“Each day, the mainstream media provide audiences with a subtle instruction manual
for how to empathise with certain endangered women’s bodies, while overlooking
others. These messages are powerful: they position certain sub-groups of women –
often white, wealthy, and conventionally attractive – as deserving of our collective
resources, while making the marginalisation and victimisation of other groups of
women, such as low-income women of colour, seem natural.”
-Sarah Stillman, ” ‘The Missing White Girl Syndrome’: Disappeared Women and Media Activism”
I’ve had a really hard time deciding which case to pick as my first one for this blog. There are so many cases that are interesting to me for different reasons; however, I want to cover cases that not only are interesting to me personally, but also ones that haven’t gotten a lot of media attention. I’ve done a lot of reading about “The Missing White Woman Syndrome,” which is a description of the phenomenon that drives media fascination with certain missing persons cases over others. You know the ones- Natalie Holloway, JonBenet Ramsey, Laci Peterson- that become fixations of the media, with constant stories about them on 24 hour news cycles, while others are completely ignored. There are certain commonalities in the cases that get media attention: they are usually about young, white, middle class, conventionally attractive women who “light up a room,” have lots of friends, are living lives the general public perceives as productive, and can be perceived as innocent and not to blame in any way for what happened to them.
So who does this leave out? Women of color, missing men, the missing elderly, members of the LGBTQ community, poor people, women living “high-risk lifestyles,” drug addicts, those suffering from mental illness…all of these people tend to get thrown to the wayside to feed the public desire for stories of “golden women.” That does NOT missing women who are white, attractive, etc., don’t deserve news coverage and public interest, but it is to say that women who do not fit into those categories also deserve our attention, our empathy, our help.
With that being said, I, for my first case especially, wanted to choose a case of someone to whom the media had not paid much attention, whose disappearance had, up until very recently, gotten virtually no public attention.
Phoenix Coldon disappeared on December 18, 2011, from Spanish Lake, Missouri, which is a suburb of St. Louis. She was last seen pulling out of her parents’ driveway in her Chevy Blazer, which was found a few hours following her disappearance (more on that later). At the time of her disappearance, Phoenix was 23 years old. She’s an African-American female and NamUs lists her as being between 5’5″-5’6″ tall, weighing between 123-130 pounds, and as last seen wearing gray sweatpants with the word “Lindenwood” or the letters “USML” on one leg, a dark sweatshirt, and black sneakers.
Phoenix Coldon is the only child of Goldia and Lawrence Coldon. The Coldons are a strict, religious family who homeschooled Phoenix from grades 6-12. Phoenix is described by those who know her as intelligent, deoendable, quiet, and funny. She is a champion fencer and an accomplished musician who played piano and was part of her church’s handbell choir. At the time she went missing, Phoenix was enrolled at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), although she was not taking any classes the fall of her disappearance.
The day she went missing, Phoenix and her parents attended church in the morning; she then brought her mother to a grocery store after church. Sometime between 2:00 and 3:00PM (depending on the source), Phoenix walked out the front door and left in her SUV without saying a word to her parents, which they said was unusual. When they awoke the next morning to find that Phoenix had never come home the night before, her parents contacted the police.
Unbenownst to them, just two and a half hours after Phoenix left, her Chevy Blazer was found abandoned in traffic in East St. Louis, Illinois, about a half hour drive from their home, and very close to well-travelled Interstate 70.
Photo from Oxygen’s The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon showing the location of Phoenix’s car in relation to her home.
Although the car was found the day that Phoenix disappeared, the Coldons didn’t learn of the car’s discovery until two weeks later. According to Officer Kendall Perry, who was the officer dispatched to Phoenix’s abandoned car, when he ran the plates and nothing came up about the car being stolen, he assumed it had run out of gas and had it towed. Because it was across state lines and the lack of communication between the police departments in the two separate cities, it was two weeks before the connection was made between Phoenix’s car and her missing person’s case. This delay cost the St. Louis police a lot of critical time in processing any evidence in the car.
When Phoenix first disapeared, her case garnered very little media attention, even locally. The Coldons said they tried to contact every media outlet they could, but virtually no one was interested in the case. One local reporter, Shawndrea Thomas, who was one of the first journalists to take an interest Phoenix’s case and who also covers it in the Oxygen Network documentary The Disappearance of Phoenix Colden, says that she had to beg her local network to allow her to investigate the story.
