Zachary Bernhardt was a sweet and cheerful little boy whose positive outlook on life was evident to everyone who met him. The 8-year-old, who lived with his mother in Clearwater, Florida, was a third-grade student at Eisenhower Elementary School, where he got good grades and never acted out in class. His calm, cheerful demeanor hid the fact that his home life was often filled with drama and turmoil. He had no relationship with his father, and he and his mother were constantly moving from one apartment complex to another. None of this seemed to negatively affect Zach.

Zach’s mother, Leah Hackett, wasn’t a morning person and liked to stay up late. She was used to working at night, so even though she was off on the evening of Sunday, September 10, 2000, she found herself unable to fall asleep after she put Zach to bed. Around 3:00 am, feeling restless, she decided to go outside and smoke a cigarette. She glanced into Zach’s room to make sure he was sleeping soundly, then walked out into the humid night air.

It was a hot night in Florida, so Leah made a spur-of-the-moment decision to jump into the pool located in the center of the apartment complex despite the fact that she wasn’t wearing a swimsuit. She swam a few quick laps around the pool before getting out and walking the short distance back to her apartment. She changed into some dry clothes and then checked on Zach again. She was horrified to find that he wasn’t in his bed. At some point while Leah was gone, her son had disappeared.

At first, Leah thought that Zach might have rolled out of bed. She frantically searched through his room, then raced through the rest of the apartment calling his name. Once she realized that he wasn’t in the apartment, she panicked and called 911 to report him missing.

Leah admitted to police that she had left her apartment unlocked when she left to go on her walk; she knew she wasn’t going to be gone long and thought it would be okay since she wasn’t leaving the apartment complex. She insisted that Zach wouldn’t have left the apartment on his own; he knew that he always had to ask his mom for permission before going anywhere and he had no history of wandering away from home.

Police responded quickly and completed a door-to-door search of the Savannah Trace apartment complex where Zach and his mother lived. They checked empty apartments, combed through dumpsters, and searched several neighboring apartment complexes. They were unable to find any clues to Zach’s whereabouts.

Around 4:00 pm Monday, Deputy James Kane from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department arrived at the complex with his bloodhound, Lonzo. After Lonzo was given several of Zach’s items to sniff, he followed a scent trail toward a different apartment complex but lost it almost immediately. Lonzo spent the next hour trying to pick up Zach’s scent but was unsuccessful.

Detectives interviewed Zach’s teachers, classmates, and neighbors, but none of them were able to offer any insight into his disappearance. Susan Dalton, who lived in the Savannah Trace apartment complex, said that all the children in the complex knew and liked Zach, who would often play outside with them. She told detectives Leah was a good mother, noting, “She takes real good care of Zach. He’s always polite and friendly…he always speaks to you when he passes and smiles.”

Jean Eubanks, the principal of Zach’s elementary school, told investigators that Leah was very involved in Zach’s activities and volunteered to help out at school events. “[Zach] was her whole world. We had no indication that anything was wrong.”

Clearwater Police Sgt. Wayne Andrews told reporters that investigators hadn’t found any evidence of foul play, but acknowledged that Zach’s young age made finding him quickly a top priority. Zach had been wearing only a T-shirt and boxer shorts when he vanished, and he was most likely barefoot. He didn’t own a bicycle, so if he had left the apartment alone he would have had to walk. Although he had no history of sleepwalking, investigators were open to every possibility. Everyone hoped he was still close by and would be quickly found.

Officers from six different agencies, including the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Tampa Police Department assisted in the search for the missing boy; in addition to the ground search, divers and a helicopter crew were also dispatched to the area. They spent hours scouring the county for the little blond boy but came up empty.

While officers and volunteers scoured the area for any sign of Zach, detectives compiled a list of registered sex offenders who lived in or around the apartment complex. Each one was interviewed to see where they had been around the time Zach went missing, but nothing was found to suggest one of them had been involved in his disappearance.

On Wednesday, a tearful Leah made a public appeal for help finding her son. “He is a beautiful boy, inside as well as out. Anyone who has ever met Zach has loved Zach. We miss him. We love him very much. And we want him to come home.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, the apartment complex and surrounding area were searched with cadaver dogs but nothing was found. Detectives also combed through the apartment, taking fingerprints and looking for any clues that might indicate what had happened to Zach. Clearwater Police spokesman Wayne Shelor admitted that investigators were mystified by the little boy’s disappearance, noting that they found nothing to indicate a crime had occurred but they didn’t believe he had run away from home or wandered off on his own. There were no signs of a struggle inside the apartment and all of Zach’s belongings were undisturbed.

