Updated: Feb 10, 2020
It’s always sad when someone dies, especially when their life is cut short at a young age. But perhaps it’s even more tragic when nobody can give a solid answer as to how the person died. Here are five people who died before they should have, and whose already tragic deaths are shrouded in mystery.
1. Molly Young
Carbondale, Illinois resident Molly Young died at the age of 21on March 24, 2012. Her death was officially ruled a suicide, but her family and many members of the public believe she was murdered.
At 3 am on the day she died, Young’s ex-boyfriend, Richie Minton, called and invited her to his apartment. About six hours later, Minton, a 911 dispatcher himself, placed a frantic 911 call, saying Young had overdosed. But later on he placed another call, this time to a 911 operator he knew personally on her private work number. He told this operator Young had shot herself.
There were problems with Minton’s story from the start. Because he worked in law enforcement, the Illinois State Police were called in to handle the case to avoid a conflict of interest. Before they arrived, the Carbondale Police questioned Minton — but not before letting him wash his hands and change his clothes. Blood was later found on his pajama pants, along with scratches on his side. It’s estimated that he and his roommate let Young’s body lay on the floor for four hours before police were called — and that her body stayed there seven hours in total before any sort of investigation happened. By the time the state police arrived, Minton had already called his lawyer — and refused to talk anymore.
The state police were suspicious from the start and treated the case as homicide — and Minton as a suspect. Minton claimed he got the scratches on his side while trying to perform CPR on Young, though I’m not entirely sure how that would happen. When he was asked how he didn’t hear the gunshot in his apartment, he said he had passed out drunk and slept through it. Young’s family also insists she didn’t like guns very much and wouldn’t even know how to use one.
Young’s relationship with Minton was tumultuous, and they frequently broke up and got back together. A few weeks before her death, Young learned she was pregnant. The couple agreed to have an abortion, which they eventually did. Young initially told her sister that she wanted an abortion due to health concerns. She had a tumor the previous year and, at the time, feared for her life. Her condition had improved, but she’d struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts at the time. Young said she didn’t feel healthy enough to carry a child. However, she later gave her sister another reason for the abortion — she didn’t want Minton to treat their child the way he treated her. According to one report, the day Young learned she was pregnant, Minton posted a Son of Sam quote on his Tumblr: "drops of lead poured down upon her head until she was dead.” Young had also previously described Minton’s behavior as “sociopathic.”
Nevertheless, the day after Young’s death, the coroner ruled it a suicide. As I said earlier, she had suffered from depression the previous year due to her health scare. As someone who has also suffered from depression relating to a health scare, I can certainly understand why suicide would be a possibility here. Both Minton and his roommate also said that Young had been suicidal (Minton also claimed she had been abused as a child, though I can’t find any evidence to confirm or deny this). Minton had reportedly threatened suicide at one point if he and Young didn’t get back together, which led police to speculate that they’d made a suicide pact that Minton hadn’t followed through on.
This is pure speculation on my part, and it may be controversial. But I wonder what Young’s mental state was after her abortion. It seems like she and Minton made that decision together — but they broke up afterwards pretty quickly. Did Young have second thoughts about the abortion, maybe even regret? Did it cause her to do something drastic?
On the other hand, a lot of the evidence pointing to suicide doesn’t make sense. A few minutes before Young's death, Minton’s roommate received a text message from her, saying she was going to shoot herself, and apologizing if he came home to see her body. But text messages can be written by anybody. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a text message for a friend or family member, or vice versa. So I don’t think this proves much.
Police also found internet searches on Young’s computer about suicide. But Young’s family said she and Minton were both at a concert that night. Young didn’t get home until 2 am, but the searches were performed between midnight and 2 am. There’s speculation that Minton accessed her computer remotely, I’m assuming to manufacture evidence of a suicide.
The last piece of evidence I found that points to suicide was a note found in Molly’s room that sounded like a suicide note. However, her father claimed Young wrote the note the previous year when she thought she was going to die from her tumor.
