SSix years ago, Kayla Unbehaun disappeared from her Illinois hometown in an apparent abduction by her non-custodial mother.
Six months ago, the nine-year-old’s photo appeared in an episode of the Netflix show Unsolved mysteries about the abduction of parents, an image of age progression flashing on the screen to depict what she would look like now.
This month, someone at a store in North Carolina recognized Kayla as a missing child — setting in motion a chain of events that led to her mother’s arrest and Kayla’s reunion with her father in the Midwest.
Here’s everything we know about Kayla’s abduction and safe recovery — and the questions that remain unanswered in the case.
A child and a mother went missing on July 4
Kayla was born on July 5, 2008 to Ryan Iskerka and Heather Unbehaun in the western suburbs of Chicago. After the couple split, a judge awarded the child’s father permanent custody. However, Kayla spent July 4th with her mother in 2017 and was scheduled to be returned to her father the next day, on her ninth birthday.
“According to police interviews, Heather was last seen packing her belongings up to the roof of her car,” Iskerka wrote in a GoFundMe established just days later. “Her immediate family members indicated that she went on a camping trip to an undisclosed location in Wisconsin and was expected to return on Wednesday, July 5th at 7:00 pm for a parenting interview with me.
“Heather and Kayla did not show up for the court-ordered exchange and the police were immediately contacted and an investigation launched. It was discovered that all of Heather’s social media had been suspended and her phone was turned off. As far as we know, no one has been able to reach her or speak to her since that July 4th.
“Because of this, the next day I had filed a missing person’s report for both Kayla and Heather. Heather also failed to show up for a court date she called for Friday, June 7th. Her attorney had not spoken to her for several days, unaware of what was happening and was very worried.”
Mother charged with abduction when father pleaded for help
After Mr. Iskerka filed the missing person’s report, Unbehaun was charged in 2017 with child abduction, a Class 4 felony, the Kane County State’s Attorney said in a statement Tuesday. A judge set her bond at $10,000 and “since then, South Elgin police have been searching for numerous leads and tips and working with law enforcement agencies from across the country in an effort to locate the child and Unbehaun.”
Mr. Iskerka, meanwhile, appealed for donations and information, writing on GoFundMe that he planned to use the help “to hire a private investigator and any additional costs for the search for them and their health and safety when found. “The safety and return of Kayla is paramount priority for my entire family and I and any help we receive through this funding is greatly appreciated,” he wrote.
Between July 2017 and May 2023, the page raised just over $2,500 toward its $10,000 goal, the last donation recorded on the site coming in nearly four years ago.
In November, however, Kayla’s picture was featured on an episode of Netflix Unsolved mysteries. At the end of Abducted by a Parent, the final installment of the show’s third Netflix season, missing posters and age development images from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) are shown.
For barely five seconds, a photo of Kayla at nine appears on the screen along with an image of what she might look like as a teenager.
A Bring Kayla Home Facebook page also promoted the age progression image – sharing it as recently as April 21. Created on the same day as the GoFundMe — five days after Kayla was last seen in Wheaton with her mother — the page has more than 7,000 followers.
Search meets unlikely end
Kayla and her mother were at the Westgate Regional Shopping Center on Saturday night (May 13) in Asheville, North Carolina, when they became aware of a person inside the upscale department store Plato’s Closet, according to authorities.
That person “recognized Unbehaun and remembered the child was missing,” the Kane County State Attorney’s Office posted Tuesday on social media. “A store employee immediately contacted Asheville police, who contacted South Elgin police.
“South Elgin Police confirmed the identities of the two individuals as Heather Unbehaun and the missing child.”
Unbehauen, 40, was later arrested and Kayla has since been reunited with her father.
Kayla’s father had included this video of his missing daughter on a GoFundMe page
Mr Iskerka, in a statement from NCMEC, said he was “overjoyed that Kayla is safe at home”.
“I want to thank the South Elgin Police Department, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and all law enforcement agencies that assisted with her case,” Iskerka continued. “I also want to thank all the followers of the ‘Bring Kayla Home’ Facebook page, who helped keep her story alive and were instrumental in spreading awareness. We ask for privacy as we get to know each other again and navigate this new beginning.”
South Elgin Police Chief Jerry Krawczyk also thanked citizens across the country and other law enforcement agencies who worked so dedicatedly to help bring Kayla home.
“We are thrilled to report that the child is in good condition and in good spirits since being reunited with his father,” he said in a news release on Tuesday.
Law enforcement — and well-wishers — celebrated in several states as the case gave hope to investigators and families searching for people who have been missing for years.
“I really think this is a unique case,” said Asheville Police Lt. Jonathan Brown WLOS. “It’s unusual, it’s not a case that we see routinely or often.”
He marveled at how Kayla’s mother had managed to go undetected for years.
“What’s most unusual is the ability to stay off the grid, if you will, for that period of time,” he said. “Usually we leave a technological breadcrumb and they are usually very easy and quick to trace. This was not.”
What happens next
After Unbehaun’s arrest in Buncombe County, she was charged with felony extradition, which she refused to waive. She posted $25,000 bail Tuesday and was released from custody, then turned herself in the next day in Kane County, Illinois, where she was charged with kidnapping.
The 40-year-old appeared before Judge Julia Yetter on Thursday (May 18) and has been released on an electronic monitoring device. Kayla’s father obtained an order of protection against Unbehaun, who is barred from being within 1,000 feet of his residence and cannot leave Illinois without court permission, a Kane County State Attorney’s Office spokesman said. The independent.
The 40-year-old’s next scheduled court date is June 14. A class 4 felony in Illinois can carry a sentence of one to three years, often probation.
The independent has reached out to lawyers for Iskerka and Unbehaun.