Skip to main content

Store owner recognizes and saves abducted little girl at shopping center after closely watching ‘Unsolved Mysteries’

Kayla Unbehaun, Heather Unbehaun

Kayla Unbehaun picture (L) in a photo from around the time she disappeared and (R) in an age-progressed photo of Kayla at approximately 14 (NCMEC), (C) Heather Unbehaun (Asheville PD)

You just never know when your true crime documentary watching may save a life in the real world.

A North Carolina store owner who watched “Unsolved Mysteries” on Netflix has been credited with recognizing a young Illinois girl missing since 2017 and calling police in Asheville about what she saw at the shopping center over the weekend.

Kayla Unbehaun was 9 years old when she was last seen on a camping trip in the summer of 2017. Non-custodial mother Heather Unbehaun’s alleged abduction of Kayla from South Elgin, Illinois, was noticed the day after the Fourth of July that year, when the girl’s father Ryan Iserka went to the suspect’s Wheaton home to pick up his daughter. The girl had vanished, and so had her mother, even though Ryan had full custody of Kayla at the time.

“According to police interviews, Heather was last seen packing her belongings up to the roof of her car. Her closest family members indicated she went on a camping trip to an unknown location in Wisconsin and was expected to return on Wednesday July 5th at 7pm for a parenting time exchange with me,”  Iserka has said of that day in 2017. “Heather and Kayla did not show up for the court ordered exchange and the police were immediately contacted and an investigation was launched. It was discovered that all of Heather’s social media had been canceled and her phone turned off. As far as we know, no one has been able to reach her or has talked to her since the 4th of July. Because of this, the following day I had filed a missing person’s report for both Kayla and Heather. Heather also did not show up for a court date motioned by her on Friday June 7th. Her lawyer had not talked to her for days, was unaware of what happened and was very concerned.”

Thanks to a watchful store owner at Plato’s Closet states away, the now-teenage girl can be reunited with her dad. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children shared an “overjoyed” statement from Kayla’s father on the discovery of his daughter safe in North Carolina.

“I’m overjoyed that Kayla is home safe. I want to thank @ElginPDFD, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and all of the law enforcement agencies who assisted with her case. We ask for privacy as we get to know each other again and navigate this new beginning,” said Ryan.

More Law&Crime coverage: Prosecutors seek death penalty against plastic surgeon accused of murdering missing lawyer

While Kayla Unbehaun is currently in protective custody, Heather Unbehaun, 40, faces a child abduction charge and remains held on a $250,000 bond in Buncombe County, N.C., as her extradition to Illinois looms, WSOC reported.

Reports from years ago speculated that the suspect may have been near Athens, Georgia, as she was said to have Atlanta-area ties. Asheville, N.C., is only three hours away from Athens.

Law&Crime Productions’ “Vanished” also closely examined the Kayla Unbehaun case, featuring interviews with members of the girl’s family, home videos, and more.

“Kayla, I love you so much, and I want nothing more than to have you back in my life and have many years of good times together and be a part of everyone’s life who loves you,” her father said on the documentary.

On a GoFundMe campaign, Iserka previously shared a video of young Kayla talking about “Gary the Gecko,” visible in a cardboard box. That video was uploaded to YouTube 7 years ago, so it represents what Kayla looked like before the missing person case:

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow Law&Crime:

Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.