January 7, 2022 was Andrea’s 40th birthday. Her friends and family were around to mark the occasion, but the special guest – the birthday girl herself – wasn’t. You see, Andrea Knabel went missing in the summer of 2019 and has yet to be found.
What makes this case remarkable is that Andrea was a missing persons investigator herself. The 37-year-old single mom of two volunteered her time and effort to help finding people who have gone missing. So, why did Andrea just disappear one day? Did she know too much about a certain case? Was she involved with the wrong people? Here’s her story.
Two Years Earlier…
In America, roughly 600,000 people (of all ages) go missing each year. Two years before Andrea vanished into thin air, her friend became another statistic. This friend has chosen to remain anonymous, but for the sake of the story, we’ll call her Jane. Jane went missing near Lexington, Kentucky, on September 1, 2017, and it baffled the community.
Jane’s friends and family from her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, thought it was a kidnapping, or that her boyfriend – an assumed drug dealer – was holding her hostage. While many people chalked it up to one of troubled Jane’s episodes (she was homeless and struggling with addiction), Andrea did not. She was one of Jane’s best friends from childhood.
Andrea was the one who reported Jane missing to the Lexington Police Department. The mother of two boys, and the eldest of three sisters had always been regarded by her friends and family as someone who looked beyond a person’s darkness, preferring to see their light.
Andrea’s sisters called her “Mother Andrea” for her caretaking nature, and the name stuck. The smiling girl with a faint Appalachian drawl always had “really, really high energy,” her friend Suzzette Rodriguez shared. Andrea was the kind of person who could lift the mood in a room by just walking in.
On a Mission to Find Jane
When Andrea filed the missing persons report, she got a call from Nancy Schaefer, the founder of a group of volunteer sleuths who search for missing people called Missing in America. Nancy wanted to help. Together, Andrea and Nancy made it their mission to find Jane. The plan: either rescue her or, if she had run away, convince her to come back home.
Fears started circulating that Jane was a victim of human trafficking. About a month after Jane vanished, the sleuths got a tip that Jane had been spotted. Jane was supposedly seen wandering alone under a bridge in the neighborhood of Loudon.
The Good News and the Bad News
The good news: they found Jane. Jane promised them that she and her boyfriend would meet them back at Andrea’s sister’s, Sarah Knabel’s, house in Louisville. The bad news: Jane never showed up. Four days later, Andrea and Suzzette saw Jane’s boyfriend at a gas station. The women confronted him and somehow managed to get a hold of a diamond earring of his.
They threatened not to give it back until Jane came home. It worked: Jane showed up later that day. Nancy, the head sleuth, was impressed by Andrea. “She was like a chameleon,” she said.
Enter the Leonard Twins
Andrea would switch from “very professional” to talking “street lingo” whenever she needed to. According to Nancy, the thrill of searching for Jane sparked a new passion and sense of purpose in Andrea. The two sleuths became close over the following two years, right up until Andrea’s own disappearance.
Tracy and Ted Leonard are twin brothers who came to work with Andrea when they were looking for a 17-year-old girl who went missing outside of her parents’ home in a suburb of Louisville. The brothers own a company called Loc8tors, and they investigate missing persons cases.
His Path to Becoming a P.I.
Tracy is something of a pro himself. He worked for eight years as a small arms and artillery expert for the US military before mutilating his knees and face in a tank accident. He was honorably discharged as a disabled veteran in 1994, when he was already in his late 30s.
The Clarksville, Indiana native had to rely on a cane to walk, so he couldn’t really join the police force. What he did instead was take up apprentice work with a veteran detective, who told Tracy he could go down one of two paths: being a part-time Army Reserves soldier or a private investigator. He chose to be a P.I.
Dick Tracy and Robocop
The father of four has spent over two decades making a name for himself as the go-to investigator in the Northern Kentucky region. He estimated that by 2015, he had helped find “about 40 to 50” missing persons, which earned him the name “The Locator.”
