When Johna Ramirez’s son joined a wildly popular circle of tween YouTube influencers, it seemed like he was fulfilling his Hollywood dreams. But in the Squad, fame and fortune came at a cost.

By Nile Cappello

The Atavist Magazine, No. 135

Nile Cappello is a journalist, screenwriter, and producer whose writing has appeared in HuffPost, Rolling StoneVice, and other publications. Her previous Atavist story, “The Girl in the Picture,” was published as Issue No. 118.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kyla Jones
Illustrator: Rob Dobi

Published in January 2023

Hollywood is the last place you’d expect to meet Johna Kay Ramirez. She doesn’t come across as cutthroat. Thin, with auburn hair and warm eyes, Johna is thoughtful when she speaks and quick to apologize when she goes on a tangent. She’s the kind of person who knows that “bless your heart” is often a veiled insult. Hollywood, with all its glitz, glam, and high drama, became part of Johna’s story because of her children.

Born and raised in the Great Plains, Johna met Nelson Ramirez at a department store in Enid, Oklahoma; she sold shoes, he worked in menswear. They married, and in 1991, when Nelson got a job as a tech recruiter in Texas, the Ramirezes moved to Austin. Johna did video production for a local news station, then worked for a state agency. In 1998, when the Ramirezes had their first child, a daughter they named Liana, Johna became a stay-at-home mom. A son, Jentzen, came along eight years later.

Liana caught the entertainment bug first. What started as recreational dance classes quickly evolved into a passion for the performing arts. Liana loved being under bright stage lights, and Johna was proud to watch her precocious toddler blossom into a talented young girl. Liana appeared in local dance and theater productions, and by the time she was 13, her ambitions had surpassed the scope of what Austin could offer. She dreamed of being on the Disney Channel, of making it big in Hollywood. If Selena Gomez, a half-Latina teenager from Texas just like her, could become a star, Liana was sure she could, too. She had the talent and she had Johna, her chauffeur, line-reading partner, meal deliverer, videographer, and number one fan. “I knew how much my daughter wanted this, how much it meant to her,” Johna said. “So whatever I could do, whatever skills I had, I would use them to help.”

In September 2011, Johna snapped a photo of Liana at an airport gate. Her smile is all teeth, and a black bow holds back a portion of her curly brown hair. Mother and daughter were on their way to Los Angeles for Liana’s first Hollywood audition. The role was in a production of A Snow White Christmas, a stage musical. If cast, Liana would appear with Neil Patrick Harris, then a fan favorite on TV’s How I Met Your Mother, and with Lindsay Pearce of The Glee Project.

The audition was held at the Westfield Culver City mall on a Saturday morning. Kids and their guardians hustled inside and waited near a stage situated between Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. Liana received her audition number and practiced the dance routine she’d be performing. She breezed through the first cut and kept going. In the final round, she danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” At the end of the number, right as the audience began to applaud, Liana looked over at her mom, beaming.

Johna announced the good news on Facebook. “She nailed it and she got a role as a dancer,” Johna wrote. “Can you hear us screaming?” Back in Texas, the Austin AmericanStatesman ran a piece about Liana. “Teen heads to Hollywood to dance in her dramatic debut,” the headline read.

The Ramirezes decided that Nelson would stay in Texas, where he had recently started his own business, while Johna took Liana and five-year-old Jentzen to California for the duration of the production. They would be joined by Johna’s mother, Martha, who would help with child care and managing Liana’s obligations. Johna drove her kids and mom to Los Angeles, a more than 20-hour trip mostly through dry, flat rattlesnake country. She’d never taken a leap like this—never lived somewhere like Los Angeles, been around serious entertainment people, or parented without Nelson. Johna was leaving her comfort zone in the rearview mirror.

She was surprised by how much she liked Los Angeles. Within a few days of arriving, she and Martha had their first celebrity encounter, an exchange with Kiefer Sutherland over potatoes at a Whole Foods. The city’s traffic was a pain, but they managed to sightsee, visiting the Hard Rock Cafe and Universal Studios, where Jentzen posed with actors dressed up as Dora the Explorer and the donkey from Shrek. Liana stayed busy with the stage production, and Johna spent long hours at the theater, watching as her daughter rehearsed and had costume fittings. Liana would appear in 32 performances over two months, working straight through the holidays. 

When the show wrapped, the Ramirezes reunited in Austin. Within a year, however, they decided to resume living as a split family. The musical had led to auditions and bookings for Liana, and she needed to be closer to LA to take advantage of them. Johna relocated to California full-time with her kids and tended to their day-to-day needs, while Nelson provided financial support from afar. Liana made appearances on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and the prime-time network shows Criminal Minds and The Goldbergs.

As it turned out, Liana wasn’t the only family member who had star potential. With a smattering of freckles and a megawatt smile, Jentzen drew attention from casting directors, talent, and other industry insiders when Johna brought him on set with his sister. “You’ve got to put him in commercials,” stage moms told Johna, pinching Jentzen’s cheeks and ruffling his shaggy brown hair. He was in the sweet spot for child actors: old enough to memorize lines, but still young enough to be considered cute. Soon Jentzen was building out his own IMDb page, appearing in web series, short films, and the Lifetime movie Babysitter’s Black Book. 

For Johna, Jentzen’s success further validated her decision to move to Los Angeles. Every parent hopes that a child will find their thing. Other families travel to soccer tournaments, move across the country to train with gymnastics coaches, or spend thousands on STEM camps where kids learn to code and build robots. Liana and Jentzen didn’t just like acting—they were good at it. Plus, their budding careers allowed Johna to spend time with them, whether that was backstage at rehearsals, stuck in gridlock on the 101, or putting together audition tapes at home. “It wasn’t just something they did,” Johna said. “It was something we all did together.”

Without auditioning for it, Johna had been cast in a new role: “momager.” She played it well, surprising even herself with how easily she toggled between cooking meals and attending movie premieres. She learned how to advocate for her kids’ needs and when to say no on their behalf.

As Jentzen approached his teenage years, he began kicking around the idea of getting into YouTube. A child actor’s presence on social media was increasingly important to casting agents and directors. Johna, whose experience with social media was limited largely to updating her Facebook account, wasn’t convinced. “I just didn’t know what we’d post,” she said with a shrug.

Then, eight years after arriving in Hollywood, the Ramirezes saw a promising ad, known as a breakdown, on LA Casting, a website that film, TV, and online productions use to enlist talent. A breakdown typically includes a description of the project, the parts to be cast, and the pay rate, along with information about how to audition. The breakdown the Ramirezes saw was for something called the “Piper Rockeele Show,” which was planning to shoot a YouTube video on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Described as taking inspiration from the movie Grease, the shoot would involve a tween character named Chase brushing off Piper, the show’s eponymous star, to look cool in front of his friends. Chase seemed like a good fit for Jentzen; the listing offered $1,500 for eight hours of work, a very good rate.

The Ramirezes weren’t familiar with Piper Rockelle—her name was spelled wrong in the breakdown—but an internet search led to a tween girl with a YouTube channel boasting hundreds of hours of video content, including original songs, makeup tutorials, and staged pranks and challenges like “24 Hours HANDCUFFED to my ‘BOYFRIEND.’ ” Jentzen showed Johna his iPhone screen. “Mom, she’s got a lot of subscribers,” he said—more than two million.

Johna didn’t have a problem with Jentzen participating in another kid’s social media content. It was easier than striking out on his own in the wilds of YouTube. Jentzen replied to the ad and was asked to come in for an audition.

The day of the tryout, the Ramirezes had another appointment across town and were running late. Johna tracked down a number for the person, a voice coach, who’d posted the breakdown on LA Casting. According to Johna, the coach assured her there wouldn’t be a problem. “They really wanted him at the callback,” he said. “They really liked him.”

It is one of many moments that now haunt Johna. “Can you imagine if we would have missed the callback?” she said, shaking her head. “How maybe life would’ve been different?”

More than three years later, Piper Rockelle’s popularity has exploded. She has more than 25 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fan pages dedicated to her. Piper has staged live meet-and-greets and musical performances around the world, and she sells her own line of merchandise. She lives in a pink and purple house worth $2.3 million in Sherman Oaks, previously owned by the actress Bella Thorne.

But all is not well in Piper’s world. Her own momager, Tiffany Smith, is being sued by 11 former members of the Squad, the name given to the circle of child actors who appear in Piper’s videos and ostensibly are her friends. Two of the plaintiffs are cousins of Piper’s. The kids allege that, when they were in the Squad, Smith verbally, physically, and in some cases sexually abused them. They also claim that Smith knowingly produced exploitative content featuring her daughter and other minors. “Smith would often boast to Plaintiffs and others about being the ‘Madam of YouTube’ and a ‘Pimp of YouTube,’ and that she ‘makes kiddie porn,’ ” states the lawsuit, which was filed in January 2022. Smith’s boyfriend, Hunter Hill, and Piper Rockelle Inc. are also defendants in the suit. Hill, who works behind the scenes to produce Piper’s YouTube videos, is accused of conspiring with Smith to “sabotage” the plaintiffs’ careers after they left the Squad.  

Johna knows the plaintiffs and their parents personally. She doesn’t doubt their claims. However, she isn’t part of the lawsuit. For the past few years, Johna has been fighting a legal battle of her own. It began after Jentzen auditioned for Piper’s team, and it has pitted her against Smith as well as her own family. Today, according to Johna, all she wants is to have a relationship with her children again.

This story is based on interviews with Johna and Nelson Ramirez; two of the plaintiffs’ mothers, Steevy Areeco and Angela Sharbino; and the plaintiffs’ attorney, Matthew Sarelson. It draws on hundreds of pages of court documents, personal communications shared by sources, and the trove of social media content produced by Piper and the Squad. Smith and Hill did not respond to requests for comment. They have denied the allegations against them.

Seven years ago, Piper Rockelle hadn’t yet gone viral, or moved to Los Angeles, or started the Squad. Seven years ago, she was just a kid in Georgia with big bows and big dreams. 

Forty miles outside Atlanta, in the lush foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sits Canton, Piper’s hometown. Attracting families looking for a quiet, scenic alternative to the city, Canton has a main drag framed with redbrick sidewalks and sits just a few miles from the bucolic Hickory Log Creek Reservoir. According to videos later posted on Piper’s YouTube channel, Tiffany Smith met Piper’s father when they worked at a local veterinary clinic together. Their relationship fell apart when Tiffany, then in her mid-twenties, learned that she was pregnant and Piper’s father, who has never been identified publicly, pressured her to get an abortion. Tiffany kept the baby and went on to raise Piper as a single mother. It was just the two of them and a collection of rescue cats.

If Liana Ramirez’s aspirations were shaped by Disney and Nickelodeon, Piper’s were the product of Toddlers & Tiaras, the popular TLC reality show documenting the kiddie pageant scene, which ran for nine seasons and gave the world Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson. Tiffany put Piper into pageants at a young age. She got her daughter airbrushed headshots, fake tans, bedazzled dresses, and partial dentures, known as flippers, designed to perfect a child’s smile. Piper sparkled in the spotlight. She was adorable. She was sassy. She twirled and winked at the judges and blew kisses at the audience. Piper collected crowns, sashes, and titles, making a name for herself in regional competitions.

Tiffany was convinced that her daughter was destined for bigger things. In 2016, the year Piper turned nine, Tiffany turned her attention to social media, reviving a dormant Instagram account she’d set up a few years earlier. Using her middle name, Rockelle, in her stage name, Piper became active on, the lip-sync audio app that two years later would be sold to a Chinese company and reemerge as TikTok. She also started creating YouTube content, posting her first clip in November 2016. In it, the third-grader makes slime in her kitchen. The video is simple, with low production values, and relies almost entirely on Piper’s extroverted personality and charisma in front of the camera. It would receive more than 4.5 million views—a figure that to anyone who isn’t a young kid or the parent of one might seem insane.

Gen Z is the first generation to never know life without the internet, and they watch a lot of YouTube. By 2020, according to Pew Research, 89 percent of parents with a child between five and eleven reported that their kids watched videos on the platform; 81 percent with three- and four-year-olds, and 57 percent with a child age two or under, said the same thing. But YouTube’s youngest users aren’t just interested in watching music videos, reruns of Paw Patrol, and old episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. They like content made by creators they can relate to—ones who look and act like them.

YouTube has given Gen Z their own form of reality television: They can watch other kids be silly with their friends, try on clothes, play with toys and games, and get famous in the process. In 2015, the year before Piper joined YouTube, three-year-old Ryan Kaji began posting unboxing videos on his channel Ryan’s World. Kaji opened new toys in front of the camera, inviting young viewers to vicariously experience his excitement. In 2017, Forbes ranked Kaji as the ninth-highest-earning YouTuber, reporting that he made $11 million that year. Two years later, Kaji made $26 million and shot to the number one spot.

Adults might not understand the appeal of watching a video of Kaji tearing into a Lego set or Piper making slime in her kitchen for the same reason young kids are unlikely to grasp the popularity of The Bachelor: The content isn’t made for them. But the viewers it is made for can’t get enough of it.

Building on the success of her first video, Piper made more YouTube content and attracted more followers. With visibility came opportunities. Piper and Tiffany began taking trips to Los Angeles, where they filmed videos with fellow “kidfluencers” and visited the Walk of Fame and other Hollywood landmarks. According to fan pages, Piper became the fastest “Muser,” or app user, to reach 750,000 followers on, where she posted videos of herself dancing and performing comedy skits.