Wayne Shelor tried to reassure residents of the Savannah Trace apartment complex that they didn’t think there was a threat to public safety at that time. “There is absolutely no reason for anyone there to be fearful of an abduction or something like that. We have no evidence a crime was committed. We don’t know why Zach is missing.”

Hoping to raise Leah’s spirits, some of Zach’s young cousins wrote her notes of encouragement. One read, “Zach was always good at hide and seek! Never stop hope! All prayers with you! As Zach always says, ‘Don’t worry, be happy!’” Relatives could only hope that Zach’s sunny outlook on life could carry through whatever he was facing.

Police and volunteer firefighters gathered at the Eddie Moore baseball field in Clearwater on Thursday morning. From there, they broke off into smaller groups and searched through more than 500 acres of mangroves, underbrush, and woods. A few groups used boats to search along the shoreline of Old Tampa Bay, scanning in vain for any sign of the missing boy.

The search for Zach was scaled back on Friday. More than 1,000 acres surrounding the apartment complex had been thoroughly searched, but the whereabouts of the little blond boy remained a mystery. Detectives spent the day reviewing the hundreds of tips they had received and continued interviewing everyone associated with Zach.

A week after Zach went missing, investigators were no closer to determining what happened to him. Police spokesman Wayne Shelor said that Leah was not the focus of their investigation, but they had impounded her car so it could be processed for potential evidence. He noted that this was routine and didn’t mean she was a suspect. “We have spoken to [Leah] many times about the disappearance of her child. We haven’t discounted what she has told us. We found nothing that disproves what she’s saying.”

For the most part, Leah tried to stay out of the public eye. Aside from one public statement, she refrained from commenting about the case; she spent most of her time in the apartment with her mother and sisters, praying that someone would call with the news that Zach had been found. Denal Donnelly, one of Leah’s sisters, told reporters that Leah believed someone had abducted Zach while he was sleeping.

Leah’s mother, Carole Bernhardt, admitted that the family was frustrated and growing increasingly anxious for answers. She worried that the case was in danger of going cold and wanted to make sure that no one forgot that her grandson was still missing. While the case had been headline news in the days immediately following Zach’s disappearance, as days went by without any progress, the publicity started to fade. “No one is putting his picture out anywhere now…but how else will they find him if they don’t keep getting his picture out?”

On September 27, 2000, Wayne Shelor told reporters that detectives were taking a closer look at Leah, though he refrained from calling the 29-year-old a suspect in Zach’s case. “From the beginning, the officers had any number of concerns about the circumstances of his disappearance. Investigators don’t believe they have the whole story from Zach’s mother.”

While most of Leah’s neighbors said she was a dedicated mother who loved her son, a few claimed that the single mother liked to go out to bars and would leave Zach home alone while she did so. At least one neighbor told police that Leah had left Zach alone for hours on the night he went missing; they claimed to have seen Leah’s car pulling into the parking lot sometime after 3:00 am, insinuating that Leah had been at a bar when Zach disappeared. Leah disputed this, however, and insisted she had been home all night.

Zach wasn’t Leah’s only child; she also had a 6-year-old daughter. While Leah initially had full custody of the little girl, she was later sent to live with her father in Michigan after he alleged that Leah went out drinking too much. A judge granted him full custody of the child.

Leah and Zach lived in several different apartments before moving to the Savannah Trace complex the previous year; Leah had been evicted from several different apartments for failure to pay rent. Five days before Zach went missing, she received yet another eviction notice because she was once again behind in her rent payments. Three weeks after her son disappeared, Leah quietly moved out of Savannah Trace. She was believed to be staying with one of her relatives.

By the middle of October, leads in Zach’s disappearance had started to dry up and most of the detectives who were initially assigned to the case were no longer working on it. They admitted that they still weren’t sure what had happened to the little boy; despite an extensive investigation, they had been unable to find any clues to his whereabouts. He had simply vanished into thin air.

As the investigation entered its third month, Zach’s case was featured on an episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” Detectives were hopeful that the national exposure would breathe new life into the case, which had started to stall. Some tips were received after the segment aired but none of them led to the missing boy.

Zach should have been celebrating his ninth birthday on December 18, 2000. Instead, he remained missing. Detectives had chased down more than 700 leads but remained baffled by Zach’s disappearance. Although they had found no evidence to suggest he had been a victim of foul play, there had been no confirmed sightings of him since Leah reported him missing. Many people were starting to fear the worst.

