The last time Ellie Green saw her mother, they fought.
Ellie, then 18, had recently acquired her first boyfriend and her first car. It was June 20, 2019, and she had just returned to her parents’ house in Prairie Village, Kansas, after her freshman year of college and a month abroad in Europe.
She and her mother, Angela Green, 51, were having it out over the classic stuff: Ellie’s new independence, her mother’s feelings of rejection, what their relationship should look like now that Ellie was an adult. Angela snapped that if her daughter didn’t need her anymore, she could find somewhere else to sleep.
Ellie was testing the boundaries, and Angela was struggling with the growing distance between her and her only child. Ellie drove away, thinking they both just needed to cool off. Soon enough, they would cook dumplings or spring rolls together, their favorites, and reconnect. But she never saw or heard from her mother again.
Ellie’s father told her that her mother had been hospitalized with mental health problems shortly after their fight. Later, he said Angela died of a stroke and had been cremated. He told her not to notify her mother’s family, Ellie said, asking for more time to grieve in private.
For eight months, Ellie bought her father’s story and kept it a secret from the people who knew Angela the best. But by February, Ellie knew something was not right. In the weeks that followed, Ellie and her mother’s relatives began to dig out the truth: There was no record of a hospital stay. There was no death certificate. There was no evidence of cremation. There was also no sign of Angela. And Ellie’s father now had a new story.
Their saga is one of familial loss. But it also raises larger questions about our relationships to one another. How does a woman disappear without her neighbors or extended family realizing? How fragile must one’s connections be to others, and how isolated must one feel? And how can there be so few clues as to where Angela is now?
The Woman In The Garden
Over 600,000 people are reported missing in the U.S. every year. The vast majority of cases are resolved quickly, within a few days or weeks. Sometimes a person has an illness or mental health issue that causes them to get confused and lost. In some situations, the person was never missing at all — they may have left voluntarily without telling anyone, such as to escape domestic violence, or their disappearance was a result of miscommunication. Only a small portion of missing person cases each year involve foul play.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, is a government-funded program that collects information on people who have been missing for an extended period of time. Angela’s name is now among the 18,051 missing persons listed in the NamUs database. About 100 cases are in Kansas, the oldest of which dates back to 1968.
The first 48 to 72 hours following a disappearance are critical; in that window, law enforcement can interview witnesses while their memories are fresh and collect evidence before it is lost. Social isolation is often a factor in cases where people who go missing are not reported to authorities in a timely fashion, said B.J. Spamer, executive director of operations at NamUs.
“If you’re not in constant contact with someone, then no one knows,” Spamer said.
The eight-month gap between Angela’s disappearance and her daughter telling police of her absence has been hard to overcome.
The Prairie Village Police Department has made no arrests, nor has it publicly identified a person of interest. In an interview with HuffPost, Capt. Ivan Washington declined to discuss the ongoing case, but urged the public to come forward with any information that may help authorities locate Angela.
“We’ll see where the evidence leads us,” he said. “We’re just trying to use all our resources and to try to bring this to a positive resolution.”
Ellie fears that if her mother wasn’t dead last summer, she is now. And her disappearance has made clear how few people even knew Angela Green.
She was born Xin He on the outskirts of Tianjin, in northern China, to two college professors. In the late 1990s, a friend of her parents set her up with Geoff Green, an auto mechanic and salesman from Kansas who was visiting China for work. Geoff was divorced and had a daughter from his previous marriage. Angela had never married and was eager to start a family. For their first date, they met at the Hard Rock Cafe in Beijing. A courtship, mostly conducted by mail, followed. Within a year, Angela moved to Kansas and married Geoff.
Angela had never been to the U.S. before, and she didn’t speak much English, although she could read and write in the language. As it turns out, she also didn’t know that much about Geoff. Ellie says her dad, who was 13 years older than Angela, hadn’t been honest about his age when they met. He also wasn’t forthright with his existing family: Geoff’s ex-wife said he did not tell his teenage daughter that he was dating anyone or planning to get remarried until Angela arrived in the U.S.
The newlyweds moved into a ranch-style house on a quiet street in Prairie Village, a place where kids could bike to friends’ houses without supervision. Angela’s older sister Catherine, who had immigrated to the U.S. 10 years earlier, also lived in Kansas. The two families hung out and celebrated holidays together, until Catherine moved away several years later.