Piper’s social media content paid off in a big way when she was cast in a reality show called Dance Twins. Produced by the creator of Dance Moms, a wildly popular Lifetime program, the show followed twin sisters Nisa and Tria as they ran rival dance studios in Cleveland, Tennessee. Shot in 2017, it lasted only one season and is no longer streamable, but the trailer and various clips remain on social media. In one snippet, Piper, cast as a student of Nisa’s, sits for an interview with her mother. Piper describes Tiffany as the quintessential cool mom. “Every kid wants to hang out with her,” she says as the clip cuts to footage of Tiffany dabbing. Tiffany, in turn, says Piper is her “best friend.” 

Episode nine followed Piper, who was ten at the time, as she prepared to perform at a minor league baseball game with a team of backup dancers in matching jerseys. Among them was ten-year-old Corinne Joy. A competitive dancer who’d already tried out for America’s Got Talent, Corinne hit it off with Piper. They both lived in the Atlanta area, so they exchanged information and planned to meet up back home.

In an interview, Corinne’s mother, Steevy Areeco, said she was happy for her daughter to have a new friend with similar interests, and found Piper to be polite and hardworking. But she described immediate red flags when it came to Tiffany. She had a tendency to overshare, Steevy said. One of the first times Piper and Corinne hung out in Georgia, the moms got to know each other. Tiffany told Steevy unprompted that her boyfriend at the time was a registered sex offender, but dismissed the crime as a consensual encounter with a minor.

According to Steevy, Piper began receiving gifts in the mail from a fan Tiffany called “Meagan” and implied was around the same age as her daughter. Tiffany eventually admitted that Meagan was actually an adult man. When she offered to introduce Steevy to him so that Corinne could start getting gifts as well, Steevy said that she declined.

Tiffany and Piper moved to Los Angeles full-time in late 2017. They rented an apartment in Hollywood and threw themselves into auditions and collaborations set up by Piper’s then manager, Matt Dugan. At the time, Dugan was working with a roster of young social media influencers trying to break into film, television, and the music industry, including Raegan Fingles, aka Raegan Beast, a popular creator on; Kristen Hancher, now a top earner on OnlyFans; and Danielle Cohn, a former pageant girl turned Muser like Piper. (Dugan did not reply to requests for comment.)

According to Steevy, Tiffany eventually invited her and Corinne to Los Angeles for a visit. But the night before they were set to leave, Tiffany explained over the phone that she couldn’t host them. There was someone else living with her and Piper in their one-bedroom apartment. Steevy and Corinne went to LA anyway and stayed in a hotel.

The other resident of the apartment, Steevy learned, was Tiffany’s boyfriend, a content creator named Hunter Hill, known online as H2balla. Originally from Wyoming, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Hill had gained a following on before moving to YouTube and other platforms and becoming one of Dugan’s clients. He was 20, more than ten years younger than Tiffany. Hunter and Piper sometimes made content together, including numerous videos and posts in which they claimed to be brother and sister.

Steevy didn’t know what to make of Hunter, but it was hard to ignore the results Piper was getting in Los Angeles. When Brat, an online network that produced short-form content for kids, launched in the summer of 2017, it was in partnership with Dugan’s talent management company. This ensured that Brat’s shows drew heavily from Dugan’s roster of clients and contacts. Piper was soon cast as a lead in a show called Mani; she portrayed the young sidekick to an eccentric male nanny. The first season, which aired on Brat’s YouTube channel, received between 5 million and 17 million views per episode, propelling Piper toward Gen Z superstardom.

Hoping to jump-start her daughter’s career, Steevy moved with Corinne to Los Angeles in November 2018. They didn’t know a lot of people in California, just a few dance moms and Instagram acquaintances, so they spent time with Piper and Tiffany. By early 2019, Corinne and Piper were filming YouTube videos together, along with a few other preteens with burgeoning online followings. This was the first iteration of what would become known as the Squad. 

A kind of self-styled Mickey Mouse Club, Piper’s group of collaborators included her friend Sophie Fergi, who was also on Mani, and a boy named Sawyer Sharbino. Sawyer’s teenage sisters, Saxon and Brighton, had already made names for themselves in Hollywood, appearing in the remake of Poltergeist and on The Walking Dead, by the time Sawyer started a YouTube channel at age nine. Sawyer was inspired by Saxon’s ex-boyfriend, Jake Paul, a controversial social media star known for pulling outrageous stunts. Paul had appeared on a Disney show but agreed to leave after a news station reported on the chaotic parties, filled with underage fans, that he threw. Undeterred, Paul parlayed his popularity into brand deals, partnerships, sold-out stage shows, and meet-and-greets. He was living proof that social media could do more than help kids launch a career in entertainment—it could be their career.

Piper also started filming with Sawyer Sharbino’s friend Gavin Magnus, a kid with gelled hair and pop-star aspirations. Gavin and Sawyer had met at the 13th birthday party of Hayden Sumerall, a singer and content creator linked with one of the most famous teenagers on the internet, Annie LeBlanc. Annie (who now goes by Jules) got her start on her family’s popular vlogging channel; by mid-2017, she had her own web series and had recorded her first viral cover song, a duet with Hayden. Jules and Hayden were in a “ship,” or relationship, known to their followers as “Hannie.”

For as long as the will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic has existed in serialized entertainment, enthusiastic fans have pined for popular characters to fall in love and cheered when they got together—think Ross and Rachel on Friends, or Jim and Pam on The Office. Fueled by Hollywood media, millions of people also become invested in celebrity relationships, some of which acquire their own portmanteaus: Bennifer, Brangelina, Kimye. Among kidfluencers, ships draw on both these trends. User-generated content ushered in a new era of voyeurism and so-called para-social relationships, in which viewers feel a degree of intimacy with the people they see on screen. Lines between what’s real and what’s scripted are blurred. Ships like Hannie are orchestrated by kidfluencers, their parents and managers, and in some cases brand sponsors, but they seem real to young fans—or real enough.

The popularity of ships offer content creators unique business opportunities. Just as sex sells with adult audiences, puppy love hooks pubescent ones. Hannie played out on Annie’s and Hayden’s respective social media feeds. The 12-year-olds made content together and about each other; they held hands, hugged, and laughed. While fans gushed in the comments and on messages boards, Hannie sold merch, went on sponsored trips, and released music videos.

The ship became a case study for parents looking to help their kids blow up on social platforms—parents like Tiffany Smith and Gavin Magnus’s mom, Theresa. When Gavin released his first single, “Crushin’,” Piper was cast in the video. Both kids were 11 at the time. The video, which went live on Valentine’s Day 2019, shows Piper as the object of Gavin’s affection, accepting a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons and posing for selfies with him. The video went on to get 33 million views. Piper and Gavin kept making content together, fans demanded more, and before long “Pavin” was born.

Piper and Gavin went from calling each other crushes to declaring themselves boyfriend and girlfriend. But their content wasn’t always the YouTube equivalent of love notes left in middle school lockers and initials doodled inside hearts on notebook covers. They made videos of pranks staged at each other’s expense. Some were straightforward enough: Gavin ignoring Piper for 24 hours to see how she’d react, Piper pretending she lost her memory and couldn’t remember who Gavin was. Other video concepts required explanations for Pavin’s young fans.

In a June 2019 video titled “CATFISHING my girlfriend to see if she cheats,” Gavin starts off by saying that to accomplish his goal, he’ll need a cat and a fish. After an emoji for each animal pops up on screen, an adult male voice behind the camera says, “I don’t think that’s how catfishing works, Gavin.” Feigning ignorance, Gavin knits his brows above his bright blue eyes and asks, “How does it work then?” He proceeds to offer viewers a lesson in online deception 101, persuading a friend to text Piper “flirty” messages and then accusing Piper of not being “loyal” when she responds.

Pavin’s popularity was still rising when, on July 24, 2019, Gavin shocked fans with a video titled “My Breakup **THE TRUTH…IT’S OVER**.” In the video, Gavin’s friend Connor Cain is told to read aloud a text that Gavin claims to have sent to a group chat with Piper and Sophie. “I’m sorry it’s ending like this. I can’t take the anxiety, stress, and overall complication of this,” Connor reads as a screenshot of the text appears next to his face. “There are going to be times where I will see pictures of all of us and remember when we were having fun. Not being so controlled, not being just ‘investments.’ ” When Connor finishes reading, he scrunches up his face with discomfort.

Gavin then plops down on the sofa where Connor is sitting and addresses viewers directly. “I know this is probably really tough, but Pavin’s over,” Gavin says. “There were a lot of things that went down, a lot of things that were inappropriate.… I was removed from a toxic environment.” Referring to himself and Piper, he says, “Please don’t send any hate to either one of us. There’s already enough going on, on Instagram and on the, like, legal side.”

Gavin doesn’t give specifics. He fiddles with his phone as he talks. He looks relieved when, at the end of the video, he’s able to be his usual on-screen self: He roughhouses with Connor and high-fives him, then encourages viewers to buy his music and merch. The video concludes with a series of bloopers from the shoot.

Gavin’s family would soon have a law firm begin preparing legal action against Tiffany Smith and Hunter Hill. By then, Piper’s team was well on its way to identifying new talent to fill the void left by Gavin. Four days before the breakup video went live, they held auditions for a number of new roles on Piper’s channel. One of the kids they saw was Jentzen Ramirez

The popularity of ships offer content creators unique business opportunities. Just as sex sells with adult audiences, puppy love hooks pubescent ones.

Johna wasn’t in the habit of keeping up with kidfluencer gossip. She didn’t know about Gavin’s video or that Piper and her team were hitting back, using social media posts and direct messages with fans to accuse Gavin of “cheating.” She was just hoping that Jentzen got a job with Piper.

A week after her son’s audition for the Venice Beach shoot, Johna got an email letting her know that Jentzen was invited to be in a different video, for which he would be paid just $125, not $1,500. According to Johna, when she asked for clarification about the project change and the lower rate than what had been advertised on LA Casting, she received a call from Tiffany Smith and Heather Trimmer, the mother of Piper’s sidekick, Sophie. The women wanted Jentzen to be in a video in which a trio of boys would rate outfits worn by their daughters. In Johna’s telling, Tiffany assured her it would be “innocent tween content,” with no inappropriate attire.

A $125 day rate was well below the threshold Johna had set for Jentzen’s work—she wanted to make sure the jobs he accepted were professional and worth his while. But Piper was famous; she could help Jentzen break into social media. Johna decided to make an exception.

The Ramirezes arrived just before call time at an apartment complex in the heart of Hollywood. Johna double-checked the address; she was accustomed to working on studio lots or at public locations, surrounded by box trucks and crew members loitering on the sidewalk between takes. Inside, the Ramirezes were directed to a common area where another tween creator was already sitting. Lev Cameron, a blond dancer born in France, had appeared previously on So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation and Dancing with the Stars: Junior. Lev was 13, the age Jentzen would soon turn. The boys waited together to be called in for the shoot, which was happening upstairs in the apartment where Piper lived with her mom and Hunter.

Johna was surprised by Tiffany when she appeared in the common area. She looked, talked, and acted more casually than the people in charge of other shoots Johna had taken her son to. Johna got the impression that Tiffany expected her to wait downstairs while Jentzen was filming. When Johna moved to accompany her son, Tiffany was resistant. “The kids do better when the parents aren’t around,” Johna recalled Tiffany saying.

Johna wasn’t naive about exploitation of kids in the entertainment business. She’d always taken comfort in the extensive legal protections offered to child actors in California. State law outlines requirements about payment, on-set education, time off from work, and other matters pertaining to kids’ well-being. Johna had seen the effects of these protections firsthand, in the form of meal breaks, tutors, and financial-planning resources for child actors and their families. Before her exchange with Tiffany, she’d found that parents were encouraged to keep eyes on their children at all times during shoots. Minors weren’t supposed to be alone with adult cast or crew members.

Out of habit and also on instinct, Johna insisted that she go upstairs with her son. Once there, however, Johna found herself hanging back, staying inside the apartment while Jentzen filmed with the other kids in the hallway. She didn’t want to be the only helicopter parent and possibly get in the way of her son making friends who could lead to more work. Johna told herself she’d have to adjust to this new slice of the entertainment world.

At the instruction of Tiffany and Hunter, who handled the technical aspects of the shoot, Piper and Sophie put on various outfits, and the boys, equipped with whiteboards, played fashion police. The girls wore ensembles baring their midriffs and catwalked toward the boys for each round of judging. The video, which over time would receive more than seven million views, was posted on Sophie’s personal YouTube channel under the title “My Crush REACTS to my FASHION NOVA Outfits.”

Fashion Nova was the retail company whose clothes the girls were promoting. The video didn’t specify which of the boys was Sophie’s crush. Soon, though, Jentzen would fill that role.

Jentzen had never had a girlfriend, real or scripted. Johna didn’t know much about ships. But when Tiffany approached her not long after the shoot about forming one between Jentzen and Sophie, it seemed like a good opportunity. So “Jophie” was created. Piper soon entered a ship with Lev. Fans seemed excited by both pairings. The video in which Jentzen calls Sophie his crush for the first time has more than six million views and 9,600 comments to date.

