Updated: May 11
For Americans, Thanksgiving is supposed to be a happy time, a time to be with family and be grateful for all that we have. But for one Florida family, Thanksgiving in 1985 was shattered when their youngest child disappeared. Although the case is technically considered solved, she hasn’t been seen in nearly 34 years and there’s no solid evidence to point to exactly what happened to her.
I heard about this case a few months back and, for some reason, it stuck with me. Here is the story of Martha Jean Lambert.
Martha Jean Lambert was born on March 26, 1973. Growing up, the Elkton, Florida resident was described as feisty, friendly and trusting, wanting to be liked but having few friends. Her family said she was happy at home.
But neighbors told a different story. One described Martha as “friendly but always dirty” as well as malnourished, and said her family, which consisted of her parents and two older brothers, was strange. The neighbor claimed he would often hear Martha’s alcoholic father yelling from their home. Martha and her brothers had been removed from the home before due to abuse, but later returned. At some point, one of her brothers had tried to run away.
Martha was last seen on the day before Thanksgiving — November 27 — in 1985, when she was just 12. According to most sources I found, she was last officially seen walking along Kerri-Lynn Road in St. Augustine — the same road the Lambert family home was on. Her mother, Margaret, said the two were at a social gathering at a neighbor’s house when Martha said she was going to a friend’s trailer and would be gone for five minutes. She never returned.
Police initially believed Martha was a runaway, and treated the case as such. With the help of neighbors, they searched the area around her home, but found nothing. And it wasn’t long before they shifted their focus to Martha’s 14-year-old brother, David Lambert.
Shortly after Martha’s disappearance, David said he saw Martha get into a black vehicle. Then he said he last saw her walking along the road. Later on, his story changed again. He told detectives he last saw Martha at their house at dinner that night. She told him she was going out, but didn’t say where. Then she left the house. This story conflicts not only with his previous statements, but with Margaret's story that she and Martha were at a neighbor’s house together. Margaret would later say she believed her daughter was kidnapped, and David may not have been forthcoming due to threats by or fear of Martha's kidnapper.
In the years following, tensions and conflict in the Lambert family continued to grow. Fighting increased between Martha’s parents, and the two eventually divorced. Margaret is now remarried, and Martha’s father has since died. Both of Martha’s brothers have had run-ins with the law.
In 2000, David was arrested for check fraud. At the time, he made a stunning confession: He’d killed Martha all those years ago and buried her in a mine. Detectives searched the mine, but never found Martha’s body or any other evidence to corroborate this confession. David was not charged in relation to Martha’s disappearance.
At some point the case was closed, but then reopened in 2009. Investigators started up their search again by re-questioning Martha’s family members and former neighbors. Several of them suggested they take another look at David.
In September 2009, David Lambert was brought in for questioning. He was interrogated for a total of 20 hours over a period of several days. Finally, he told police a startling story.
On the day Martha disappeared, David claimed their father was yelling about the burned turkey, and they desperately wanted to get out of the house. So they headed for the nearby abandoned campus of Florida Memorial College. Described by an investigator as “a poor kid’s Disney World,” this was clearly a place where the Lambert children could play and temporarily forget about their problems at home.
At some point, Martha asked her brother for $20. She walked to a nearby store and spent about $4 of what he had given her. Later on, she asked him for another $20 but, perhaps because he had already given her money, he refused and they argued. David pushed Martha backwards and she hit her head on a piece of metal, which impaled the back of her skull. When David grabbed her now unconscious body, her head was covered in blood.
Realizing his sister was dead, David panicked. He cried out for help, but nobody came. So he used a piece of a broken street sign to dig a grave three feet deep and laid his sister on her back in the dirt. After burying her, he went home, never telling his parents or anyone else what had happened out of fear.
Immediately, police ordered a search of the old college campus. But the entire area had been destroyed, leveled and rebuilt since Martha’s disappearance. Investigators spent two days searching the grounds, but found nothing.
This is the intersection where Florida Memorial College would have been in 1985. The area I’ve circled is where I believe the campus actually was, but I’m not 100 % sure. As you can see, there’s not much there anymore. I have a hard time believing that nothing was found in the area. But I’m hardly a construction expert, so I could be wrong.
A few days later, David recanted his entire confession. He said he had only been telling detectives what they wanted to hear. Margaret has publicly stated that she doesn’t believe her son's confession, stating that he often made up stories to get attention. She still believes Martha was kidnapped.
In November 2009, David was brought in for another interview, where he confessed again with the same story. This time, Margaret was brought in by police as well, who wanted her to accept the truth and for the family to begin the healing process.
Detectives stand by David’s story, but because he was a minor at the time and the statute of limitations for manslaughter had already run out, no charges were ever filed. The case was officially closed.
But what really happened to Martha Jean Lambert? Most people don’t seem to believe that her brother had anything to do with her disappearance. He has made numerous confessions, but there’s no solid evidence to back any of them up — and remember, he was questioned for 20 hours, so there’s always the possibility that his confession was coerced. But if he didn’t kill her, what happened? Was she abducted or killed by someone else? Or could she possibly still be alive?
One theory is that Martha was killed by Donald Leroy Evans. Evans was sentenced to death in 1993 for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl, who he kidnapped from a park in Gulfport, Mississippi. He'd also received a life sentence for another murder in Florida and claimed to have killed up to 60 people in 22 states. Evans was killed by another inmate in 1999.
Other theories include the idea that Martha may have run away, as police initially suspected. Her home life was far from perfect, and one of her brothers had already done the same. She could have gone to stay with relatives or friends who protected her, or possibly met with foul play on her journey. Others believe she could have been taken by a couple who couldn’t have children, or sold into sex trafficking. Another less prominent but, in my opinion, very valid theory is that Martha’s father was involved in her disappearance. He was supposedly abusive — did he kill her, accidentally or otherwise, and somehow manage to hide her body for all these years? Now that both he and Evans are dead, finding out about any involvement one of them may have had in Martha’s disappearance would be difficult.
Another theory that isn’t directly related to her disappearance is that the police initially closed her case too quickly. They knew there wasn’t any solid evidence behind David’s confession, but wanted this cold case officially solved so they could closed the metaphorical book on it. At the time, there doesn’t seem to be an active investigation. However, a NAMUS profile was created for Martha in April 2010, three months after her case was closed, and there are people out there who still have their eye on the case. Hopefully we’ll one day get some solid answers as to what happened.
At the time of her disappearance, Martha Jean Lambert was 12 years old. She was 4 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 70 pounds. She’s a white female with strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes, and protruding front teeth. She has birthmarks on the front of her upper right thigh and upper left chest. She was last seen wearing a matching two piece swimsuit. If alive today, she would be 46. Several sources have named her case as the oldest missing persons case in St. John’s County. However, that dubious honor actually seems to belong to Wilson Jay Mickler, who was last seen at a bar in St. Augustine in 1979.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Martha Jean Lambert, contact information for the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office will be down below. If you have any theories as to what happened to Martha, feel free to leave them in the comments.