In the movies and on TV, when a person goes missing, there’s a flurry of activity. Notices instantly appear online and on milk cartons. Volunteers start sweeping the forest. Police hold press conferences with tearful family members, begging for their loved one’s return. It’s portrayed as an extraordinary event.
In reality, missing teens are depressingly common. Large-scale media blitzes just don’t happen on a regular basis unless someone actively witnesses an abduction, or if police have strong reason to suspect a crime has been committed. Those instances, police say, are extremely rare.
Mackenzie Marken was 14 when she disappeared Oct. 11 from her Weston home. Her disappearance wasn’t huge news at the time, not even locally. No one saw her leave; no one had any idea where she might have gone.
The police investigation shows Mackenzie was last seen by friends on Saturday, Oct. 10, before midnight. Her mother, Jennifer Doll, was out of town that night at a jewelry party she was hosting and stayed at a friend’s house. In the morning, Jennifer’s husband, Scott Doll, called Jennifer to say Mackenzie wasn’t in her bed. She was nowhere to be found.
Within hours that Sunday, family members posted messages on social media urging friends to be on the lookout. Days passed. A Facebook page, “Missing Mackenzie Marken/Doll,” was established (though Marken is Mackenzie’s legal last name, she often went by the last name of her stepfather). Her parents were worried, police say, but they thought she’d eventually turn up, or at least show up for classes that Monday at Mosinee High School, where she was enrolled as a freshman. She didn’t.
By Oct. 14, Mackenzie’s mother gave up hoping that Mackenzie would come home on her own. She picked up the phone and called the police to report her daughter missing.
Mackenzie Marken has been missing since October 2015.
Initially, investigators believed Mackenzie had run away and that someone—a friend or someone she met online—was helping her hide. After a few days, the Everest Metro Police Department issued a news release, circulating a recent photo of Mackenzie and a number to call with tips to her whereabouts. Several hopeful reports surfaced. Some callers swore they saw Mackenzie near Mosinee High School; others reported spotting the teen at a nearby park. None of those leads panned out. Then, the trail went cold.
Days turned to weeks, then to months. Mackenzie’s friends and family spent Thanksgiving without her, then Christmas. On April 18, Mackenzie turned 15. No one celebrated. It was just too difficult, her friends say. Today, more than nine months have passed since Jennifer Doll called police, and Mackenzie is still missing, vanished without a trace.
Initially, her disappearance was not that unusual, at least not in the larger picture. The number of local juvenile runaways is astonishing. In 2015, 629 youth were reported missing in Marathon County, up from 576 the year before. Wausau had the lion’s share last year, as they typically do, at 348.
Almost all of the missing return home eventually. As of Monday, June 13, five Marathon County juveniles remain missing, including MacKenzie. But the other four were reported missing very recently, within the past week. At any point in time, it’s common for police to deal with a number of local teens who have disappeared for several days.
Statistically speaking then, the odds were good that Mackenzie would wander back home, or at least be found with a friend. And, police say, Mackenzie had run away twice before, both times returning within a day or two.
This time was different.
What’s perhaps most troubling to investigators is Mackenzie’s total absence from social media in the nine months since she vanished. Like most teens, Marken was active online. She didn’t have a cell phone—her parents didn’t allow it—but did have an iPod that allowed her to connect with friends through several platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Kik. Since her disappearance, Mackenzie’s once active Facebook feed has fallen silent; her Snapchat and other apps remain unused.
“She was always on, posting things,” says Fallon Brown, Mackenzie’s friend since fifth grade. “Just like the rest of us. But now, nothing. Not a word, not one.”
In one of her last entries on Instagram, Mackenzie posted a YouTube link to an original song that encouraged people struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide to get help. Her last Instagram post was 42 weeks ago, shortly before she disappeared: “Stay strong, guys,” she wrote. “Going to try to be on here more.”
A trail gone cold
The Everest Metro Police detectives investigating Marken’s disappearance have spent hundreds of hours investigating leads over the past nine months. Collectively, investigators have filed more than 60 reports related to the case, many of which detail potential sightings from Wausau to Minneapolis and beyond. Each tip, no matter how dubious or how small, is explored thoroughly and treated as a potential game-changer, says Capt. Clayton Schulz, who manages the detectives investigating Mackenzie’s disappearance.
