This report aired Sunday, May 6 on Dateline NBC.
VERMONT — People who knew her say Brianna Maitland had a lot of life, happiness and spontaneity. Just life sparking from her eyes. They say she had poise — everybody would turn around and look.
She's the kind of girl that attracted a lot of attention
Brianna has drawn a lot of attention from folks in rural, upstate Vermont, an area known for its rustic beauty and solitude. But the tranquility here has been shattered by a disturbing possibility — that something horrible may have happened to the beautiful girl with the broad smile, who vanished more than two years ago.
The mystery surrounding 17-year-old Brianna began on March 19, 2004. The day had gone well enough, according to her mother, Kellie.
“I was with her most of that day,” she recalls. “We went out for breakfast. We went shopping. It was an upbeat day.”
Kellie was happy to have the time with her daughter. Months earlier, Brianna, who had just earned her graduate equivalency degree and was anticipating college, had moved out and was living with a girlfriend. Her independent streak had become a sore subject with both her mom and her father, Bruce.
“I didn't want her to be out living on her own,” Bruce says. “It was an arrangement that we didn't like, but we tolerated.”
“We didn't have a choice,” Kellie says.
To support herself, Brianna had taken a job as a dishwasher at a local bed and breakfast. That Friday, after shopping with her mom, Brianna went on to work. Bruce and Kellie happened to pass by the inn that night, and thought about stopping to say hi, then changed their minds.
“She hadn't worked there that long, and it was like, well, you know, maybe she wouldn't want her parents coming in and you know, hi, here we are type thing, so we didn't stop,” Bruce says. “And you know -- I mean, you know, now I wish very much that we would have stopped.”
At 11:20 p.m., Brianna clocked out, and according to detective Brian Miller of the Vermont State Police, had left a note with her roommate, saying she would be home after work.
Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent: Does anyone see her get into her car at the restaurant?
Brian Miller, Vermont State pollice: Yes. Other employees recalled her leaving the restaurant and getting in her car, driving away.
Within seconds, she disappeared into the cold and gloom of that late winter night. No one has reported seeing her since.
Stafford: In talking to the people at the restaurant, how did Brianna seem at work that night?
Miller: She seemed fine. She was — seemed herself.
Stafford: Did she seem upset in any way?
Precious time would pass before anyone realized she was missing. Her roommate assumed Brianna had changed her mind and gone to her parents house. Bruce and Kellie had no idea their daughter was missing until three days later when the roommate called looking for Brianna.
“A few minutes into the conversation, you know, we think something's pretty seriously wrong, but I'm not into a full-fledged panic yet,” Bruce says. We think, 'Well, okay, Brianna, she just went to another friend's or something that she had and decided to stay there for a couple of days.'”
Stafford: But those feelings are about to change.
The change in their quiet lives would be dramatic and frightening. First, they went to the state police, to see if they had any news about their daughter. On a hunch, police showed them a photograph.
“And he pulls this picture of Brianna's car out of the file and says, "is this your daughter's car?" Bruce says.
“My stomach rolled,” Kellie says. “I started to shake. I saw evil in the picture.”
“Now you're terrified to know that — something really bad has happened,” Bruce says.
The night Brianna vanished, her car was spotted at an abandoned farmhouse, about a mile from where Brianna worked. Police assumed the car had been ditched, and had it towed to a local garage. Now, as her parents looked at the picture, they panicked. The tail end of the car had been slammed backwards into the side of the building. Did Brianna have an accident, or did something more sinister happen?
Stafford: One theory you have is that someone spotted your daughter, became obsessed with her, hid in the back seat of her car. She didn't now the person was there. She's driving home, and that person attacks her.
Bruce: Yes, yes.
Kellie: That's a possibility.
Her parents took some comfort in the fact that Brianna was very strong, and knew self defense. But their anxiety was growing. Four days had passed since Brianna was last seen. Bruce was furious that even after this much time police hadn't searched the trunk of Brianna's car to see what was inside. When he learned the keys had been lost, Bruce grabbed a crowbar and headed to the garage.
Stafford: What is going through your mind as you're prying open the trunk of your daughter's car?
