On Sunday, May 22, 2016, the Burns family turned in for a, seemingly, uneventful night prepared to begin a busy school/work week the next morning. However, this night would be unlike any other and irrevocably alter the lives of those within the Burns family. Sunday, May 22, 2016 would unknowingly be the last time they saw their beloved sixteen-year-old daughter and sibling, Hailey Elizabeth Burns, before her inexplicable and frightening disappearance.
Hailey was last seen at the home around 12:30 AM on the early morning of May 23, 2016. Before going to bed that night, Hailey’s mother, Shaunna Burns, ensured that all of the doors were locked to their Charlotte, North Carolina residence on the 17000 block of Baldwin Hall Drive in the Ballantyne area. But, upon waking, Hailey’s parents discovered “the front door was wide open.”
The family quickly realized that Hailey was not in her room. Hailey’s father, Tony Burns, told reporters:
“It was the worst feeling you could ever imagine. You feel completely out of control. You don’t know what to do. You just panic.”
Preying on Innocence
The few clues to Hailey’s potential disappearance have proven to be as fruitless as they are deeply disconcerting.
Hailey Burns had been diagnosed and struggled with Asperger syndrome, a developmental condition “characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.”
Shaunna and Tony Burns, Hailey’s mother and father, had previously discovered troubling communications in internet chat rooms where Hailey was interacting with anonymous posters.
Consequently, the concerned parents attempted to “[restrict] her computer use” and “took her cell phone.” However, it is now apparent that Hailey borrowed the phones of friends and may have been using school computers to continue the social interactions.
Hailey’s parents and Charlotte authorities fear that Hailey’s difficulties with Asperger’s may have made her a prime target for predatory internet criminals. Sadly, she had been bullied in school and “didn’t have lot of friends.” These factors drove Hailey to “[decide] to make her friends online.”
Tony further elaborated that:
“Hailey really wasn’t 16, she was like maybe 12, so naive and so impressionable and so easily manipulated.”
Police soon found that Hailey had left behind a diary which detailed “a plan to run away with a 32-year-old man she met online.” Her family discovered “more than 10,000 messages online in which Hailey appeared to be communicating with an older man who made her call him ‘Daddy.'”
A list of commands entitled Daddy’s Rules was also located, describing how Hailey was to “wear her hair in pigtails and to be sucking on a pacifier” for this still-unidentified opportunist.
Unfortunately, this disturbing development has not led to a clear and concise resolution in Hailey’s disappearance. Authorities have been unable to successfully track the online predator.
Hailey’s father detailed the frustration surrounding the fruitless search for an internet phantom, mentioning that:
“The guy covered up all the tracks. There is nowhere to look and nowhere to find her.”
The family has implored the public to contact authorities if anyone has “a clue, tip, or idea that might help [help] figure out what happened to [Hailey],” or if anyone has any additional information relating to Hailey’s interactions and internet communications.
Authorities have emphasized that, if necessary, anyone “can call Crimestoppers to report a tip anonymously.”
A City & Its Demons
According to local investigative reports, each Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department detective is responsible for around “400 to 500 cases.” On average, one investigative unit, comprised of only five detectives, may handle around “2,200 to 2,400 cases a year.”
On the website for Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Missing Persons Unit, it states that “approximately 70% of [missing person] reports involve juveniles between the age of 13 and 17.” According to Police Sergeant, Todd Walther, many cases may involve “predators luring some young girls into human trafficking.” He continued by stating:
“The lack of concern from some parents is my biggest concern. When reports come in, parents don’t know who their child’s friends are. They don’t know who they are hanging out with, who they play with in afternoons. They don’t know what classes they are in at school and some don’t have a recent picture of their child.”
According to one news report, an average of around “78 victims across North Carolina are sex trafficked each year.” A prosperous and always-expanding urban locale, the city of Charlotte, unfortunately, ranks as the No. 1 place for sex trafficking in the state.
“Often times, these girls are going willingly to meet their perpetrators.”
Misconceptions and myths cloud the complex concept of human trafficking in the United States. Unlike the depiction of sex trafficking proponents in media, predators are oftentimes very resourceful and convincing. Modern-day trafficking victims are rarely plucked off of the streets and immediately forced into overtly alarming situations.
Instead, modern technology often provides traffickers with a variety of approaches, plausible cover stories, and the essential anonymity needed in order to prime their targets. Oftentimes, predators locate victims by “meeting, chatting and building a relationship” through the utilization of “social media websites.”
Recently, North Carolina lawmakers have introduced a bill which would “allocate $37.5 million for shelter beds, $13.5 million for mental health services, and $4.5 million to educate students on the warning signs for trafficking.”
Though a hopeful response to trafficking activity in the area, the measures may be, tragically, too little and too late for many.
Million Dollar Question
“It’s like a piece of your body is missing and you’re just trying to function but you’re missing your heart.”
“She had Asperger’s syndrome so it’s questionable whether or not she would have had the social wherewithal to disappear survive on the streets, but I know it’s a spectrum disorder and different people on the spectrum have different abilities so who knows.”
“I have Aspergers and ran away from home. I remained safe and hidden from parents until I chose to see them many years later. Its a difficult thing to do, and my gut unfortunately tells me this particular case is very different, but Aspergers doesn’t stop you doing anything you want to do. Its the things society and other [people] want/need you to do that are so very difficult.”
“Anytime you are talking about a missing child, there is reason to be concerned, even if the child walks out on their own. She is still 16-years-old and can’t make decisions like an adult.”