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Missing Children Investigation

Which theory do you believe? Inside the police files of a missing child’s cold case

Unsolved Season 4, a true-crime podcast, featured the case of Alexis Patterson.

On May 3, 2002, a 7-year-old girl walked half a block to school in Milwaukee. 

Alexis Patterson has been missing ever since. 

For more than 20 years, the Milwaukee Police Department kept its records secret because the case remains unsolved. With the help of a Wisconsin attorney, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY got them to hand over more than 4,000 pages of documents

Buried in them are surprising new details about the day Alexis disappeared and clues as to what might have happened in a case that continues to haunt the city. 

The records also illustrate the power of rumors and the tricks of time and memory. Sometimes people lie to the police and reporters. More often, they want to be helpful, so they share what they know — or what they think they know.  

As a result, spotty memories come to be understood as facts. 

For instance, Alexis’ mother and others have shared accounts of a red truck being seen near Alexis’ school around the time of her disappearance.  

But there is not a single mention of a red truck in the files.  

Alexis’ mom and other parents distinctly remember that two weeks before Alexis vanished, they received a letter from the school principal, warning them that someone had tried to abduct a child. 

There’s a copy of the letter in the police file, but it was sent out a year and a half before Alexis went missing, not two weeks.  

The records also contain revelations of violence. 

A neighbor remembered a group of armed men threatening to get Alexis’ stepfather “where it hurts” for stealing drugs; police reported that her mother told them she had “popped” Alexis that morning; several people provided similar accounts of a kidnapping plot. 

The case file shows investigators divided into two camps: those who believed Alexis’ mother and stepfather were responsible for her disappearance and those who thought she had been kidnapped by the drug dealer her stepfather ripped off.  

Her stepfather, who died in 2021, and her mother always denied involvement in her disappearance. And while police believe Alexis is likely dead, her mother is convinced she is still alive.

Intuition is an important element of police work but allegiance to one theory over another can lead to tunnel vision. It can cause investigators to downplay contradictory evidence, to miss the full picture.  

People are wrongly accused. Crimes go unsolved. Children remain missing. 

Click the button below to see a story focused on one of the two leading theories pieced together from the Alexis Patterson case files. When you’re finished, you can read the other one. 

(If you don't see a button below, click here or here.)

Reviewing both theories will help you understand why this case has remained unsolved for so long. 

Listen to the podcast

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