Angela spent her days at home cooking, cleaning and gardening while her husband worked in Kansas City, Missouri. She was fearful of driving and did not venture far from the house, Ellie said.
Her closest relationship was with her daughter. Angela was nurturing and warm, but strict. She scheduled her daughter’s time rigorously: school, piano lessons, homework, repeat. Ellie wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers, to parties or on dates. She didn’t have a cellphone until her senior year of high school. But they were each other’s best friend and confidante until Ellie graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and headed to the University of Kansas in fall 2018.
Angela was friendly with other neighborhood moms, but always kept her distance.
“She was tall and beautiful and soft-spoken, and honestly a little intimidating,” said Rebecca Legill, whose daughter was close friends with Ellie in elementary school. “I’m a normal Midwest mom, sweatpants and bedhead, hoping to get the kids to school on time, and Angela was always put-together. She made life look effortless.”
Legill tried, unsuccessfully, to get to know Angela better. Theirs wasn’t the type of house you could swing by without notice. When she tried to organize playdates, she said, Geoff always had to be looped in to approve the plan.
Neighbor Nicole Walton had a similar experience. In the 10 years they lived next to each other, she was only invited inside once: for pizza, when their children were young. The next day, Walton knocked on the Greens’ front door, hoping to give Angela her phone number, but no one answered. Walton wrote it down on a piece of paper and left; Angela never called.
They did speak sometimes when Angela was working in her immaculately maintained garden. She was a striking figure while tending to her plants, her hair and makeup meticulously done as she weeded and pruned. Angela would always say hello ― she knew the names of everyone who lived on the street ― but stuck to small talk.
Most people who saw them said Geoff and Angela seemed happy together. Catherine, Angela’s sister, said she believes they were in love. But others in the community could not quite understand the connection.
As far as Ellie could tell, her parents functioned more like business associates than romantic partners. They didn’t kiss in front of her. They didn’t sleep in the same bedroom. Angela relied on Geoff in many ways: She didn’t have her own money, Ellie said, and had to ask Geoff for the things they needed. She made almost all their food from scratch and was very cost-conscious.
Geoff spoke English and handled most of their interactions with other people. The language barrier between the couple was the source of tension, Ellie said.
“My dad speaking almost no Chinese and my mom speaking English not very well caused a lot of things to be misinterpreted, from just little things like what she wanted from the grocery store,” she said. “I ended up mediating a lot.”
She realizes now how much power her father had in the relationship. But she didn’t spend much time with other families and had few models to compare it to.
“That’s what I thought was normal,” Ellie said.
Geoff did not respond to HuffPost’s multiple requests for comment.
Waiting To Reconcile
After their fight, Ellie stayed with her boyfriend, Zach Krause, and his family. She was waiting for her mother to apologize. “I wanted her to say ‘Sorry,’ and I was going to go home,” she said. But she never heard anything from her.
Three days later, her father texted to say she could come home. Her mother had been taken to a mental health facility, he said, and wouldn’t be back for a while.
“We met the mental health people in the store parking lot and it was a struggle,” Geoff wrote in a text to Ellie that she shared with HuffPost. “Better than trying to pry her out of the house. And she always looks good going out so she did not have the embarrassment of house clothes or untidy house.”
Ellie was shocked. Her mother had, at times, been emotional and temperamental. She’d lost weight since Ellie left for college, and seemed more anxious and sad. Ellie had worried that her mom might have an undiagnosed mental health condition, and both she and Geoff had urged Angela to see a psychiatrist ― but nothing so extreme that would suggest she needed in-patient care.
Ellie peppered her dad with questions: Where is Mom? Can I visit her? He told her she was somewhere “down south” and wasn’t ready to see anyone, Ellie said. Geoff asked Ellie to come to the house to sort through her mother’s stuff, which left her wondering if her mother was ever coming home.
“I would like to talk about the good things mom did,” he wrote in one text that left her feeling unsettled.
Zach’s mother, Sarah Krause, reached out to Geoff over text to try to facilitate a visit with Angela. Geoff brushed her off, she said.
