On May 3rd, 2002, a seven year old girl named Alexis Patterson disappeared into thin air between the street corner outside her school and her classroom. Except, of course, she didn’t, because no one does. Something happened to make her vanish, and the purpose of this article is examine what that might have been.
Alexis Patterson was born on April 4th, 1995, the daughter of Ayanna and Kenya Campbell. Later, Ayanna and Kenya would separate, and Ayanna would marry a man named LaRon Bourgeois. In the spring of 2002, Alexis Patterson was seven years old and living with her mother, stepfather, stepbrother and her six-month old little sister, Dysoni. I found one reference to her having a younger brother, although there are no details available about him. She seems to have been a happy, good-natured child who liked school, the color pink, and roller skating. In one article, Ayanna said, “She was an amazing little girl. She was my sun, my shining star. She still is my shining star.” Her biological father, Kenya Campbell, described his memories of her “carrying her baby brother around on her hip, eating pizza and staying up late watching movies during visits.”
On the evening of May 2nd, Alexis was caught on the surveillance camera of a local grocery store. She was with her mother and stepbrother, and they were purchasing cupcakes for her to take to school the following day and share with her class. However, later that night, or possibly the next morning, Ayanna would realize her daughter had never completed her homework assignment and as punishment, she was not allowed to bring the cupcakes with her. A fight resulted over this, and by the time she left with LaRon to walk the half-block to Hi-Mount Elementary School, the child was not in the best of moods. She was last seen at either 7:40 or 8:20 am, when LaRon says he watched her cross the street towards her school, assisted by a crossing guard. According to present-day aerial maps, the schoolyard begins on the opposite corner, and there are no buildings between the street crossing and the school entrance itself. I am not certain what accounts for the discrepancies in the reported time she was last seen–one possibility is that the time that she left the home with her stepfather, the time he watched her cross the street, and the time she was last seen by classmates were all separate times. I have not seen any statement from the crossing guard expressly confirming or denying that they saw her, or if she was crossing in the presence of other children or not. Either way, classmates say that they saw her outside of the school that morning, and some said that she was crying. However, everyone agrees that Alexis never attended class that day. Despite this, her absence was not reported to her home, and LaRon and Ayanna only learned that Alexis was missing at 4:00 pm that afternoon, after she failed to return from school. The formal search for the missing girl would begin at 6:00 pm that evening. Three days later, the FBI became involved in the case.
This was not the first hint of trouble at Hi-Mount Elementary. Two weeks before Alexis disappeared, the school sent a letter to all parents, warning them of a man who had attempted to abduct a child from someplace near the school. The details of this abduction attempt are unknown, and it is not clear if families were ever provided with them. Furthermore, some students reported that they had seen a red truck parked outside the school all during the week, one that did not appear to be picking anyone up or dropping them off. After the day Alexis vanished, the truck never appeared again. Alexis herself had been spotted by a teacher talking with an unknown woman about a week before she went missing. This had happened on at least two occasions on two different days during the week. Her mother had been made aware of the situation, and had given Alexis a lecture about not talking to strangers.
The search for the missing girl was extensive, involving helicopters, searchers on horseback, and searches of local bodies of water. Tips would be chased down as far away as Louisiana, and the investigation would ultimately comprise over 5,000 interviews and 10,000 pages worth of documents. Alexis’ biological father, Kenya Campbell, was incarcerated at the time she went missing, and was quickly ruled out as being involved. Her stepfather was of considerably greater interest to investigators, as he was the last known person to see Alexis and he had a criminal background himself. At one point in the past, LaRon had acted as the getaway driver in a bank robbery that resulted in shooting death of a police officer, and he had also served time for drug-related offenses. Although he had never been accused of any crimes against children, or of any abuse towards Alexis, his history did not place him in the most favorable light. He reportedly failed a polygraph when being questioned about the disappearance, although Ayanna passed the same one. He stated that he thought that law enforcement were too focused on him, and maintained that the last time he saw the child was when she was crossing the street towards the school. He said that he had told her he would bring the cupcakes later that day, as she was still upset, but evidently he never did this. He said: “I feel like maybe she walked off. She was mad because we didn’t let her take the cupcakes to school for her snack that day because her homework wasn’t done properly and that was her punishment…Maybe she walked off and someone picked her up.” The family all agreed with his assessment of Alexis’ mood that morning, but no one believed she would have voluntarily gone off with a stranger.