In addition to delayed reporting of evidence and lack of media coverage, there has also been a false piece of information put forth in almost every source about this case, which is the reporting around the state in which the car was found. In every source I found, the Chevy Blazer is described as still running, with the keys in the ignition, driver’s door left wide open, with Phoenix’s purse still inside. Reading and hearing this made me question how the police could not have immediately suspected some sort of foul play- it just sounds incredibly fishy. That question was answered after watching The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon. Early on in the documentary, the Coldons repeat this same description of how the car was allegedly found. However, when Shawndrea Thomas and retired deputy Joe Delia interview Officer Perry, he says the car was not running, no keys were inside, and the doors were all closed, which is what led to his assumption that it was a car that ran out of gas. He also said there was no sign of a struggle, and while there was some miscellaneous stuff inside the car, there was no purse and nothing that raised any red flags to him. (And indeed, the Coldons show the documentary team the recovered contents of Phoenix’s car, and it’s nothing remarkable.) This is completely different than the description that has been taken as fact by pretty much everyone, including Thomas, who again was one of the first reporters to cover the case. When asked, the Coldons said they could not remember who’d originally told them that the car was found running with the door open. Assuming Officer Perry’s memory to be accurate, and going on his word that it “wasn’t uncommon” to find cars with out of state license plates having run out of gas close to a major highway, I can understand why the car’s discovery didn’t raise much suspicion. The lore of the open door and running car makes the narrative seem way more outwardly sinister, whereas the truth doesn’t point to much of anything. Still, even since the airing of the Oxygen special in November, all other sources on the case, including national databases like NamUs, list the car as found running with the driver’s door open. Even Oxygen continued to use a still of a Chevy Blazer with an open door while promoting the documentary, which I suspect is done because it’s an eerie and intriguing image that will grab viewer attention. But it doesn’t seem to represent the truth, and spreading falsehoods is just going to get in the way of finding out what happened to Phoenix.
Officer Kendall Perry, the first officer dispatched to Phoenix Coldon’s abandoned car.
1.Phoenix chose to run away and start a new life.
Many say that Phoenix was going through some mental turmoil in the months leading up to her disappearance. One item that points to this is a selfie video Phoenix made about a month before her disappearance. In it, Phoenix looks visibly distressed and talks about being unhappy and wanting to “start over.” This is cited by many as evidence that she wanted to run away and start a new life. This could be, but wanting to “start over” could have many different meanings, and it’s hard to say without knowing what she’s specifically upset about. Others point out that Phoenix was not currently enrolled in classes as evidence that she was planning to run or at least that something was wrong. However, in an episode of the podcast The Vanished that focuses on this case, host Marissa Jones interviews Hannah, who was a UMSL student at the same time as Phoenix. According to Hannah, UMSL was a campus that embraced a lot of non-traditional students (and Phoenix would kind of fall in that category, being 23 and only being a sophomore) and that it was pretty common for students to take semesters off here and there while continuing their studies. As someone who works in higher ed, I also see students take semesters off on occasion, sometimes for major reasons and sometimes for more mundane ones. Again, without more information, it’s hard to say if this is significant.
A reason many give for Phoenix to possibly want to leave is that her strict, religious parents became too overbearing for her. I hate to say anything negative about a victim’s family; I can’t even imagine the pain that the Coldons are going through in having a missing child, and it’s clear in the Oxygen documentary that they love their daughter. That being said, in my opinion, the Coldons don’t come off very well in the documentary. Some of this I do attribute to editing; even though they don’t explicitly say this, they definitely are biased in favor of the runaway theory, and showing the parents as harsh or judgmental supports that theory. However, most of the time it’s the parents’ dialogue that makes them appear this way. Goldia says that, when the initial police report was made and the investigating officer pointed out that Phoenix was 23 and didn’t have to account for her whereabouts, Goldia replied, ” I don’t know what wolves you were raised by, but that’s not how we do things here.” To be fair, she was undoubtedly terrified and frustrated by police not wanting to take the report, but still- a little harsh. The main part in which I was personally a little turned off by Goldia is when she described her expectations of Phoenix:
“A lady doesn’t cross her legs, one leg over the other…Don’t be loud, vulgar, be neat, carry yourself in a discreet manner, and just…ladylike.”
Could Goldia’s strict standards, to the point where crossing one’s legs is forbidden, have caused Phoenix to leave? Possibly. On the flip side, Phoenix was 23 years old and had lived on her own in the past; did she really need to completely abandon her life to get away from strict parents?
