Vanished in the Heartland: The 1983 disappearance of Mary Lang

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HAYS, Kan. — Mary Lang was born on Sept. 23, 1952, to George and Lenora Lang and named after her grandmother. She has a brother, Paul, and two sisters, Kathleen Goeken of Shorewood, Illinois, and Barbara Jean Randa, now deceased.

Lang was a beautiful, energetic, and happy woman but believed she would die young. According to a Nov. 13, 1984 article from The Wichita Eagle-Beacon, Lang kept a journal and wrote on March 20, 1973:

“I had a really quacky dream. Dreamt I was in a grocery store and someone wanted to kill me.”

Another entry dated Sept. 24, 1978, more than five years after the first entry and following a car accident that hospitalized her for three days, stated:

“I was afraid to drive for a while but finally decided if I was going to die my number was up and there was no way I could get out of it. When God wants me he’ll get me. I’m sure. I have a strange feeling I’m going to die young, but then I really don’t want to live to be old.”

Later that year, Lang’s boyfriend, William Paul Jernigan, 24, died of asphyxiation near Stafford when blowing snow drifted over his car during a blizzard. The two had met at college.

Lang received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Fort Hays State University and was a credit hour away from receiving her master’s degree in counseling.

She moved to Dallas in 1980 to find work in her selected field. To support herself, Lang worked as a cocktail waitress at night and spent her days interviewing for jobs related to her college degree. After four months, she decided city life was not for her and returned to Hays, where she moved into an apartment with a couple of friends. 

In Hays, Lang found local work as a cocktail waitress and a summer intern job with the state employment service.

Unfortunately, her friends eventually graduated from college and married, leaving Lang as the apartment’s sole tenant. Soon after, she began receiving obscene and harassing phone calls from an anonymous caller. She moved home with her parents in rural Hays and started working for Tom Boone, a local attorney who knew the Lang family.

Three weeks later, Lang vanished.

On Friday, Oct. 21, 1983, Lang, 31, left her office at the First National Bank Building (now the Chester Building) around 1 p.m. to have papers signed by another lawyer in the same building. She was supposed to take the documents to two other attorneys in Hays to obtain their signatures and then return to work.

When she had not returned by 2 p.m., Boone called the other attorneys and learned that she never arrived.

Boone found Lang’s red 1977 280-Z Datsun parked about a half-block away from the bank building in a city parking lot. The driver’s door was slightly ajar, the legal papers were lying neatly on the passenger seat, and her purse was sitting on the floorboard of the passenger side.

A 1983 newspapers article states Boone called the Hays Police Department at 5:32 p.m. When officers arrived at the parking lot, they found no signs of a struggle or disturbance in or around the vehicle, and nothing was taken from Lang’s purse. 

Boone said Lang was a good employee and she would not have walked off the job. Her parents said the same thing, and nobody believed she ran away to start a new life elsewhere. 

The following Wednesday, Oct. 26, Lang’s coat was found lying in a ditch beside a county road near Yocemento, seven miles north of Hays. Her car keys were inside one of the pockets. The discovery prompted law enforcement officials to focus their search in northwest Ellis County.

The massive search spanned more than 260 square miles of Ellis County by the first of November. The police spent almost 1,000 hours on the investigation. However, they found no clues to Lang’s whereabouts and called off the search.

Later that month, police filmed a reenactment of the disappearance and sent videotapes to at least eight television stations. While investigators received several phone calls afterward, no substantial leads resulted from the broadcast.

Investigators interviewed about 200 people and followed up on all leads they received, including out-of-state ones, but nothing led them to find Lang. They had very little physical evidence to work with, and even though Lang disappeared in broad daylight during a busy time in Hays, no one had witnessed an abduction. Several people in the area saw Lang approach her car around 1 p.m., but there were no further sightings of her.

On Sept. 21, 1987, skeletal remains were found under a hedge tree four miles west of Lincolnville in Marion County, about 155 miles southeast of Hays.

Investigators in the Lang case thought the body might be Lang. Marion County officials took the remains to Kansas State University, where anthropologist Michael Finnegan identified the body as a white female.

