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A Hidden Epidemic: Chicago’s Missing and Murdered Women

By Taiah Guess

Presented by Omni-U Virtual University

Taiah Guess

Natalee Holloway; Elizabeth Smart; Laci Peterson. What do all of these names have in common? These are the names of the young women whose “missing person” cases have been plastered across late night news reports and captivated audiences across the nation. Names that still echo throughout the “true crime” community and are rightfully remembered as the beautiful people that they were. As a result, several  documentaries have been  created detailing their cases and the public concern that has been generated by their disappearances.

All of these women deserve to be recognized by the general public and their stories definitely matter. However, I have always wondered why the faces of missing persons cases on television never look like me. For a long time, I was just under the impression that Black girls didn’t go missing. Through my own research I have learned that this is simply not the case. We are heavily targeted by predators alongside indigineous women who are slowly disappearing across the country in a similar manner. Unfortunately, it is extremely rare for law enforcement and the public to rally together to find a missing woman of color, especially in Chicago.

Chicago is notorious for its gun violence and well recognized for its sports culture and music scene. However, the rising number of kidnappings and murders targeted towards women are never at the center of Chicago’s narrative.

While I am not advocating for Chicago to be seen as a hotspot for violence against women, I am advocating for a heightened awareness of the women’s stories who often get swept under the rug. So that, perhaps, in the future more of these women can be found before their bodies are discarded and legacies erased.

I would argue that the multitude of unsolved missing person cases involving Black women in Chicago remains unrecognized by the mainstream media because the City of Chicago does not place sufficient resources into finding these women and spreading awareness of these cases. This problem is rooted in the fact that society does not value the lives of Black women as highly as their White counterparts. 

America has a major problem in the way that it treats and values its minority population. In order to remedy this situation,we must first determine where the disparities lie. This is a brief examination of the gap between the alarming crime rates and the social awareness of these cases across decades. 

Despite representing a very small population in the United States, African-American women appear to take up a great deal of space in reported missing persons cases. “Although black women make up 7% of the U.S. population, they represent 10% of all missing persons cases across the country”(Charles, 2019). The Montgomery Advertiser published an insightful piece which highlights women who have gone missing from the year 1998 to 2018.  From Clark Atlanta University students to mothers of young children, the names and faces vary far too often.This is a well kept secret in the city of Chicago as well, the numbers and the data have always been there and ,yet, there is little to no public outrage. 

Reports indicate that a total of 75 women have been reported missing during the years of 2001 and 2018. Fifty -one (51) out of those 75 cases still remain unsolved (Golden, 2021). Throughout my entire lifetime, almost 100 people have vanished into thin air in one city and I haven’t even heard of many of these cases. In fact, upon completing my initial research for this piece, there wasn’t a single name that I


A part of this lies in the images that Black women represent during their lives which carry on into their deaths. They are often assumed to be inherently strong and independent, which often implies that they do not need to be “served and protected” or saved. Presented along with this stereotype  is the idea that they must be “runaways “ who made their own decision to flee. Or, in some cases, made the choice to become “sex workers” which warrants that they experience trauma and are forgotten by their own communities.

However, it is no mere coincidence that, despite their income status or occupations,so many women have died in a similar manner on the south and west sides of Chicago. “The list went on. The victims, almost all of them Black, many with histories of drug use and sex work, had been strangled or asphyxiated. Their bodies were discovered on the south side or west side. Some of the crimes were 20 years old.” Interestingly, many cases involve asphyxiation, which is a pattern that shows the murderer enjoys some level of routine. It’s as if this is the method of choice for reasons that aren’t quite clear until law enforcement apprehends the killer. 

One of the many lingering questions surrounding these cases is whether these crimes are the work of a single culprit or multiple killers. Rumors have been swirling for decades in the city about potential serial killers targeting Black women because they are fully aware that these women are seen as disposable by the media. The “Milwaukee Cannibal” himself, Jeffrey Dahmer, had a similar motive in regards to hand-picking his victims and, to this day, the darkness surrounding his name is discussed  far more in the media than that of his victims who were mostly male members of the LGTBQ+ community. Part of the reason that his killing spree was able to continue for 20 years seems to be that because those victims mostly lived in  predominantly Black neighborhoods, the police were simply not looking for them.Not long ago, another young woman was slain and discarded in Chicago, yet, no connection was made to the potential “serial killers” lurking on the south side.

Formally known as the ”Lake Michigan Jane Doe,” the body of Yarianna G. Wheeler was discovered floating in the water,by a fisherman, on August 15, 2021. At the time, she was about 7 months pregnant  and initially unidentifiable by detectives. With the help of dozens of tips and dental records, the human remains no longer belonged to a nameless body. A man, Drummond, was arrested and charged with first degree murder and it appears that all of the loose ends have been tied (Drummond, 2021). 

I will compare this case to that of another

pregnant woman, Laci Peterson whose body washed up on the San Francisco Bay shoreline. She had been living in Modesto, California with her husband, Scott, and the couple were expecting their first child together. On Christmas Eve of 2002, Laci vanished from her California residence never to be seen alive again.Throughout 2003, her disappearance and her husband’s alleged affair and  subsequent trial,  made headlines and dominated the TV news right alongside the hunt for Saddam Hussein” (Wakemen, 2017). Her wholesome image, sitting on a black couch wearing a bright smile, still haunts television screens to this day.