2. Phoenix committed suicide.
Those who subscribe to this theory point to similar things as do those who think Phoenix ran away: her strict parents, high expectations, signs of mental anguish. According to The Vanished, the Coldons also said that Phoenix asked for counseling shortly before her disappearance, but went missing before they were able to arrange it for her. Some point to this as a sign that she was struggling with serious mental distress. There are many reasons that someone might want to seek counseling, so again, without more information, this doesn’t tell us much. Also, if she committed suicide, why did she drive to East St. Louis first? And where’s her body?
3. Phoenix was abducted into or lured into human trafficking.
The location of Phoenix’s car indicates some sort of foul play or criminal activity. East St. Louis, particularly the neighborhood in which the car was found, is a very high-crime area. Additionally, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports St. Louis to be one of the FBI’s top 13 “hot spots” for human trafficking, and journalist Shawndrea Thomas calls Interstate 70 the “sex trafficking superhighway of America.” Many sources confirm that human trafficking is a major problem in the St. Louis area, and Shawndrea Thomas calls it her “number one theory.”
A lot of the buzz around sex trafficking in Phoenix’s case goes along with the lore of how her car was found; it supposedly being left running with the door open sounds like a common way cars are found in abduction/trafficking scenarios. Now that we know the car was not in fact found in that manner, that seems less likely. However, Phoenix still could have been lured into trafficking. Many sources note that victims often go into trafficking because they are promised things like modeling or music careers, new jobs, etc., so they go along willingly with someone, but are then forcibly put into the sex trade. Phoenix would have been vulnerable to this, since she did seem to be unhappy with her life. Maybe a false promise of fame, wealth, etc., seemed like the opportunity for fresh start.
4. Phoenix was met with foul play at the hands of someone known to her.
At the time of her disappearance, Phoenix had a boyfriend, referred to as “Mike B” on the Oxygen documentary, but also had another secret boyfriend, called “Cell Phone Mike” because she contacted him via a separate, secret cell phone. Some suspicion is cast onto Mike B in the documentary because of his unwillingness to appear on camera, but the police say that he has been cooperative in their investigation and they do not consider him a suspect. Shawndrea Thomas also spoke with an ex-girlfiend of Cell Phone Mike, who claimed that he was abusive. She also says that when she expressed interest in Phoenix’s case, Cell Phone Mike allegedly asked her, “Why are you worried about someone who’s dead?” Could one of the Mikes have found out about the other and killed Phoenix in a rage?
Many of Phoenix’s friends mention Phoenix being paranoid and believing that someone was following her. Could she have had a stalker, or was this belief indicative of a declining mental state?
This is a case in which I see multiple possibilities being likely. Usually I don’t give much credence to the idea of someone running away to start a new life (statistically, that rarely happens successfully), but in this case, that theory has some legs to stand on. Human trafficking could also be a possibility, as Phoenix lived in an area known for it and could have been vulnerable to being lured by false promises. Many people think human trafficking is blown out of proportion, but the FBI estimates that around 7,000 people fall victim to it each year. According to The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon, the average life expectancy for someone in sex trafficking is 7 years. If Phoenix has been trafficked, time might be running out for her, which is why it’s so important that missing people like her get attention put on their cases.
Sources Used in This Blog Post:
Habif, David V., Jr. “Is Missouri Failing Our Young Boys and Girls?”. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8 Aug. 2018, https://www.stltoday.com/opinion/columnists/is-missouri-failing-our-young-boys-and-girls/article_3f970c80-0c48-54f7-82fa-0904d1d91fcd.html
Jones, Marissa. “Phoenix Coldon.” The Vanished, from Wondery, 29 May 2016. http://www.thevanishedpodcast.com/episodes/2016/5/29/episode-26-phoenix-coldon
“Phoenix Lucille Coldon.” NamUs, https://www.namus.gov/MissingPersons/Case#/13543
Stillman, Sarah. ” ‘The Missing White Girl Syndrome’: Disappeared Women and Media Activism.” Gender & Development, vol. 15, no. 3, 2007, pp. 491-502. Ebscohost, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13552070701630665.
The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon. Oxygen Network, 2018. Amazon Prime, https://www.amazon.com/Disappearance-Phoenix-Coldon-Season/dp/B07K3SP4C2.
Walker, Marlon A. “Parents Continue Search For Missing St. Louis County Woman.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5 May 2012, https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/parents-continue-search-for-missing-st-louis-county-woman/article_e2ee7df0-c7b2-5e20-83ea-30665dc6e877.html