At 4:37 p.m., Sara's stepbrother called his father and mentioned Sara wasn't still home yet, but nobody was concerned at the time because they thought she was at a friend's house. She disappeared on the last day of school before spring break, and the first day she was not grounded; she had been grounded for several weeks and hadn't been allowed to leave the house except to go to school and school-related activities. When Sara still wasn't home by 6:20 p.m., her mother went back home and started calling her friends. None of them had seen her since they left school. By 8:00 p.m. her mother was driving around the local area looking for her.
Sara has never been heard from again. Both authorities and her mother and stepfather initially thought she had run away, but now they are unsure what caused her disappearance. She didn't take any clothing or money with her, and she had no history of running away from home, and her father and older sister never believed she ran away.
Sara's parents divorced when she was a toddler and her parents had joint custody of her and her older sister during their early childhoods. Both girls went with their father when he moved to Colorado in 1990. In 1994, after Sara was caught shoplifting and her father grounded her, she decided to move back to Wisconsin to live with her mother, stepfather and two older stepbrothers. She became friends with a new group of people older than herself after she moved to Wisconsin, and began dating the 21-year-old man. Her parents were unhappy about this and told her she wasn't allowed to date until she was older, but Sara continued to see the man anyway.
Sara and her boyfriend did have lunch together on the day of her disappearance and he drove her back to school for her afternoon classes. He said this was the last time he saw her. Sara's family believes she was harmed by someone she knew, as they don't think she would have gotten into a stranger's vehicle. It's worth noting that there was some tension and allegations of sexual abuse between Sara and her stepbrothers around the time of her disappearance, and Sara was thinking of moving back in with her father and sister.
There's speculation that Crystal Soulier's death may be connected to Sara's disappearance. Soulier, who was eighteen years old, disappeared from Cable, Wisconsin in October 1996. Five months later her body was found in Rock County, Wisconsin, but it wasn't identified until 2002. Her murder remains unsolved. Soulier and Sara were both blonde young women in the same age group. They knew each other and they also had at least 19 mutual friends, all of them young men in their twenties. Both Soulier and Sara attended parties held by these men, and Sara's school friends were unaware of this. None of the men have been named as suspects in Sara's disappearance or Soulier's murder, which is also unsolved.
Sara was a sophomore at Spooner High School in 1996. Investigators believe she's probably no longer alive, but haven't named any suspects in her case. Both her mother and her stepfather died in 2017.
Wisconsin Cold Case: Where Is Sara Bushland?
Sara Bushland had been in a good mood when she left her Spring Lake, Wisconsin home on the morning of Wednesday, April 3, 1996. It was the last day of classes before spring break; it was also the 15-year-old’s first day of freedom after being grounded for several weeks. One of her stepbrothers dropped her off at a friend’s house in Spooner, Wisconsin that morning, and the two of them walked to Spooner High School together.
The first half of the school day passed by quickly for Sara. Her boyfriend, Travis Lane, picked her up at lunchtime and the two of them went out to eat. After lunch, Travis dropped her back off at the school and she attended her afternoon classes. Sara had intended to walk back to her friend’s house with her once the school day ended, as the two of them planned on returning to the school together later that evening for an event being held there. By the end of the day, however, Sara had changed her mind. She told her friend that she needed to return to her own house first, and asked several people if they could give her a ride. Sara’s home was located on the outskirts of the rural community of Spooner; when she was unable to find anyone willing to drive her there, she decided to take the school bus. Sara’s bus ride home usually took around 40 minutes, and she spent the time chatting with several other students on the bus. One of them noticed that there was a dark pickup truck that appeared to be following the bus; she recognized it as belonging to a man that Sara used to date.