Success came fast. Day rates, Johna learned, weren’t how Squad members made money. In fact, the kids weren’t regularly compensated by Piper’s team, a fact later corroborated in legal documents. Instead, they profited by being in Piper’s inner circle: As Squad members, their personal social media channels garnered attention, which could translate into revenue. Jentzen would eventually earn between $30,000 and $40,000 a month from brand deals, sponsored posts, and monetized videos. Putting her experience in production to use, Johna became her son’s videographer and editor, helping keep his suddenly remunerative social accounts flush with content.

According to Johna, she and Jentzen verbally agreed to share his earnings. California law dictates that a child actor’s income is theirs alone, but Johna claims that she and Jentzen decided it was fair that her labor be compensated. Together mother and son set up J&J Ramirez Productions LLC.

A real friendship formed off-screen between Jentzen and Lev. Johna was thrilled. Her son had a new community and steady work. Jentzen seemed happy appearing in Piper’s video for her single “Treat Myself,” where she dances in a short skirt at a party with her friends, and making content with titles like “KISSING My Best Friends BOYFRIEND To See How My CRUSH Reacts.” Piper’s channel scripted and marketed the various milestones of experimentation, awkwardness, and humiliation common in the lives of American kids. Her followers ate it up.

Piper’s fans seemed to especially like it when she used her videos to make Gavin Magnus look bad. Gavin would later allege that Piper’s team, which kept pushing the idea that he’d betrayed Piper somehow, launched an #UnfollowGavin campaign that cost him more than 20,000 followers. The acrimony became a hot topic in kidfluencer gossip forums, also known as shade rooms, and in clips posted by the Paparazzi Gamer, a vlogger known for chasing down young YouTube stars on their way out of LA restaurants or events at the Wish House, a mansion worth tens of millions of dollars where social media stars gathered to make content. Pavin’s fandom became a house divided, and each side had strong opinions about who had wronged whom.

The former pair’s collaborators were split, too, urged by the adults behind Piper’s and Gavin’s content to choose sides. Soon Piper and Gavin weren’t just two halves of a onetime ship, they were the leaders of rival kidfluencer cliques. Piper’s Squad and Gavin’s GOAT Fam competed to film the most videos and get the most views. 

In November 2019, Gavin posted a new video about his breakup with Piper; this time he was ready to go into detail. He admitted that he and Piper had agreed to form a ship to grow their profiles. The situation turned sour, Gavin claimed, when Tiffany became “abusive and obsessive.” Gavin called the nearly seven months he worked with Piper and her mom the most stressful of his life. He said that he wasn’t allowed to hang out with anyone Tiffany didn’t “approve” of, and that Tiffany had “anxiety attacks” during which she did extreme things, including jumping out of cars and screaming at the kids working with her daughter.

“There were texts and DMs of her saying, like, really inappropriate things, almost things that, like, an ex-girlfriend would say to you,” Gavin recalls in the video. “She would yell at me over text and call me names that a 12-year-old shouldn’t be called by a 30-year-old woman.” He also accuses Tiffany of offering him a vape and says he isn’t the only kidfluencer to stop working with Piper because of her mom’s behavior.

As fans responded to the video, debating the validity of Gavin’s claims, Piper’s inner circle received a clear message. According to Johna and other former Squad moms, Tiffany described Gavin and his mother, Theresa, as liars waging a smear campaign against her and hurting Piper. At first Johna believed her. She’d heard stories about Theresa and Tiffany fighting for months before Gavin left the Squad—maybe this was all a matter of revenge on the part of a bitter mom and her son. But as time went on, Johna wondered if Gavin was telling the truth.

As much as Jentzen loved being part of the Squad, the hours he spent filming were long, beyond what’s legally permitted for working minors in California, a fact supported by paperwork that Johna would later file with the courts. Johna, who put Jentzen and Liana in online school while they pursued their careers, noticed that there were no tutors available on set for Squad members. She and other Squad moms have since stated in interviews that they were especially concerned about Piper, who claimed to have dyslexia and didn’t seem to be able to read very well. But it wasn’t clear to Squad members’ parents which workplace standards applied in the Wild West of social media content creation, or who was responsible for enforcing them. Tiffany? YouTube? Some other entity?  

Johna worried too about what she viewed as Tiffany’s eagerness to control the lives of Squad members, to the point that it was difficult for them to do much of anything except film with Piper. According to Johna and other moms interviewed for this story, Tiffany didn’t just discourage kids from going to parties, attending auditions, or being tagged in photos that didn’t involve the Squad—she often viewed it as outright disloyalty. Kids she deemed ungrateful for one reason or another fell off the shooting schedule, the social media equivalent of being benched, until Tiffany changed her mind. According to Angela Sharbino, Sawyer’s mother, after she told Tiffany that she wanted her son to take on more traditional acting roles, Sawyer would show up to Squad shoots only to watch his friends film without him. “Tiffany just wanted to waste his time,” Angela said.

All the while, Piper’s content seemed to grow ever more adult. According to the 2022 lawsuit, Tiffany gave Squad members instructions about what to do in videos: She directed kids to kiss to make ships seem more real, and to “push their butts out,” “make sexy kissing faces,” or “wear something sluttier.” Because parents often weren’t with their children during shoots, they didn’t always know what went on until later. Even then they were wary of complaining, because dissent risked retribution.

Leaving the Squad wasn’t an easy decision, not for kids who wanted to be stars. Former members saw a marked decline in the growth of their brand once they stopped filming with Piper. The accumulation of followers slowed, and revenue streams dried up. In part this was because proximity to Piper was lucrative; distancing oneself all but ensured financial losses. According to the lawsuit, however, there may have been other reasons kidfluencers who left the Squad suffered setbacks. Angela Sharbino alleges that Hunter Hill admitted that he’d “tanked” kids’ channels by “embedding” their videos on porn sites, which could get the content flagged and unlisted by YouTube, and using bots to add and subtract subscribers in quick succession, which affected the recommendation algorithm. According to court documents, Hunter allegedly told Squad members and their parents that he had a contact at YouTube, someone he called “Alex,” who helped him boost Piper’s content while suppressing the work of her rivals.

Johna didn’t want to jeopardize Jentzen’s career by walking away from the Squad. Nor did she want to go to war with Tiffany. She wasn’t the kind of momager willing to air out dirty laundry about her child’s collaborators on a livestream or slide into fans’ DMs with gossip about other kidfluencers’ parents. And she worried about Jentzen losing important personal bonds. Unlike other kids his age, Jentzen didn’t have close friends he’d met in homeroom, at lunch, or on a school sports team—he had the Squad.

In February 2020, Tiffany announced that the Squad would be taking a road trip to Las Vegas in an RV. Jentzen was waiting to hear about a callback at the time. According to Johna, Tiffany told her that she and Jentzen could head back early if he got good news. The problems started as soon as the trip did. The kids were invited to ride in the RV with Tiffany and Hunter, where they would shoot content during the more than four-hour drive north; the parents were expected to follow separately in their cars. Once the group got to their Airbnb, according to Johna, Tiffany announced that she wanted the boys and the girls to spend the night in adjoining rooms unsupervised. As a result of the setup, Piper and Lev fell asleep one night side by side. Their friends snapped photos and teased them when they woke up. (Johna said she insisted that Jentzen not sleep with his friends, but instead stay in a room with her and another mother-son pair.)

When Jentzen got the callback he’d been waiting on, Johna was glad for the excuse to leave. But according to Johna, after she told Tiffany the news, she got a phone call from Piper’s manager, Peggy Iafrate, who had replaced Matt Dugan in 2019. In Johna’s recollection, Peggy made it clear that if Jentzen left the trip early, he would be kicked out of the Squad. Jentzen missed the callback. (Iafrate did not reply to requests for comment.)

When the Squad returned to Los Angeles, they went to a five-bedroom rental home in Hollywood where Tiffany had recently moved Piper’s content operation. Everyone was exhausted, but Tiffany wanted to keep filming. At some point, according to Johna and the lawsuit plaintiffs, Tiffany cornered Jentzen and Walker Bryant, another Squad member, in a bathroom. She berated them, calling them “horny bastards” for allegedly holding hands with two girls who weren’t their assigned crushes. Later, during a car ride, the boys told Johna about the encounter. At the time, they seemed freaked out.

Johna decided that she wasn’t being paranoid, dramatic, or overbearing. She could no longer ignore what her gut was telling her: that Tiffany wasn’t safe. It was time for Jentzen to leave the Squad.

Despite the bathroom incident, she knew that her son would resist. Jentzen had become a bona fide YouTube star, and he credited his success to Piper and her team. Leaving the Squad would mean losing his closest friends. Johna would need to cushion the financial and emotional impact of pulling out.  

Johna called her husband, Nelson, in Texas. Nelson hadn’t had much interaction with Tiffany, Hunter, or anyone else involved with the Squad. While Johna had previously voiced some concerns to him about the working environment, she wanted to believe—and wanted Nelson to think—that she had the situation under control. After all, attending to the kids and their careers was her job. Now Johna unloaded: She told Nelson about issues on the set of Squad shoots, the types of videos Jentzen was making, the control Tiffany had over the group, and the backlash that ex–Squad members seemed to face.

“I need your help,” she said.

According to the lawsuit, Tiffany directed kids to kiss to make ships seem more real, and to “push their butts out,” “make sexy kissing faces,” or “wear something sluttier.”

Nelson agreed that he would assist with what he and Johna referred to as the “exit process.” As it happened, by early 2020 they weren’t the only people looking to cut ties with Piper’s team—so were the parents of Walker Bryant and of a girl named Indi Carey. Johna and Walker’s mother, Jennifer, had talked before about some of the concerns they shared regarding the culture of the Squad; during shoots, they took turns making Starbucks runs to ensure that one of them was close to their sons at all times. Now, along with Indi’s parents, they agreed to announce their kids’ departure from the Squad in tandem. They hoped there would be strength in numbers. “We’d already seen how she was able to manipulate people and turn them against each other,” Johna said, referring to Tiffany. “We didn’t want to let that happen again.”

Meanwhile, another former Squad member began making public accusations against Tiffany. After appearing in a music video for one of Piper’s songs, Clementine Lea Spieser* worked with the Squad for four months before stepping away in March 2020. Weeks later, as fans were swapping theories about her absence, Clementine posted a video clarifying her reasons for leaving.

Wearing a red cap-sleeve shirt and black choker, Clementine recites a prepared statement in front of a bubblegum pink backdrop. She says she “felt pressured” by Piper’s team to do things she was uncomfortable with. “They tried to put me in a love triangle,” Clementine says. “I’m only 13. I don’t think I should fake a relationship this early.” She also alleges that Tiffany “kept shoving confidentiality agreements in our faces, pressuring us to sign them so she could try to silence us like everybody in the Squad, so she could try to control the public story of every single Squad member. And if [the team] felt we didn’t listen, they would punish us by not promoting us, to show their power.”

Two weeks after Clementine posted her video, Tiffany sued Clementine’s mother, Caroline Fratacci, for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit, which was later settled out of court, accused Caroline of spreading false rumors that went well beyond what was described in Clementine’s video. Tiffany claimed that Caroline had told people she was guilty of “heinous crimes”—including the sexual assault of a minor.

To refute the defamation charge, Caroline’s legal team obtained a letter written by content creator Raegan Fingles. Like Piper, Raegan had gained a following on before moving to Los Angeles to work with Matt Dugan. His letter, submitted to the courts, details an incident that he claims occurred at Tiffany’s Hollywood apartment one night in 2017.

A group of influencers and their teams, including Piper, Tiffany, and Raegan, had attended an event sponsored by a company called Rock Your Hair. When the party ended, some of Dugan’s clients went to Tiffany’s apartment to film content. According to Raegan, who was 17 at the time, Tiffany provided alcohol to everyone, including nine-year-old Piper. The group then decided to go live on an app called YouNow. During the stream, an apparently intoxicated Tiffany turned to Raegan, grabbed his face, and started kissing him. Piper, standing behind them, could be seen pulling Tiffany away from Raegan before Tiffany again appeared to force herself on the teenager.

Raegan’s letter alleged that Tiffany’s behavior continued off camera. He claimed she grabbed him by his waist and attempted to drag him into a bedroom. “I was scared Tiffany was going to rape me,” Raegan stated. He claimed that he reported the incident to Dugan, who told him he would make sure Tiffany was held accountable. “Dugan was my mentor at the time,” Raegan wrote. “I trusted him fully to do the right thing.” When Raegan saw the next day that videos of the livestream no longer seemed to be online, he assumed Dugan had reported them or otherwise had them taken down. Raegan didn’t go to the police. (According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, Raegan was contacted by the FBI about his allegations against Tiffany in 2021.)

Raegan’s letter was dated May 30, 2020, and its allegations made the rounds among kidfluencers and their families that summer. So did other accusations found in a demand letter and legal complaint drafted by a law firm on Gavin Magnus’s behalf after his breakup with Piper the previous year. Those documents, leaked to parents whose kids were once in Piper’s orbit, allege intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil harassment, violation of child labor laws, and cyberstalking by both Tiffany and Hunter. They describe a “Svengali-like” relationship between Tiffany and the kids in the Squad, and include screenshots of text messages Tiffany allegedly sent to Gavin, chastising him for tagging a friend outside the group in his content; the texts call Gavin a “hypocrite” and “shout out slut.”

