“Gone without a trace” — every parent’s worst nightmare, shortened to just four words. Your child is missing, and your life will never be the same again. Sometimes, however, there’s hope: clues are found, or the police get a good tip. But other times, even when you have endless clues, something gets in the way of justice…
For Pietro Orlandi, the sacred walls of Vatican City contained a sinister plot: Somewhere inside was his sister Emanuela, who had vanished without a trace decades earlier. And recently, for the first time, he walked those historical, ornate streets with a spring in his step. He wasn’t excited, but ready for the mystery of his missing sister Emanuela Orlandi to finally be solved after decades.  
All Pietro had to go on was a cryptic message from an anonymous source: “Look where the angel is pointing.” In Vatican City, where Emanuela and Pietro grew up, angel statues were on every corner. Finding the right one would take some serious dedication…
The weight of the mystery had been on Pietro’s shoulders since 1983, since the day Emanuela asked him to accompany her to her music lesson and he declined out of brotherly annoyance. It was a decision he came to regret.
He and Emanuela’s childhood was spent playing in the magnificent Vatican gardens and, according to Pietro, occasionally chatting with Pope John Paul II. A family of 7, the Orlandi family felt that they lived “in the safest place in the world.”
Until June 22, 1983, when the family’s illusion of safety was shattered forever. Emanuela was used to the long journey to her flute lesson in Rome, but having some company always made the trip go faster. Pietro refused — Emanuela was never seen again.
“I’ve often thought, ‘What if I had gone with her?’” Pietro confessed in a 2019 interview with the BBC. From the moment his family discovered she was missing, Pietro knew he would never outrun his guilt…and investigators couldn’t provide much hope.
So, the Orlandi family did what anyone would do: They spread the word. The story of a missing 15-year-old girl from Vatican City traveled all over Italy, and it has remained in the public’s consciousness ever since. Of course, everyone had a theory.
Filippo Monteforte/AFP
First Emanuela ran away from home, then she was kidnapped, then taken by the mob. Each theory resulted in more questions than interested parties had before. The family was desperate for clues, but despite their efforts, they always landed back on square one…
And the Orlandi family and investigators remained at square one for decades, despite hundreds of “tips” from all over the country. Emanuela, it seemed, was gone forever…until a 2005 theory emerged that pointed investigators in a new, unnerving direction. 
Another unknown person contacted Italian police, and what they said sounded like the plot to a mobster movie: According to the anonymous tip, Emanuela had been abducted at the request of Cardinal Ugo Poletti, the Vicar General of Rome back in the ‘80s. 
The story only got stranger: Investigators were told that “the secret to the mystery lies in a tomb in Sant’Apollinare basilica,” specifically in the grave of notorious gangster Enrico De Pedis. It sounded far fetched, but there was one detail the police couldn’t ignore.
Twitter/Corriere della Sera
The gravesite was located right by Emanuela’s music class. Still, police needed more than an anonymous call to open the grave — luckily, De Pedis’s mistress provided just the information they needed. In 2008, she told police that De Pedis’s involvement wasn’t just coincidental.
She claimed that De Pedis himself had participated in Emanuela’s abduction, and that her remains had been buried beneath a house outside of Rome. The Orlandi family held on to the claim, praying for some kind of closure…
Filippo Monteforte/AFP
But it never came. After following the lead and opening De Pedis’s crypt, police found nothing, once again leaving the Orlandi family without answers. Still, Pietro refused to give up — in the same year, the investigation once again took a bizarre turn.
Andreas Solaro/AFP
Of all the places Emanuela could be, no one had ever suspected the Vatican, at least not seriously. This changed when renowned Catholic Exorcist Gabriele Amorth suggested that Emanuela had been abducted into a sex party network and killed…and that the Vatican was involved.
Claudio Recanatini
But after police investigated the claims, they again returned with nothing. Still, the damage was done: For many of the case’s followers, the Vatican would always be a suspicious player in Emaneula’s disappearance…especially in 2018, when the case took its weirdest turn yet.
Hans M.
The Orlandi family received a strange item in the mail: a photograph of an angel statue with the message “Look where the angel is pointing.” Investigators knew this could be their last shot at uncovering the truth.
Their search for the angel took them to Teutonic Cemetery, where they hoped — and feared —Emanuela’s remains would be buried in a royal tomb. But there was a catch: The Orlandi family needed the Vatican’s permission to enter the sacred cemetery.
CNS Photo/Paul Haring
This was a tall order considering their less-than-friendly relationship with each other. But after a year of campaigning, the Vatican and the Orlandi family were finally in agreement: It was time to put this tragedy to rest.
Filippo Monteforte/AFP
In July 2019, forensic teams began collecting DNA from the tomb of interest. The mystery that had stumped the Orlandi family and all of Rome for decades hinged upon those DNA tests, which would take weeks to analyze…
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Pietro was torn. He was desperate for closure, but it meant admitting that his sister had been dead all these years. “To think that [we had] been so close to my sister for so long without knowing it — it makes me feel horrible.”
Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/LightRocket
“In fact, I actually hope that Emanuela is not there,” Pietro admitted. In the end, he got his wish: Not only was Emanuela not in the tomb, but no one was — at least, not in the part above the trap door.
In another bizarre twist, police found a trap door in the tomb that concealed two ossuaries, or a place where human bones are laid to rest. Amazingly, remains were found, and forensic scientists were quick to test the DNA…
Twitter/Cindy Wooden
But no evidence was found that the remains belong to Emanuela. Though this came as a major disappointment for followers of the case, for Pietro, the empty tomb was a sign that Emanuela may not be gone for good.
Andreas Solaro/AFP
“She was trying to teach me a Chopin piece,” he recalled. “And then she went missing.” Despite the years of disappointment, Pietro believes that Emanuela could still be out there. “I hope one day she comes back to teach me the rest.” 
Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/LightRocket
Though the wish was far-fetched, Pietro knew all hope was not lost; other abductees like Rosalynn McGinnis proved it. She grew up in Missouri, where she spent her days with her brothers at park. Still, there was something about Rosalynn that was extra special.
She was one of the most ambitious 10-year-olds at her school. She had dreams of becoming a veterinarian and of teaching violin. But these dreams were crushed the day her mother met a man named Henri Piette.
At ten years old, the sexual abuse began. “He was never a stepfather,” Rosalynn said of Henri Piette. “He was a child predator.” Rosalynn would always be haunted by these events — and by the events that would soon take place.
Henri exerted his control over the family by moving them to Wagoner, Oklahoma, far away from the McGinnis’ family and friends. Now they were isolated with Henri, and things were about to take a bizarre turn.
See, Henri attempted to marry Rosalynn when she was 11. The “wedding” took place in a van and was officiated by Henri’s son. Henri moved them into a shabby tent outside of Gore, Oklahoma. He was desperate to be alone with Rosalynn…
On January 31, 1997, Rosalynn’s hopes for a successful future were officially destroyed when Henri took her from school. “The next thing I know, my mother’s not there, my brothers are not there…and I am by myself with this man,” Rosalynn said.
Gayla made flyers printed with Rosalynn’s description and the plea to “please help find this child.” They stopped searching right before Rosalynn’s 13th birthday. Her family thought she would be missing forever.
And for a while, this didn’t change. After kidnapping her, Henri stripped Rosalynn of her identity by forcing her to wear glasses and to dye her red hair black. He had them both assume aliases, with Rosalynn as “Stephanie” and himself as “Billy Ira Sloop, Jr.”
When she was 13, Rosalynn miscarried her first baby. “I don’t even know how any human can do that to a child — what he did to me,” Rosalynn said. Henri smuggled Rosalynn into Mexico, and when she was just 15, Rosalynn gave birth.
They lived in poverty without the basic necessities new mothers require, like gas, heat, and other utilities. Still, Rosalynn continued to have babies. Henri spent what little money they had on drugs and alcohol, so she had to figure out how to survive on nothing.
She begged on the street for money, and even sold ice cream for pennies. Henri was also getting more violent: The violence escalated from beatings to shootings, and Henri once sliced Rosalynn’s arm so badly that it cut to the bone. Life was beyond bleak for Rosalynn…until she met Ian and Lisa.
The British-American couple often saw Rosalynn at the grocery store, and they soon struck up a friendship. “They just wanted anybody to talk to because it was not something that they were allowed to do,” Lisa said of Rosalynn and her kids. Unfortunately, this brief hope for Rosalynn wouldn’t last.
Always on the move, Henri moved the family to a more remote location in the Oaxaca mountains, once again cutting Rosalynn off from any familiar faces. Here, she couldn’t even beg for money — they were all just trapped. All seemed lost.
Except, unbeknownst to Henri, Rosalynn maintained communication with Ian and Lisa. Though they did not immediately realize that something was amiss, when the couple visited Rosalynn at her new home in 2016, they saw the truth of her situation.
When Lisa and Ian went inside the ramshackle home, what they saw was horrific: three “stalls” instead of bedrooms, holes in the walls, and “very, very thin…foam exercise mats” for beds, Lisa described. Rosalynn and the kids were no longer just living in poverty. They were living in hell.
Lisa eventually learned Henri’s real age, (62), which was when she did the math: If Rosalynn’s oldest child was 17, that meant she must have been only 14 or 15 when she gave birth to him. Lisa told Ian, “This is wrong. There’s something seriously wrong.”
Later, while Rosalynn was recovering from gallbladder surgery, Henri became belligerent and ordered her to do housework. That’s when Rosalynn had an epiphany. “I knew that if I didn’t get out of there, I’d either go insane or I would end up dying and leaving my kids with that man,” she said.
When Henri was passed out, Rosalynn grabbed her kids and escaped to Ian and Lisa’s house. Thanks to them, as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Rosalynn legally crossed the border into the U.S. Still, Rosalynn kept looking over her shoulder in fear of seeing Henri on her heels.
