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UNSOLVED: The Disappearance of Marie Elizabeth Spannhake

A kidnapper confessed, but was she telling the truth?

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  • Photo Credit: Oxygen

In May of 1977, 20-year-old Colleen Stan was hitchhiking on her way to a birthday party when she was picked up by Cameron Hooker and his wife Janice. It was the beginning of a nightmare. For the next seven years, the couple tortured, sexually assaulted, and imprisoned her, often keeping her in a small, coffin-like box beneath their bed for as many as 23 hours a day.

Eventually, Stan escaped, but her harrowing story brought to light new details in another mystery that had plagued the region—the whereabouts of Marie Elizabeth Spannhake. More than a year before Colleen Stan’s disappearance, Spannhake, then 18 years old, went missing from her Chico, California neighborhood.

Related: Colleen Stan: The Girl in the Box 

The disappearance of Marie Elizabeth Spannhake

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  • Photo Credit: Alexandra I. / Unsplash

At the time, Spannhake had recently moved to California from her home in Cleveland, Ohio, and was living with her fiancé and working as a model at a camera shop. After an argument with her fiancé at a local swap meet, Spannhake began walking home alone. It was the last time anyone but the Hookers would see her alive.

Within a short time, Spannhake’s fiancé had reported her disappearance to the authorities, demonstrating to them that none of her belongings were missing from the apartment they shared. As is so often the case in these kinds of situations, Spannhake’s fiancé initially came under suspicion in her disappearance, though he was cleared after taking a polygraph test. At the time, however, the police had no other promising leads in the young woman’s disappearance.

Related: 16 Unsolved True Crime Cases that Haunt Our Readers

Colleen Stan’s suspicions

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  • Colleen Stan today.

    Photo Credit: Oxygen

Before Janice Hooker—Cameron Hooker’s wife—recounted the fate of Marie Spannhake, Colleen Stan already had a suspicion. As she later told Oxygen for a TV special about her ordeal, when she was released from the coffin-like box where she was kept, she could see a photograph of a woman she didn’t know. She described it as similar to a school portrait, and said that, “Every time I crawled in and out of this box, I could see that picture.”

Related: UNSOLVED: The Disappearance of Kyron Horman

Years later, there is reason to believe the picture of was of Marie Spannhake. At the time of Spannhake’s disappearance, however, and for the next eight years, authorities and her family and loved ones had no idea what had become of her.

Janice Hooker turns in her husband and makes a confession

In 1984, after Colleen Stan had escaped from her long captivity and torment, Janice Hooker turned her husband in to the police. In exchange for freedom from prosecution, Janice told authorities all the details of what she and her husband had done to Stan—but she also told them something else. She said that there had been another victim before Stan and that the victim had been Marie Spannhake.

She told authorities that on the last day of January 1976, she and Cameron Hooker had picked up Spannhake while she was walking along Mangrove Avenue—not far from her home. It was almost a spur-of-the-moment thing, with Cameron Hooker grabbing Spannhake by the hair even as she was about to get out of the car at her destination. The Hookers then took Spannhake back to their home but, unlike Stan, they didn’t keep her long—at least, not alive.

Related: UNSOLVED: The Grizzly Case of the Ice Box Murders

After abducting the young woman, Cameron placed a wooden “head box” he had designed himself over her head and the two took her back to their home in Red Bluff, California, where she was stripped naked and suspended from the rafters. Janice later claimed that she tried to comfort their victim, telling her that they wouldn’t hurt her, but that was a lie.

Instead, Cameron Hooker tortured her to death within the space of a single night. “It was like his toy, you know?” Janice Hooker later told police. When she married Cameron, he had begun acting out violent fantasies of bondage and torture on her, to the point where she feared that he would kill her, even if only by accident. So the two made a deal. Janice would allow Cameron to acquire a “girl who couldn’t say no,” if he agreed not to have penetrative sex with his new victim.

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  • Cameron and Janice Hooker.

    Photo Credit: Oxygen

Spannhake was, Janice said later, their first attempt. It didn’t last. In addition to hanging Spannhake from her wrists, Cameron shot her in the abdomen with a pellet gun, which Janice Hooker later described as a “torture thing.” However, he soon grew tired of her screaming, so he attempted to cut her vocal cords, but it “didn’t work.” Janice later recalled Cameron and Spannhake in an upstairs bathroom, where Cameron told his wife to hold a towel to the injured woman’s bleeding neck.

Later in the evening, Cameron Hooker gave Spannhake a pencil and paper so she could write something down since she could no longer speak. She wrote, “I’ll give you anything you want if you let me go.” But that isn’t what happened. Instead, Cameron shortly came back upstairs, in a condition that his wife described as “distraught.” He was asking her, “What did I do?”

What he had done was strangle Marie Elizabeth Spannhake to death, according to Janice Hooker. Together, she and her husband wrapped the body in a blanket and drove it out of town, where they buried it in a shallow grave, which Janice Hooker recalled painstakingly excavating from the snowy ground.

Related: 29 Unsolved Murders That Will Send Shivers Down Your Spine

Marie Elizabeth Spannhake’s body was never found

Despite Janice’s testimony, however, Cameron Hooker was never charged with Spannhake’s disappearance or murder, partly because authorities never found her body, or any other physical evidence that she had been in the possession of the Hookers. After all, more than eight years had passed since her abduction by then, and the Hookers had moved into a new home during that time. Janice claimed they had burned everything that belonged to Spannhake, except for a watch that Cameron Hooker wore for years until it was crushed at his job at a lumber mill.

Besides, the authorities had plenty to charge Cameron Hooker with regarding the kidnapping, imprisonment, and sexual assault of Colleen Stan, crimes for which he was ultimately sentenced to 104 years in prison. Today, Stan still lives in California and is a grandmother. As for Marie Elizabeth Spannhake, her body was never found. Her family and loved ones may never know for certain what became of her, or whether Janice Hooker’s chilling account of her last hours of life is accurate.

Related: 48 Eerie Unsolved Mysteries That Will Keep You Awake at Night

Featured image from "Snapped Notorious: The Girl in the Box" via Oxygen.