Minton was arrested for DUI in 2013, then again in 2014. In December 2014, just a month after his latest DUI arrest, he left Carbondale and joined the St. Louis Fire Department, about a two hour drive from Carbondale. He has never been charged in Young’s death.
The Illinois State Police weren’t too fond of the Carbondale Police’s investigation. Young’s family think the Carbondale Police were protecting Minton because he was one of their own. The fact that his parents were also in law enforcement, as well as the fact that his DNA was found under Young’s nails, make the whole situation even more suspicious.
In 2013, Young's cause of death was changed from ’suicide’ to ‘undetermined.’ In 2014, Young’s father filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Carbondale Police Department. The lawsuit alleged the department had covered up Young’s murder in order to protect Minton. Her father waited for the required legal documents, but never got them. As a result, the lawsuit was dismissed in 2015 because the two year statute of limitations had run out.
After this, Young’s father teamed up with an Illinois state representative to draft Molly’s Law. The bill would require agencies to turn over documents requested via the Freedom of Information act within 30 days. It also brought the statute of limitations in wrongful death suits from 2 years to 5 years. The bill passed unanimously, and is now law.
In 2017, Young's father claimed he would never give up the search for justice and says the media attention and publicity have helped. The case is currently open and assigned to a special prosecutor.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, click here for a list of suicide hotlines around the world.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, click here for a list of domestic violence hotlines around the world.
If there are any hotlines not listed here that you want me to add, let me know in the comments.
2. Kendrick Johnson
In our first case, the question was ’suicide or murder?’ In this case, the question seems to be ‘accident or murder?’
Kendrick Johnson was just 17 when his body was found on January 11, 2013. He hadn’t been seen since the day before when his body was found in the old gym of his school in Valdosta, Georgia. The body was found inside a rolled up gym mat. Paramedics at the scene said it looked like a crime scene — there was blood on a nearby wall, and Kendrick appeared to have bruising on his jaw.
But Kendrick’s death was eventually ruled an accident. Police believed Kendrick reached inside the mat to grab a shoe, but got stuck and suffocated — even though his shoulders were 19 inches and the center of the mat, where he was found, was only 14 inches. I also couldn’t find any evidence or statements of a shoe being found in the mat — but maybe it was and just hasn’t been mentioned elsewhere.
Kendrick’s body was soon buried. But in June, it was exhumed by the family, who had an independent autopsy conducted. When the coroner examined his body, they learned it had been stuffed with newspaper. This is where things get even more weird. Apparently it’s not that unusual for organs to be removed after an autopsy. But Kendrick’s organs had supposedly been put back in his body before he was buried. The funeral home director said the organs must have decomposed already. Remember, this is Georgia in early summer, so it’s probably pretty humid, and Kendrick’s body had been buried for six months. It would be possible for the organs to decompose that quickly. However, I could never find a solid explanation for the newspapers, and I’m not sure there is one. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the resulting autopsy gave a different conclusion than the first one — Kendrick had died from blunt force trauma. The case was eventually reopened.
In 2014, the FBI investigated Branden and Brian Bell, two brothers who went to school with Kendrick. A 2013 report claimed Kendrick had been in a fight at some point before his death, though it didn’t say when. Could this have been one of the Bell brothers? It’s certainly possible; however, on September 9, video evidence determined that the Bell brothers had been on a different part of campus than Kendrick when he died.
In January 2015, the Johnsons filed a $100 million lawsuit against 38 separate defendants, including the Bell brothers and their father, FBI agent Rick Bell. The suit claimed Branden was on campus at the time of Kendrick’s death and had motive to harm him (though I’m not sure exactly what that was). It also said Brian had violent and even psychopathic tendencies.
According to the lawsuit, Kendrick was lured to the gym by a female student (who, interestingly, wasn’t named). Then the Bell brothers ‘violently assaulted’ Kenrick, which led to his death. The suit also accused law enforcement officers of stuffing Kendrick’s body in the gym mat to make it look like an accident.