That’s when he changed his company’s name to Loc8tors and hired 17 full-time investigators, including his twin brother, Ted, who used to be a painter and celebrity bodyguard. Those at the company call the brothers Dick Tracy (Tracy) and Robocop (Ted). Training at Loc8tors isn’t a walk in the park. Tracy is known to train his new investigators through extensive trials by fire.
When Andrea Joined the Team
“It kicked my a** at first,” Jacob Nix, the Leonards’ brother-in-law and tech specialist at Loc8tors, admitted. “Here, you kinda just get thrown into the sh*t.” When Andrea and Nancy joined forces with the Loc8tors to find the missing teenage girl, Andrea was still working her day job as an analyst for the health insurance company, Humana.
Andrea went to the girl’s high school to question the teachers about the girl’s school crush – some boy she was smitten with. Andrea managed to get access to the girl’s locker and found the boy’s first and last name, and his birthdate in a notebook. A background search then located the boy’s address, in Kansas City, so Tracy drove to his home.
That Cat in the Window…
The family was hardly helpful. They gave him barely any information, so he turned to their neighbors instead, who told him that some of their old license plates had been stolen from their garage. Running the plates sent him directly to the teen, who was staying in a small house where Tracy noticed a cat sitting in the front window.
It was the missing girl’s cat (her mother confirmed it), a Chartreux. It was enough to warrant a police raid of the home. They found the girl chained to a radiator in the basement. They presumed that it was human trafficking, and she would likely have been sent to Mexico, where the boy was from.
Good People Make Bad Decisions
Andrea was proving successful in her detective work, despite never having been trained or possessing any badge. Nancy says she developed a tighter bond with Andrea than her other volunteers. There was a time when Nancy went into anaphylactic shock during one of their searches, and Andrea was the one who waited with her in the emergency room.
It got to the point that when Nancy needed a place to stay, in September 2018, she moved into an apartment with Andrea, Andrea’s boys, and one of Andrea’s friends. Nancy even asked Andrea to be the maid of honor. But, as great as people can be, “good people make bad decisions,” Nancy said.
Growing Up in Audubon
Audubon Park is a small suburb where Andrea and sisters grew up. Andrea, Erin, and Sarah Knabel went to a Catholic school, and Andrea always stood out as the straight A student. The girls’ parents, Cheryl and Mike, divorced when Andrea was 13.
After graduating from the University of Louisville with a degree in marketing, Andrea worked all kinds of odd jobs, including being a CVS district manager and a waitress at the Tumbleweed Tex-Mex restaurant. Andrea had two sons from two different men, but never married.
Dad, Meet My New Boyfriend
In 2009, to support her family, Andrea started working at Humana. There, she was pretty much everyone’s favorite co-worker. Whitney Nechelle said, “She’d be the friend I’d take to a bar fight… She’s a spitfire.”
In 2017, Andrea brought a new guy to Christmas dinner at her dad’s. He was a 34-year-old car detailer named Brian Downey, and, according to Mike, Brian’s shaved head, tattoos and rude jokes made him seem like a “complex character.” But Brian presented himself as a changed man – a father of three who had gone back to school to be a respiratory therapist. But Brian had a past…
Bad News Brian
He had been arrested multiple times, for car theft to walking the aisles of Walmart naked – high on methamphetamines – after breaking into some woman’s home (this earned him the nickname “Naked Walmart Man”). But when he showed up to the Knabel’s, he seemed a different man.
At first, Erin thought the guy must have “settled down, and maybe learned his lesson, and maybe was going on the right track,” but as his and Andrea’s relationship developed, “I realized that wasn’t the case.” To Andrea’s family, Brian was bad news and spawned a downward spiral in their dear Andrea’s life.
The Downward Spiral Begins
Ironically, Andrea was getting too close to the very type of guy she’d been dealing with at Missing in America. Andrea moved in with Brian in March 2018, which was only bad news to her friends and family members.