The sensationalism surrounding  her tragic death can partially be attributed to the media’s love for creating national headlines that also serve as entertainment. The emergence of the “true crime” community has its roots in both morbid fascinations together with the public’s desire to listen in on these stories as if they were soap opera specials. The details of her case even became the plot of a Lifetime film . And, it's quite possible that  there could be other conversations with major media outlets  that profit from women’s pain as a vehicle to entertain the public.

While the mother of Laci Peterson   made television appearances on CNN and “The Today show” to speak about her memories of Laci, Yarianna Wheeler’s loved ones have never been afforded the same opportunity to appear on a national stage so as to humanize her story. Little is known about her goals and aspirations or even the days leading up to her murder. Since both women were killed  while carrying life inside of their wombs ,yet, only one of the victims is a “household name”. Instead, Black women are provided with one- minute clips on YouTube from local news sources and perhaps some support from local communities. 

The “Unforgotten 51” is a project, at

Roosevelt University, in which students are “restoring the humanity” of these victims because they are people first - “missing and murder victims” last. Despite the pain that they experienced in death, these women had their own interests and families. Their stories are very powerful because they can help to eradicate the hollow depictions of victims in “inner cities” that the mainstream media is comfortable with portraying. 

Just a month before Yarianna’s disappearance, a beautiful picture of unity was painted in spite of dark circumstances. The message written on a brightly colored hand -drawn poster reads, “We walk for Her” as citizens and leaders in the community march on South King Drive to commemorate those same 51 women. Approximately 100 people gathered with the intention of bringing awareness and shared hopes that one day these efforts will no longer be necessary. These Chicago residents were and are still tired of fighting for their loved ones to be seen. (Fountain, 2021).

Considering the alarming rate at which women of color in Chicago go missing, one might wonder why there is so little media coverage about these cases. The truth is that media coverage and representation mirror how society values women of color. Oftentimes, the media does not allow them to become the faces of people who are affected by intimate partner violence or kidnappings because America inherently views minorities as perpetrators and criminals rather than as crime victims.

“Scholars have concluded that the media treats racial groups differently. In general, persons of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be portrayed as perpetrators in new stories” (Sommers, pg.283, 2016). Zach Sommers highlights the roots of race and gender disparities ,in online coverage, by collecting data that proves that there is favoritism shown towards missing persons cases involving white women. “Stage II of the analysis, investigating coverage intensity by way of the demographics of all article subjects, provides even stronger evidence for MWWS [Missing White Women Syndrome]. When looking at the number of articles published about the individuals in Stage I, black missing persons are underrepresented to an even greater extent than seen in Stage I.” This deliberate distinction between who is portrayed as victims as opposed to who aren’t poses an interesting question.

“True crime” scholar, Jean Murley, eloquently breaks down the true rationale for America’s

obsession with missing white women. In her interview with “The New Yorker” she notes that “there’s something about the missing young, beautiful white woman that has a lot of symbolic weight in America. It’s an aberration, and it becomes a container for things like the loss of innocence or the death of purity.” With this in mind it makes sense why the perky young attractive white women who goes missing can cover “People Magazine.” The general public then has an image that it immediately resonates with, it's something that is synonymous with the American image.

We must not forget that these crimes  however, are just not exclusive to white women. Human trafficking, kidnappings and violence against women are an American issue. It is extremely detrimental to the families of lost loved ones to exclude any one person of necessary resources to help solve their case.” Sommers also states, “The issue of coverage intensity is a particularly important one, Signal crimes that receive extensive news coverage are much more visible than cases that only receive a stray news story or two, and thus are likely to have a greater influence on the perceptions and beliefs of viewers.” (Sommers, 2021).

I would also argue that the media has to be held responsible for withholding the resource of public vigil from people of color. Our sisters are being stolen and, unlike Gabby Petito, there aren’t hundreds of people flying across the country to fight for answers. We deserve to become household names, to receive amber alerts and be at the center of press conferences along with every other woman who goes missing ot worse becomes a victim of homicide.

Works cited page

Sommers, Zach. “Missing White Women Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, vol. 106, no. 2, 2016,

p. 283., 

Charles, S. (2019, November 15). Missing black women's cases are often unsolved, underreported. here are 7 from Montgomery. The Montgomery Advertiser. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from

Golden, J. (2021, April 21). 'Unforgotten 51' project has Roosevelt University students telling the stories of dozens of murdered and missing Chicago women. Block Club Chicago. Retrieved December 16, 2021,


Fountain, J. W. (2021, June 25). They walked for the 'Unforgotten 51' and all other black women murdered or missing in Chicago. Times. Retrieved December 16, 2021, from

Staff, T. C. D. (2021, November 8). Man arrested after 19-year-old pregnant girlfriend found dead in Lake Michigan. True Crime Daily. Retrieved December 16, 2021, from

Borcia, S. (2021, September 15). Police speaking to person of interest in the murder of 19-year-old pregnant woman found in Lake Michigan. Lake and McHenry County Scanner. Retrieved December 16,

2021, from

Rosner, H. (2021, October 8). The long american history of "missing white woman syndrome." The New Yorker. Retrieved December 16, 2021, from

Wakeman, J. (2018, June 25). Laci Peterson Murder: What you need to know. Rolling Stone. Retrieved December 16, 2021, from

Recommended Viewing:

“Domesticated Violence: Crimes of Hate,” An H3O Art of Life Show,Featuring: Denise Ferguson 


Recommended Reading:

'Unforgotten 51' Project Has Roosevelt University Students Telling The Stories Of Dozens Of Murdered And Missing Chicago Women

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