In March, the Bells filed a $1 million counter suit for defamation, claiming they weren’t involved in Kendrick’s death. They also filed a suit against Ebony magazine, who had published a series of articles about the case that suggested they were responsible. In October, nine of the defendants (all Georgia Bureau of Investigation employees) were dropped from the lawsuit. The suit was eventually dropped altogether.
In November 2015, surveillance footage from inside the gym was released, but it only raised more questions. Both a forensic analyst and the Johnson family’s lawyers believed the footage had been tampered with. The footage jumped quite a bit and was blurry and skipped a lot, though this doesn’t seem too unusual for a high school security system. But according to the forensic analyst, there was at least an hour of footage missing — much of it between 12 and 1 pm, just before Kendrick was last seen at 1:09 pm. This could be a bizarre glitch — or it could be suspicious. The school insists it didn’t tamper with the evidence.
In 2016, the Justice Department announced there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone or some group of people willfully violated Kendrick Johnson’s civil rights or committed any other prosecutable federal crime.” In 2017, the Johnsons were ordered to pay nearly $300,000 in legal fees to all the defendants named in their initial suit.
In June 2018, Kendrick’s body was exhumed again for a third autopsy. Like the second one, the results suggested foul play. The Johnsons still believe the Bell brothers are responsible for Kendrick’s death. In December, the Johnson’s lawyers said they were petitioning for a coroner’s inquest. This would allow evidence from the case to be presented to a jury, who would determine if there was foul play involved.
So what happened to Kendrick Johnson? This case is crazy, and, like many cases I cover, I honestly don’t know what to think. But whatever happens — or whatever did happen in that gym in 2013 — I hope the people still affected by it find some answers soon.
3. Paulette Gebara
For this next case, you’ll have to bear with me. It took place in Mexico, and a lot of the sources had to be translated from Spanish. After four years of Spanish in school I could pick out a word or phrase here and there, but my Spanish, overall, is sub par. So there may be details of the story that are easy for non-native speakers to miss in this already strange case.
Paulette Gebara was four years old when she went missing on March 22, 2010. At the time, Paulette lived with her parents and 7-year-old sister in a luxury apartment in the suburbs of Mexico City. One of Paulette’s nannies went to wake her up that Monday morning, but she wasn’t in her bed. The case quickly gained national attention, with billboards and appeals on social media spreading the word about the case. Paulette’s family members and nannies gave TV interviews and passed out flyers. Both of Paulette’s parents made public appeals to a potential kidnapper, asking them to please bring their daughter back. And investigators searched the family’s apartment, the rest of the building, and checked security cameras…but found nothing.
Paulette’s disappearance was unusual. The four-year-old suffered from physical and developmental disabilities that made it difficult for her to walk or talk. Two full time nannies were employed by her wealthy parents to help care for her. And there were no signs of forced entry or any sort of struggle in the building. So if Paulette had been kidnapped, how had her abductors gotten away and left almost no evidence behind? And if she had wandered off on her own, she couldn’t have gone far…so where was she?
Unsurprisingly, suspicion soon fell on those closest to Paulette. On March 29, Alberto Bazbaz, the then-attorney general of Mexico, said that both of Paulette’s parents as well as her nannies had made inconsistent statements that made it difficult to know exactly what happened. They were all briefly investigated.
Then, in the early morning hours of March 31, the search came to an end. Someone in the apartment noticed a strange smell coming from the foot of Paulette’s bed. Her body was found wedged between the mattress and the board at the end of the bed.
Immediately, both the public and investigators were suspicious. People had been in and out for the past nine days since Paulette’s disappearance. Multiple interviews had been given in the room — some had even taken place onthe bed. How did so many people enter and spend so much time in the room and never notice the body in it?
The cause of Paulette’s death was soon ruled as asphyxiation. Bazbaz said at the time "I have no doubt that this is a homicide investigation.” He also stated that Paulette’s mother, Lizette Farah, was “the only suspect.” Paulette’s parents and nannies were held in custody, but released on April 4. At the time, they had been instructed not to leave the country.