Her co-worker, Tarica Dow was convinced that Brian was involved in Louisville’s drug underworld. “Her decisions with men sucked,” Tarica says. “Insecurity will make you settle for anyone that gives you attention.” Their relationship was turbulent, to say the least.
Brian Goes to Prison
Shortly after they started living together, in between all the breakups and makeups, Brian proposed. It was a shock to everyone at her work. But the wedding never happened. In July of that year, Brian was pulled over. There was enough methamphetamine in the car to slap him with a drug trafficking charge.
And so, Brian went to prison. Andrea’s family was relieved; now Andrea could be away from him and hopefully see clearly. But, as you can probably guess by this point, that isn’t what happened. With Brian locked up, Andrea just fell for other questionable men. Her friends blamed it on Andrea’s “Big Heart Syndrome.”
Andrea Falls Deeper
Later that year, Andrea and Nancy’s tight bond began to unravel. According to Nancy, Andrea was probably using drugs. She was “running with the wrong crowds,” Nancy explained. “There were strippers hanging out on the couch, drug dealers coming in and out of the home.”
By the end of 2018, Andrea had to file for bankruptcy… for a second time. At the same time, she was dealing with a child custody case for one of her sons. Also that year, she lost her job during a companywide layoff (but Tarica says Andrea was really fired due to poor performance reviews and not showing up until noon).
Homeless, Broke and Living With Mom
All the while, Mike was trying to keep his daughter afloat. He spent many late nights on the phone with her, arranging rides for her or sending her money. He was hoping she would admit herself to “a hospital for help.” By the spring of 2019, she was living on food stamps and could no longer pay her rent for the apartment she and Nancy were living in.
Homeless, she had no choice but to move into her mom’s home — the house she grew up in. Meanwhile, her exes – the boys’ fathers – were doing most of the caretaking. In July, Andrea went to stay with her sister in Pennsylvania for a breather of sorts.
Nine and a Half Hours
Between 9 p.m. on August 12 and 6:31 a.m. on August 13, something happened. Those nine and a half hours have been analyzed over and over again by six private investigators, two police detectives, hundreds of web sleuths, psychics, reporters, and thousands of Facebook users.
No one has the answer. But, through multiple accounts from Andrea’s family and friends, posts and text messages, and the police’s official timeline of events, there are some things we can decipher from Andrea’s disappearance. At 8 p.m. Andrea ate takeout Chinese food from a local restaurant, after which she had an argument with her mom, Cheryl.
Get Out and Stay Out
As Erin noted, that was “Nothing out of the ordinary.” But the fight rolled over to Sarah and her boyfriend, Ethan, and then it allegedly got violent. Around 10 p.m. Andrea seemed to get hit with an eczema breakout (also an ordinary occurrence among the Knabel women) and she was taken to the local hospital.
Ethan drove her, and Erin’s teenage son came along for the ride. Later on, closer to 11:30 p.m., Andrea hired a Lyft to get back home. Irritated by the earlier incident, Ethan and Sarah didn’t let her in. It was now 12:15 a.m., and Andrea walked a mile south to Erin’s home, which was in a low-income neighborhood, dense with multifamily townhouses.
Unwelcome at Both Homes
Erin immediately noticed how upset her sister was. Andrea told her of the night’s events. Andrea then went inside and watched TV while Erin’s two younger kids were sleeping on the couch. Meanwhile, Erin called her mom (who wasn’t home at the time) to urge Sarah and Ethan to let Andrea back in.
At 1:00 a.m., Erin dropped Andrea off at their mom’s house. Erin left, only to get a text from Andrea seven minutes later, telling her, “They won’t let me in the house.” So, she went back to Erin’s, begging her younger sister to let her stay for the night.