Sara got off at her usual bus stop, located near the bottom of the gravel driveway that led to her home. Several witnesses saw the dark-colored pickup truck pull into Sara’s driveway; from Sara’s body language it was clear that she knew the driver. Although all of the witnesses saw Sara approach the driver and start to talking to him, it’s unclear if she actually got into the truck with him or not. A couple of the witnesses thought Sara did climb into the truck, while another recalled seeing Sara speak with the driver but nothing else. The only thing known for certain is that Sara was never seen again. The truck was seen backing out of Sara’s driveway as the bus pulled away; one witness said the truck then headed north in the direction of Trego, while another claimed it went south. Neither witness could tell if Sara was in the truck or not; she may have started the 100-yard walk up the driveway to her house. Sara had gotten off the bus at 4:00 pm; the only person who would have been home at that time was her 20-year-old stepbrother, David. Her mother, Marie, had to go out of town for a funeral and planned on spending the night in Chippewa Falls, while her stepfather, Jim Lambert, was visiting a friend in Minnesota. Sara’s stepbrother noticed that Sara didn’t arrive home from school and called his father in Minnesota at 4:37 pm to report that Sara wasn’t home. It’s unclear if he thought she was still grounded or not; since Sara had initially planned on going to a friend’s house after school, there was no reason for anyone to expect her to be home.
Jim called his wife in Chippewa Falls and told her that Sara apparently hadn’t returned home from school. Unsure what was going on, Marie immediately made the drive back to Spooner, arriving around 6:20 pm. She began calling around to some of Sara’s friends, but none of them had seen her since they left school. At 8:00 pm, Marie started driving around to various places where she thought Sara might be; she went to the home where Sara had been dropped off that morning as well as Travis’s apartment, but Sara wasn’t at either location. Travis told Marie that he had eaten lunch with Sara but hadn’t seen her since he dropped her back off at school. Several of Sara’s classmates confirmed that Sara had returned to school after lunch and had then taken the bus home. Marie finally went home and spent a sleepless night wondering where her daughter might be.
According to Jim, he returned from Minnesota early the following afternoon; he and Marie then drove to the Spooner police station and reported Sara missing. From the initial report, it appears that the couple believed that Sara had simply run away; since they didn’t seem particularly concerned, the police did little to look for Sara. Her disappearance got no publicity at all; many of her classmates weren’t even aware of the fact that she was missing until two weeks after she was last seen. Curiously, Marie didn’t bother to call Sara’s father to tell him that his daughter was missing. Mike Bushland learned of her disappearance a few days later when his former mother-in-law called him. From the start, he was convinced that Sara wasn’t a runaway. She hadn’t taken any of her belongings; all her clothing, makeup, and hair products were left behind.
Sara had only been living in Spooner since December 1994; prior to this she had been living in Colorado with her father and older sister, Lesley. The sisters were only 18 months apart in age, and had always been close. Their parents, who divorced in 1984, shared joint custody of the girls for much of their childhood. When Mike relocated to Colorado in 1990, both girls had opted to move with him. Mike did everything he could to give his daughters a stable homelife, and things seemed to be going well. As the sisters entered their teenage years, they started to act out a little. Lesley got a thrill out of shoplifting, though she never really took anything of value. Soon Sara decided to try her hand at it, but she wasn’t as discreet about it. In November 1994, she was arrested after being caught shoplifting at a local mall. Mike was understandably upset when he learned of his daughters’ new hobby, and he grounded both of them. Sara, in typical teenage fashion, reacted with anger and decided that she no longer wanted to live with her father. She wanted to go live with her mother and stepfather in Wisconsin. Mike agreed, and Sara left Colorado the following month.
Jim and Marie Lambert lived on a 65-acre property along Spring Lake in Spooner, Wisconsin. Their home had burned down in 1990, and rather than rebuild it they had converted their two-story garage into a home. At the time Sara moved in with them, two of Jim’s sons were also living there. Jim and Marie were seldom home; this created the kind of unstructured environment Sara had been craving when she left her father’s house. It came at a price. There were allegations of sexual abuse and tension between Sara and her stepbrothers; no charges were ever filed and it’s unclear exactly what went on inside the Spooner home. Although Sara was rarely supervised, she had very little privacy as her bedroom lacked a door and doubled as Jim’s office. Sara was known for her happy and outgoing personality, and she never had a problem making friends. When she moved to Spooner, however, she started hanging out with a group of friends who were much older than her. She was only 15 years old when she started dating Travis; he was 21 years old at the time. Jim and Marie weren’t happy about this; they tried to tell Sara she wasn’t allowed to date until she turned 16, but Sara continued to see Travis.
