Herald-Whig

Hannibal police continue search for woman missing for 10 years

Lt. Jennifer Grote and Lt. John Zerbonia talk Tuesday about the missing person’s investigation of Christina Whittaker at the Hannibal (Mo.) Police Department. Approaching the 10-year anniversary of Whittaker’s disappearance, police are providing an update on the investigation, hoping to increase exposure of the cold case in hopes of finding new information. | H-W Photo/Katelyn Metzger
Katelyn Metzger1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 15, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Jun. 16, 2019 12:43 am

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Nearly 10 years have passed since a 21-year-old Hannibal woman exited a local bar, lost her cellphone and vanished into the night.

Hannibal police continue to search for clues about what happened to Christina Whittaker -- the young mother who left behind a 6-month-old baby girl when she disappeared on Nov. 13, 2009.

However, after interviewing more than 200 people, conferring with more than 45 police agencies and investigating thousands of potential leads from across the country, police are essentially no farther along in their quest for answers than when they started.

So this week the Hannibal Police Department provided news media outlets with an update on the case in the hope of giving the investigation some exposure and possibly producing some fresh tips on Whittaker's fate or whereabouts.

"As we approach the 10-year anniversary, we know that in the public's mind a case like this might be forgotten by some or never even heard of by others," Hannibal Police Chief Lyndell Davis said.

"We thought it might be time to ignite some new interest in the case, even though we know it could possibly lead to false leads again."

Davis said police investigated countless leads over the years, with the vast majority producing no useful insights into what became of Whittaker.

"We've just taken the stance over the last 10 years that we will follow up on them anyway," Davis said. "This is still an open investigation, and even today we're still actively trying to work on it."

 

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Lt. Jennifer Grote and Lt. John Zerbonia of the Hannibal Police Department have been involved in the Whittaker case from the start. Both were detectives when the HPD received word on Nov. 14, 2009, that the young woman was reported missing.

Grote is now the HPD's community service commander, and Zerbonia is the department's assistant chief. They sat down with The Herald-Whig for an extended interview last week.

Grote and Zerbonia said many local law enforcement officials have worked on the Whittaker investigation over the years. But despite their efforts, Hannibal police still don't know much about what happened to Whittaker.

"The only thing we know for a fact on the night she went missing was she was at some local bars, she was intoxicated on alcohol and possibly prescription drugs, she left a bar alone and that's the last anyone saw of her, and her phone was found the next day. That's all we know," Zerbonia said.

Zerbonia and Grote won't speculate on whether foul play was involved or if Whittaker left Hannibal on her own or against her will.

Investigators simply don't know.

"We try not to formulate any theories because if you formulate a theory, then it's human nature to collect the evidence that fits that theory," Zerbonia said. "So we try to keep an open mind and not speculate what happened to her, and we follow whatever information we get."

There were rumors that Whittaker was kidnapped and thrown into a trunk. There were reports she was murdered. There was speculation she stopped taking medication for a bipolar condition or postpartum depression and wasn't thinking clearly. There were tales she was abducted by human traffickers and forced into prostitution. There was conjecture she fled Hannibal to avoid a possible jail sentence after being arrested while on probation for a second charge of driving with a revoked license.

"We've heard a lot of different stories," Grote said.

But none of the stories could be verified.

"We've talked to over 200 people, and some of those people have been interviewed multiple times," Grote said. "We've gone coast to coast following leads and tips on this case."

All to no avail.

 

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Christina Maxine Whittaker was born in March 1988. She attended Hannibal public schools. A birth report in The Herald-Whig said on April 26, 2009, at Hannibal Regional Hospital, Whittaker and Dustin Johnston of Hannibal became the parents of a daughter, Alexandria Rose Lynn Whittaker.

Then came the night of Nov. 13, 2009.

According to Grote, Whittaker went to Rookies Sports Bar in the 600 block of Broadway to meet a friend.

"Based on witness accounts, she had been drinking heavily and she also had prescription medication with her, but we don't know if she took any of that," Grote said.