Never to Be Seen Again
“Please,” Andrea begged, “I’ll sleep on the floor!” But Erin didn’t want her problematic sister to stay there. The next day, she texted Andrea: “If you stay with me, you will ruin our lives.” But Andrea never replied. Who knows if she ever got that text, since she was gone for good.
After being rejected by Erin, Andrea had no choice but to start walking. In her tank top, shorts, and running shoes, she walked out of the neighborhood, crossed a small bridge, and simply vanished – never to be seen again.
The Theories Ran Wild
As you can imagine, the theories over what happened to Andrea ranged from logical to far-fetched. One idea was that Andrea couldn’t handle the hate from her family, so she literally walked away from her life and relocated to another state and changed her identity.
Then, of course, are the darker theories, like how she might have phoned a friend for a ride, who then killed her. Then there was the idea that Andrea took her own life, but every family member and friend wholeheartedly rejects that theory. Some web sleuths proposed the theory that Andrea and Nancy are in cahoots – a hoax to make Missing in America the next best thing.
Are They Hiding Something?
Andrea’s case has been featured in a Finding Andrea miniseries as well as on Dr. Phil. It grabbed the nation’s attention and understandably so. “She was actually volunteering to find missing people — and now she’s missing. This is insane,” remarked Zahara Hasina Willis, who discusses true crime on her YouTube channel Mystery Muze.
As for the hoax theory, Nancy says its ridiculous, and she was in Pennsylvania at the time anyway. Nancy created a Justice for Andrea Knabel Facebook group and used it to say that the Knabels are not disclosing everything. The subtext: the Knabels are hiding something.
Vigils, Flyers, and Searches
After Andrea’s disappearance, Nancy, Suzzette and others performed their own searches, knocking on doors and hoping to get witness testimony or some camera footage. There were vigils, flyers, and searches by the Ohio River. Michelle Freeman, who joined Missing in America when Andrea’s case began, said that at first the search for Andrea was “honest and heartfelt.”
But a month into it, tensions among the members derailed any focused effort. She blames Nancy’s “abusive” behavior and aggressive management style. Two months after her disappearance, multiple members left Missing in America, including Suzzette and Michelle. The way Michelle saw it, searching for Andrea was “impossible” with Nancy at the wheel.
Nancy Was All About the Fame, Apparently
“It was never about Andrea,” Michelle asserted. “It was about fame, money, attention, what can I get out of it.” Nancy doesn’t agree, of course, but she has since walked away from Missing in America, and the group no longer exists. According to “Dick Tracy” Leonard, the police lost enthusiasm “as soon as meth came into the picture.”
The one person most people agree must have been involved is Ethan Bates, Sarah’s then-fiancé. Several investigators have suspected him, and for numerous reasons. For one, both Ethan and Sarah have refused all interview requests. There was, however, a two-hour interrogation with the LMPD shortly after Andrea disappeared.
Do Sarah and Ethan Know Something We Don’t?
Ethan, who pled guilty to cocaine possession in 2009, is like Brian Downey as they’re both linked to the Kentucky meth market. (Brian, by the way, died in January 2022.) It should also be noted that in 2021, LMPD detectives tried to perform a polygraph test on some members of Andrea’s family but were denied.
People weren’t just looking at Ethan, but at Andrea’s own sister, Sarah. To Mike, the thought of his daughter’s involvement in his eldest daughter’s disappearance is baffling. He and Erin have spent the last few years searching for Andrea. If Sarah or Ethan were involved, Mike said, it was atrocious.
A Pimp in a Parking Lot
“[Sarah] hasn’t spoken to me in a year and a half,” he revealed. “She thinks I’m accusing them of everything. Which is exactly the opposite. Erin’s heard me say it’s my worst nightmare every time — that they would be responsible for anything to do with this…”
Ethan is one of many persons of interest that the Leonard brothers have investigated. After offering a $10,000 reward, they found several swindling attempts. For instance, a pimp in a Walmart parking lot tried to convince Tracy and Andrea’s dad that one of his sex workers was Andrea. In early 2020, the Leonards brought on Mark Baker, an investigator, for Andrea’s case.
