Carlene Tengelsen had recently gotten her driver’s license and had never driven anywhere, so she was thrilled when her mother allowed her to use the family car to pick up her younger sister from summer camp on Wednesday, June 21, 1972. The 16-year-old left her home in Macon, Georgia in the early afternoon, intending to stop by a local shopping plaza before heading to Mercer University, where her sister was on a field trip with her camp group. Carlene invited her younger brother and older sister to come with her, but neither was interested and the teenager left alone in the white 1963 station wagon. She never returned home and she was never seen again.
The first sign that something was wrong came around 4:00 pm, when 14-year-old Joanette Tengelsen called home asking why no one had picked her up from summer camp. At first, Joan Tengelsen told her younger daughter that she was sure Carlene would be there any minute and to just sit tight. After more than an hour passed, Joanette called home again. Carlene still hadn’t picked her up and she was getting bored of waiting. Eventually, 17-year-old Arnelle Tengelsen drove to Mercer University and picked up her youngest sister.
Joan Tengelsen wasn’t sure what to think when Carlene failed to pick up Joanette and didn’t return home that afternoon. Although Carlene had only had her driver’s license for about a week, she was normally a very responsible teenager and it was unlike her to go anywhere without letting someone know. As hours went by without any sign of Carlene, Joan started to worry that something might have happened to her.
Carlene’s father, Arnold, was on a business trip in Florida at the time the teenager went missing. Although Joan was initially reluctant to worry him, as darkness fell without any word from Carlene, she called him and told him that the teenager was missing. He had just checked into a hotel in Deland, Florida, more than five hours away from home. Despite a brewing hurricane, Arnold immediately left the hotel and headed for Macon, driving as fast as he could on the rain-soaked highway.
Joan called the Macon Police Department to say that Carlene was missing, but at first, they didn’t seem to care. Since Carlene was a teenager, they thought she had just gone out with her friends and would come back when she was ready. After looking for the Pontiac station wagon that Carlene had been driving for a few hours, they still couldn’t find it.
That night, Arnelle was planning to go out with her boyfriend Marvin. She changed her plans for the date so she could help her mom look for Carlene. They called all of the teen’s friends to see if anyone knew where she might be. Marvin picked up Joanette because he wanted to help. The two of them drove around Macon for hours looking for Carlene and the white station wagon but couldn’t find them.
The Westgate Shopping Center was the first place they looked. That’s where Carlene was going to stop on her way to get Joanette. Some teenage boys she knew from school were playing pinball at Newberry’s and said that Carlene had stopped and watched them play for a while. This provided her family with proof that she had made it to the shopping center that afternoon.
Carlene went to the shopping center behind Westgate after leaving the pinball machines. Her boyfriend had been working at the Winn-Dixie grocery store that day, so she left him a note on his windshield. He hadn’t seen Carlene, but when his shift was over, he found the note. “Stopped by to say hello. See you tonight.” She was gone by that night, though.
From late evening until well after midnight, Joanette and Marvin drove around Macon. They looked for Carlene and the white Pontiac in dozens of parking lots and side streets, but they couldn’t find them. At 1:45 a.m., they went through the Westgate Shopping Center one last time on their way home. Joanette saw the white station wagon all of a sudden in the parking lot across from Krispy Kreme.
Joanette could only stare at the car at first, shocked. She and Marvin had looked in this parking lot before, but the car wasn’t there. Marvin pointed out that there was a Macon police car in the same parking lot. The officer hadn’t realized that he was only feet away from the wanted car, even though the whole police force knew that Carlene had gone missing and officers were supposed to be looking for the white station wagon.
Marvin walked up to the police officer and asked if he was looking for a white Pontiac station wagon. Marvin pointed it out after the police officer said he was. “Well, it’s sitting over there.” Even though the car had been found, Carlene was still not there.
The driver side door of the Pontiac was open and the windows were down when it was found. When Joan’s daughter got out of the car, she was taught to always make sure the windows were rolled up and the doors were locked. She would never have left the car that way, Joan was sure. “Carlene wouldn’t have left it that way.” She knew that if she didn’t take good care of the family car, she could lose her license.
Police said that Carlene was probably out with friends and there was no reason to worry even though she hadn’t been found with the car. But Arnold was adamant that something was wrong. He was sure that his daughter hadn’t been the one who left the station wagon. He thought she had been raped and her kidnapper had then left the car where it was found. Arnold begged the police to look through the Pontiac for proof. Finally, they shook it up to look for fingerprints, but they didn’t find any.
Joan told the news media that Carlene would never have left her family on her own. She was close with her parents and siblings. She shared a bedroom with Joanette, and even though they fought over it sometimes (Joanette liked things neat, while Carlene liked things a little more sloppy), they were close and didn’t keep secrets from each other.
Tom was Carlene’s younger brother. He was short for his age, and some of the older boys in the neighborhood would pick on him. Tom knew that all he had to do to get Carlene’s attention when he was being picked on was yell for her, and she would drop what she was doing and run to his aid.