Like most teenage girls, Sara kept a diary. Although she only wrote in it sporadically, she did go into detail about some of the tension she felt with her stepfather and stepbrothers, as well as about general relationship problems. In March 1996, Jim found and read her diary; he was angry about some of the things she had written and grounded her as a result. It’s unclear exactly what angered him, though the fact that Sara was apparently still dating Travis was likely a factor. Sara was only allowed to leave the house to go to school or school-related activities; her punishment was due to end the day she went missing. Sara had moved to Spooner because she had been angry when her father grounded her; once her stepfather grounded her, she seemed to realize that life with her father had been pretty good. Shortly before she went missing, she told her grandmother that she was thinking about moving back in with her father and sister. The exact circumstances surrounding Sara’s disappearance have never been fully established. As she was trying to find a ride home from school that day, she told one of her friends that she was afraid her stepfather would read her diary again; she noted that if he read her most recent entries, he would likely ground her again. She mentioned that she wanted to get home before this could happen. Yet Jim was supposed to be out of town on a planned overnight trip that day, meaning there was no risk of him finding and reading her diary. It’s possible she was worried that one of her stepbrothers might find it and reveal its contents to her stepfather, but her exact thoughts are unknown.
Although Sara’s father and older sister were convinced that she hadn’t run away from home, police latched on to the runaway theory. As a result, there was no real investigation conducted. Mike was upset with the way the case was handled, noting that no one from the sheriff’s office had bothered to contact him until Sara had been missing for more than a year. It was clear to him that they had never bothered to take a cursory look at her disappearance, let alone conduct an actual investigation. In July 1999, the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office arrived at Jim and Marie’s home in Spooner and conducted their first physical search for Sara. Although they declined to name anyone in the family as a suspect or person of interest, they combed through a trash dump that was located on the property. They found nothing related to Sara’s disappearance. In August 2000, law enforcement conducted a second search on the Lambert property. This time, armed with a search warrant, they dragged Spring Lake and searched through several other areas on the property, but once again left without finding anything.
The fact that the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office seemed to be concentrating their search efforts around Sara’s home was the subject of much speculation, but officials refused to comment about the case. The fact that they didn’t seem too worried about finding the dark-colored pickup truck seen on the day Sara disappeared seemed to indicate that they had discarded it as a lead. They appeared to believe Sara had arrived that day and met her fate at her own house. After the second search of the Lambert property, the investigation into Sara’s disappearance seemed to stall; it would be more than a decade before another physical search would take place.
Marie held on to the hope that her daughter had decided to voluntarily disappear and believed that she might return after her 18th birthday. The day came and went without any word from Sara, and her family admitted that it was getting harder to stay positive. By the time Sara had been missing for five years, law enforcement admitted that it appeared her disappearance had not been voluntary. Although they had no proof that foul play had taken place, they noted that they had no reason to believe Sara was still alive. They had received few leads about the case — likely since there was no publicity and few people seemed to know Sara was missing — but they believed that there were people living in the Spooner area who knew exactly what had happened to the teenager. Although Sara’s case was always considered to be an active investigation, no progress was made on it for years. In 2013, police renewed their efforts at finding Sara; they started off with yet another search of the Lambert’s property in May 2013. More than 70 investigators spent two days scouring the entire property, including the home and all outbuildings. Cadaver dogs were brought in to assist, and they reacted to the smell of decomposition in several different areas. Despite the extensive search, officials once again left without any clues about what might have happened to Sara.
Both Jim and Marie died in 2017; the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office conducted a fourth search of their property just a week after Jim died. Once again, searchers failed to find any evidence related to Sara’s disappearance. The truck that was seen in Sara’s driveway on the day she went missing has never been identified. One witness thought it looked like a truck belonging to the father of Sara’s boyfriend, another recognized it as belonging to a man Sara had referred to as Steve. There was no one named Steve known to be associated with Sara; it’s possible that both witnesses were referring to Travis. Either way, there is still no evidence that Sara got into the truck that day; it may not be involved in her disappearance at all.
The fact that detectives seemed to fixate on the Lambert property suggests that they had evidence indicating that something happened to Sara there, but they have never spoken publicly about this. Although they do not believe that Sara is still alive, she is still considered a missing person at this time. Sara’s father and sister have come to terms with the fact that she was almost certainly the victim of foul play, but they have never given up their search for her. Lesley has been extremely active in keeping Sara’s case alive and still hopes that they will one day learn what happened to her little sister.
