What happens when babies disappear without a trace: 'Until I see a body, I'm going to believe he's alive'
A 10-month-old baby vanishes from her crib in the middle of the night.
A 2-year-old boy's mother says she last saw him asleep, snug in his car seat, after she ran out of gas and left him to walk to a service station.
A 6-month-old girl is reported missing by her father, who says he woke to find an empty play pen and no trace of his daughter.
These are three of the more publicized and perplexing cases of very young children who have seemingly vanished in recent years.
Their police investigations remain open, but detectives have not had a compelling piece of evidence in many, many months.
None of the parents has ever been charged. Despite massive searches, hundreds of missing fliers, public appeals from tearful mothers and hefty rewards, these little ones have not been found.
Less than one percent of missing person reports concern babies, according the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"It's extremely rare," Robert Lowery, vice president of the organization's missing children division, told InsideEdition.com.
Even more rare are incidents involving a perfect stranger abducting a baby, experts said. There are only about 100 stranger abductions a year, according to David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
"It's a relatively low occurrence," he said.
But that's just what the parents of Lisa Irwin, Sky Metalwala and Ember Graham told authorities.
Baby Lisa went missing on October 2, 2011. Toddler Sky vanished on November 6, 2011. Little Ember disappeared July 2, 2015. Not one has been seen since.
They leave behind gaping holes in the hearts of their families — wounds that at best scab over, but in reality never heal.
"The pain has to be unimaginable," Lowery said. "I don't think any of us can understand it unless we were in their shoes."
The closest he can come to explaining that loss is to equate it with the sheer terror of losing sight of your child at a shopping mall.
There is a grip of pure fright, then paralyzing panic as you furtively scan the crowd, searching, searching for a glimpse of that child: a splash of color that matches the shirt they were wearing; a glint of light off their so-familiar hair.
Your child is not there. The child is not anywhere. And the worst is yet to come.
Imagine living with that pain, and heart-skipping anxiety, "For hours, then days and then years," Lowery said.
On Oct. 2, 2011 at about 4 a.m., Jeremy Irwin came home from his electrician's job to find the lights on in his Kansas City, Missouri, house and the front door open.
His partner, Deborah Bradley, was asleep. His sons, aged 8 and 5, were in their beds. But the couple's 10-month-old baby, Lisa, was gone.
Irwin called 911. And from almost the beginning, the case of this missing baby, with her luminous blue eyes and chubby cheeks, created a national media frenzy.
It preyed on a parental nightmare - losing your child through no fault of your own to a thief in the night.
The case also took some sensational turns. Two weeks into the investigation, Deborah acknowledged she had consumed five to 10 glasses of wine the night Lisa vanished and that she had put her daughter to bed at 6:40 p.m. instead of 10:30 p.m., as she originally told investigators.
She may have passed out, she told an interviewer at the time.
Relations between the couple and police cooled, with Deborah saying investigators leaned hard on her, saying they knew she had something to do with Lisa's disappearance. They also told her that she had failed a polygraph test she agreed to take, she said.
Police said they were just doing their jobs.
"Harm at the hands of the parents is the most likely thing," said Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire. "And that's a terrible suspicion to have about a parent who's saying their child has been abducted or wandered off."
Messages left by InsideEdition.com with the Kansas City Police Department were not returned.
After lengthy interviews with detectives, Lisa's parents hired an attorney and said they needed a break from the constant questioning. They begged for privacy and for time to grieve.
But they got no break from the glaring media spotlight.
Cameras caught them smoking outside their back door. Strangers arrived at their home, holding vigils for Lisa's return and blaming Deborah and Jeremy.
But the parents never wavered in their declarations that someone had stolen their daughter.
"I absolutely believe that they came into this house to take her and to sell her," Jeremy told InsideEdition.com. in an April interview. "They got exactly what they came for."
Three people told police they saw a man walking in the neighborhood late the night Lisa went missing. One person reported seeing a man holding a baby not far from her home.
But those sightings produced no real leads. Hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement members combed the family's neighborhood and beyond.
The searches went on for weeks.
Attorney Cyndi Short, who briefly represented the couple and still keeps in contact with them, told InsideEdition.com she doesn't doubt the parents' version of events.
"I never thought it was the mother," she said. Deborah's admission to being intoxicated that night wasn't something that any other mothers haven't done at the end of the week. She'd had a couple glasses of wine."
Short, and Lisa Irwin's parents, believe there is a connection between the baby's disappearance and a drifter with drug convictions who had been visiting a nearby house, though no evidence has ever been found that connects the two.
The couple still receives tips on a Facebook page devoted to their daughter's disappearance.
Police have investigated hundreds of them, but none have panned out.
Deborah believes Lisa is alive. "I can't explain it," she said. "I have felt very strongly that she is alive somewhere. She's just not here. "
Lisa would be 6 now. Her parents still live in the same house from which she went missing. Her brothers are now 11 and 13.
"We just try to take it day by day," her mother said. "My boys need us to be there for them. That's what keeps us going. There is no such thing as a good day."
It has been a while since they've heard from investigators, the parents said. About a year ago they received a tip and passed it along to police, they said, but they did not want to elaborate, fearing it would jeopardize the case.