“We follow up on everything because you just don’t know which piece of information might bring Mackenzie home,” Schulz says. “We follow every path. The problem is, we don’t even have any paths to follow anymore. And I don’t remember ever really being able to say that about a case before.”
An April 6 event publicizing Marken’s disappearance didn’t produce any new leads, says Schulz, nor did recent pushes by Marathon County Crimestoppers encouraging anyone with information to come forward for a possible reward.
The passage of time doesn’t bode well for teens who are reported missing. Of the more than 11,800 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an estimated one in five become victims of child sex trafficking.
“We absolutely worry about trafficking as a potential scenario in any case like this,” Schulz says. “You hate to think that way, but the longer we go without anyone in the area seeing her, the more likely it is that she’s somewhere else, using another name, with someone who is harming her.”
The fear that Mackenzie is being victimized is on the minds of others. Two of her closest friends, Laina Anderson and Fallon Brown, say they’re concerned that Mackenzie’s habit of talking to strangers might have led her into danger.
“She could easily have met someone online or someone who she thought she could trust who wound up being a very bad person,” Anderson says. “I’m scared to think of her in some terrible situation that she can’t get out of.”
“That is something we think about a lot,” adds Brown, turning away to wipe tears from her face.
Keeping hope alive
Brown describes her friend as a young woman with dreams for the future and a flair for writing poetry. Mackenzie loved animals. She adored her younger siblings, 8-year-old Kaeli and 10-year-old Kaden. Mackenzie loved music and loved to sing. She had a laugh that never failed to turn heads.
Brown says she and Marken were inseparable from the day they met, in their fifth grade class at Mosinee Elementary School. They were constantly together, playing on the playground, having countless sleepovers, telling each other their secrets.
Laina Anderson (left) and Fallon Brown say they won’t stop looking for their friend, Mackenzie Marken.
Anderson came into Marken’s life a few years later, but says their bond was equally strong. “We had nicknames for each other, we did so much together,” Anderson says. “We were all like sisters, really.”
That all changed about a year ago, Brown says, when Mackenzie started to pull away from the pack. She got involved with older boys and started chatting with strangers online, says Brown, who suspects Mackenzie was dabbling in drugs and alcohol.
“I didn’t want anything to do with that,” Brown says. “We started to drift apart.”
Now, Brown worries that her friend is in over her head, in a situation where she feels she can no longer come home.
“If I could say anything to her right now, it would just be to call, let us know she’s okay, that she can come home and everything will be all right,” Brown says. “We can make it be all right again.”
The vast majority of missing teens in the U.S. are found within a day or two. Some never return. Others resurface years later.
In 2004, a 16-year-old Athens High School student, Connie McCallister, disappeared, only to reemerge nine years later in Mexico. Police initially dismissed McCallister as a runaway who left home voluntarily with her boyfriend, then 22-year-old Freddie Ruiz, an immigrant farm worker from a small village south of the border. Through the help of a church missionary group and the U.S. Consulate, McCallister eventually made her way back to the Athens area, bringing her three young children with her. When she returned, McCallister told police Ruiz drugged her the night she disappeared, then drove her to Mexico without her consent. There, McCallister claims, Ruiz held her captive until she escaped from his home several years later. Sexual assault and false imprisonment charges are pending against Ruiz, who has not been seen in the U.S. since.
Another example that sticks with investigators is the unsolved disappearance of Kayla Berg, a 15-year-old girl last seen Aug. 11, 2009 at a fast food restaurant in Antigo. Berg told a friend she was planning to ride around in a car with then-24-year-old Kevin J. Kiechelski, who told police he dropped off Berg at a house in Wausau, according to police reports. But investigators are dubious that Berg ever arrived at the vacant house, which had been condemned by the health department weeks earlier and was undergoing renovations. No one reported seeing Kayla get out of the car, though investigators did confirm Kiechelski returned at about midnight to his home in Deerbrook, about 45 miles from Wausau.
At first, police thought Kayla was a runaway. Police reports show that in interviews, her friends appeared evasive, as if they were trying to conceal her whereabouts. But that theory began to erode as weeks passed without any contact. She had no history of running away from home.
Berg’s parents were divorced, and each thought Kayla was at the other’s house. That led to a six-day delay in reporting the teen’s disappearance.