Sara Bushland was 15 years old when she went missing in 1996. She has blue eyes and blond hair, and at the time of her disappearance she was 5 feet tall and weighed 104 pounds. She was last seen wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt with a picture of Tweety Bird on the front, a blue jacket, and black sneakers. She was also wearing four silver rings, including a Spooner High School class ring with a black stone and wire-rimmed eyeglasses. She has moles on the right side of her upper lip and on the left side of her neck. If you have any information about Sara, please contact the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office at 715–468–4700.
Timeline of Sara Bushland's disappearance
In December 1994, Sara Bushland moved to the Spooner area from Colorado to live with her mother and stepfather, Marie and Jim Lambert. Two of Sara’s stepbrothers also lived in the Lambert home.Note: All times are approximateApril 3, 1996
- Early morning – One of Sara’s stepbrothers gave her a ride to her friend’s house in Spooner. Sara and her friend walked to school from there.
- Mid-morning – Jim and a friend from Canada left for an overnight visit at a mutual friend’s house in Stillwater, Minnesota. Marie attended a funeral in Chippewa Falls and planned to stay there overnight at her mother’s house. Sara and the two stepbrothers were at home.
- Lunch – Sara and her boyfriend went to his friend’s house in Spooner.
- Afternoon – Unable to find another ride home after school, Sara rode the school bus.
- 4 p.m. – Sara got off the school bus at home. At least three children on the bus saw Sara approach a truck that pulled into the Lambert driveway after the school bus left the stop. One witness said they saw Sara get into the truck.
- 4:37 p.m. – One of Sara’s stepbrothers called Jim in Stillwater to report that Sara did not come home from school.
- 6:20 p.m. – Marie arrived at home and made several phone calls looking for Sara.
- 8 p.m. – Marie drove to the home of Sara’s friend in Spooner. Not finding Sara there, Marie and Sara’s friend drove to Sara’s boyfriend’s apartment in Spooner, and then to Trego to look for her.
Thursday April 4, 1996
- Noon – Jim and his friend returned to the Lambert home from Stillwater.
- Afternoon – Jim and Marie reported Sara Bushland missing.
February 1998 – Jim requested that the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) assist in the search for Sara Bushland.July 1999 – Law enforcement conducted the first of several searches at the Lambert property. A trash dump on the property was the focus of this search.August 2000 – Authorities executed a search warrant at the Lambert property. Spring Lake was dragged, and other areas of the property were searched.May 2013 – Investigators conducted the most intensive search of the Lambert property to date. More than 70 officials participated over two days. Cadaver dogs reacted at several locations around buildings.June 19, 2017 – Investigators executed a warrant and search the Lambert property for the fourth time.
Sara Bushland, 15, got off of the school bus on the afternoon of April 3, 1996.
A dark-colored pickup truck that had been following the bus pulled into her family’s driveway, and, according to other students on the bus, Bushland briefly talked with the person inside, whom she seemed to know. One witness said Bushland got into the truck. As the bus pulled away, the truck backed out of the driveway and headed north toward the town of Trego.
That was the last confirmed sighting of Sara Bushland.
Bushland’s mother had gone to Chippewa Falls for a funeral that morning. She also worked in Chippewa Falls, and she planned to stay overnight with Bushland’s grandmother, who lived there. Her stepfather also left home that day. He and a friend had planned to visit friends in Stillwater, Minnesota and spend the night there. That meant Bushland and her stepbrothers would be home alone until the following day.
Bushland’s stepbrother called her stepfather to let him know that she hadn’t come home after school about 40 minutes after the bus dropped her off. Her mother came home early to find her, calling and visiting Bushland’s friends and her boyfriend’s apartment. The next day, Bushland’s mother and stepfather reported her missing.
Bushland had been dating a 21 year old, but her parents disapproved and told her she wasn’t allowed to see him until she turned 16 in August. Some reports say that the couple had broken up. However, on the day she disappeared, Bushland and her boyfriend had lunch together at his friend’s house, and then he’d driven her back to school.