"They're still unsure about what happened," Jeremy said, referring to police.
Life, such as it is, goes on for Deborah and Jeremy. They refuse to give up hope, and they struggle to provide a normal, happy home for their boys.
"After someone steals one of your children, it's hard to believe there is any good in this world," Deborah said.
On Nov. 6, 2011, Julia Biryukova called 911 to report that someone had abducted her 2-year-old son, Sky Metalwala.
The boy had been feeling poorly and she was driving him to the hospital when she ran out of gas, she told police in Bellevue, Wash. She left Sky, who was sleeping in his car seat, and took her 4-year-old daughter, Maile, to get help, she told officers.
She walked about a mile to a convenience store, called a friend to come and get her, and walked back to her 1998 two-door Acura Integra, she said. But when she returned to the vehicle, Sky was gone.
She has not spoken to police since then, Officer Seth Tyler of the Bellevue Police Department told InsideEdition.com.
"The case is stalled," Tyler said. "Julia needs to come talk to us."
Investigators began to doubt her account early on. "There were a lot of problems with that story," Tyler said. "Namely, that there was plenty of gas in that car."
Police "believe he was never in that car," Tyler said. Sky, a sweet-faced boy with dark hair and big brown eyes, had not been seen for two weeks when his mother reported him missing, Tyler said.
His sister was too young to provide any real answers, according to Tyler.
Efforts by InsideEdition.com to locate Biryukova were unsuccessful. She has refused to speak to reporters as well as police, Tyler said.
The children's father, Solomon Metalwala, told InsideEdition.com he refuses to believe his son is dead.
"The only logical solution is that somehow he was illegally adopted by another family," he said.
In 2010, a year before the disappearance of their child and after seven years of marriage, he and Biryukova entered divorce proceedings and descended into a bitter child custody fight.
She contended in court filings that her husband was controlling and abusive. He denied those claims and said she was mentally unstable and unable to care for her children.
In court documents, he said he had his wife committed to psychiatric hospitals three times in 2010 after she threatened suicide, and told him she had dreams in which she was strangling Sky.
After her last release from the hospital, he filed for divorce.
The court awarded Biryukova full custody and determined her mental health treatment did not affect her ability to parent. Metalwala was not granted visitation rights and his ex-wife would not let him see his daughter and son, he said.
For more than a year, Metalwala petitioned the courts for visitation rights. In November 2011, the two were ordered into mediation and reached an agreement that granted Metalwala full visitation and gave Biryukova custody.
On November 3, shortly after signing the agreement, she contacted an attorney and said she had felt pressured into allowing her ex-husband to visit their children, and she voided the agreement.
Three days later, Sky vanished.
"I think she may have sold him to someone else," Metalwala said. "There's no money trail that the police can see. I did get some calls and messages saying that Julia was with some people who were doing adoptions like that," he said. "Anything is a possibility."
He hasn't spoken to his ex-wife in six years, he said. After Sky went missing, she gave full custody of their daughter to Metalwala. The girl is now 10.
Tyler said investigators had no evidence to arrest Biryukova on any charge, including child endangerment. "We can't force her to come in," he said. "There are a lot of people who really want to put this case to rest. Our chief has made several pleas for her to come in and talk to us."
Authorities do not think Metalwala was involved in his son's disappearance, Tyler said.
In their investigation, police discovered the parents had left Sky alone in a car at the age of two months while they shopped in a Target store. The temperature was 27 degrees. They were arrested by police who had them paged over the store's public address system.
They were charged with reckless endangerment. The charges were dropped after both completed child parenting courses and performed community service work.
Metalwala acknowledges his actions but blames his ex-wife, whom he says was controlling and abusive. "She said to leave him in the car because we were just going to run in and come out and Sky was sleeping.
"It was 45 minutes," he said.
Like baby Lisa's parents, Metalwala has a Facebook page devoted to Sky, full of photos, videos and an age-enhanced photo of what the boy might look like now, at age 7.
"There's no body, no remains. No evidence of what happened. My son is missing. If you know anything, please contact me," the father pleaded.
On July 2, 2015, at 5:26 a.m., Matthew Graham dialed 911 from his dilapidated, 25-foot trailer and said his 6-month-old daughter, Ember, had disappeared from her playpen, where she had been sleeping the last time he saw her at 10:30 p.m.
It was so hot, he told deputies from the Shasta County Sheriff's Office in Northern California, he had put her down to sleep wearing only a diaper.
Ember suffered a seizure disorder that resulted in her sleeping only a few hours at a time, authorities learned. Graham said he had heard nothing during the night, one of statements police said made them immediately suspicious.
They arrested Graham that night, holding him on probation violation from earlier convictions for DUI and forgery. He had told investigators he smoked marijuana oil after Ember went to sleep, which violated the conditions of his release.
When deputies questioned him about his baby's disappearance, Graham "showed very little remorse," that she had gone missing, Sgt. Pat Kropholler said at the time.