The documents also describe the association between Tiffany and the adult male fan of Piper’s known as Meagan, the one Steevy Areeco had heard about back in Georgia. According to accounts provided by Gavin and his parents, Tiffany referred to this fan as “the Stalker” and “the Pedophile,” but sent him videos of her daughter in exchange for money, food, and gifts. A final, bizarre accusation made by Gavin and his family is that Tiffany sometimes pretended to be a character she called “Lenny the Dead Cat.” Under the guise of Lenny, she would make sexual comments to Squad members and “manipulate and scare the children into silence.”

Gavin’s parents never filed the documents with the courts, and they never would. Instead, over the summer of 2020, Gavin and Piper began making content together again; one segment is titled “Spying On My EX BOYFRIEND for 24 HOURS Challenge.” A YouTuber with the handle Mayhem, who reports and comments on internet culture, shared a screenshot of a greeting card adorned with rainbows that Gavin’s mother told her social media followers she’d given to Tiffany to make amends. “I just wanted to send a quick note of thanks for allowing Gavin to see all of you,” the card reads. “I am so sorry for the past.” (Theresa Magnus did not reply to requests for comment.)

When Johna heard about Raegan’s, Clementine’s, and Gavin’s accusations against Tiffany, she was overwhelmed. What responsible parent would fail to question how an adult like this is still working with children? she remembered wondering.

By then she was thinking this about her own husband.

On April 26, 2020, the Ramirezes, the Bryants, and the Careys had a conference call with Peggy Iafrate to tell her that their kids were leaving the Squad. A few days later, Nelson traveled from Texas to visit his family. Johna was prepared for Tiffany and Hunter to put up a fight and for Jentzen to be upset. She was hopeful that together she and Nelson would weather the fallout. But then, on Mother’s Day, around two weeks after the call with Iafrate, Nelson made an announcement: Jentzen would not be leaving the Squad.

After talking to Jentzen and to Tiffany, Nelson had a different take on the situation. From his perspective, which Nelson emphasized in an interview for this story was informed by his experience in corporate management, if there were problems in the Squad pertaining to scheduling and on-set rules, these were just the growing pains of a new business. “The idea that the kids were working their asses off and it was a slave camp are wrong,” Nelson said. “The kids wanted to be there and had to be dragged away.” He felt that Johna and some of the other Squad moms had exaggerated, misconstrued, or even made up allegations against Tiffany because they resented how much their kids needed her and Piper to be successful. The women were being vindictive, to Nelson’s mind, and he saw no reason to be concerned about Jentzen’s well-being.

Besides, staying in the Squad was what Jentzen wanted. Liana supported the decision, too. She was still trying to make it in Hollywood; she had even filmed some videos with the Squad. (Neither Liana nor Jentzen replied to requests for comment.)

Johna was shocked. Over the years, the geographical distance between her and Nelson had left their marriage feeling more like a business arrangement than a love story. But they’d made it work well enough and always presented a united front for their kids. Now, in what felt like an instant, Johna found herself effectively sidelined from her family.

Meanwhile, the Squad knew that Johna had tried to remove Jentzen from the group. That made her persona non grata in what was effectively her son’s workplace. Nelson took over as the principal decision maker about Jentzen’s career, coordinating things from Texas. Liana chaperoned Jentzen on routine Squad shoots, while Nelson joined him for out-of-town content trips whenever possible. When it came to supervising her son, Johna became the adult of last resort.

Caring for his basic needs, though, was still her responsibility—Jentzen continued to live with Johna. Soon, he was spending more and more time out with friends. When he was home, he often stayed in his room. Text messages between Jentzen and Johna about schoolwork, meals, and laundry became short and tense. In many instances, Jentzen didn’t respond at all.

Johna felt trapped. She couldn’t defy her husband and children if she wanted to keep their family intact. Still, when she spoke with Nelson in Texas, which according to Johna wasn’t often, she hoped to convince him to see her side of things. She didn’t want their son to fail, Johna insisted, she just wanted him to be safe. “I kept trying to tell him that Tiffany is going to tear our family apart,” Johna said.

That September, Sophie Fergi became the latest kid to leave the Squad. Sophie and her mom, Heather, had been living with Piper, Tiffany, and Hunter. When the mother and daughter moved out, Tiffany was furious. Reportedly, there was a fight over ownership of some pet cats.

Soon after, Heather got in touch with Johna. According to Johna, Heather suggested that because Sophie had worked closely with Jentzen in their ship, it would be healthy for the kids to have a goodbye conversation, just the two of them. The mothers knew that Tiffany wouldn’t approve—Sophie was no longer welcome near anyone in the Squad, including Jentzen—so they orchestrated what Johna called a “parent trap.” She and Heather agreed to bring their kids to a location at the same time. Johna didn’t tell Jentzen why.

When Jentzen realized that Sophie was there, he refused to get out of the car and called Tiffany and Hunter to ask what he should do. He then asked Johna if she’d conspired with Heather. Fearing further alienation from her son, Johna said no.

Nearly three weeks after the botched meeting, according to court documents, Tiffany and Nelson learned what had happened and painted it as a betrayal. Squad members were told that Johna could not be trusted—she was possessive, greedy, and trying to ruin her son’s career. Johna went from feeling unwelcome around the Squad to being labeled as a threat.

Jentzen kept living with his mom, but their relationship grew even more strained. Johna felt powerless as her son filmed videos like “I had my first kiss on camera,” shot with Elliana Walmsley, a new Squad member. She couldn’t stop Jentzen from using his earnings to buy expensive clothes and gaming consoles. She agonized as his GPA in online school dropped to a 1.0.

Finally, seeing no other choice, Johna filed for divorce and joint custody of Jentzen on March 11, 2021. A month later, she submitted a legal petition for the appointment of a conservator over Jentzen’s estate. She hoped to make it clear that she wasn’t attempting to take Jentzen’s money but to protect him.

When she spoke with Nelson in Texas, which according to Johna wasn’t often, she hoped to convince him to see her side of things. She didn’t want their son to fail, Johna insisted, she just wanted him to be safe.

The first real glimmer of outside concern about the Squad appeared, fittingly, on social media. In August 2021, the pop star Pink tweeted, “How many kids like Piper Rockelle are being exploited by their parents? And at what point do the rest of us say … ‘this isn’t okay for a 13 yr old to be posing in a bikini whilst her MOTHER takes the photo?!?!’ ” Pink appeared to be referring to a carousel of images on Piper’s Instagram account. Shot in a backyard pool, the pictures show Piper wearing a blue tie-dyed string bikini, running her hands through her brown hair; in some shots she purses her lips, while in other she sticks out her tongue suggestively. To date the images have received more than 300,000 likes.

Pink’s tweet was shared widely and picked up by the media, including TMZ and Business Insider. Critics were dismayed by the high heels, crop tops, and hair extensions that Piper and other female Squad members had taken to wearing in videos.Piper drew comparisons to a young Brooke Shields, while Tiffany was presumed—by people who view the Kardashians as a less than ideal business model—to be taking cues from Kris Jenner.

Johna watched as the drama played out. She hoped it might finally bring about some positive change.

Five days after Pink’s tweet appeared, YouTube removed the thumbnail images of three of Piper’s videos, citing violations of its child safety policy. One image, from a video titled “My boyfriend walked in on me,” showed Piper clutching a towel against her seemingly bare body, with her mouth agape and cheeks red, as Lev shields his eyes. The other two photos showed Piper and her friends in bikinis; one was from a Fashion Nova promotional shoot, while the other was from a video titled “Wearing A Hot Outfit Then Leaving Him!” YouTube left the full videos up.

Piper defended Tiffany, telling TMZ that her mother was supportive of her career and that the bikini photos, along with other controversial content, had been her idea. In a Paparazzi Gamer video picked up by OK magazine, Piper claimed that Pink’s characterization of Tiffany was “not true,” but acknowledged that it wasn’t the first time she’d heard concerns about her online exposure. “People say that about me, like, literally 24/7,” she said with a shrug.

The same month Pink’s tweet appeared, Piper turned 14. To celebrate her birthday, the Squad was going to film content at Disneyland and spend the night in a nearby hotel. Neither Nelson nor Liana could go with Jentzen: Nelson was in a Texas ICU with COVID, and Liana was preparing to care for him once he was sent home. Johna felt like she needed to act. She was still Jentzen’s mother, after all, and she didn’t want him spending the night alone with the Squad, and especially with Tiffany.

Johna couldn’t go on the trip with Jentzen—he didn’t want her there, and Tiffany wouldn’t allow it anyway—so Johna offered her son a compromise: She would pick him up at the end of the first day of shooting and either stay with him at a hotel or take him home and drive him back early the next morning. Jentzen wasn’t happy with the arrangement, and when Johna got to Anaheim that evening and texted him about a place to meet, he didn’t reply. Johna tried Tiffany and another mom of a Squad member—nothing. Around 11 p.m., a text arrived from Jentzen’s phone questioning whether Johna had discussed her plan to pick him up with Nelson. “Your father is incapacitated in another state,” Johna replied. That message, and others Johna sent to Jentzen as midnight approached, turned green on her phone, indicating that they weren’t delivered. Johna suspected that he’d blocked her number. 

Johna didn’t see any other option but to file a missing person report with the Anaheim police and return home to await news of her son. The next morning, the police notified her that they’d confirmed Jentzen’s location at a hotel. She could meet them there. According to Johna, the police assured her that she’d done the right thing by filing a report.

When she arrived at the hotel, Tiffany and Hunter were there, and Jentzen was taking selfies and cracking jokes with a few cops. Johna got the sense that she’d already been painted as the problem—a stage mom unable to cope with the fact that she couldn’t dictate the terms of her son’s career. “He makes a lot of money, you know,” Johna remembered one of the officers saying to her. (Johna said she later found texts from the same cop on Jentzen’s cell phone—apparently they’d exchanged numbers.)

Johna was at a loss. She didn’t want to cause a scene. So she let Jentzen go to the second day of filming at Disneyland.

As it happened, Johna had recently received an alert on her iPhone that she was being tracked via AirTag. She found the device attached to her car. After the trip to Anaheim, Johna took the AirTag to an Apple Store for help determining where it had come from. The store confirmed what she already suspected: The AirTag was registered to Jentzen’s phone number. 

Jentzen hoped to distance himself from Johna as much and as soon as possible. The month after the Disneyland trip, a court appointed an attorney to help him navigate his legal options. His parents’ divorce proceedings weren’t likely to end anytime soon; seeking emancipation could be time-consuming and cumbersome. Enter Liana.

On November 29, 2021, Jentzen’s sister submitted a legal petition for temporary guardianship of him. Liana, 23 at the time, claimed that she was already Jentzen’s primary caregiver and that Johna was “seldom home.” She brought up the meeting Johna and Heather had arranged between their kids as an example of Johna creating situations in which Jentzen was “harassed” and “denigrated.” Liana said that her younger brother’s income made him “capable of being self-supporting,” and that Johna’s main motivation for keeping custody of her son was to access Jentzen’s money.

Johna refuted her daughter’s allegations in her own declaration to the court. She provided photos of grocery hauls, folded laundry, COVID tests, and trips with Jentzen to see a doctor in recent months—evidence of her being an attentive mother. She referenced the mature content Jentzen had been making with Piper’s team and shared messages from his online school about the number of missed days and unfinished assignments on Jentzen’s record.

She also presented corroborating statements about the type of mother she was, including one from Christopher Bender, a former talent manager and stunt coordinator who’d worked with Jentzen in the past. Bender said that Johna, whom he referred to as a “single mother,” had safe and healthy interactions with her son. “It was refreshing to be able to find an active mother who was not trying to make the child’s career their own career,” he wrote, “but simply there to further the child.” Johna’s close friend Michelle Tyer described the sacrifices Johna made by moving to Los Angeles for Liana and Jentzen. “If anything, I think the biggest mistake that has happened is that Johna has loved her children so much and has let them take advantage of her,” Tyer wrote. 

Other testimonials offered context about Tiffany and the Squad. Sophie’s mother, Heather, characterized the Squad as “cult like.” She alleged that Tiffany had tried to drive a wedge into her family too, in an effort to keep Sophie in Piper’s inner circle. “Similar to Johna, my daughter’s father was absent,” Heather wrote. “Tiffany reached out to the father that wasn’t involved and tried to bring him in and wanted him to take custody away from me.” 

On December 9, the parties in the guardianship case met with a judge to hear an initial report by William Spiller Jr., the court-appointed counsel representing Jentzen. Spiller acknowledged that he’d had limited time to review the case, and though he’d spoken with Jentzen, Liana, and Nelson, he hadn’t interviewed Johna. He also indicated that he didn’t find the supporting declarations Johna had provided relevant to the case. Spiller emphasized that the recommendation he was making that day was “temporary.” He hoped it would provide Jentzen with “some level of stability and consistency.”

Spiller told the judge that he supported Liana’s request. He characterized Jentzen as a successful “internet and social media trendsetter and personality” whose career was being hindered by Johna’s efforts to remove him from the Squad. He suggested that Johna’s motive in fighting for custody was financial, pointing to J&J Ramirez Productions, the LLC she and Jentzen established, as evidence that she wanted at least some portion of her son’s money. (Johna said Nelson knew about the LLC from the beginning; Nelson said he had no idea it existed until much later.) Spiller did recommend granting Johna’s original request for a conservator over Jentzen’s estate. However, he supported installing someone Jentzen had approved.