Bushland’s parents were divorced and both had remarried. She had recently moved from Colorado to live with her mother, stepfather and two stepbrothers in Spooner. Her father, sister, and stepmother lived an hour away in Chippewa Falls, and Bushland had apparently considered moving in with them, as she was having trouble at home. She was struggling to find her place, hanging out with a group of older friends, and getting in trouble with her mother and stepfather because of recent choices she’d made and things they’d read in her journal. In fact, Bushland had been grounded for the weeks leading up to her disappearance.
The initial police response wasn’t much. They were sure that Bushland had run away. But she hadn’t taken any belongings, and friends say she wasn’t acting out of character that day. She also had plans for that evening and the upcoming spring break with a friend. There was little press coverage and little organized effort to find her. In fact, most of Bushland’s classmates didn’t realize she had gone missing until posters of Bushland were put up at her school about two weeks after she was last seen.
That morning, one of Bushland’s stepbrothers had driven her to a friend’s house, and Bushland and her friend walked to school together. They’d planned to return to the friend’s house after school, but her friend said Bushland was worried her stepfather would find and read her journal, so she wanted to get home. She tried to find a ride to the family’s rural property but ended up taking the bus.
In February 1998, nearly two years after Bushland’s disappearance, her stepfather requested that the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation help with the search.
It was 1999, almost three years later, when investigators seemed to change their mind about the reason for her disappearance and a more active investigation began. Once it started, it appeared as if investigators believed someone in the family was responsible for Bushland’s disappearance.
The family’s rural property was searched July 1999; a trash dump on the property was the focus of the investigation. In August 2000, a search warrant was executed on the property. Investigators dredged a lake and looked at other areas of the family’s land. In May 2013, another search of the same locations included cadaver dogs, which reacted in several areas. Both Bushland’s mother and stepfather died in 2017, and investigators executed another warrant in June, searching the property for a fourth time just a week after her stepfather’s death.
Questions and Inconsistencies
While several witnesses spoke of seeing the truck that pulled into the driveway after Bushland had gotten off of the bus and all agreed that she spoke with and seemed to know the driver, only one person said they saw her get into the truck. So investigators aren’t sure she left the premises.
At 4 p.m., the time Bushland got off of the bus, it is believed one of her stepbrothers was the only other person at home. A call made by a stepbrother is shown in phone records to have reached her stepfather at 4:37. Her stepfather then called her mother, who drove home and arrived at about 6:20 p.m. Her mother called several of Bushland’s friends in an attempt to find her and then drove to her friend’s house at about 8 p.m. Then her mother and the friend drove to Bushland’s boyfriend’s house in Spooner and to her boyfriend’s father’s house in Trego before she returned home. Investigators say that the 4 p.m. to 6:20 p.m. timeline is critical, but they don’t have any answers.
The whereabouts of Bushland’s other stepbrother and the time he arrived home are unclear. Her stepfather claims to have stayed with friends in Stillwater, MN that night, as he’d originally planned, and returned home by noon the following day. But recently the friend he claims to have stayed with denied he was there overnight. The family didn’t report Bushland missing until the afternoon her stepfather arrived home.
Questions remain as to whether Bushland got into the truck and left the property or whether she went into the house. It’s also unclear if the timeline and whereabouts of her family members is accurate.
Another local young woman, Crystal Soulier, 18, disappeared six months after Bushland. She lived about an hour from Spooner in Cable, WI. Soulier was considered missing for about three years before investigators identified her as the Jane Doe whose remains had been found in March 1997 behind an adult store in Beloit, WI. Strangely, another body was found in that same location three years before Soulier’s. Terryl Stanford, a woman from Chicago who was a sex worker, had been murdered and dumped there, too. Investigators could find no links between the two women except for the location of their remains.
On the other hand, Bushland and Soulier knew each other and had several mutual friends—all of whom were men in their 20s. It’s also been reported that Bushland was good friends with Soulier’s sister. Both Bushland and Soulier attended parties with the men; Bushland’s friends in Spooner reportedly didn’t know about her set of older male friends. Her association with these friends and other things she’d written about in her journal were causing disagreements at home and resulted in her being grounded and other restrictions.