After Paulette’s body was found, speculation ran even more rampant. People believed that Paulette’s mother, Lizette Farah, killed her daughter because she was too much of a burden, despite the fact that Paulette had two full time nannies. Others believed that Lizette had some sort of mental disorder that led to her murdering her own child. Just for my own speculation, I’m assuming they believed she had something along the lines of munchausen by proxy, which causes caregivers to harm the people they’re charged to protect in order to gain attention and sympathy. On an even more cynical note, some people believe Paulette’s parents committed the murder and believed all along they’d get away with it because of their wealth and influence.
And Paulette’s parents soon began pointing fingers at each other. In one TV interview, Farah said her relationship with Mauricio Gebara, her husband and Paulette’s father, was perfectly fine. The next day, she took to accusing him of being involved in Paulette’s death. Mauricio said he didn’t believe Paulette’s death was an accident, and accused his wife of planting evidence. To add to the tension, Mauricio’s family took custody of the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, also named Lizette, and wouldn’t let Farah. see her. Mauricio’s side of the family didn’t go to Paulette’s funeral, and I’m assuming little Lizette didn’t either. An alleged recording was captured at some point when Farah still had custody of her daughter, apparently telling her to keep quiet or the police might suspect her (Lizette Jr.) of being involved. Farah was also accused of infidelity.
Then, in May, Paulette’s death was officially ruled an accident. Bazbaz said Paulette somehow turned herself around in bed at night and got stuck between the mattress and bed frame. He claimed there were no signs of foul play and Paulette had been in her bed the whole time she was missing. At some point in the investigation, Lizette was returned to her mother, though I’m not sure if that happened before or after the accidental death ruling.
After the ruling, Bazbaz faced a wave of backlash and eventually resigned. From what I’ve read about speculation in this case, many people in Mexico still believe Farah was responsible for her daughter’s death and used her wealth and influence to cover it up. In 2017, Paulette’s remains were cremated after the Mexican government determined they were no longer considered evidence. Whether her death really was a tragic accident, or cold blooded murder followed by a corrupt cover-up, this case seems to be closed — at least for now.
4. Edgar Allan Poe
I don’t know how popular Poe is internationally. But if you went to school in the United States, like I did, it’s almost certain you grew up reading his works. Poe is famous for his disturbing poetry and short stories, including The Cask of Amontillado, The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell Tale Heart and, my personal favorite, Annabel Lee. Some of his stories even give me chills which, as an avid horror fan, is difficult to do. Poe is also credited with creating the modern detective story, so it seems fitting that his death would be just as mysterious as the works in his life that made him famous.
Much like his writing, Poe’s life wasn’t pleasant. He struggled with alcohol abuse as well as financial issues. He was largely raised by his aunt and uncle, Frances and John Allan. When John died in 1834, he left nothing to Poe, instead providing for an illegitimate child he had never met.
In 1836, Poe married Virginia Clemm, who was also his cousin, when she was just 13. In 1845, The Raven was published and made Poe a household name. In 1847, Virginia died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Poe never recovered from her death.
At the time of his death in 1849, it seems Poe lived in either New York or Richmond, Virginia — I couldn’t find a source that solidly confirmed either one. Either way, it seemed things were improving; he was engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Shelton, and was traveling at the time on a speaking tour. In late September, the couple was in Richmond when Shelton suggested Poe see a doctor because he looked ill. Poe was scheduled to head to Philadelphia for an editing job the following week, but the doctor advised him not to travel. When the doctor asked Poe where his luggage was, he said he didn’t know.
Despite all this, Poe made his way north and arrived in Baltimore on September 28. On October 3, he was found in ‘great distress’ either in or near a tavern (depending on which source you believe). Poe was taken to a hospital, where he spent the next four days drifting in and out of consciousness. He didn’t speak much, and most of what he said was incoherent. He also suffered from hallucinations and, on the fourth night, started crying out for someone named ‘Reynolds.’ On the morning of Sunday, October 7, 1849, at the age of 40, Edgar Allan Poe died.