By the end of the year, Zach’s case had completely faded from the headlines. As the first anniversary of his disappearance approached, his family hoped to garner enough publicity to jumpstart the investigation. Detectives announced that Zach’s picture was going to be featured on a billboard in Pinellas County as well as on a flyer sent to more than 800,000 homes in Florida in September 2001.

Unfortunately, the first anniversary publicity the family hoped to garner never happened due to the events of September 11, 2001. The story of the missing 9-year-old was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks that took place that day; the media blitz the family had expected never took place.

On December 31, 2001, a 5-year-old boy was playing outside of his apartment in the Savannah Trace complex when he was abducted by a man in a white pickup truck. Witnesses quickly called police but the man and child had disappeared. Hours later, the boy was found 65 miles away from Clearwater; his abductor had tossed him into a dumpster behind a fast food restaurant in Sumter County. The boy managed to get out of the dumpster and was found by a passerby, who quickly alerted authorities.

The 5-year-old, though in good physical health, was believed to have been sexually assaulted by his kidnapper. Detectives weren’t sure if his abduction could be related to Zach’s; although they both disappeared from the same apartment complex, the person responsible for kidnapping the 5-year-old was never apprehended so couldn’t be questioned about Zach’s case.

In August 2003, a new billboard with an age-progressed photograph of Zach was placed alongside U.S. 41 in Pasco County. Zach’s grandmother and two of his aunts attended the press conference where the billboard was unveiled by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Billie Jo Jimeniz, one of Zach’s aunts, told reporters, “Any one of us standing here would give our right arm to see Zach again.” They hoped that the new billboard would bring in some fresh tips about the case, which had been stagnant for the past two years.

Years went by without any progress on Zach’s case. In August 2008, his photo was featured in a deck of cold case cards distributed to jail inmates by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Carole Bernhardt, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with pictures of her missing grandson, attended the press conference held to announce the new cold case deck. She pointed out that only one of the photographs on her shirt was a real picture of Zach; the other two were age-progression photos showing what he might look like at ages 10 and 14. “It’s terrible…you have to watch him grow up on a T-shirt.”

On the ninth anniversary of Zach’s disappearance in 2009, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released a new age-progression photograph of Zach to show what he might look like as a 17-year-old. For his family, it was hard to think of the little blond boy who had gone missing as a young man who should be thinking about what college he wanted to go to.

Although Zach’s disappearance got little publicity outside of the state of Florida, his family did everything they could to remind people that he was still missing. His grandmother and aunts attended numerous missing children rallies and marches; they also made sure to support the families of other missing children.

In September 2020, Zach’s loved ones marked the 20th anniversary of his disappearance. Billie Jo, one of his aunts, told reporters that the passage of time had done little to diminish the grief they felt. “Here we are at the 20-year mark and still no closer to knowing anything more about his disappearance than we did on the first day he disappeared…you don’t want to live this nightmare.” Billie Jo was convinced that someone snuck into the apartment and kidnapped her nephew while he was sleeping. “I believe that he was taken from his home by an abductor, someone that watched him go back and forth to school.”

The Clearwater Police Department considered Zach to be missing under suspicious circumstances but investigators have no evidence to suggest he is dead. In 2022, a spokesperson said his case remained open and active, and they urged anyone with information to call detectives. Billie Jo still hopes that the family will one day be reunited with Zach. “I do believe that my nephew is still out there…there’s a big world out there and he could be anywhere.”

The truth about what happened to Zach that night more than two decades ago remains a mystery. Leah hasn’t spoken publicly about the case in recent years; although detectives believe she wasn’t being entirely truthful with them, they have never named her a suspect in her son’s disappearance. According to neighbors, Leah was gone from the apartment for hours that night, not minutes; if true, this could explain her reluctance to open up to police. If she did leave the apartment complex for an extended period of time, Zach could have disappeared hours earlier than detectives were led to believe.

Zachary Michael Cole Bernhardt was just 8 years old when he vanished from Clearwater, Florida on September 11, 2000. He was a sweet and cheerful little boy who loved playing with his cousins and did well in school. Detectives have no idea what happened to Zach; they have never found any evidence that he met with foul play but they do not believe he left his home voluntarily. Zach has blue eyes and blond hair, and at the time of his disappearance, he was 4 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 60 pounds. He has scars on the bridge of his nose and under his chin. Zach was last seen wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt. If you have any information about Zach’s disappearance, please contact the Clearwater Police Department at 727–562–4422.

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