Kayla was 9 years old when she went missing on July 5, 2017. She was living full-time with her father Ryan Iserka but visiting her non-custodial mother, Heather Unbehaun, in the Chicago suburb of South Elgin.
“I had gone to her house to pick up my daughter on my way home from work, and they weren’t there,” Iserka said during an interview in 2020. “Her family was at her house having dinner and they had told me that she didn’t come back from a camping trip and they didn’t know where she was.”
Police issued a felony kidnapping warrant for Heather Unbehaun’s arrest on July 28, 2017, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Iserka tried to stay positive, writing letters to her.
“There is a lot of people who love her. Everyone loves her and our family. Everyone wants to see her and, spend time with her,” Iserka said. “I don’t want to take her mother away from her. I want her to grow up happy and have a life with everyone who loves her.”
At the time, police said Heather Unbehaun had some ties to the East Coast and said they may have been hiding in plain sight. The NCMEC released an age progression image of what she might look like.
“Because she’s been missing, had been missing for multiple years, we needed to put out an image that was accurate to what she would look like currently,” said Callahan Walsh, the son of John Walsh, who founded the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “We did two separate age progression or age-progressed photos.”
On May 15, it was revealed that Kayla was spotted at a shop in Asheville, North Carolina, by someone who recognized her in season 16, episode nine of the “Unsolved Mysteries” series, titled “Abducted by a Parent.”
“We received a call from a local business where an employee had reported to their manager that they believe that they had recognized this juvenile,” said Asheville Police Department Lt. Johnathan Brown.
Kayla’s discovery is a testament to how the media has helped harness the power of the public — from digital sleuths helping solve Gabby Petito’s murder to the “Serial” podcast freeing a man from jail and “The Jinx” helping bring about a murder conviction.
“Working with media today in the 24-hour news cycle that we have and the social media handles that traditional media has as well, they can amplify this message to a degree that was unimaginable in the past,” Walsh said.
“Unsolved Mysteries,” creator Terry Meurer told The Wrap that during its original 23-year run, the series helped solve over 260 cold cases. The series ended in 2010 but was rebooted in 2020.
Several other shows, including “America’s Most Wanted,” have also helped solve cases.
“‘Most Wanted’ helped capture of our 1,400 wanted fugitives, and we’re talking worse to the worst,” Walsh said. “But also helped recover over 60 missing children, as well.”
Walsh currently co-hosts a show with his father, “In Pursuit with John Walsh,” which he said has also led to fugitives being apprehended.
“We have captured and helped capture over 50 fugitives, 50 guys that were featured on ‘In Pursuit’ have been captured, even though we’ve only had 48 episodes now,” Walsh said. “So it’s just amazing to see that the public is still fighting back. They don’t wanna be living next to these guys.”
Meanwhile, Heather Unbehaun was arrested and charged with felony child abduction.
Kayla was reunited with her father. In a statement through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Iserka thanked the organization and law enforcement agencies for spreading the word about the search for her.
“I’m overjoyed that Kayla is home safe,” he said. “I also want to thank all of the followers on the ‘Bring Kayla Home’ Facebook page, who helped keep her story alive and were instrumental in spreading awareness. We ask for privacy as we get to know each other again and navigate this new beginning.”
“To get Kayla back after as many years as she was missing for is just, it’s a home run,” Walsh said. “It’s why we do what we do.”