Ultimately, the official and unofficial suspicion would turn away from LaRon. Even Ayanna, whose relationship with her husband would collapse in the years following her daughter’s disappearance and who has stated that she “doesn’t trust” him, feels there was too much focus on his past and not enough on other possibilities as to what could have happened to Alexis. I will come back to some of the details of LaRon and Ayanna’s separation, but first I want to address some of the other sightings of note that took place on May 3rd. An uncle of Alexis’ named Anthony Little said a neighbor of his who knew the little girl claimed to have seen her a block away from the school, around 4:30 pm in the afternoon. Some students claimed that she was on the school grounds between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm (although some people who claimed to have seen her have since stated they may have been mistaken). Other elementary school students claimed to have seen a red sports car idling around the school in the morning, while someone said they saw a blue vehicle speeding away from the building around the same time.
I referred to the relationship between LaRon and Ayanna crumbling in later years, and so I will detail what is known about their separation here. On April 9th, 2003, LaRon allegedly assaulted Ayanna and threatened her with a knife. According to statements made by the individuals involved, the source of the conflict was Ayanna receiving a page and not telling her husband who was contacting her. A few days later, on April 15th, LaRon was charged with battery and disorderly conduct, although these charges were later dropped. Ayanna accused LaRon of, in addition to the assault, selling drugs, “pimping” other women, and not being supportive after her daughter disappeared. The couple’s divorce was finalized in 2005, and LaRon died of a suspected drug overdose in early 2021.
Odds and Dead Ends
In the days, months, and years after Alexis disappeared, several leads emerged and fizzled, ranging from a possible hate crime to a serial killer to mistaken identity. Shortly after the child vanished, a Waukesha man was arrested for distributing racist flyers throughout the area, including one that indicated that white people should not care about Alexis. However odious of a personality he was, nothing was found to actually link the man to the disappearance. At another point, one prison inmate claimed another inmate had told him that he had killed Alexis Patterson over “gang stuff.” There was no evidence that this had actually happened, and the man did not indicate anything beyond a cursory knowledge of the case. In 2012, a serial killer named Israel Keyes was arrested for a murder committed in Alaska, and he would claim to have committed multiple murders in different states over the years. Although he died by suicide in prison before going to trial, authorities suspect his involvement in several homicide and missing persons cases (although whether or not the crimes he confessed to line up with those he actually committed is a bit more debatable). His computer records show that he had looked up missing persons cases on the NamUs website. One of the names he searched was Alexis Patterson. Although there are some aspects of her case that could be said to correspond to what is known about Keyes–he was a methodical killer who took great care that the bodies of his victims not be found–there is more that argues against his involvement. Keyes traveled extensively, but there is nothing indicating that he was near Milwaukee in the spring of 2002. Also, Keyes was not known to target young children. The biggest development in the case happened in 2016, when an Ohio man claimed that he believed his ex-wife to be Alexis Patterson, due to her appearance and the fact that she had told him she could not remember her early childhood. DNA testing proved these claims false, but Ayanna seems unwilling to give up on this theory. She has questioned how the DNA was tested, and still believes the Ohio woman could be her missing daughter.
Analysis and Theories
A quick glance at the available articles about this case will turn up several comparisons with the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted later the same year and which created a nation-wide media firestorm (Smart was later found alive and rescued from her abductor). The contrast in coverage between the two cases make plain the racial and socioeconomic disparities between the two victims, and I can understand why writers compare them. However, to me, the case that most parallels the Patterson disappearance is the 2010 vanishing of Kyron Horman. Both children were 7 year-olds who disappeared between being dropped off at school and the beginning of class. In each case, a stepparent was the last person to see the child, and as a result came under some scrutiny. Like Alexis Patterson, Horman’s case remains unsolved and at an apparent standstill.