Wracked with anxiety, Ellie tried to distract herself. She went to work at Union Station, a historic destination in Kansas City, and planned dates with her boyfriend. Three weeks passed without hearing from her mother. Then, on July 16, she and Zach attended a frisbee tournament at a local high school. They got back to his house a little after 10 p.m.
A few minutes later, Geoff pulled into the driveway. He had urgent news to share: Angela had died of a stroke in the hospital.
“My world just went blurry,” Ellie said. “I walked away and fell to my knees.”
Geoff left, and Zach helped Ellie inside. She collapsed on the couch, sobbing. The Krause family spent the night comforting the teen, and invited Geoff over the next day.
It was an awkward lunch. Sarah and her husband gently asked questions, trying to gather concrete details about what had happened. Geoff looked at the floor or off into the distance, Sarah said. “We tried to be really respectful because we didn’t know him, we didn’t know how he grieved, and we didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” she said.
Geoff didn’t offer much. He said he wasn’t sure of the name of the hospital where Angela died. He did not want to have a memorial service. He did not want Ellie to tell Angela’s family. He’d notify them, he said, but not yet.
Unraveling The Truth
The next several weeks were a blur. “I don’t remember July or August,” Ellie said via Zoom. She was in her apartment near campus, wearing a purple velour sweatshirt and delicate gold chains around her neck. As she described the period after her mother’s disappearance, her voice went from matter-of-fact to incredulous to angry.
She stayed with Zach’s family and kept in touch with her dad by text. Every other week or so, they met for a meal, but Ellie kept raising basic questions about Angela that he did not answer.
“I’d ask questions and he’d just shut down,” Ellie said. She assumed his silence was his way of coping with the grief of losing his wife, and told herself more answers would come eventually. She was scared to push him away. “I’d already lost one parent,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose another.”
Ellie’s own grief left her exhausted and confused. She couldn’t eat or sleep, and she began taking anti-anxiety medication.
Experiencing a sudden loss of a loved one can be disorienting, especially if it is someone with whom you have a close bond, explained Natalia Skritskaya, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University’s School of Social Work.
“The way we look at grief is through the prism of attachment,” she said. “Our close relationships give us a sense of safety and the knowledge that someone’s got our back. If something happens, we could turn to them.” When those relationships are severed, she added, it is common for people to lose confidence in themselves.
An important part of the grieving process is forming a coherent narrative about the death. A lack of specifics or a story that doesn’t make sense can make it difficult to accept the loss, Skritskaya said.
“The way we adapt to the death of a loved one is by grappling with the reality and the finality of the loss,” she said. That’s why ceremonies around death, such as funeral services, serve an important function: They allow mourners to come to grips with what has happened.
Ellie was never given that opportunity. She wanted to accept her father’s explanation for what happened — but as time went on, the lack of information became harder to accept. She had too many unanswered questions. Ultimately, she realized she couldn’t figure it out alone.
Breaking Through The Fog
Catherine Guo was watching TV in her living room in Long Island when her niece called on Feb. 13, 2020. She was pleasantly surprised; she hadn’t heard from Angela or Ellie in eight months.
She’d called Angela at least once, to check in about an upcoming family wedding, but hadn’t heard back. The spotty contact wasn’t that unusual, Catherine said. Although they had both lived in Kansas for a few years, they had since forged separate lives in different parts of the country and were not particularly close.
When Catherine picked up the phone that night, she heard Ellie crying. It was hard to follow exactly what she was saying. Catherine’s sister was dead, that much she gathered, but Ellie kept repeating the date of the 16th.
“I looked at the calendar in the kitchen and it was the 13th, so I asked, ‘How could she die on the 16th?’” Catherine said. No, Ellie explained, her mother had died on July 16, the year before.
Her heart racing, Catherine called her own adult daughters, a doctor and a lawyer. They were both immediately suspicious of Geoff’s story. If Angela had died in Kansas, by law, a death certificate must exist. Could Ellie get it? It might at least help clear up where and how her mother had died.
Ellie cut class the next day and drove to the state’s Vital Statistics office in Topeka to request a copy of her mother’s death certificate. The clerk came back empty-handed. No such document existed.
“My stomach sank,” Ellie said. “I knew something was very wrong.”