Johna’s lawyer pointed out that he and his client had gathered a “plethora” of evidence for their side of the case. But the judge accepted Spiller’s recommendation, awarding Liana temporary guardianship of Jentzen and placing the boy’s preferred conservator in charge of his money.

The day after the hearing, Jentzen posted a video on his YouTube channel in which he and Elliana announced that they were ending their ship, which fans had come to know as “Jelliana.” Wearing a white hoodie with a graphic of a barbed-wire heart and jeans ripped at the knee, Jentzen sits at the end of a bed and says “some things just, like, weren’t working out.” With Elliana at his side, her blown-out blond hair carefully fanned out over a pink cropped jacket, Jentzen explains that he’s dealing with “a lot of problems just, like, within my own family that I don’t really want to get into right now, but I’m sure you guys will find out at some point in my life, so it’s just been hard for me to, like, juggle.” To date, the video has over 2.6 million views.

A permanent-guardianship hearing was scheduled for December 21. The date came and went. The court pushed back the hearing once, then a second time. Eventually, Jentzen moved out of Johna’s house and into an apartment with Liana that Nelson had rented for them. Johna grew more despondent by the day.

Then, in January 2022, a friend shared some surprising news: A lawsuit had been filed against Tiffany and Hunter—a big one.

Johna refuted her daughter’s allegations in her own declaration to the court. She provided photos of grocery hauls, folded laundry, COVID tests, and trips with Jentzen to see a doctor in recent months—evidence of her being an attentive mother.

Matthew Sarelson is the first to admit that he didn’t know what to make of the case when it landed on his desk. Based in Palm Beach, Florida, Sarelson is an attorney who practices business litigation, specializing in corporate dispute resolution and compensation contracts. He loves CrossFit, fine wine, and beach days with his family. His Instagram feed is filled with photos of grilled steaks and proud-dad videos shot from the sideline at youth soccer games. He’d never heard of Piper Rockelle before 11 former Squad members and their parents contacted his firm, which has an office in California. They were seeking legal representation.

The families had compared notes and identified what they saw as patterns of abuse. That included Hunter and Tiffany’s alleged “interference” with the kids’ content once they left the Squad, which the families claimed had caused “a precipitous loss of income.” Then, too, there were incidents that the parents believed raised serious concerns about the safety and well-being of any kid who was still in the Squad, including Piper.

Several former Squad members said that, during the 2020 trip to Las Vegas, Tiffany had provided them with hemp brownies while they were separated from their parents in the RV. They said that on more than one occasion Tiffany “engaged in the use of recreational drugs” around them and encouraged them to do the same. Corinne, Piper’s old friend from Georgia, who had left the Squad in May 2019, told her mother and later Sarelson that Tiffany once took her to the post office to mail Piper’s worn training bras and panties to a fan. Corinne remembered Tiffany saying, “Old men like to smell this stuff.” Sophie, who had appeared in 186 videos with Piper, described seeing Tiffany grab Piper’s face and kiss her on the mouth to teach her how to make out on camera. Sophie also claimed that Tiffany once called her “flat,” referring to her chest, and wondered aloud to her whether a male member of the Squad had “a bunch of freckles on his dick.”

Several kids described Tiffany talking about sex with them. Reese, the daughter of Tiffany’s sister Ashley, filmed a few videos with Piper in 2020 and 2021. Reese, who was about ten at the time, recalled her aunt asking her if she’d “ever had sex before” and telling her that she “should.” Numerous ex–Squad members described Tiffany touching them inappropriately: slapping their butt, poking at their anus through their clothing, and rubbing their thigh. The kids said Tiffany sometimes assumed alter egos, including one she called “Lenny,” the same name Gavin Magnus mentioned in the unfiled legal documents his family prepared against Tiffany. According to former Squad members, while acting as Lenny, Tiffany would chase kids around her home yelling threatening phrases, including “I’m going to touch you in your sleep.” Reese described being “ambushed” by Tiffany and “tossed” onto a bed, where Tiffany proceeded to rub her right arm “all over Reese’s face” while pretending it was “Lenny’s penis.”

Sarelson was horrified by what he heard. “I found the kids to be very, very credible,” he said. He thought about his own young children, who had begun asking for iPhones and Instagram accounts, and wanted to learn TikTok dances and buy merch from online influencers. Sarelson agreed to take the case.

On January 12, 2022, two days after Piper posted a tearful video telling fans she had COVID for the second time, Sarelson filed a complaint on the 11 plaintiffs’ behalf. It lists ten charges against Tiffany, Hunter, and Piper Rockelle Inc., including unjust enrichment, civil conspiracy, sexual battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In a broad sense the suit suggests that, in the world of online content creation, there may be alarming gaps in compliance with California’s legal protections for child entertainers. “These violations would never happen on the set of a regular movie production,” Sarelson said.

While the case made headlines, the Squad proceeded with business as usual. On January 14, Piper posted a sprawling video in which she informs fans that her pet bird, Pablo, has died, pranks her friends by telling them she still has COVID after testing negative, and listens to Tiffany talk on the phone with a doctor about the likelihood of getting pregnant with a second child. Next up: a video in which Piper sets Jentzen up on a date. The Squad and their parents didn’t comment publicly on the lawsuit.

Still, Tiffany and Hunter didn’t go undefended. When the YouTube channel of the Dad Challenge Podcast, which promotes the hashtag #KidsArentContent, hosted a livestream to read the legal complaint in its entirety, messages from Theresa Magnus’s YouTube account appeared in the chat. “Your not getting the story,” one of them read. The stream’s host replied, “Are you telling me then that Tiffany is innocent?” Theresa’s account said “yes.” Toward the end of the stream, either Piper or someone using her YouTube account entered the chat, too. “You don’t know what you’re even talking about,” the user wrote.

Much like Pink’s tweet a few months prior, the lawsuit was followed by YouTube taking action. On February 10, Piper’s channel was demonetized, meaning that it would no longer include ads. In April, Piper began promoting herself on Brand Army, a subscription-based platform where she didn’t have to rely on advertising to make money. She also launched an app designed to help social media influencers monetize their content. Called Rares, Piper’s app lets other content creators sell exclusive photos and videos; fans are teased with blurred edits of content and charged for full access.

According to the Los Angeles Times, as Piper’s team pivoted her business model, California’s Department of Industrial Relations launched an investigation into the Squad’s working conditions. A spokesperson for the department contacted for this story stated that, for confidentiality reasons, he could not confirm the existence of an investigation.

In July, Tiffany countersued the former Squad members, invoking the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act—better known as RICO. She alleged that the kids’ parents had conspired to damage her reputation and Piper’s business with “false allegations of sexual abuse.” She claimed that YouTube demonetization had cost Piper between $300,000 and $500,00 in monthly advertising revenue and between $50,000 and $125,000 in brand deals. The plaintiffs’ parents denied wrongdoing. Tiffany dropped the suit in October.

As of this writing, the ex–Squad members’ case is scheduled to go to a jury trial in April. The following month, Johna hopes to finally resolve the status of her relationship with Jentzen—the legal status, anyway.

The suit suggests that, in the world of online content creation, there may be alarming gaps in compliance with California’s legal protections for child entertainers. “These violations would never happen on the set of a regular movie production,” Sarelson said.

When Johna first read the former Squad members’ complaint, she had mixed feelings. “I was both validated and dismayed,” she said. “On the one hand, there were others now making the same shocking allegations I had long suspected. But I also felt dismayed when I compared it to how LA county is looking at my situation.” Johna sent the complaint to Spiller, who remained on Jentzen’s case as the family awaited a permanent court order. She hoped it would help him see things from her perspective.

In a report filed in March 2022, Spiller argued that the lawsuit wasn’t relevant to Jentzen’s case. “Apparently, Johna believes that the lawsuit supercedes [sic] in importance the Guardianship proceedings,” he asserted. “But [I] cannot make the connection between the two.” Spiller described Johna’s effort to bring the lawsuit to bear on the situation with Jentzen as a “red herring,” emphasizing that in his estimation the Ramirezes’ disagreement is over Jentzen’s finances, not who he works with. “I attempted to explain to her that lawsuits are not only common but contain only allegations until proven,” Spiller wrote.

For his part, Nelson Ramirez believes that the allegations in the lawsuit are baseless. “Tiffany is not an angel, but what they are saying is not true,” he said. Nelson noted that a lot of Squad parents have been “vulgar at times…. Sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s like, oh, that should not  have been said. But that’s all it is.”

The Ramirezes are due for a court-mandated mediation session in May, two months shy of Jentzen’s 17th birthday. Depending on the outcome, the question of his permanent guardianship may go to trial. According to Johna, Jentzen rarely answers her calls or texts. She doesn’t hear from either of her kids on holidays, and she’s no longer included in family events, like Liana’s engagement last summer. When she was able to sit down with Liana after the celebration, she found her daughter to be “very upset.” According to Johna, Liana said that Nelson told her the family’s legal issues were draining money he’d planned to use for her wedding.

Jentzen now has more than five million followers across YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. His profile on the latter references Philippians 4:13, a Bible verse that reads, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” In mid-January, he posted a prank video he shot with his sister, in which he pretends to set Liana’s wedding dress on fire. He and Elliana Walmsley are once again filming content together, and he went on a tour of the UK and Ireland with the Squad last year. But recently Jentzen hasn’t been shooting with Piper’s crew.

The last time Johna saw Jentzen was on August 30—it was one of only a handful of in-person encounters the mother and son had in 2022. Johna said that Jentzen asked her to drop her objection to Liana’s guardianship petition and her claim to partial earnings from their LLC. “Maybe then we can be friends,” she remembered Jentzen telling her.

Johna has read a lot about parental alienation. She imagines Jentzen turning 18 and never speaking to her again. She wonders what it will take to prevent that. She isn’t sure it’s in her hands anymore. Maybe hitting pause on his work with the Squad, as Jentzen seems to be doing, will help him see his career differently, see her differently. Maybe then Johna will be able to stop fighting.

*The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Clementine Spieser’s name.

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The Girl in the Picture

The Girl in the Picture

A sketch artist and a grieving mother set out to solve a cold case. The more they dug, the more terrifying the truth became.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 118


For most residents of Holland, Michigan, there was nothing remarkable about March 11, 1989, a Saturday. Frost on the ladders of the city’s water towers thawed in the sun—spring was just over a week away. Mothers poured milk over cereal for kids watching back-to-back episodes of their favorite cartoons. Fathers who worked weekends drove pickup trucks to industrial jobs at local automotive and concrete companies.

But all was not well in the house on the corner of Lincoln Road and 52nd Street. It belonged to Dennis and Brenda Bowman, a married couple with two children. For the Bowmans, March 11 marked the last time they saw their 14-year-old daughter, Aundria, alive.

Dennis was the one who contacted the police. He told them that he’d come home from his job as a wood machinist to find Aundria missing, along with some of her belongings and $100 from his dresser. Dennis described Aundria—whom he and Brenda had adopted when she was an infant—as a troubled teenager who frequently fought with her mother and had run away to a friend’s house once before.

Dennis agreed to call around to the homes of kids Aundria knew to find out if anyone had seen her. But his wife soon took over as the family’s point of contact. It was Brenda who called the police regularly, and Brenda who corrected the amount of cash missing from her husband’s dresser to $150. That was enough for police to issue a warrant for Aundria’s arrest for larceny; the warrant listed Dennis as the victim of his daughter’s alleged crime.

With no foul play suspected, the police labeled Aundria a runaway and passed her case along to the Youth Services Bureau. Few people who knew the Bowmans questioned the official narrative. Over the years, there had been whispers about the family. Once, when Aundria was in middle school, she boarded the school bus bleeding from her wrist. Some kids gossiped about a suicide attempt, but others said Aundria had cut herself trying to get back into her house after her parents locked her out. There were rumors that Dennis, a former Navy reservist with reddish-brown hair, a goatee, and wire-rimmed glasses, and Brenda, a portly woman with curled bangs who’d once worked at the jewelry counter at Meijer department store, abused Aundria. But back then, what happened behind closed doors was considered family business.

Fifteen months before Aundria disappeared, Brenda gave birth to a daughter, Vanessa. Aundria went from being an only child to more than a big sister—she was a third parent to the chubby, redheaded baby. While other kids her age went to afterschool clubs and Friday night football games, Aundria stayed home changing diapers and cleaning bottles. She kept a photo of her sister in a school folder, where other teens might stash a magazine cutout or a polaroid of their crush. When she wasn’t with Vanessa, Aundria was anxious about the baby’s well-being.

Many people in Holland assumed that Aundria had gotten so fed up with her home life that she finally split. Maybe she’d gone looking for her birth mother. People heard that she’d hitched a ride at a local truck stop, had left town with an older boy, or was pregnant.

Brenda reported a series of tips in the weeks and months following her daughter’s disappearance, all of which seemed to confirm that Aundria had run away. At the end of March, Brenda claimed Aundria had been spotted at a 7-Eleven. In mid-April, Brenda said she received an anonymous call from someone claiming that police were looking for the teenager in the right area, but on the wrong street—whatever that meant. In June, she reported a sighting at a local property, where Aundria had supposedly been hanging out with a group of young men. And in October, Brenda said a friend had seen Aundria, pregnant and with dyed hair, in a line at Meijer. Police investigated but found nothing.