At the time, the cause of Poe’s death seemed pretty straightforward. The ward of the hospital he was in was reserved for patients recovering from intoxication. The official cause of death given, 'congestion of the brain’ was, at the time, a polite way of saying ‘alcoholism.’ Spectators at the time believed he simply drank himself to death, and this is still the most widely believed theory. His physician later tried to debunk this theory, but his accounts have been inconsistent.
But after looking more into the details, it seems there might be more to the story. When Poe arrived at the hospital, he was wearing clothes that didn’t fit him very well, so people think they weren’t his. The physician who was attending to him at the time said he didn’t appear drunk or even look like he’d been drinking at all. And then, of course, there was the fact that both his fiancée and a doctor said he appeared ill weeks before his death. None of Poe's medical records have ever been found. This could easily be because he died so long ago that the records were eventually lost or destroyed. But it does make it difficult to determine exactly what happened.
After his death, Poe’s obituary was written by a journalist named Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Griswold has been described as Poe’s ‘literary rival’ and his obituary portrayed Poe as a drunken womanizer and opium addict. Most modern Poe scholars seem to think these accounts were largely exaggerated. Could Poe’s troubles with alcohol have been exaggerated or unfairly portrayed as well? Even if alcohol had a role in his death, could something else have also contributed?
Numerous theories have been brought forth over the years as to what Poe could have been suffering with in his final days. Theories range from relatively common diseases like diabetes, heart disease and tuberculosis to rabies, epilepsy, syphilis, and carbon monoxide poisoning. There’s also a theory that Poe was a victim of what’s known as ‘cooping.’ Poe was found on an election day, and it wasn’t unheard of at the time for corrupt politicians to pay people to find others on the streets and force them, often through violence, to vote for a certain candidate. However, I couldn’t find any information about physical evidence to support this theory.
Poe was buried at Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore. Starting in 1949, 100 years after his death, a mysterious masked man started leaving three roses and a bottle of cognac on his grave. This tradition took place every year on January 19 — Poe’s birthday — and continued until the death of the so-called ‘Poe Toaster’ in 1999. That year, a note was left on the grave indicating the Toaster’s son would continue the tradition, which he did for a time. The tradition stopped in 2009, but speculation still continues as to the identity of the original Poe Toaster. It seems Poe can’t seem to keep from generating mystery, even more than 150 years after his death.
5. Elisa Lam
Just like Poe, the name Elisa Lam is one you probably recognize. Sadly, though, she’s much more well known for her bizarre death than for her life.
Elisa Lam was just 21 when she went missing on January 31, 2013. She lived in Vancouver at the time, but was visiting Los Angeles, having checked into the famous Cecil Hotel on January 26. This hotel has a notoriously colored history. Several murders and suicides have taken place there over the years, and the building is located just a few blocks from the notorious Skid Row, which is known for drugs, gang violence, and a large homeless population. Perhaps the Cecil’s most famous former resident was Richard Ramirez, otherwise known as ’The Night Stalker.’ Ramirez killed at least 13 people in California between 1984 and 1985. He was sentenced to death in 1989, but died in prison of cancer in 2013.
Lam’s parents reported her missing after not hearing from her for a few days. The entire hotel was searched, including the roof, but by mid-February there was still no sign of her. On February 13, detectives publicly released footage of Lam in the hotel’s elevator in the hopes someone would recognize her. The footage quickly spread online and showed Lam acting strange.
The video is about three and a half minutes long and can be found pretty easily online. There’s no sound, but Lam can be seen stepping in and out of the elevator, pressing numerous buttons and, at one point, appearing to wave her arms frantically like she’s trying to communicate with someone (though nobody else can be seen on the footage).
Lam suffered from bipolar disorder and was on at least four different medications at the time, most of them anti-depressants or mood stabilizers. Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings — both good ones (‘mania’) and bad ones (‘depression’). I’m no expert on bipolar disorder, and symptoms can vary widely. But many people believe it played a role in what eventually happened to her.