I have looked at the Google Maps of Hi-Mount Elementary School and the surrounding neighborhood, and I will describe it here in addition to providing a link in the resources section. Alexis and LaRon would have walked the half-block to the school along a tree-lined, residential street. LaRon has stated that he left Alexis to cross the street with the crossing guard, and based on the description this was most likely Garfield Avenue. The school yard is on the opposite corner, and there is a set of playground equipment on that same corner, separated from the sidewalk by a cluster of trees (there is another playground area on the opposite corner of the school grounds to the west). On the other side of 49th street, opposite to where Alexis would have been after crossing towards the school, is the Union Hill Baptist Church. I noticed that the Stadium Freeway is only two blocks east of the school. On the other side of this freeway, approximately three blocks southeast of Hi-Mount Elementary, is Washington Park, an extensive, forested urban park that features a large pond.
From what I have learned, I can only think of three possibilities as to what happened to Alexis. The first is that her stepfather, LaRon Bourgeois, was involved in her disappearance. The second is that she was abducted by an unknown person or persons, whether it was someone she knew or a stranger. The last feasible possibility is that Alexis was the victim of some sort of misadventure, and that her body was never recovered.
In the case of LaRon Bourgeois, there are reasons to question his account of the morning, simply due to him being the last known person with Alexis, although none of it is particularly strong. For the sake of argument, let’s explore the likelihood that Bourgeois could have been the involved in his stepdaughter’s disappearance. We know that he left the home with the child at what seems to have been the normal time for her to leave for school. We know that Alexis was still somewhat upset over the homework and the cupcakes, and that Bourgeois may have told her he would bring the cupcakes later simply to get her to calm down. The home was only half a block from the crossing to the school, and should only have taken the pair a few minutes under normal circumstances. We do not have the school crossing guard’s confirmation of either seeing or not seeing Alexis, nor do we have security footage, so we cannot say for sure if she ever crossed the street towards the school. However, we do have other students saying they saw Alexis on school grounds both before and after classes, although she did not actually attend class that day. Now, eyewitness testimony should always be taken with a grain of salt, especially coming from young kids who would have seen Alexis in these settings on many past occasions and who could easily have confused the days. That being said, I find it easier to believe that she was on school grounds in the morning and that something happened before classes started than that Alexis skipped school but remained away from her home until the end of the day, at which point she returned to the school to interact with her classmates.
LaRon may have been capable of illegal, and even violent behavior, but there are no accounts of him ever being violent towards Alexis. Ayanna has never accused LaRon of being involved in their daughter’s disappearance, despite the serious fractures that developed in their relationship. Since LaRon’s whereabouts for the rest of the day are not confirmed, it is possible to construct a narrative in which LaRon did not take Alexis to school, but to some other location, and did something to her there. One source also mentioned that it was not part of the family’s typical routine for him to walk his stepdaughter to school (how Alexis typically went to school is not specified). However, this hypothetical scenario leaves more questions than answers. The first is why he would do this, more specifically, why would he do it at that exact time. If he had harbored an urge to murder his stepdaughter, there had to have been better opportunities. There is always the possibility that it was not a planned homicide, but a case of physical abuse escalating too far. Maybe Alexis, still upset over the cupcake fight, became agitated and LaRon became violent when trying to “discipline” her. Yet, this would had to have happened somewhere in the half-block between the home and the school, in broad daylight, in a residential neighborhood. Now, this is all under the assumption that Ayanna was not covering for or complicit with her husband, and that Alexis left home at all that morning. This level of conspiracy seems a trifle far-fetched to me. If both adults were involved, why would they not try and invent a narrative of the disappearance that did not hinge on a school crossing guard not remembering if they saw Alexis or not?
The other broad problem with the LaRon theory is how. How would he have not only killed Alexis, but then disposed of her body in such a heavily populated area without known use of a vehicle, when we do not even know when his whereabouts were next accounted for? His alibi is vague to say the least, and for all we know, no one knew where he was the entire rest of the day–but we have absolutely no evidence of that being the case, either. Due to LaRon’s death, we can never know the truth of if or how he was involved, but I do think it’s entirely possible that there’s nothing to know.