Aundria’s classmates went to prom and graduated, then got jobs or headed to college. Eventually they married and had children of their own. But Aundria remained forever 14. A single photograph formed most people’s memory of her. It was given to police when she first vanished. In it, Aundria is sitting against a blue studio backdrop and looking just off camera, with her green eyes cast hopefully upward and pieces of her dark, shaggy hair hanging over her forehead. Her smile is charmingly off-balanced. She looks suspended between adolescence and adulthood.

Photos of missing children were often printed on the sides of milk cartons or on flyers taped to the top of pizza delivery boxes. Aundria’s picture wound up somewhere else. In 1993, the band Soul Asylum debuted a music video for its song “Runaway Train,” featuring the images and names of missing kids across America. The video was a huge hit, with several versions airing on MTV and VH1. In the one that played in Michigan, Aundria’s photo appears just after the two-minute mark.

Reflecting on the video 20 years after its release, director Tony Kaye claimed that more than two dozen missing children were found because of the video. Aundria Bowman wasn’t one of them.

Back then, what happened behind closed doors was considered family business.

Carl Koppelman never expected to solve mysteries. He worked as an accountant until 2009, when his mother’s health began to decline. At 46, Koppelman became a full-time caregiver, and his days, once filled with reviews of spreadsheets and financial statements, now revolved around driving to doctor’s appointments and administering medications. When he wasn’t tending to his mother, Koppelman was online, exploring message boards, news sites, and social media. At the time, the story dominating headlines, and bordering on popular obsession, was the return of Jaycee Dugard.

In 1991, Dugard had been kidnapped while walking to a bus stop near her home south of Lake Tahoe, California. The blond, freckled 11-year-old was the subject of a nationwide search, but eventually the case went cold. Then, on August 26, 2009, Dugard reappeared. For 18 years, convicted sex offender Philip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, had held her captive at their home in the town of Antioch, more than 150 miles from where they’d kidnapped her. Dugard had given birth to two of Garrido’s daughters, who were now 11 and 15. To the embarrassment of local authorities, parole officers had visited the Garridos’ home several times during the years Dugard was missing. They’d failed to check the backyard, where the young woman was kept in a network of tents, lean-tos, and sheds.

Koppelman’s interest in the Dugard case led him to Websleuths, a forum where crime hobbyists and armchair detectives connect and collaborate on unsolved cases. Koppelman gravitated to posts about cold cases, the ones least likely to ever be solved. Until recently, Dugard’s had been one of them. How many more would benefit from fresh eyes and a little persistence?

Koppelman spent countless hours scrolling through the national database of missing persons and unidentified bodies, known as NamUs. There’s overlap between the two main parts of the database, the disappeared and the deceased—the trick is finding it. During late nights at his computer, in a dimly lit corner of his mother’s suburban home in El Segundo, California, Koppelman would try to match the characteristics of people who had gone missing with those of the unidentified dead. Finding a likeness could be enough to generate a tip for law enforcement.

When Koppelman noticed that the age and condition of some bodies might make it difficult for loved ones to recognize them, it sparked an idea: Koppelman liked to draw portraits for fun, and he was pretty good at it. He also had a CD-ROM of the image-editing software CorelDRAW, which someone had given to him as a gift. One day, with his mother napping in the next room, Koppelman installed the program on his computer. It was his first step toward becoming a forensic sketch artist.

He started creating lifelike renderings of Jane and John Does based on photos taken postmortem. He used CorelDRAW to open eyes, fill in sunken cheeks, and give faces more dynamic expressions. In complicated cases, where bodies had decomposed, he re-created facial structure. The goal was to make the dead more recognizable—to loved ones searching for them, and to police trying to identify them. Once he finished a rendering Koppelman sent it to NamUs, and the database would sometimes publish it. He also posted his work on Websleuths so other armchair detectives could use it in their identification efforts.

Eventually, Koppelman began working with police departments and the DNA Doe Project, which identifies human remains through genetic testing and genealogical research. Glad to help law enforcement generate leads and, in some instances, put a name to a face, Koppelman was almost always an unpaid volunteer. His renderings were instrumental in solving several cold cases, including the identification of the Caledonia “Cali” Jane Doe (Tammy Jo Alexander) in 2015.

But before all that, in 2009, when he was just starting out as an amateur sleuth, Koppelman got interested in the case of the Racine County Jane Doe. When she was found near the edge of a Wisconsin cornfield in 1999, the young woman had only been dead about 12 hours, but rain had washed away any evidence that might have been useful to investigators. It seemed likely that the young woman had been murdered elsewhere and dumped. An autopsy determined that she may have been cognitively disabled, and that she had suffered long-term abuse and neglect: She had broken bones and a cauliflower ear, and her body showed signs of sexual assault. More than 50 people from the farming community where she was found attended her funeral. But no one knew her name or what had happened to her. Her gravestone read “Gone, But Not Forgotten”—a hope more than a description.

Koppelman read everything he could find about the Racine County Jane Doe, combing through news articles and social media. He learned that she had hazel-green eyes, two piercings in each ear, and short reddish-brown hair. She was five-foot-eight and 120 pounds, and estimated to be between 18 and 30 years old. She was found wearing a men’s gray and silver western-style shirt embroidered with red flowers—a design, the manufacturer told police, from the mid-1980s.

On NamUs, Koppelman plugged in some general search criteria—gender, age, location—and clicked through the results for missing persons. With each one, Koppelman asked himself, Could this be her? In most cases, the answer was a clear no. The age didn’t match, or the location made no sense. But one entry gave Koppelman pause: Aundria Bowman.

Aundria and the Racine County Jane Doe shared physical characteristics, and their ages aligned: Aundria would have been 25 in 1999, when the Jane Doe was killed. Holland, where Aundria disappeared, sits directly across Lake Michigan from where the Jane Doe was found—it’s just four hours by car from one location to the other, tracing the lake’s southern shoreline and passing through Chicago. To test the possible identification, Koppelman created a composite image, superimposing Aundria’s photo with ones from the Jane Doe’s autopsy. He marked the similarities in red.

Koppelman took his theory to law enforcement, who found it compelling enough to investigate. To determine whether the Jane Doe was Aundria, police would need to compare DNA from the body with that of someone in Aundria’s family. Because Aundria was adopted, authorities had to track down her birth mother. Koppelman knew that could take a while, or that it might never happen, forcing investigators to find other avenues for identification.

As the police did their part, Koppelman kept poking around online, learning what he could about Aundria. One day at the end of 2012, he came across a page for Aundria—the premium kind you have to pay to keep active, in order to connect directly with former school acquaintances. Was this Aundria, alive and well, and trying to find old friends? And if it wasn’t her, who was it?

No one knew her name or what had happened to her. Her gravestone read “Gone, But Not Forgotten”—a hope more than a description.

Cathy Terkanian’s life story seems ripped from the plot of a made-for-TV movie. Her mother, Shirley, had six children with three men. Terkanian’s stepfather was in the Navy, and the family moved seven times before she started the seventh grade. The stepfather was deployed for long stretches, and Terkanian’s mother was overwhelmed by the demands of taking care of so many kids, including one who had epilepsy. With no one looking after her, Terkanian was molested at the age of ten by the husband of one of her mother’s friends, then raped at twelve by a teenager. She knew she had to escape her existence, so she started to make a plan.

In 1972, Terkanian left Virginia, where her family was living at the time, with no clothes except what she was wearing and without saying goodbye. She was 14 and had no money. She hitchhiked to Tennessee, where she met up with a friend in Memphis, and then went to the city’s Greyhound bus station. She didn’t have a destination in mind, but noticed another traveler wearing colorful beads who mentioned a party down in New Orleans called Mardi Gras. The next day, Terkanian arrived in the Big Easy, where jazz music reverberated through the French Quarter and people laughed and sang jubilantly in the streets.

In the midst of the counterculture movement of the 1970s, Terkanian wasn’t the only runaway teen in New Orleans. She met a network of young people who helped each other out, offering a place to crash, a job, and tips and tricks for staying off the street. Through this group she met Randy Badger, a 19-year-old who’d recently hitchhiked to Louisiana from Los Angeles. Before long they found a place to stay and were doing everything together. They even got joint work at a circus sideshow. For the first time, Terkanian was living her life how she wanted to.

In December 1972, Terkanian and Badger traveled to South Carolina, where it was legal for a minor to get married if they had parental permission. Terkanian’s parents gave it gladly—in fact, they insisted on the union. Shirley didn’t want to be the person police called if her daughter was in trouble. Terkanian’s stepfather signed the necessary paperwork.

The couple were married less than a year when Terkanian found out she was pregnant. It was unexpected news, but also another step toward independence. Terkanian wanted to do better by her baby than her mother had done by her. On June 23, 1974, Terkanian gave birth to a healthy daughter. She named her Alexis, after the actress Alexis Smith.

Her relationship with Badger soon went downhill. While Terkanian balanced work with caring for Alexis, her husband seemed more interested in partying with friends, including other women. The final straw came when Alexis was five months old: Terkanian returned home from a shift to find Badger kissing another woman on the couch, while Alexis was alone in the back room, crying, without a diaper on. Terkanian decided to leave, but she had to think about Alexis, too. What would be best for her daughter? Terkanian resigned herself to what she considered her only option. She went home to Virginia.

During the five-day Greyhound ride, Alexis barely cried. Passengers complimented Terkanian, welcome encouragement for the now single teen mom. But whatever confidence Terkanian felt vanished when she arrived in Norfolk and her mother picked her up at the station. Shirley didn’t throw her arms around her daughter or plant kisses on Alexis’s plump cheeks. Instead, she looked the pair up and down and puckered her face in judgement.

It turned out that Shirley had been diagnosed with breast cancer and given just five years to live. Terkanian quickly realized that her mother expected her to care for her siblings. And while Shirley never said it outright, it was clear she didn’t think Terkanian should have a child of her own. One day, casually, Shirley said, “You ran out of formula. How are you gonna take care of this kid?” A seed was planted, and from it Terkanian’s doubt grew. She increasingly felt like she couldn’t give Alexis the life her daughter deserved.

Terkanian agreed to give her baby up for adoption. Shirley handled the logistics, assuring Terkanian that Alexis would be taken in by a good family through Catholic Charities. Shortly after the adoption was finalized, Terkanian left home again. This time, the teenager hoped, things would be different.

“You ran out of formula. How are you gonna take care of this kid?”

Terkanian eventually went to nursing school and met her current husband. They never started a family of their own. For more than 30 years, she didn’t have any idea what had become of her daughter. Terkanian, with blond hair and a confident smile, sometimes wondered if Alexis looked like her. She hoped her daughter was happy, and that Alexis’s adoptive parents knew how lucky they were.

Then, in April 2010, a letter arrived at Terkanian’s home in Massachusetts that upended her life. It was from a social worker, who explained that Alexis had disappeared from her adoptive home in Michigan in 1989. Police were investigating a new lead in the case—that Alexis might be a Jane Doe found in Wisconsin. A dead girl. Police needed a sample of Terkanian’s DNA to know for sure.

Terkanian was perplexed by how little information the letter provided. It didn’t include Alexis’s adoptive name or the city where she’d lived. Nor did it offer contact information for police or any details about Alexis’s disappearance when she was 14—the same age Terkanian had been when she ran away from home. Terkanian was willing to share her DNA, but she wanted to know more about what had happened to her daughter.

She searched online for information about missing girls in Michigan. It didn’t take long to find one from the town of Holland whose birthday and physical description matched Alexis’s. When she saw the girl’s school photo, Terkanian thought Aundria Bowman could be her daughter.

Eventually, Terkanian would learn that, as a baby, Alexis had wound up in the hands of Virginia’s Department of Social Services. Someone, possibly Shirley, had reported that Alexis was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and that Terkanian had taken LSD during the pregnancy—both lies, Terkanian insisted. The life she’d imagined Alexis would have crumbled in her mind. Desperate to know the truth, Terkanian set up a Facebook page about Aundria’s disappearance, as well as a account in Aundria’s name. She was hoping to connect with her daughter’s old friends. Instead, she found Carl Koppelman.

Terkanian and Koppelman began exchanging messages, which led to a series of long phone conversations. Terkanian also met other online sleuths interested in Aundria’s case, including a woman in New Jersey named Sue Kovacs, who helped Terkanian revamp the Find Aundria Facebook page and expand its reach. Everyone waited for the results of Terkanian’s DNA test, to see if there was a match with the Racine County Jane Doe.

But for the people invested in the case, determining whether Aundria’s body had been found was just one piece of the puzzle. If Aundria was indeed dead, how had it happened? If she’d been killed, who was responsible? Terkanian got in touch with a retired Michigan detective familiar with Aundria’s case, a man named Pat O’Reilly. His frankness surprised her. “They botched this case from the beginning,” Terkanian remembered him saying. (O’Reilly didn’t respond to an interview request.)

According to O’Reilly, the person Terkanian needed to be looking at was Aundria’s adoptive father, Dennis Bowman.


On a sunny morning in May 1980, a 19-year-old woman was riding her bike north of Holland, Michigan, when a motorcyclist forced her off the road. The man told her to get off her bike and walk into the woods. The young woman didn’t move. All she needed was a moment—to think, to distract him, to do something. The man pulled out a gun, fired a shot past her, and repeated the order. Still she didn’t budge. The man fired the gun again, this time at the ground near her feet. He said he would shoot her next.