Whittaker reportedly became disorderly, and a bartender asked her to leave.

"Then after she left Rookies, she went into Sportsman's Bar" nearby on Seventh Street, Grote said.

Whittaker was seen leaving Sportsman's Bar around 11:45 p.m.

"When she left the bar, that was the last anyone had seen of her," Zerbonia said.

Whittaker's cellphone was found the next day on the sidewalk along Seventh Street.

"There were several phone calls that were made from her phone (on the night of Nov. 13), and we were able to talk to the people who were involved," Grote said.

Apparently Whittaker tried to find someone to give her a ride. "But nobody came to pick her up," Grote said.

On Nov. 14, Whittaker's mother, Cindy Young, called police to say she hadn't heard from Whittaker, which was unusual. She was concerned enough to file a missing person's report.

This prompted an investigation by local police.

"We started contacting the people at the bars where she was at," Grote said. "We checked hotels. We checked hospitals. We did a neighborhood canvass of the area. We extensively interviewed the person who located the phone."

Nearby houses, dumpsters and open lots also were explored.

The search gradually widened in scope. Zerbonia said HPD sought help from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Missouri State Water Patrol and the sheriff's departments in Marion and Ralls counties. They checked rivers, creeks and wooded areas.

"The investigation kept getting bigger," Zerbonia said.

As the days progressed, the investigation expanded to other parts of Northeast Missouri and to Southeast Iowa and Central Illinois.

By late November of 2009, investigators were checking out reports that Whittaker had been spotted in Peoria, Ill.

"There was a rumor that started off pretty early that she was in Peoria -- that either she had been taken there or went there on her own," Zerbonia said.

"We have been to Peoria on several different occasions. We've checked stores, residences, gas stations. We even sent officers undercover to Peoria bars and strip clubs to see if they had any evidence of what we were hearing was true. So far, none of that has come to fact."

Grote said the Peoria Police Department has been heavily involved in the investigation.

"We worked with them quite a bit," she said. "They even put out a video based on what information they had" about the Whittaker case.

But every time Hannibal police went to Peoria to investigate a reported sighting of Whittaker at a bar or store, the report never proved true.

"We would go there and check the video surveillance or talk to witnesses, and it would always turn out that it wasn't her," Zerbonia said. "In cases like this you get a lot of false sightings."

The HPD nonetheless checks out every tip.

"Even if we get something that sounds far-fetched, we still check it out," Zerbonia said. "We've been from coast to coast -- from New York to California and as far down as Texas."

In 2010, the Hannibal Police Department asked the FBI to conduct a "critical review" of the department's investigation to see if the HPD was doing everything it could to try to find the missing woman.

A team of FBI agents arrived in Hannibal and spent hours poring over the case files. "They couldn't offer anything that we hadn't already done," Zerbonia said.

 

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Even though the Whittaker case is nearly 10 years old, the HPD still gets tips weekly or at least monthly on where Whittaker -- or her body -- might be found.

In September 2018, for example, police received a tip that they'd find Whittaker's remains buried on private property in Marion County.

"We contacted the FBI, and they brought their dig team up," Grote said. "They dug in the area that we were given information on, and we had no findings from that."

An another occasion, some bones were found in a secluded spot in Western Illinois, and Hannibal officials were notified in case the bones were Whittaker's. Instead, an archaeologist identified as the remains of a Native American who once lived in the area long ago.

Grote said the HPD one time got a call from a psychic regarding some bones found in Pike County, Mo.

"They were deer bones," she said.

"We get calls from psychics all the time," Zerbonia said.

 

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Zerbonia and Grote said they hope anyone with any information about the Whittaker case will call the HPD at 573-221-0987 or leave a tip on the department's web site -- www.hannibalpd.com.

They are determined to keep working the case as long as needed.

"It's been 10 years," Zerbonia said. "We're trying to get the public's attention, and hopefully it will generate some kind of new leads for us. Whether they're factual leads or far-fetched leads, we'll follow them up, and hopefully that will lead us to find out what happened."