Carlene finished her sophomore year of high school at Southwest High School in Macon not long before she went missing. It was always her pleasure to go to school; she got along well with her classmates and never spoke up in class. There was a steady boyfriend in her life; she was wearing his class ring the night she went missing. She was looking forward to a date with him. “She’s never done anything like this before,” Joan said. She never stayed out all night, and she always got home on time from her dates. Her mother thought that Carlene’s disappearance could only have been caused by mur*der.
The Tengelsen family put up a lot of missing person posters and made sure that all the businesses in the area had Carlene’s picture on their walls. Carlene’s classmates and friends drove all over Macon for hours, passing out flyers and looking for any sign of the missing teen.
After Carlene went missing for two weeks, her family said they would pay $500 for information that led to her location. Officially, both the Macon Police Department and the Macon-Bibb County Civil Defense Office were looking into Carlene’s disappearance. However, detectives thought she had probably left the area on her own, and they still thought she would come back home eventually.
Joan was very upset that her daughter had gone missing. She had weeks where she couldn’t sleep and months where she didn’t want to get out of bed. She wouldn’t leave the house because she was afraid that as soon as she took her eyes off the phone, someone would call about Carlene. She wore her clothes to bed for six weeks to make sure she would be ready to leave right away if she got a call that Carlene had been found.
The family got a lot of calls, but most of them were from people who didn’t give them much information but wanted the reward money. Some people were obviously mentally ill. For example, one woman insisted that Carlene lived in her attic and came down every night to steal food from her fridge.
Months went by, and no one knew what happened to Carlene. The teen was still on the list of people missing in Macon, but police didn’t do much to find her. At first, police thought Carlene had run away from home, which slowed down the investigation. By the time they were willing to admit that she might have been a victim of foul play, the case was already over.
Joan told Arnold in May 1973 that she no longer wanted to live in Macon. Her thoughts kept going back to her missing daughter, so she decided to get away for a while. Arnold got his family to move to Durham, North Carolina, where he planned to buy a steakhouse.
When Joan was getting ready to leave Georgia, she made plans for their neighbors to install a second phone line. The Tengelsens’ old phone number was moved to this line so that Carlene could still call home if she needed to. The neighbors kept the phone number in use for three years, until the Tengelsens moved back to Macon in 1977.
On July 1, 1981, Arnold asked for Carlene to be legally pronounced dead. On August 26, 1981, a judge in Bibb County said that Arnold’s petition was granted because there was a legal presumption of death. Carlene hadn’t been seen in more than nine years at that point, and no one had been sure they had seen her. Even though it didn’t change anything with the Macon police—she was still listed as a missing person—her family knew she had probably been killed the night she disappeared.
Even though Joan and Arnold never got over losing Carlene, they didn’t let their grief take over their lives. Even though they were both used to the idea that they might never know what happened to her, they still talked about her a lot, especially late at night when they were alone. Arnold passed away in 2004, not long after the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. He was 78 years old. Joan liked to think that Carlene was in heaven waiting for him.
In 2009, Joan noted that missing children cases were treated far differently than they had been in the 1970s. The pain felt by parents, however, remained the same. “Anytime I see on the news that a child is missing, I pray for that family…I feel a kinship with them because I know the hell that they’re gonna go through…it’s something so horrible that you can’t really express it.”
Joan said that if she were able to speak to the person responsible for her daughter’s disappearance, she would ask them why they did it — and she would tell them that she forgave them. Her faith had grown stronger over the years and she was looking for answers, not vengeance. Joan died in December 2016 at the age of 83, hopefully finally getting the answers she so desperately wanted.
June 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of Carlene’s disappearance. In the five decades since she vanished, her parents and her older sister had died, but Joanette and Tom still hoped to learn what had happened to her. Joanette stated, “People say, ‘After 50 years, you know she’s dead,’ and I know that’s probably true. I just don’t want to say I agree and that’s it. I just can’t let it go…it would be nice to know for sure, to have some justice to it.”
Joanette wasn’t as willing as her mother to blindly forgive the person who stole her sister away from her. “I hate that person, and I’ve had to ask God to forgive me for hating them, because I don’t even know who they are.” She hopes she can one day forgive this person, but noted that if she ever met them face-to-face, “I may not be so nice.”
Carlene Sessions Tengelsen was just 16 years old when she vanished from Macon, Georgia in June 1972. She had just finished her sophomore year of high school and had only had her driver’s license for a week when she went missing; although police initially believed she was a runaway, those close to her knew that she would never have voluntarily walked away from her family. Carlene has hazel eyes and brown hair, and at the time of her disappearance, she was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 115 pounds. Although her hair was naturally curly, she preferred to iron it straight. Carlene was last seen wearing blue jeans with metal studs down the sides and one of her dad’s blue button-down shirts; she also had on her Mickey Mouse watch, a silver POW bracelet engraved with the name of an American soldier taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, and her boyfriend’s white gold class ring. She had braces on her teeth when she went missing. If you have any information about Carlene, please contact the Macon Police Department at 912–751–7505.