Just then a car drove by and the motorcyclist turned his head at the noise. The young woman took the opportunity to pedal away as fast as she could. The man didn’t shoot or give chase, and she was able to flag down someone in a pickup truck who drove her home. Her parents called the police, and the young woman provided a description of the suspect: a white male with tinted glasses and a blue helmet. His motorcycle, she said, had a black top case mounted on the back.

By the end of the day, the police had detained a suspect. The young woman took one look at him and confirmed that he was the man who’d tried to attack her. It was Dennis Bowman, who by then was already a husband and father. At the time, Aundria was almost six years old.

Dennis was convicted of assault with intent to commit criminal sexual conduct and sentenced to five to ten years in prison. He was referred for psychological counseling, and a judge determined that he would likely pose a danger to women if he went free. Still, Dennis served the minimum sentence.

Brenda stood by her husband then, and she did so again in 1998. One day that year, a state trooper in Dorr, Michigan, responded to an alarm at the mobile home of 28-year-old Vicki Vanden Brink. She’d reported so many break-ins that the sheriff’s department had installed a security system. When the trooper arrived at the scene, he found Dennis Bowman walking away from the back door. The Bowmans had moved to Hamilton, a town nestled between Holland and Dorr, in 1989, shortly after Aundria’s disappearance, and Dennis told the officer that he was temporarily staying with Vanden Brink, who was a former co-worker of his. He was let go, but when authorities got in touch with Vanden Brink, who wasn’t home when the alarm went off, she said Dennis was lying.

Dennis then changed his story, telling law enforcement that he’d entered the trailer to use the bathroom. He’d been there at least once before, he claimed, when his daughter Vanessa wanted to sell Girl Scout cookies to Vanden Brink. Skeptical, the police obtained Dennis’s permission to search his property. In the loft of an outbuilding, they found a black duffel bag containing lingerie that was later identified as Vanden Brink’s, as well as a short-barreled shotgun, a black sweatshirt, and a mask.

Dennis pled guilty to one count of breaking and entering. His sentencing memo, written by his attorney, doesn’t mention his 1980 conviction or the prior break-ins that Vanden Brink had reported, which police believed Dennis was responsible for. Dennis’s lawyer presented letters written on his client’s behalf by various people: the counselor who ran Dennis’s sex offender group-treatment program, the principal of Vanessa’s elementary school, Dennis’s boss, and a congregant at Christ Memorial Church, who noted that Dennis had taught Sunday School to kindergartners for the past six years. The court also received a letter from Brenda, who defended her husband, and from Dennis himself, who wrote of his behavior, “Sometimes we don’t realize a problem until it confronts us face to face.”

Dennis described himself as happily married for 28 years. He said that he had two daughters, one 25 and the other 11. He didn’t mention that the older one had been missing for more than a decade. 

Cathy Terkanian learned the details of Dennis Bowman’s criminal record after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request. Based on what detective Pat O’Reilly had told her, it had seemed logical to dig into Bowman’s past. Reading for the first time about what Bowman had done to two young women, Terkanian felt a terrible certainty: “When I got his FOIA records I said, ‘Oh, this man killed my daughter.’”

If Terkanian was right, it would mean that the Racine County Jane Doe wasn’t Aundria—that theory made sense only if Aundria were still alive ten years after she disappeared. In 2013, the long-awaited DNA results confirmed it: Terkanian wasn’t related to the Jane Doe. She and Koppelman, along with the other amateur sleuths interested in Aundria’s story, had thought they were connecting the dots in a single cold case when all along they’d been looking at two.

Koppelman and Terkanian were equally yet uniquely obsessive in their approach to detective work: He was thorough and precise, while she was impassioned and incendiary. As Koppelman calculated the next steps in their investigation, Terkanian was too angry to keep silent. The way she saw it, Bowman needed to be behind bars. With his criminal record in hand, she began writing Facebook posts accusing Bowman of being responsible for Aundria’s disappearance. She also assembled a rolodex of people who’d known her daughter: Russ Foster, who briefly dated Aundria in high school; Linda Berens, the mother of a classmate; Eli Ramos, who rode the school bus with Aundria; and a couple named the Shaffers, who’d grown up with Dennis and Brenda in Muskegon, Michigan, and whose daughter, Mindi, remembered seeing Aundria in the “Runaway Train” video. Terkanian learned about Aundria’s difficult home life and her anxiety about caring for her baby sister.

In September 2013, Terkanian and Koppelman met in person at the Missing in Michigan conference. Organized by state police, the conference was designed to raise awareness about and hopefully generate leads in cold cases. Family members and friends of missing persons gathered one Sunday at the Eagle Eye Golf Club in East Lansing, their nervous whispers filling a banquet hall overlooking a green. The schedule included panels, support groups, and even DNA collection, so police could look for matches between families and unidentified remains. Terkanian and Koppelman showed up in custom shirts that read “Find Aundria Bowman.”

The day kicked off with an early-morning group therapy session. Terkanian and Koppelman took their seats in a large circle and listened as people introduced themselves. Koppelman scanned the room and was surprised when his eyes landed on familiar faces. He nudged Terkanian, and she looked over. “That’s Vanessa,” she said, “and that’s Brenda.

Brenda and Vanessa recognized Terkanian, too—the Bowmans were aware of what Terkanian had been saying about Dennis on Facebook. When it was Brenda’s turn to introduce herself, she told the room, “We have a little situation here.” Looking at Terkanian, she added, “I can see that you very much resemble Aundria.”

Brenda tried to keep talking, but Terkanian didn’t let her. She’d lain awake so many nights, furious that her daughter’s adoptive mother hadn’t protected her. “Tell them the truth, Brenda,” Terkanian blurted out. “Tell them about your husband.” The session descended into a dramatic exchange before finally getting back on track.

Afterward, Terkanian hung back as Koppelman approached Brenda, insisting that he only wanted to talk. Though flustered, Brenda seemed eager to explain her side of the story. She insisted that she and Dennis had fully cooperated with police after Aundria’s disappearance. She presented a binder full of notes and missing person fliers as proof. She recounted sightings of Aundria. It was clear she still believed that the teenager had run away. According to Koppelman, when he brought up Dennis’s criminal record, Brenda replied, “I haven’t forgotten what he did. But I do forgive him. I take my marriage vows very seriously.” Koppelman thought her words sounded rehearsed but not disingenuous.

Terkanian had been biting her tongue while Brenda and Koppelman spoke, but now she exploded. “Tell us how you abused, starved, and humiliated her, Brenda!” she yelled. Vanessa, reacting to the verbal attack on her mother, had to be held back by a male attendee. “You need to be put in a fucking insane asylum,” Koppelman remembered Vanessa saying to Terkanian. The Bowmans and Terkanian avoided each other for the rest of the day. (Brenda and Vanessa Bowman didn’t respond to interview requests.)

After the conference, Koppelman and Terkanian returned to their respective homes on the East and West Coasts, but they’d already decided they needed someone on the ground in Michigan—a private investigator to keep working Aundria’s case closer to where she’d gone missing. Terkanian hired Geoffrey Flohr, a former Michigan state trooper who’d helped solve a 1979 gang rape and murder that happened in Holland. Flohr soon managed to get his hands on Aundria’s police file, which Terkanian and Koppelman had never seen. Oddly, the earliest documents in it weren’t from March 1989, when Aundria disappeared—they were dated four months earlier.

That was when police responded to allegations of abuse in the Bowman home. The report didn’t go into detail about what happened, noting only that local authorities had determined the allegations weren’t true. But if one thing was consistent in Aundria’s case, it was carelessness. Koppelman and Terkanian were sure law enforcement had missed something. They went looking for people who could fill in the blanks.

The amateur sleuths had thought they were connecting the dots in a single cold case when all along they’d been looking at two.

Jennifer Jones became friends with Aundria in middle school band, where they both played in the wind section. They remained close during their freshman year of high school. One Tuesday afternoon, Aundria came home with Jones, but when it was time to leave, she said she didn’t want to go. According to Jones, Aundria said that her father was sexually abusing her. Jones’s mother let her stay the night, and the next day took her to the principal’s office, where Aundria repeated the accusation to school officials. Jones was sent to class and assured that the adults would handle the situation. Aundria wasn’t at school the rest of the day, and Jones assumed that she was in protective custody. Later she learned that Aundria had gone home with her parents.

Around the time Aundria confided in Jones and her mother, she also spoke to Arlene Rahn, another local mom. Aundria befriended Rahn’s sons through their church’s youth group and had started hanging out at their house; Rahn assumed Aundria had a crush on one of the boys. Eventually Aundria told Rahn that her father was abusing her. She also said that Brenda knew and didn’t care. Rahn was hesitant to get involved; she told Aundria to talk to her youth pastor. Then, one evening as Rahn pulled into the Bowmans’ driveway to drop Aundria off, Dennis appeared and told Rahn to stay out of his business. “It just made me so uncomfortable,” she later said. Rahn never reported the incident to authorities. Within a few months, Aundria was gone.

There were other red flags. The Shaffers—the couple who’d grown up with the Bowmans in Muskegon—knew about Dennis’s criminal record and recalled him bragging about sexual conquests as early as high school. They’d always felt uneasy about him, and they kept a watchful eye over their own daughter when he was around. The Shaffers ultimately ended their friendship with the Bowmans after Aundria went missing. When their daughter, Mindi, found the Facebook page for Aundria, she said her parents had never been contacted by the police about the case. In fact, it wasn’t until Koppelman and Terkanian connected with them on Facebook that the couple spoke to anyone about their suspicions. 

Facebook turned up another source, one who believed that Dennis Bowman’s criminal behavior had persisted between his convictions in 1980 and 1998. (At her request, The Atavist is using a pseudonym to protect the source’s privacy.) When Melissa found the Find Aundria page, she sent a message to the administrators describing what had happened to her on a bright September afternoon in 1989, when she was six. As she was walking to a friend’s house, she was flagged down by a man in a truck who promised to take her to see some puppies. He told her that her mother said it was OK and pulled Melissa into the cab. As he drove, the man stroked her face. Melissa’s stomach churned. “Is that it?” she asked again and again, pointing to each barn and turnoff they passed, hoping that was where the puppies would be.

Eventually, the driver pulled into a rural area near the town of Hamilton. The man parked the truck, grabbed Melissa by the neck, and dragged her into a thicket. He ripped off her blue sweater, printed with the words “Young at Heart,” and wrapped it around her mouth. He tied her hands behind her back with a length of rope and removed the rest of her clothes. Then, as the attacker knelt over Melissa and unzipped his pants, he startled at the sound of barking dogs nearby. The man ran off, leaving Melissa alone. She walked naked and barefoot to the main road. Two cars pulled over, and someone called 911.

The police visited Melissa’s home that night, and a sketch artist created a rendering of the perpetrator and his vehicle—a red pickup truck with a white cab. But a suspect was never found, the case went cold, and the statute of limitations eventually expired. As she got older, what bothered Melissa most was that the man who’d attacked her was still out there and could be hurting other girls. She kept tabs on local news articles, police statements, and social media posts, looking for any stories like hers. But it wasn’t until she stumbled upon the Find Aundria Facebook page that Melissa believed she could finally name the man who’d lured her into the truck: Dennis Bowman.

Terkanian and Koppelman were now convinced that Dennis Bowman was a serial predator who had killed Aundria and covered it up by claiming that she’d run away. “By 2016,” Terkanian said, “I was screaming from the tops of Facebook that he had my daughter buried in his backyard.” But any evidence remained circumstantial at best. There was no proof Aundria was dead, let alone murdered. And nothing tied Bowman to other unsolved criminal cases, including Melissa’s abduction.

Between 2013 and 2017, Terkanian and Koppelman met in Michigan four times. While there, they occasionally caught up with Chris Haverdink, the detective who’d taken over Aundria’s case. Usually, they met him on the patio of Googs Pub & Grub, a local haunt next to the Days Inn where Melissa worked and helped Terkanian and Koppelman get discounted rooms. Haverdink agreed that Bowman was suspicious, but that wasn’t enough to arrest him.

Terkanian and Koppelman visited Michigan for the last time in May 2017. It was becoming clear that they’d gotten as far as they could on their own; a break in the case would almost certainly have to come from law enforcement, a witness, or Bowman himself. Before flying home, Terkanian and Koppelman sat in their rental car outside the Bowmans’ house in Hamilton. After years of examining Google street maps and satellite images, Terkanian had zeroed in on a concrete slab at the back of the property. She was convinced Bowman had buried her daughter underneath it.

She stared at the house until the last possible minute, when Koppelman insisted they’d miss their flights if they didn’t leave. “She was just sitting there with these binoculars,” Koppelman said, “like she knew that’s where Aundria was.”


Peggy Johnson was never reported missing. She was last seen at a homecoming dance in Harvard, Illinois, in 1994, and most people who knew her assumed she’d run away. An aunt worried enough to take out a classified ad in the paper. But nobody seemed to suspect that something terrible might have happened to the auburn-haired girl.

Johnson disappeared shortly after the death of her mother, the sole parent in her low-income household. The 19-year-old found herself orphaned and homeless, with a developmental disability that made it difficult for her to get a job. By chance she met a nurse named Linda La Roche who offered her work as a live-in housekeeper and nanny to her children. The teenager jumped at the opportunity.