Officials initially determined the victim to be between 22 and 26, but Finnegan said she could have been as old as 30. Regardless, Lang was 5 feet, 7 inches tall, and the victim was shorter.

Police used Lang’s dental records for comparison, but they did not match.

It would take 32 years and advances in DNA technology before Kansas authorities identified the female. The Wichita Eagle reported in December 2019 that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation identified the victim as twenty-two-year-old Michelle E. Carnall-Burton of Wichita. According to the Eagle, Carnall-Burton had left her home in Cherryvale in 1986 and lost contact with her family. Investigators believe she was murdered in June or July 1987. 

Mary Lang has never been found. Her family had her legally declared dead in 1990, seven years after her disappearance.

Steven Carl Holdren is a person of interest in Lang’s disappearance. He was from the Hays area and was previously charged with killing 21-year-old Sharon K. Leeding of Bellevue on Aug. 31, 1977. Leeding had been shot in the head and face but died from strangulation. A jury found Holdren not guilty on Jan. 25, 1979.

Plainville police had charged Holdren with making an obscene phone call, which led to his arrest in 1978. According to The Bellevue Telescope, “After two trials and being jailed for six months, a second Cloud County jury determinged there was insucfficient evidence and he was set free.” However, Holdren did plead guilty to the obscene phone call charge and was placed on probation. He pled no contest to an indecent exposure charge in July 1981.

On July 3, 1984, Fort Hays State University student Jacalyn Ann Peters, 30, had checked her mail outside her first-floor apartment in Hays. Shortly after, Holdren forced his way into her apartment and told Peters, “All right, this is a stickup. This is a real gun. It’s loaded with real bullets. I don’t want to have to hurt anybody,” The Telescope reported.

However, he struck Peters several times in the head with a .25-caliber automatic pistol before shooting her in the upper right chest. Neighbors heard the woman’s screams and called the police at 2:30 p.m.

About 10 armed police officers surrounded the building, guarding all exits and evacuating other residents in the apartment building. More officers arrived as a backup to those already on the scene.

Holdren surrendered at 3 p.m. Paramedics transported Peters to Hadley Regional Medical Center 10 minutes later. She survived and was released from the intensive care unit within a few days.

Police charged Holdren with six counts: aggravated kidnapping, attempted felony murder, attempted aggravated robbery, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, and aggravated burglary.

In February 1985, Holdren pleaded guilty to aggravated kidnapping in return for dismissing the other five charges. The following month, he was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died on Feb. 12, 2019, at age 67.

On the day Lang vanished, Holdren was in downtown Hays accosting several women. He was never charged in Lang’s disappearance, and investigators are unsure of his involvement. 

Lang’s parents are now deceased. Kathleen married in 1996, and she and her husband reside in Shorewood, Illinois. They have two children.

If you have information regarding Mary Lang’s disappearance, you should contact the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office at (785) 625-1040.

True Crime Diva’s Thoughts

I don’t think there’s much doubt that Holdren abducted and killed Mary. He had made an obscene phone call before his 1978 arrest. Mary had received obscene calls before her disappearance. 

He was in downtown Hays where Lang worked and had been accosting women. I think he approached her as he did with Peters (“this is a stickup”) and forced her to leave with him. What are the odds that a violent offender who approached women in the area on the day she disappeared had nothing to do with her disappearance?  

Holdren was from the area, so he knew his way around rural areas like where the coat was found. Police searched the area but never found her body. I think he most likely dumped her body in another remote area or disposed of it by another means. 

Reports vary on when Boone found Lang’s car – early news articles stated both 3 and 4 p.m while missing agency sites list 5 p.m. I left the time out because I have no idea the exact time he found the car. When she had not returned to the office by 2, Boone called the other two attorneys, who said she never arrived. He probably searched the building first and then went to the parking lot to see if her car was there.

He did not call the police until 5:32 p.m. I have no idea why there was a delay between finding Mary’s car and when he made the call. It could be because his office did not close until 5 or 5:30, or he thought Mary would eventually return to work.

Regardless of when he called the police, her car should have been a red flag, especially when Boone saw her purse in the vehicle. A woman never leaves her purse behind unless she’s unable to take it with her. She was a responsible person and probably would not have left legal documents behind either.

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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