CLEARWATER, FL — Sometime during the early morning hours of September 11, 2000, eight-year-old third grader Zachary Bernhardt disappeared from his Clearwater, Florida, home in the dead of night.
His mother, Leah Hackett, told investigators that Zachary went to sleep in her bed at around 11 P.M. She said that she went outside for a walk around the Savannah Trace apartment complex, and then a quick swim, sometime between 3 and 4 A.M. After she returned to the apartment and took a shower, she realized that her son was missing — and called police at 4:47 A.M.
There were no signs of a struggle, and no evidence of a break-in. Zachary, whose story is told in a new episode of Investigation Discovery’s “Disappeared,” had vanished without a trace.
Police took DNA evidence, secured the crime scene, and launched a massive grid search of the area around the apartment on Drew Street.Over the years, investigators have interviewed thousands of people and followed endless tips — but no trace of Zachary has ever been found.
Detectives said that the circumstances of Zachary’s disappearance were “unusual.” They questioned Leah’s decision to leave the apartment at that time of night and go for a swim — without a towel — leaving the door unlocked.
Police began to ask more and more questions about Leah, and so did the local media. Following reports that neighbors had stated Leah’s car was moved on the night Zachary disappeared, during the time she claimed she had been home, investigators told reporters in September that they did not believe that Leah had told them the whole story.
As a single mother, Leah often struggled to make ends meet, and she and her son had reportedly moved 11 times in 14 years. On at least on occasion, Zachary witnessed an acquaintance of his mother’s attack her. Reports say that Leah and Zachary were facing eviction at the time of his disappearance.Despite the family problems, Zach was a bright student, and he excelled in school. Neighbors and school officials described him as being mild-mannered and smart.
And Leah’s family insists that, despite her personal problems, she was a great mom who adored her son. “They loved each other a lot. They spent a lot of time together. They had a very tight bond,” Billie-Jo Jiminez, Zachary’s aunt, told Investigation Discovery.
Leah revealed the identity of Zachary’s father to investigators. When they questioned him, he appeared to be unaware that he had fathered a child with Leah — and police were able to rule him out as a suspect since he had been nowhere near the state of Florida on the night Zachary disappeared.
The police had an undercover cop track Jalbert’s movements, and Jalbert bragged to the cop that he had abducted and raped over 1,000 children and claimed to have killed five of them. Jalbert pointed directly to Zach’s apartment complex during a drive and said he had kidnapped a child from there.
But police later claimed that Jalbert pointed to the wrong apartment unit. Also, Jalbert said the child he had abducted was wearing Mickey Mouse underwear and Scooby Doo pajamas, while Zach had been wearing boxer shorts at the time of his disappearance. And finally, Jalbert’s DNA did not match the evidence found at the scene.
When questioned by police, Jalbert denied having abducted Zach. Police did find a receipt indicating that Jalbert dropped waste at a landfill two weeks after Zachary’s disappearance, but scoured the landfill and found no trace of Zachary.
Investigators could not conclusively link Jalbert to Zachary’s disappearance — but they did find child pornography at his home. He is currently behind bars serving a 40-year sentence for his crimes.
In August of 2001, a photograph was found outside of Boulder, Colorado, in the parking lot of a sporting goods store. The photograph showed a young boy who appeared to be tied up in a wooded area, and was sent to police departments around the country. Investigators said that the boy had similar features to Zachary, and brought in his grandmother and aunt to look at pictures. The family, however, did not believe the picture was Zachary.
On New Year’s Eve in 2001, another five-year-old child went missing from the Savannah Trace apartment complex. Ten hours after the abduction, a motorist found the child alive in a dumpster, and the boy was reunited with his family. Due to his age, the details of his ordeal were not disclosed. He said that a white man with stringy hair had taken him. Detectives looked for a link between the two cases, but could not find a connection.
Around 797,500 reports are taken each year of missing children, but most turn out to be runaways or custodial abductions. Cases like Zach’s, where children vanish into thin air and no trace of them are ever found, are actually fairly rare.
Zachary’s mother, Leah Hackett, moved to Hawaii, and at some point, detectives say, decided to stop participating in the investigation. Investigators and other member’s of Zach’s family are still searching for answers, though, and making T-shirts and poster boards that show age-progressed photos of what he may look like today.
Anyone with information can call the Clearwater Police Department at (727) 562-4420 or remain anonymous and text a tip to 847411. Tips can also be made through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1 (800) 843-5678.
If you are in search of a missing person, make sure to enter their information into the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
To learn more about the case, watch Investigation Discovery’s “About a Boy” episode of Disappeared on ID GO.
Main photo: Zachary Berhardt and an age-progressed photo of what he might look like at 23 years old (right) [National Center For Missing And Exploited Children]