name, and then all this stuff started coming up about how she was assaulted in Laurel and thrown over a bridge.”
At some point, then, Tammy decided to turn to a friend with experience in unsolved mysteries. Back in 1991 Tomi Schmid’s brother Jason had died outside Connersville – a city just over 10 miles north of Laurel. Officially, the death was recorded as an accident caused by a driver who had hit the teenager while he was passed out in the road.
However, Tomi believes that her brother was tortured and that the car accident was faked to cover up the crime. Desperate to get to the truth, then, she established Justice for Jason Bolton – a website dedicated to the various leads and rumors surrounding the case. In fact, it was on this site that Tammy posted her own account of Lula’s life before her disappearance.
Over time, Tomi’s crusade brought her into contact with other unsolved crimes from the area. And at some stage, she told Tammy about a case from 1975. Apparently, an unidentified body had been discovered in Richmond – the same place from which Lula’s last letter to her family had been posted.
Suspecting that the body might be that of her mother, Tammy contacted the International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons (DOE). And the DOE in turn reached out to the Indiana State Police, who assigned Detective Sergeant Scott Jarvis to the case. By then, it was January 2014 – almost 40 years since Lula had disappeared.
Following up on the Richmond lead, Scott confirmed the existence of an unidentified woman who had been buried in the city’s Earlham Cemetery in 1975. And that December, a warrant was acquired to dig up the unmarked grave. The police also took a sample from the body and sent it off to be examined alongside Tammy’s DNA.
For Tammy, meanwhile, it was a tense time. If her mother really was dead, it would alter what she had supposed about her all those years. She told WTHR, “I grew up thinking that she just could not handle the responsibility of being a mother and she left. We could never understand why she never came back.”
However, in 2015 Scott received a call from another law enforcement agency while he was awaiting the results of the DNA test. It appears that the agency believed the remains might belong to another individual and suggested that the detective investigate other possibilities. And soon, the science confirmed its suspicions.
The two sets of DNA were not a match – establishing the fact that the body in Richmond was not Lula’s. In fact, the mystery woman who’d been buried in Earlham Cemetery remains unidentified to this day. Scott, however, had already begun to look elsewhere for the missing mother – and he’d picked up a promising lead.
According to a police statement, the detective had managed to identify a woman who bore a number of similarities to Lula. Apparently, the woman had spent much of the 1980s in Tennessee before relocating to South Texas. And there, in the Lone Star State, it seems that she had set up home in a small town, possibly under an assumed name.
Scott claims that he followed a paper trail of public records and suspected that this mystery woman could be Lula – alive and well after all those years. And even though she was indeed apparently living under a different name, there were a number of personal details that connected her to the missing mother.
Then in March 2016 Scott reached out to law enforcement agents in Texas, who traveled to the unnamed woman’s home. Amazingly, too, she soon admitted that she was Lula – the same person who had disappeared from Laurel over 40 years previously. And yet the woman refused to elaborate on why she had chosen to leave her family behind.
According to the statement, the woman told the authorities that she simply “felt she was too young to be a mother at the time.” And she furthermore requested to retain her anonymity. After all, as Scott told People, “If someone wants to disappear, [they can] do that.”
That said, the woman did allow Scott to pass her details on to her daughter. And yet when Tammy discovered that the authorities had found her mother, she felt conflicted. Her friend Debby Dyer told People, “She was just hurt and angry and happy she was alive. She’s going through a rollercoaster of emotions.”
After years of not knowing, Tammy now faced an uncomfortable truth: Lula had deliberately chosen to stay away from her family. At first, though, she seems to have reserved judgment about her mother’s actions. However, when Tammy reached out to Lula the day after the authorities had discovered her mom, the experience left her disappointed.
According to Tammy, Lula only managed to make time for a brief connection over the telephone. She explained to People, “It was less than a two-minute conversation. She said, ‘I’ll call you when I’m able to talk.” But it seems that the estranged mother never got back in touch, leaving her daughter feeling rejected once more.
Afterwards, Tammy expressed her anger with her mom. She continued, “I will never call her again. I’m glad she’s alive, but it hurts emotionally knowing this was her choice.” Moreover, the heartbroken daughter dispelled any rumors about a blissful reunion, adding, “This isn’t going to be one of those happy, made-for-TV movies.”
Meanwhile, investigators have not revealed many details about what Lula was doing during her missing years. Sergeant John Bowling of the Indiana State Police told People, “It is believed that she had at times lived under an alias but also along the way had been married and remarried.”
But whatever those past details – and even though Tammy and Lula have not reunited – the fact that the authorities were able to solve the mystery after all these years remains an incredible achievement. And yet this example is far from unique. In fact, there are various other cases of missing people having reappeared after decades.
For example, back in 1961 an Alaskan woman named Lucy Ann Johnson disappeared from Surrey, British Columbia, in a case that echoes Lula’s. Like Tammy’s mother, she left her growing children – Linda and Daniel – behind. However, in this instance, her spouse was under suspicion of being responsible for her death.
Without evidence, though, the police could not make a conviction, and Lucy’s disappearance remained unsolved for 52 years. Then in 2013 Linda placed an advertisement in a local newspaper in Yukon, where her mother had lived prior to relocating to British Columbia. And amazingly, a woman claiming to be another daughter of the missing woman answered.
It is alleged that Lucy had fled her home in fear of her abusive husband after trying but failing to take Linda and Daniel with her. Then, eventually, the younger woman flew to Yukon and enjoyed a reunion with her mother – a conclusion far happier than that of Lula and Tammy’s story.
A similar tale also played out in 2011 when missing woman Judith Bello showed up in the city of Fontana, California. You see, she had disappeared 18 years previously from Stanwood, Washington – over 1,200 miles from where the authorities eventually found her. And just like Lula and Lucy, the missing woman had left her small children behind.
In another parallel with the case of Lucy Ann Johnson, it transpired that Judith’s husband had allegedly abused her – and that it was this that had prompted her to disappear. Indeed, over the years, similar stories of missing persons being found have emerged from practically every corner of the globe. But could such cases shed some light on Lula’s actions – particularly why she vanished all those years ago?
Well, although there is no evidence to suggest that Lula was in an abusive relationship, there is some uncertainty surrounding her disappearance. For example, in Tammy’s 2014 post she claimed that the story of Lula’s assault was well known in the town. And yet it seems as though there was never an official investigation.
Whatever may have happened in the past, however, Tammy seems set on enjoying life without her mother. Today, she has several children of her own and works as an administrator in Indiana. And as she told People, “I’m going to have a wonderful life. I know it wasn’t my fault. It was her loss.”
Sadly, meanwhile, Lula’s own mom, Emma, passed away in November 2015 – just four months before the authorities finally found Lula. And unhappily, she went to her grave without ever knowing what had happened to her missing daughter. Now, Tammy and her siblings are getting on with their lives – although it seems as if the past may be difficult to forgive.