Vanished after a tornado: The disappearance of Joan Gay Croft
Around 8:40 pm on April 9, 1947, a tornado swept across Oklahoma and Texas. The storm destroyed 200 blocks of homes and businesses and left an estimated 185 people dead and hundreds more injured. One young girl survived the tornado, but would go missing in the chaos afterward — and hasn’t been seen since. This is the case of Joan Gay Croft.
When the tornado hit her home, 4-year-old Joan Gay was inside with her mother, father and older sister. The house was destroyed and Joan Gay’s mom, Cleta Croft, was killed instantly. Her father, Olin Croft, was badly injured, and Joan and her sister Geri sustained minor injuries. Joan Gay had a pencil sized splinter in her calf; she was also reported to have facial abrasions and a head injury.
(Note: Some sources gave Joan Gay’s sister’s name a Jean, not Geri. There is also evidence she had a half sister named Carol, who would have been about the same age as Geri. Most sources say Geri/Carol was her half sister, but said different things about whether they had the same mother or the same father. It's not clear why there's so much contradictory information publicly available, but it's likely due, at least in part, to the age of this case.)
The surviving family members were taken to Woodward Memorial Hospital. Because the girls’ injuries weren’t that severe, they were taken to the hospital basement to wait for treatment. The staff planned to later transfer Joan to another hospital in Oklahoma City, about 140 miles away. A lot of tornado victims were being transferred to other hospitals due to the sheer amount of people who needed treatment. But for Joan, this would never happen.
On the night of April 9, Joan Gay’s great aunt, Ruth Bohn, checked on the girls in the basement. Joan Gay was last seen around midnight on April 10, lying on the floor. According to Geri, two men came downstairs, wearing khaki work clothes with a company logo on them. The men approached Joan Gay and took her away. She cried as they went, saying she wanted to stay with her sister — but the men didn’t listen.
A staff member stopped the men before they left the hospital with Joan Gay. When the staffer inquired as to what was going on, the men said they were taking her to another hospital to meet up with some of her other family members. They left with Joan Gay, who wasn’t seen again.
When the girls’ aunt Ruth checked on them again in the morning, she only found one of her nieces. Geri told her the story about the men in khakis.
At first, most people didn’t give Joan Gay’s disappearance much thought. The aftermath of the tornado had been disorganized and chaotic, and most people just assumed she really had been taken elsewhere for treatment. But several days later, when she still wasn’t accounted for, people started to worry. She wasn’t found with any of her family members or friends, and her name wasn’t on any hospital lists.
A few days after the tornado, Ruth Bohn was asked to go to the mortuary to identify a young tornado victim who closely matched Joan Gay’s description. But when she viewed the body, she knew it didn’t belong to her great niece. The girl, along with two other victims, remains unidentified to this day.
The family of Joan Gay’s late mother was also looking for her and, once he was able, her dad started to search as well. Olin Croft talked to all the doctors who were at the hospital that night as well as their family doctor. None of them knew where she was. He asked the FBI for help; they initially they said they couldn’t help because there was no proof Joan had been kidnapped. They did eventually investigate but found nothing.
In June of 1947 — two months after the tornado — a young girl was found badly beaten behind a dance hall in California. Due to her age and severe injuries, she was unable to identify herself — but she matched Joan Gay’s physical description and estimated age range. Had the four-year-old somehow ended up hundreds of miles away after leaving the hospital?
But a few weeks later, the girl was identified as 2-year-old Mary Jane Meddlin. Her mom and her mom’s boyfriend were charged with assault with intent to commit murder. The following month, they were each sentenced to 20 years in prison. The couple, who had three other children between them, reportedly intended to abandon Mary Jane because they believed they had too many children.
By this point, highway patrol units in New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma were searching for Joan Gay. By March 1948, there were plans underway in the area for better disaster relief, including a new training course for ambulance drivers in identifying disaster victims.
In September 1993, Joan Gay’s case was featured on Unsolved Mysteries (segment starts at 31:45). After the episode aired, multiple women came forward saying they thought they might be Joan Gay. But all of these women were ruled out.
So what happened to Joan Gay Croft? There are two major theories in this case, so let’s get into them.
The first theory is that Joan Gay was kidnapped. Some people believe her kidnappers had been watching her for awhile, then finally saw their opportunity to strike in the chaos of the tornado aftermath. But several online speculators put forth another, very interesting theory. According to them, Olin Croft may not have been Joan Gay’s biological father, and her “real” dad organized the kidnapping after learning that her mom had died. Was Joan Gay really taken, by a family member or someone else? And, if so, is she still out there somewhere, living under a different name and likely unaware that she’s even a missing person?
The second theory is that Joan Gay died in the aftermath of the tornado, but her body wasn’t identified — or was identified incorrectly — and she was buried under a different name. Joan Gay obviously survived the tornado itself; multiple witnesses reported seeing her at the hospital. But in the early days, there was a lot of speculation that she had actually died and been misidentified.
If this theory is true, how on earth did she die? Her injuries were reportedly minor, and a staff member witnessed her being taken out of the hospital by the mystery men in khaki work clothes who said she would be getting treatment soon. Did they really take her to another hospital, only to have staff there find her injuries were worse than they initially thought? Did she die later and accidentally get misidentified? The phone operators in Woodward were on strike at the time, making communication extremely difficult. Did this play a role in the already chaotic confusion of the tornado aftermath?
Or did she somehow die in the care of these men who took her? Did they have ill intent all along and do something to harm her? Whatever happened, Joan Gay Croft hasn’t been seen in three quarters of a century, and she still has relatives who want to find her.
Joan Gay Croft was 4 years old when she was last seen in the early morning hours of April 10, 1947 in Woodward, Oklahoma. Joan Gay is a white female who was 3 feet 5 inches tall and 42 pounds at the time of her disappearance, with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyes. She has chicken pox scars on her forearms, three faint scars on her forehead and would have a splinter wound from the tornado on her left calf. If alive today, she would be 79 years old.
If you have any information about this case, you can contact the Woodward Police Department at 580-254-8535.