Meanwhile, residents at the Cecil Hotel were complaining about low water pressure and the drinking water tasting funny. A hotel maintenance worker went to the roof to access the water tanks and figure out what was going on. At 4:30 pm on February 19, he found the body of Elisa Lam in one of the tanks.
An autopsy was performed the next day, but details weren’t released to the public until June. Her body was found floating face up and naked, but her clothes were found in the tank. There were no internal injuries or outward signs of trauma. She wasn’t drunk or under the influence of drugs when she died, and it couldn’t be determined how much of her prescribed medication she had taken. However, investigators believe her bipolar disorder played a significant role in her death, which was ultimately ruled an accidental drowning.
There were a lot of bizarre details that made online sleuths take notice. On the last day she was seen, Lam was moved from a hostel-like room to a private room after her roommates complained about her ‘odd behavior.’ That same day, the owner of a bookstore near the hotel claimed to have seen Lam in the store, where she appeared, normal, lively and friendly. This contradictory information, along with the bizarre elevator footage, got people talking. The case gained attention across the United States and Canada — as well as China, where Lam’s family is originally from.
But the strangest part of this whole story is how Lam ended up on the roof — and in the tank — in the first place. The roof was difficult for guests to access, as the main entrance was a locked door that would have set off an alarm if someone without a key tried to open it. (I have heard the alarm was disabled at the time, but couldn’t confirm it.) Three other fire escapes have been mentioned, but I couldn’t figure out if they were locked, so it’s possible she got to the roof that way. But even after arriving, she would have to climb the tank’s 10-foot ladder and push aside its 20-foot lid, then either climb or fall in — and remain there long enough to drown. Did she have the physical strength to do this? And, if so, why?
Theories in the case are endless, and most of them are bizarre, bordering on conspiratorial. In the few years I’ve known about this case, I’ve heard everything, from the supernatural to the idea that Elisa Lam wasn’t even a real person. There’s also an entire subreddit devoted to the case.
Elisa Lam’s story has frequently been compared to a 2002 Japanese horror movie called Dark Water. The movie is based on a 1996 book of the same name and follows a woman in the midst of a divorce who moves into a hotel with her young daughter. Soon after they arrive, the water in the hotel starts to look funny, and they have flooding problems and see a mysterious looking little girl around. As it turns out (spoilers!), they’re seeing the ghost of a little girl who drowned in the hotel water tank. Her body has been there the entire time that our protagonists have. Obviously this story is eerily similar to Elisa Lam’s, and the latest adaptation was the U.S. remake in 2005 — a full eight years before Lam’s death.
In 2013, Lam’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Cecil Hotel. Their attorneys claimed Lam’s death could have been prevented if the lid on the tank had been locked properly. The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge in December 2015 because Lam was in an area where guests weren’t supposed to be, so the hotel couldn’t be held responsible.
In August 2015, in preparation for season five of American Horror Story, one of the co-creators hinted that the upcoming season of the anthology series was inspired by Lam’s death. He mentioned “[S]urveillance video from a Los Angeles-based hotel that surfaced two years ago. The footage showed a girl in an elevator who was never seen again.” The show took place in downtown Los Angeles, just like Elisa Lam’s story; even though she was never explicitly named, the general consensus is that she was the inspiration. I’ve heard the script was drastically changed later on, but I only watched the first episode of season five, so I can’t say for sure how similar or different the story lines ultimately were.
In January 2019, a video game called Yiik came under fire for referencing Lam’s death. Critics said the references were in poor taste and more graphic than they needed to be. I’ve never played the game, but it is out on Steam if you want to try it for yourself. The story seems to have a few superficial similarities to Lam’s case, including an elevator and the mysterious disappearance of a young woman.
This may be an unpopular opinion but, to me, it seems like Lam's death is relatively straightforward. For some reason, her mental state was not what it normally was, and she climbed onto the roof, fell in the tank and drowned. Still, there are so many details, questions, and room for speculation — even in my admittedly simple theory — that it’s easy to see how this case has become so famous.
What are your thoughts on these cases? Do you have any theories as to what happened to the people on this list? Let me know in the comments.