Investigators were also troubled by other inconsistencies in the father's statements. His trailer was located on secluded property protected by a fence and guard dogs, making it unlikely that a kidnapper could find the home and get by the animals without them barking, officers said.
Yet Graham had said he slept undisturbed.
In the absence of physical evidence, deputies later released Graham, fitting him with an ankle monitor and telling him not to leave the area.
Meanwhile, authorities searched his home, his property, surrounding areas and heavily wooded stretches in outlying sections of Shasta County.
Nine days later, as information emerged that deputies had discovered a baby's pacifier in their searches, Graham bolted, stealing money, a phone and a gun from his mother's purse. He also took a backpack containing camping supplies, authorities said.
For three days, he was hunted in a greenbelt near his home. After stealing a car at gunpoint, Graham was killed in a shootout with deputies on July 13 in Dunsmuir in Siskiyou County.
Jamie Tomlin-Graham, Ember's mother, said at the time she didn't believe her husband would harm their daughter. She's not so sure now, she told InsideEdition.com. Yet she feels her daughter is alive.
"I would prefer to believe that she safe with someone," she said. "The only proof that we have is the pacifier that was found. There was nothing else to prove she was out there. There's not enough evidence to prove she was out there."
The mother continues to organize searches for her daughter, and to pass out fliers and hang banners.
Her late husband was a good father, she said. "He never showed any behavior that would have made me think he would harm her," she said. Jamie and the baby had been living with her mother, but Jamie said she was planning to move into her husband's trailer.
She was at her mother's house, packing her things, the night her daughter disappeared.
"It wasn't the first time he had her overnight," Jamie said. "That's why it didn't seem that big of a deal to me."
Until he called to say their daughter was gone. "He sounded like he was concerned and he was upset," Jamie said. But then she began to catch him in lies, she said. "He would tell me something completely different than what he told law enforcement," she said. "He lied to them and to me."
When he went on the run, Jamie said she was shocked. When he was killed, she was devastated.
For the last two years, she said, "I don't really live with it. I just get by, day-by-day, without having any answers. We've been stuck in the same spot."
There is some, good, though. Jamie gave birth last week to a son. His name is Brantley. It was not a planned pregnancy, but "he makes me move forward every day," she said. "It still is definitely mixed emotions. My family took it as one good thing to look forward to," she said. She still lives with her mother.
"He's just a blessing," she said of her son.
Kropholler, of the Shasta County Sheriff's Office, is now a lieutenant.
Ember's case remains open. But investigators don't believe Ember is alive.
"Whatever truth there is probably died with her father," he told InsideEdition.com. The evidence deputies discovered just before Graham ran was a pacifier, found by searchers in a rugged area with nearby streams.
DNA testing determined it belonged to Ember, he said.
"Where we believe she was last at, it's very rural," he said. "There's a lot of animal activity out there."
Investigators suspect that is where Graham hid his daughter's remains.
But they have no motive, they said. And no evidence that would explain what happened. "We don't know," he said.
When a baby goes missing, it often involves a woman of child-bearing age who pretends she is pregnant and then steals the infant of another woman, said Lowery of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In those cases, some women target homes and child care centers. Other instances of abduction can be tangential, he said. "Some idiot carjacker jumps into a car and takes off," he said, not realizing a harried mother has left her child strapped in a car seat in the back, while she ran into the post office or a store.
In those situations, the child is usually found safe, abandoned somewhere in their car seat in a public place.
But baby Lisa, toddler Sky and 6-month-old Ember fit none of those scenarios.
They remain unsolved mysteries, cold cases that live on in the media and remain a source of fascination.
The cases suffer from a lack of witnesses and the absence of a viable crime scene, he said. "You're working in the absence of facts. You're out there generating your own leads and identifying suspects," Lowery said.
Most recently, a 5-year-old boy in California sparked headlines and an intense search after he apparently wandered away from his father, who was found unconscious near his car.
Aramazad Andressian Sr. was arrested and held on $10 million bail, but was released in late April due to lack of evidence, officials at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said. He remains a person of interest, but has stopped cooperating with investigators, authorities said.
Earlier, he told authorities he may have been attacked and knocked unconscious.
Searchers equipped with cadaver dogs and a drone continue to scour the area around the park where Aramazad Jr.'s dad was found passed out, authorities said. His mother calls his disappearance her "worst nightmare," she said.
Investigators are baffled.
"The longer that child is gone, the more difficult it is to find them," said Lowery. Memories fade. Investigators move on to other cases. Trails grow cold.
Yet, Lowery says there are cases that break the mold and offer hope. There are children who are found alive after being abducted from their homes. Youngsters such as 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, taken from her Utah bedroom at knifepoint in 2002 and held captive for nine months by a deranged man and his wife.
She was rescued by police in March 2003 and returned to her family. She is now married and a young mother who has publicly spoken on the need for widespread sex offender registries.
Smart's parents knew only too well the abject misery felt by those left behind when a child goes missing.
"I could not imagine the pain that kind of cruelty would take on a mother," he said. "But we can never give up hope."
Solomon Metalwala lives by that tenet.
"He's my son. Until I see a body, I'm going to believe he's alive. If I say that he's not alive, then what do I do?" he said.