Over the next five years, La Roche abused Johnson, beating her, starving her, and forcing her to live in a crawl space. The violence culminated in 1999, when La Roche allegedly murdered the 23-year-old. When Johnson’s body was found dumped in Raymond, Wisconsin, the cause of death was determined to be sepsis resulting from pneumonia; an autopsy also revealed decaying teeth, broken ribs, evidence of sexual assault, and a cauliflower ear deformity. No one could identify her, so she became known by the place where she was found: She was the Racine County Jane Doe.

Twenty years after Johnson’s death, Wisconsin police received a tip from a concerned citizen about a nurse who’d confessed to killing someone who worked for her in the late 1990s. In early November 2019, Racine County authorities announced both Johnson’s identity and La Roche’s arrest. (La Roche is still awaiting trial.)

The revelation was bittersweet for Terkanian. She was glad that the girl she once thought might be her daughter had been identified. But Aundria was still out there. When would Terkanian get answers?

Two weeks later, on a cold Friday morning, Terkanian’s phone rang. Melissa’s name flashed across the screen. Terkanian answered, and without even saying hello, Melissa announced, “They got him.”

Earlier that morning, Melissa had received a call from a friend who happened to live on the same block as the Bowmans. The place was swarming with police—patrol cars clogged the street, and flashing lights reflected off the windows of surrounding homes. Something was going on. Something big. Terkanian felt dizzy. There was only one thing she could think to do; she hung up and called Koppelman.

He was just sitting down at his desk for the day. Koppelman still did forensic sketching and online sleuthing on the side, but he’d returned to full-time work as an accountant after his mother passed away. Koppelman listened as Terkanian described what was happening at the Bowmans’. They were sure it was connected to Aundria’s disappearance. What else could it be?

By that afternoon, the news was out: Bowman had been arrested by the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office. But not because of anything to do with Aundria. He’d been arrested in relation to a murder Terkanian and Koppelman had never heard of—one committed nine years before Aundria disappeared, more than 800 miles away from the shores of Lake Michigan.

Terkanian answered the phone, and without even saying hello, Melissa announced, “They got him.”

Kathleen Doyle was the daughter of a naval officer and the wife of a pilot. At the time of her murder, in 1980, she’d been married just nine months. Her husband was deployed on the USS Eisenhower in the Indian Ocean, and Doyle and the couple’s tabby cat, Ike, were living alone in a small house on Granby Street in Norfolk, Virginia. Doyle was an aspiring author who’d recently taken up journaling. The 25-year-old wrote about her anxieties and her excitement for the future.

Doyle had been dead for almost two days when her body was found. She’d been stripped, gagged, and strangled with electrical cord, then raped and stabbed. Authorities suspected an intruder had done it, a stranger. They collected semen from the scene but had few leads until serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was arrested in 1983. Lucas claimed that he and a partner, Ottis Toole, were responsible for hundreds of unsolved murders across the country, including Doyle’s. The following year, police charged the pair, but Lucas’s confessions were later revealed to be false, and the charges were dropped. In a letter to the editor published by the Virginian-Pilot in 2003, John O’Brien, Doyle’s father, chastised detectives for their missteps and expressed the steadfast hope that his daughter’s killer would be caught. That didn’t happen before O’Brien died, in 2016.

Eventually, science caught up with the case. Genetic genealogy, which compares unidentified DNA with a huge number of samples stored in databases, was becoming a popular way of investigating cold cases. Authorities didn’t expect the method to produce exact matches but rather partial ones, genetic relatives police could use to triangulate and identify potential suspects. Norfolk investigators partnered with Parabon Nano Labs, a leader in the field, to test DNA collected at the scene of Doyle’s murder. Soon, based on genealogical research, they had a list of more than 30 suspects.

Investigators needed to collect DNA from each person on the list to conduct a direct comparison. But with the suspects spread across several states, and a backlog of other cases on their desks vying for attention, the process could take law enforcement months or even years. Then, in 2019, a group of Norfolk detectives went to a national seminar attended by cold-case teams from around the country. It was an opportunity to learn about new technologies, collaborate on strategies, and exchange information. The Norfolk team, which had the list of suspects in the Doyle case in hand, got acquainted with a team from Michigan—where, as it happened, one of the people on the list lived.

The Michigan detectives were familiar with Dennis Bowman’s name. He had a criminal record, and they knew what Cathy Terkanian had accused him of doing. The police also had his DNA on file, and they were willing to share it for comparison.

The results confirmed that semen found at the scene of Doyle’s murder came from Bowman. Norfolk law enforcement issued a warrant for his arrest. Two days later, on November 22, 2019, Melissa called Terkanian to report the police raid. Within a few months, Bowman would be extradited to Virginia to stand trial. By then, he’d already confessed.

He admitted to entering Doyle’s home through a back window. He claimed that he was drunk and that it was an attempted robbery. He said he didn’t expect to find Doyle in the house, that he didn’t plan to kill her. But she was there and he did.

At the time, Bowman was in Norfolk for his annual two-week service in the Navy Reserve. He was also out of jail on bond—he was awaiting trial for the attempted assault of the 19-year-old Holland woman, the one he fired a gun at before she escaped on her bike.

Terkanian learned that she’d inadvertently played a role in solving Doyle’s murder. Geoffrey Flohr, the private detective, told her that at some point the Bowmans had visited the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office to report Terkanian for harassment; they claimed she was making defamatory accusations about Dennis online. Investigators offered Dennis a bottle of water and kept it when he left. According to Flohr, that was how his DNA came into their possession. (The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the investigation.)

As with the resolution of the Racine County Jane Doe investigation, Terkanian wasn’t sure how to feel about the news in the Doyle case. Bowman was behind bars, but Terkanian felt like she was still waiting for her turn—for her daughter’s turn—at justice.

Three months after Bowman’s arrest it came. In the first week of February 2020, with a thick layer of snow blanketing the ground, police returned to the Bowmans’ property. Melissa again called Terkanian, who phoned Koppelman. There was a forensics team on site this time, with a crime-scene tent and dogs in the backyard. Melissa sent photos. Officials appeared to be concentrating on one area in particular, and they had started to dig.  

Later that day, the police held a press conference. They announced that human skeletal remains had been found, and that they likely belonged to Aundria Bowman. The police needed to confirm her identity; Terkanian provided her DNA immediately.

In March, almost 31 years to the day after Aundria disappeared, the results came back: There was a DNA match. Terkanian had been right, and not just about what happened to her daughter. The police had found Aundria’s remains beneath the concrete slab behind the Bowmans’ house.

Dennis claimed that Aundria’s death was an accident. He said that they were arguing and he slapped her, causing her to fall and break her neck. He reported her missing to cover it up. That was the story he told Brenda in correspondence from prison. In June 2020, Dennis received two life sentences plus 20 years for killing Kathleen Doyle. He was ordered to serve his time in Michigan, where he would stand trial for Aundria’s murder.

The first hearing was held in February 2021. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proceedings were livestreamed, and Koppelman and Terkanian watched from their computer screens. Brenda took the stand first. She tearfully recounted how she’d made missing person posters because she believed Aundria had run away. She said she learned the truth only after Dennis was arrested in the Doyle case. When she was asked whether Aundria had ever accused Dennis of molesting her, Brenda said yes, but that she hadn’t believed the allegations were true. “That’s a lie,” she’d told Aundria, “and you know it.”

It was Brenda who told police where to find Aundria’s remains. In a call from prison, Dennis had confessed to burying their daughter in the backyard. Brenda said she didn’t believe him at first—they hadn’t lived in their house in Hamilton when Aundria died, so how could he have buried her there? To Brenda’s horror, Dennis explained that he’d moved their daughter’s body to the new property as soon as they signed the papers for it. The cement slab in the yard was the headstone of a grave Brenda never knew was there, in the shadow of the house she and Dennis shared for nearly 30 years. “He didn’t lie this time,” Brenda told a detective when Aundria’s remains were found. “He didn’t lie.”

As other witnesses took the stand, Dennis sat quietly in a green shirt, bow tie, and face mask. Testimony from experts involved with Aundria’s recovery and autopsy revealed that she had been dismembered; Dennis had wrapped her body parts in plastic bags and stuffed them into a cardboard barrel before burying them. The remains were too decomposed to establish an official cause of death, but the circumstances were sufficient for the medical examiner to rule what happened a homicide.

Chris Haverdink, the detective Terkanian and Koppelman met with at Googs Pub & Grub, took the stand. Haverdink said that after being arrested in Michigan in 2019 for Kathleen Doyle’s murder, Dennis eventually told authorities that he had nothing left to lose, and went on to describe a version of events similar to the one he’d given Brenda: that Aundria’s death had been an accident, and that he’d tried to cover his tracks. He’d dismembered his daughter because she wouldn’t fit in the cardboard barrel otherwise. To confirm the story, he pointed authorities to a machete stashed underneath his bed.

The details were hard for Terkanian to hear, but she felt comforted knowing that Koppelman, other online detectives, and people like Melissa were just a phone call or a text away. They didn’t believe Dennis’s story. Like Terkanian, they were sure Dennis had intended to kill Aundria. He’d engaged in a clear pattern of violence against young women. In fact, just a month prior to the hearing, another crime had come to light.

“He didn’t lie this time. He didn’t lie.”

“Man sought in assault” reads a front-page headline in the Holland Sentinel, published October 18, 1979. The article details a violent attack on a 27-year-old woman who early on a Sunday morning was bound, gagged, and sexually assaulted by an intruder in her home. The perpetrator took cash before fleeing the scene, and was described as a white man between 25 and 30 years old, with sandy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He was estimated at five-foot-six and 150 pounds. According to the young woman, her assailant was wearing a leather jacket and dark pants. The newspaper published a police sketch of the suspect, his ink-blotted pupils staring blankly from the front page.

More than 40 years after the assault, Dennis Bowman confessed to the crime. There was little risk in doing so—he was already behind bars for murder, and the statute of limitations in the case had long since expired.

When they read the article about the 1979 crime, Terkanian and Koppelman couldn’t help but notice the striking resemblance between Bowman and the police sketch. But it was the last line of the article that really caught their attention: According to the lead detective in the case, there had been a recent uptick in reports of prowlers in the neighborhood where the crime had occurred. Police suspected the attacker might have committed other crimes.

Could there be other cold cases connected to Bowman? For years, Melissa had insisted hers was. She was frustrated that Bowman would confess to the 1979 assault, but not to what she believed he’d done to her. Now, at least, the police seemed to be listening to her. In February 2021, Michigan’s News 8 reported that police had confirmed Bowman was their prime suspect in Melissa’s abduction. Rope recovered from the scene and kept on file since 1989, when the crime occurred, had come back negative for Bowman’s DNA, but authorities said they were hopeful that technological advancements would allow it to be retested in the future.

Terkanian and Koppelman have identified other unsolved crimes they believe Bowman, who is now 72, should be investigated for. In 1977, Deborah Polinsky, a 20-year-old Holland woman, was killed in what one newspaper called a “sex slaying.” After Polinsky failed to show up for work, a colleague found her stripped, sexually assaulted, and stabbed to death in her home, with her German shepherd standing guard over the body. In 1970, Shelley Speet Mills, a 19-year-old newlywed, was stabbed to death in her apartment in Grand Rapids, 30 miles northeast of Holland. Mills’s mother, who’d driven to the city to take her daughter to lunch, found her body.

Around the time of Melissa’s abduction, there were a series of similar incidents. A 13-year-old girl was nearly pulled off a Holland street by a stranger. A nine-year-old girl on a bike was stopped by a man who opened his car door and asked repeatedly if she wanted to get ice cream. And several weeks after Melissa was taken, two siblings, aged nine and seven, were walking near Van Raalte Elementary School when they encountered a man they later estimated to be in his thirties. The suspect, who was driving a truck and wearing blue jeans and a blue winter jacket, offered the children money, then chased them on foot when they refused to get in his vehicle.

The siblings later described the truck as shiny and red. Melissa had described her abductor’s vehicle similarly—red truck, white cab. A photo of a truck Bowman once drove, provided to Terkanian and Koppelman by Bowman’s sister-in-law, matches that description.

Bowman’s lawyer didn’t reply to requests for comment. His client is expected to stand trial again in January 2022. Whether in person or online, Koppelman and Terkanian will be watching the proceedings closely. The friends speak often on the phone and social media. They’re vocal evangelists of armchair detective work. “The internet is an investigative tool, and used consistently in a certain way, it will get you somewhere,” Terkanian said.

After Peggy Johnson was identified as the Racine County Jane Doe, police announced that she would be reburied next to her mother under her real name. Terkanian wants the same thing for her daughter: She’s planning to go to court to obtain Aundria’s remains, so that she can bury her as Alexis Badger. It’s a long shot, but then the chances that Dennis Bowman would ever be arrested were slim, and that happened. No one expected that Terkanian and Koppelman’s persistence would help resolve numerous cold cases, but it did.

Terkanian doesn’t believe in closure. It’s too pat a concept to apply to tragedy, too neat a way to describe what it means to find answers decades after a young woman vanishes or a body is found without a name. But nothing is impossible, and it’s never too late—if Terkanian believes in anything, it’s that.

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