Just as in Mackenzie Marken’s case, police say they lost valuable time in beginning their search for Kayla, which could have hampered their efforts. Capt. Schulz says in a missing juvenile case, the first hours and days are critical, no matter what the circumstance.
“We always tell parents to report missing kids right away,” Capt. Schulz says. “Even though a typical patrol officer will take two or three reports of runaways a week, many of them from the same house, the same kid, we still treat every one of them like a potential Kayla Berg. You can’t ever go back and do it over again, so you have to do it right the first time.”
Local police aren’t the only investigators looking into Marken’s disappearance. The case has also been forwarded to the state Dept. of Justice for review. So far, there have been few leads and no new information in recent weeks. But make no mistake, Capt. Schulz says: That doesn’t mean investigators have stopped trying.
Months ago, Everest Metro police submitted Marken’s information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where a poster is circulating online. Most recently, investigators entered Mackenzie’s photo into the online Wisconsin Clearinghouse for Missing & Exploited Children & Adults, an initiative by the state Department of Justice to actively assist law enforcement, victims and families in such cases.
Says Schulz: “We know we’re doing everything we can do. There just is so little to go on.”
In the meantime, Marken’s friends say they’re doing everything they can to keep hope alive and to keep Mackenzie’s face in the minds of the community.
In April, Good News Church in Mosinee held an event to raise awareness about Mackenzie’s disappearance. Last month, a group of Mackenzie’s childhood friends held a paper lantern launch at Mosinee High School. More than 100 people attended.
Brown and Anderson personally have created and distributed more than 1,000 flyers bearing Mackenzie’s photo, along with police contact information for anyone who might have a tip. They have sold dozens of shirts (purple, Mackenzie’s favorite color) and distributed hundreds of buttons emblazoned with a photo of their missing friend. Proceeds from the sale of t-shirts and buttons have gone into a reward fund for information leading to Mackenzie’s safe return; the fund has already exceeded $1,000.
Mackenzie’s friends say they won’t rest until she comes home. They’re planning a major fundraising event this summer in hopes of hiring a private investigator to aid in the search. “Whatever it takes, however long it takes, we’re going to find her,” Anderson says. “We just want her back.”
Mackenzie’s family did not respond to multiple requests by City Pages to be interviewed for this story.
The Mackenzie Marken file
Missing since: Oct. 11, 2015
Date of birth: April 18, 2001
Age at disappearance: 14
Age today: 15
Height, weight: 5’7″, 150 pounds
Distinguishing characteristics: Mackenzie is a white female with brown eyes and straight, long brown hair. She also may be using the name Mackenzie Doll. She usually wears purple glasses.
Tips: Call Everest Metro Police, 715-261-1200, or to leave confidential tips, call the toll-free Marathon County Crime Stoppers hotline at 877-409-8777. You can remain anonymous and could be eligible for a cash reward.
The Kayla Berg file
Missing since: Aug. 11, 2009
Date of birth: Aug. 29, 1993
Age at disappearance: 15
Age today: 22
Height, weight: 5’2″, 108 pounds
Distinguishing characteristics: White female, brown hair, brown eyes. Kayla has a scar on her left cheek and a small chicken pox scar on the right side of her nose. She has abdominal scars from surgery and her appendix has been removed. Her navel is pierced. Her nickname is Kay Kay.
Tips: Call the Antigo Police at 715-672-6411 or the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department at 715-261-1200.
If your child goes missing
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends taking these steps if your child disappears, even if you think he or she has run away voluntarily:
• Immediately call your local law enforcement agency. Provide the child’s name, date of birth, height, weight and descriptions of any unique identifiers such as eyeglasses and braces. Tell them when you noticed your child was missing and what clothing he or she was wearing. Have a current photo available.
• Request law enforcement authorities immediately enter your child’s name and identifying information into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center Missing Person File.
• After reporting your child missing to local authorities, call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678). A call center specialist will record information about your child and a case management team will work directly with your family and local law enforcement to help ensure all available search and recovery methods are being used.
• If your child is missing from home, search through closets, piles of laundry, in and under beds, inside large appliances, vehicles and trunks, or anywhere else a child could crawl or hide.
• If you are in a store, immediately notify the store manager or security office if your child cannot be found. Many stores have a “Code Adam” plan of action. Code Adam, created in memory of 6-year-old Adam Walsh, is one of the country’s largest child safety programs and is currently used in tens of thousands of establishments across the nation.