Bruce: Oh, dear God, please, let not her be in there.
She wasn't, and police looked through the rest of the car for possible clues.
Stafford: Any signs of a struggle inside the car?
Stafford: Any sign that she was a victim of some violent confrontation at the scene where her car was found?
Miller: No. There's nothing obvious to indicate that at all.
Brianna was curious about the world beyond the Vermont hills. Despite that, her parents don't think she ran away. Police found her contact lenses, and migraine headache medicine in the car, along with two paychecks, totaling less than $150 — money that would have been crucial to a teenager living on her own.
Stafford: The fact her paychecks are still in the car, what does that tell you?
Miller: That she either intended to go back to the car at some point and retrieve her personal belongings, or that, you know, she didn't leave willingly.
Family and friends began a frantic search and posted flyers pleading for help. Tips came in and one went directly to Bruce — the caller told him some men were holding Brianna against her will at a house outside of town. Bruce called the police, who moved in.
Stafford: What do they find in that house?
Bruce: They find everything that has to do with selling crack cocaine and — and — you know and all the paraphernalia, a gun, thinning agent, scales, ledgers, everything a drug dealer would have in the house.
Although she was familiar with the men who lived there, the raid failed to turn up any sign of Brianna. Still, drug use had become a growing scourge in this rural area in recent years. Had Brianna been involved with drugs?
Miller: I would say she experimented with a wide range of drugs.
Stafford: And do you think that is at all connected to her disappearance?
Miller: We cannot rule it out.
Her parents are convinced she didn't do hard drugs. Whatever the case, more than a year would pass without any solid leads.
Stafford: At that point, have you lost all hope of finding Brianna alive?
Bruce: Not all hope, but it's pretty — it's a pretty dim light.
Then, nearly two years after Brianna's car was found at this building, there was a dramatic turn in the case — a tip to police that Brianna might be alive. That she was spotted 500 miles from here in a place no one would have expected.
Vermont police received a startling call from a local man, who had been visiting Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“And he says, ‘I was down in Caesar's Palace and I was playing cards. I saw this woman. I think it was Brianna Maitland,’” Miller says.
Kellie and Bruce weren't sure what to make of the news.
Stafford: Are you afraid to allow yourself to believe this could be the real thing?
Bruce: Yeah, kind of — I'm, you know — at that point you — you just not — you know, not again, you know, not again, not — not one more time. I just, you know, don't want another — I don't want another false alarm.
Security cameras barely captured the woman on tape. She and the man sitting next to her are wearing matching T-shirts with an unusual logo on the front. The lighting is poor and the quality of the video is bad. Still, Kellie sees strong similarities between the woman on the tape, and her daughter Brianna.
“Oh, the side profile is almost identical,” Kellie says. “The only thing that was different slightly was the end of the nose. It kind of had a little bit more of a ball at the end of the nose then what I'd recalled. Other than that it was — it was a ringer.”
Many of Brianna's friends think it's her too. But Bruce is not convinced.
“I want to believe that it's her. I really do,” he says. “And you kind of — whenever you want something so bad you can't even trust your eyes sometimes, especially when it's not clear.”
If it's not Brianna, then who is the mystery woman? If it is her, where is she now and why hasn't she called her family and friends?
Stafford: If Brianna is the person on that tape, what do you want her to know?
Kellie: We love her very much. And that we hope if we've done anything wrong that she could forgive us if we have. If there's anything that she thinks we couldn't understand we'd be willing to forgive that. The love we have for her is beyond everything.
Bruce and Kellie are waiting for someone to come forward and positively identify the woman in the casino. In the meantime, they say that they themselves see Brianna, everywhere, and nowhere.
Bruce: You see this girl on the cell phone over there?
Stafford: And, you did a double take.
Kellie: Oh, yeah.
Bruce: Sure. Right there, even now.
Bruce: Yeah. She looks a little like Brianna.
Kellie: She does. There's a strong resemblance.
The Maitlands have offered a $20,000 reward for information about Brianna's whereabouts. This mystery is their nightmare, and more than three years later, they have no idea how or if it will end.
Bruce: We'll find out. Or we'll die trying, one of the two.
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