She met up with her father the following day and cornered him in the kitchen. Where had her mother died? Kansas, Geoff said. No, Ellie replied, she didn’t. She’d gone and looked it up herself.
She says her father’s face contorted. He told her he’d have to look into it. That was the last time she ever saw him in person.
That same day, the Guo family requested a police welfare check on Angela. Once police arrived, Ellie said, Geoff told them a new story: Angela had taken off with friends. The police then called Ellie, she said, and asked if she knew where her mother was. She told them she had been led to believe that Angela was dead.
Washington, the captain from the Prairie Village Police Department, declined to offer specifics about the interviews his officers conducted, noting only that the police “received conflicting information regarding [Angela’s] whereabouts that were concerning.”
Ellie went to the police department three days later to fill out a missing person report. Her dad called while she was sitting at a small, round table with two detectives. She put him on speaker and hit record.
Geoff admitted that he had made up the story about Angela being forcibly taken to a mental hospital. “I didn’t want you to think that she had run off with some stranger to do something,” he said. “The truth is that she kind of disappeared.”
After Angela went missing, he said, he got a call from someone saying she had been admitted to a hospital. A few weeks after that, he got a call that she had died. He said he did not take notes about what hospital it was because he was busy at work.
“I got a call that someone’s gonna come by the house and pick up money for the cremation,” Geoff told Ellie. “I got an urn and they dropped the urn back by, and it was all done by phone.” He looked inside the urn later, he said, and saw that it was empty.
After a few minutes, Ellie asked the question that had been getting louder and louder in her head for weeks: “Did you hurt Mom?” No, he replied.
Over the next few weeks, Ellie and her father spoke a few more times as Ellie tried to sort through his changing story. He told her that he had originally believed Angela was dead, but now he wasn’t sure. In one call, he suggested that Angela may have faked her own death to make him feel bad.
For Ellie, the most perplexing thing was that Geoff appeared to have no interest in finding his wife. “I don’t know where to look or what to look for,” he said when she asked him to help. “You’re stating that as if I’m going to go out and walk up and down the streets and knock on doors and look for her and no, I’m not going to do that.”
She asked him to speak to the police to aid the investigation, and he said no.
Geoff hired a criminal defense attorney, Ellie said, and warned her that the police would likely try to manipulate her and turn her against him. In March, police executed a search warrant at Ellie’s family home, cordoning off the house with crime scene tape.
This was the first time many neighbors learned Angela had disappeared.
Walton said she had noticed that Angela wasn’t around, but assumed she was traveling. Geoff never said anything. “I would see him and say hello and everything was hunky-dory, it seemed,” she said.
Walton said she saw about 10 police cars the day of the search, and noticed officers digging in the Greens’ backyard. Police also executed a search warrant in the neighboring town of Olathe, combing a wooded area and a pond.
But in the five months since, there have been no major updates in the case, and no leads to suggest police might find Angela.
The Lingering Unknowns
Ellie decided to go public about her mother a year after her disappearance, posting a photo on Instagram of Angela holding her as a newborn, along with a long caption explaining what had happened. She had held off on speaking to the media, she said, as she wanted to give police time to find her mother without interruption.
She blames herself, for believing her father and obeying him. For not knowing more about the legal and practical processes around a death. For the eight months she lost before reporting her mother’s disappearance to police.
“I’m such a big critic of myself and I want to be a perfectionist,” she said. “That’s how I was raised my whole life by my mom.”
She is also grieving the loss of both her mother and her father. These days, she only speaks to her dad about logistics like tuition bills and rent. She is still a college student, and dependent on him for financial support.
She said her father’s family turned their backs on her once she started to do media interviews. Four of Geoff’s family members did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
“I wonder when I’m going to stop losing people,” Ellie said.
Ellie does not believe her mother would disappear voluntarily. Angela loved her more than anything ― that much she knows. But the disappearance has made Ellie question everything else she thought she knew about her mother and her parents’ marriage.
“It’s changed how I look at relationships in general, actually,” she said. “I have a hard time trusting.”
Ellie wants to know the truth about what happened to her mother, but doubts she ever will.
“Honestly, I just want to know where she is and to give her a proper burial place so I can go visit her and talk to her,” she said. “That’s all I want.”