An Ohio teen who went missing hours before her graduation and prompted a desperate six-day search was found safe with a person of interest in the case and said she’d left to ‘start a new life’.
Madison Bell, 18, phoned police to say she is safe after disappearing last Sunday, May 17, the Highland County Sheriff’s office said Saturday.
The teen’s mother reported her missing after she left home to visit a tanning salon a few hours before her high school graduation ceremony and never returned.
Her car was later found abandoned in a church parking lot, unlocked with her cell phone and keys still inside, sparking immediate suspicion of foul play.
Highland County authorities now say that Madison has been in contact to confirm that she is safe and left of her own free will, but does not want her location disclosed.
Sheriff Donnie Barrera said that when Madison was found she told authorities she wanted ‘to start a new life’.
She was reportedly in the company of an unidentified ‘person of interest’.
Police say no arrests will be made in the case, despite how costly the extensive search effort was.
Madison Bell, 18, was found safe six days after she disappeared in Highland County, Ohio. Police said she had left of her own volition and wanted to ‘start a new life’
Madison was reported missing on May 17 after she left home to visit a tanning salon a few hours before her high school graduation ceremony and never returned
Madison’s disappearance generated tremendous community concern, and a $15,000 reward had been posted for information leading to her return.
Her family released a statement saying: ‘We ask that the public and media respect our privacy during this difficult time while we are emotionally raw.’
‘We are just relieved to know Maddie is alive and not in physical danger.’
The family thanked all of the agencies that joined in the massive search for the teen, as well as the community for rallying around them during the trying ordeal.
‘Every single effort to find Maddie has touched us and we appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts,’ the statement added.
Police released a photo of this man who was spotted near the area where Madison’s car was found. It’s unclear whether he has any connection with the case
The mysterious case quickly attracted national attention, with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine pleading for the teen’s safe return, and the FBI joining the investigation.
The teen disappeared just two days after tanning businesses had reopened in Ohio following coronavirus lockdowns.
When Madison, known to her family and friends as ‘Maddie,’ did not return home from the tanning salon after about an hour, her mother started texting and calling her, but received no response.
Mother Melissa Bell insisted her daughter would never leave her family and friends, especially during graduation week.
‘She would always contact me even if she was going to be five minutes late,’ the distraught mother said after she disappeared.
Concerned that Madison may have gotten into a car accident, her mother and longtime boyfriend drove together to the Good Shepherd Church parking lot near the Corner Market tanning salon, where they found her car.
‘The windows are up, we open the door, her phone is laying in it, her keys in the ignition, the change is in the container she had. The car was left unlocked,’ the mother recounted to WHIO. ‘She would never leave her car unlocked, she would never leave her phone in there.’
Madison’s family was certain that she would not leave on her own just hours before graduation, but it now appears that she left willingly and did not want her family to find her
Madison’s mother, Melissa Bell (left), and the teen’s long-term boyfriend, Cody Mann (right), made emotional pleas for her safe return during the week she was missing
Madison’s car was found abandoned with the keys still in the ignition in the parking lot of the Good Shepherd Church in Highland County (pictured)
Bell said she tried to unlock Madison’s phone but was unable to and handed it over to law enforcement.
Cody Mann, Madison’s boyfriend of five years, broke down in tears pleading for her safe return during an interview with WXIX-TV on Tuesday.
‘She’s the most loving girl I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean, I can’t even explain it… I just want her to come home,’ he said through sobs.
‘I’ll see you when you get back is the last thing I got to say’, he added.
Madison (pictured left with her live-in boyfriend) was set to graduate from high school on the day she was reported missing. Her mother said she would not have missed it
More than 300 volunteers came out to search for Madison on Sunday and Monday, spending thousands of man-hours scouring trails and woods, and distributing flyers.
On Thursday, police released images of a man and a car with California plates sought in connection with the case, saying the man was spotted in the parking lot where Madison’s car was found.
A church worker told police the white four-door vehicle they saw in the lot stood out as there were no services due to COVID-19.
They said a white male stood near the vehicle, which they believed to have California license plates. An image released by police was taken at a nearby business.
After Madison was confirmed safe, it was not clear whether the man had any connection with her decision to leave her family without informing them.