Next we have to consider the theory that Alexis was abducted by someone outside of the family, either a stranger or an acquaintance. I’m going to take a moment to discuss the relative statistical rarity of this type of situation. Of all children that are abducted, less than 1% are abducted by a stranger, and only 20% of these are below the age of twelve (as Alexis was). About 71% of these types of kidnappings occur outdoors when the child is going to or from school. The “typical abductor” (86%) is male, while two-thirds of abduction victims are female. In about half of all stranger abductions, the victim was sexually assaulted, making this one of the prime motives for strangers to abduct children. Although rare compared to other types of abduction, stranger abductions represent one of the most immediately dangerous scenarios for the victim. Of the cases in which a kidnapping has ended in murder, 74% of the murders happened within three hours of the initial abduction. Now, you can probably see that there are a few things particular to this case that make a stranger abduction more likely than it might be in other situations. First of all, Alexis was outdoors and on her way to school when last seen, and at a spot where children were known to regularly congregate. Furthermore, if she was still angry with her family, she may have been more vulnerable to luring and manipulation. She may have avoided her classmates and delayed going inside the school, which could have resulted in her being left alone on the school playground. The school appears to be surrounded by numerous side streets with the highway nearby, allowing an abductor to make a quick getaway or even to leave Milwaukee entirely. Furthermore, there had been an known abduction attempt near the school only two weeks prior.
I want to move the discussion to the woman Alexis was seen talking to on previous days. Ayanna has said she spoke to Alexis about talking to strangers when she learned of this, but what I really want to know is what Alexis said in response. Did she simply agree to obey without further elaboration? Did she deny that the incidents even happened? Did she say anything about who this woman was and why Alexis was speaking with her? I don’t think we can dismiss the sightings of Alexis and the mystery woman so shortly before her disappearance as simple coincidence. Statistically, women seldom participate in non-family abductions. When they do, it’s typically cases of childless women abducting infants. It’s possible a woman could have been acting as the accomplice to a male perpetrator (in the vein of Karla and Bernardo Homolka), knowing that a woman would raise fewer alarm bells when approaching a young child. This is all speculation, however, and the significance of this woman in Alexis’ disappearance, if any at all, remains unknown. It is at this point that I should point that an abductor need not be a family member or a stranger, and Alexis could have left the school with someone she knew and trusted, such as a school employee or a family member of a classmate. Without knowing more about the people she interacted with outside of her home, we cannot explore this theory much beyond acknowledging its existence.
There is a final possibility, which I find somewhat unlikely under the circumstances, but far from impossible. What if Alexis was the victim of something other than a crime? Up until the day she vanished, Alexis had a perfect attendance record, and seemed to enjoy school. Skipping class would have been out of character for her. Still, impulsivity is one of the defining traits of childhood, and it is conceivable that she left the school grounds and went somewhere to hide, and then became lost or injured before she could return. Had the school been located in an area more remote than the middle of Milwaukee, I would rate this possibility higher. Even so, a small child could have gotten into many places not obvious to an adult, and the possibility cannot be entirely discounted.
This is my account of the disappearance of Alexis Patterson with my own interpretation added where I deemed appropriate. I may be right or completely wrong in my speculations, but I have worked with the facts as I understood them. Even so many years later, Alexis’ loved ones still miss her. Her mother Ayanna has been raising Dysoni as well as another daughter who was born in the years after Alexis vanished. She says that makes sure that Alexis is still considered a member of her family. When sharing fond memories of the child, she said, simply, “I never stop hurting.”
Any Information or Leads should be directed to:
Milwaukee Sheriffs Office
Milwaukee Police Department Cold Case Hotline
Milwaukee Field Office of the FBI
FBI Tip Website
Police still actively pursuing missing child case
Mystery Over “Other” Missing Girl
Uncovered: Alexis Patterson Summary and Timeline
Mother still searching for her missing daughter after 20 years
20 years missing: The day Alexis Patterson disappeared
The Disappearance of Alexis Patterson: A Routine Walk to School with Her Stepdad, Just to Never be Heard From Again
I Have New Evidence in Alexis Patterson’s Disappearance and No One Cares
Charley Project Page for Alexis S. Patterson
Journal Sentinel Archives of Articles (referenced individually)
Search steps up for girl Polygraph failed, sources say
- Search for child exposes racism
- Suspect arrested in racist flyers case Man who posted racist fliers won’t be prosecuted
- Police relocate team on Alexis Alexis family gets national notice at black journalists’ convention .
- One year later, fervor to find Alexis wanes
- 5 years later, Alexis’ disappearance remains unsolved
- After 10 years, Alexis Patterson’s mother still holds out hope
Why Do People Generally Kidnap Kids?
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