One Day, a Call Came In
Mark spent nearly 80 hours a week responding to witness calls. Sadly, he died of a sudden brain aneurysm in December 2021. Tracy has been working the case pro bono, which he says is a necessity considering the LMPD lost 20 percent of its officers in 2020.
According to Tracy, the police don’t want to share information with him, “Which is kinda crazy. We’re out here doing all the legwork, we’re out here knocking on doors, watching surveillance.” Then, in August 2021, the brothers got a call from a woman who said she was there the night Andrea went missing.
The Hair on His Arms Stood Up
But Tracy has gotten hundreds of calls like that. Ted says that the tone of the woman’s voice “made the hair stand up” on his arms. “This lady was in-depth with detail,” he stated. “You could hear it in her voice. She didn’t want the reward.”
As you can imagine, most callers just wanted the cash reward. “I was there,” the woman told him, whose voice was fragile and sounded as thought she had been crying. When Tracy asked her for details, the woman said Andrea “didn’t know what was going on” – that she was raped by several men and then killed in a house just 15 minutes from Audubon Park.
The Motorcycle Gang Theory
The woman – who chose to remain anonymous – gave the Leonards explicit details, including the fact that she herself was there and that while she managed to escape, Andrea did not. She said that the attacks were done by an African American motorcycle gang.
When Tracy asked her, “Do you know what they did with her body?” the woman replied, “I tried to stop it. I tried to stop it. I couldn’t.” She said there were other girls there, too, also held against their will. She confirmed: it was a “human trafficking issue.”
Back to Ethan
Joe Fanciulli, a retired homicide detective (who also dated Nancy for a time), was asked about Andrea’s case. He dismisses the theory of an outlaw motorcycle gang, as does the LMPD, who dismissed the woman’s call as unreliable
Joe chose to focus on Ethan Bates, the one suspect who was closest to Andrea. He noticed how Ethan and Sarah “changed their minds” about their reactions to Andrea on the night she disappeared days after the case began. At one point, Ethan said they wouldn’t let Andrea inside the house, but then he said they “were asleep.”
Making It to Dr. Phil
At one point, Joe walked the same path Andrea was believed to have taken that fateful night, to see if he could get any clues. He saw “bicycles, people with dogs — no Black bikers,” he said. “Either something happened to her at that house,” he said referring to her mom Cheryl’s, “or she reached somebody who came and got her, and that somebody might have been somebody she shouldn’t have called.”
The docuseries on Andrea came out, and following the release, Nancy, Joe, Erin and Mike appeared on Dr. Phil. There, the feud between Nancy and her former group members was discussed, and Dr. Phil helped his four guest make amends, on TV, and make a pact to work together on finding Andrea.
The Anniversary Walk
On August 13, 2021, two years to the day that Andrea vanished, Erin and Mike retraced her steps (as Joe had done previously). 20 minutes and 40 seconds of the walk was aired on Facebook Live. The walk was mostly quiet, and someone wrote a comment on the livestream, “Someone would have heard her screaming if she was abducted, it is so quiet.”
Erin, at that point, said, “My thoughts exactly.” To Mike, the only reason his daughter’s case got any attention is because she looked for missing people.
The Sad Truth
The sad truth is that Andrea is only one of thousands to go missing – most of them young women. Let’s not forget that she left behind two sons. All the theories of Andrea voluntarily going missing are outrageous. In an interview, Mike sitting calmly in his chair, said, “Every law enforcement person bar none has said she’s gone by now. She’s not alive.”
But Erin chimed in: “I don’t want to accept that.” She added, “Crazy, terrible things happen to vulnerable women… It happens more than anybody realizes.” She also admitted that she wouldn’t have realized any of if Andrea hadn’t gone missing.