Every night, according to Rosalynn, she had nightmares of a menacing Henri standing over her bed. She knew the only way she would be free of him was if she shared her story with the world and stood with other victims of abuse. She also hoped her story would bring Henri to justice.
On June 13, 2019, Henri was found guilty of kidnapping, engaging in a sexual act with a minor, and a myriad of other charges. While the rest of the world applauds Rosalynn’s bravery, she can only think of one thing.
Her freedom. “It’s a miracle I’m sitting here today,” Rosalynn said. She has hope for a better future, propelled by a promising GoFundMe page that has already raised $50,000. Rosalynn knew she would never get her childhood back, but she could try to salvage what was left of a childhood for her kids.
Rosalynn tapped into incredible strength we she picked her kids up and ran out the door. It was a calm, cool, collectedness similar to that shown by Cheryl Treadway on a warm spring day in May 2015, when her boyfriend, Ethan Nickerson, pulled a large knife on her.
The couple’s three young children were at school when the 26-year-old grabbed the blade and confiscated his long-time girlfriend’s cellphone. He kept Cheryl locked up tight — so she started thinking of ways to escape.
Without her cellphone, she couldn’t call the police, and screaming for help, she knew, would likely not have the results she wanted. So she appealed to Ethan’s sense of fatherhood: she had to pick the kids up from school.
Ethan agreed. But, he insisted, she couldn’t go alone, which was why he accompanied her to the elementary school to pick the kids up. They all rode home, probably in silence, the kids in the backseat unaware their father had just pulled a knife on mom.
Back at home, Cheryl was in an even worse place than she started. Not only was she stuck with knife-wielding Ethan, but now her three kids were, too. She couldn’t pick them up and run — but what could she do?
Cheryl thought hard, knowing the costs of a misstep. And then an idea hit her. She found Ethan and, once again, appealed to his fatherhood. “The kids are hungry,” she said. “Let’s order a pizza. Let’s get them some food.”
Ethan considered this for a moment. Maybe he felt a rumble in his own stomach, but he agreed. The kids were hungry. Pizza would do the trick. He relented and let Cheryl use her cellphone — but only to order a pizza through the Pizza Hut app.
Cheryl had her phone back, but she couldn’t call the police. What if he heard her talking? What if he checked her call history? Would he snap and use the knife he kept on his person? She had to be clever. So she was.
See, when you ordered a pizza through Pizza Hut’s phone app, there was a comment section to include special instructions — you could ask for extra pepperoni or leave a door code for your apartment. Cheryl used this to her advantage.
Along with an order of a large pepperoni pizza, Cheryl included a note to employees in the comments section. It read, “Please help. Get 911 to me. 911hostage help!” She placed her order, closed her eyes, and waited. That was all she could do.
Meanwhile, employees at the local Pizza Hut gathered around the computer aggregating online and app orders, all fixated on Cheryl’s message: Please help. In 28 years on the job, restaurant manager Candy Hamilton had never seen anything like it.
Inside her home, meanwhile, Cheryl waited by the window, watching. She didn’t know if her message was well-received at the Pizza Hut. The feeling of dread must’ve been palpable. What if they thought her call was a joke? A prank?
But because Cheryl frequently ordered from that Pizza Hut, the employees recognized her name. They knew this was no joke. “We didn’t even question it,” Candy, below, said. “We immediately called 9-1-1.”
The call reached the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, which dispatched Lieutenant Curtis Ludden and his deputies to the home of Cheryl Treadway and Ethan Nickerson. They parked their cruisers out front.
The relief Cheryl felt as the police arrived must’ve been euphoric. But still, she had three children to escort from the home before Ethan noticed the police. If he did, would he put that knife to use? Salvation was so close, but only if she played this smart.
With her youngest child in her arms, Cheryl wrenched open the front doors, running for the police. Before she could catch her breath, she told Lt. Ludden, below, that her other two kids were stuck in the house with a knife-wielding Ethan.
Though she didn’t know it at the time, Cheryl was incredibly lucky. You see, Lt. Ludden happened to be the lead negotiator on the crisis team. He’d talked down any number of people in his career. Ethan, he knew, would be another tally mark.
The deputies escorted Cheryl to safety, and Lt. Ludden went to work on Ethan. After 20 minutes, the lieutenant convinced him to drop his knife and surrender. Officers recovered the other two children unharmed. Cheryl and her kids were finally safe.
Afterward, Lt. Ludden celebrated Cheryl’s smarts. “I don’t know if I ever would have thought of it,” he said. “I mean it’s just something that she did so naturally. The boyfriend never knew about it until he saw us coming around the corner.”
Candy — the manager of the Pizza Hut — praised the mother, too. She’s “the hero in this situation,” Candy said. “She just thought outside the box…I think that’s amazing.” Incredibly pizza saved another life just a few years later.