Frustrating True-Crime Documentaries Where The Cases Remain Unsolved

When viewing a true-crime documentary, we often hope to see the case solved quickly and the assailant brought to justice. However, several of these documentaries have yet to find a satisfactory close and, unfortunately, leave viewers biting their nails in apprehension. If you are ready to dive into the true-crime documentaries that frustrate us the most, you’ll have to prepare yourself for thrilling questions that may not have answers.

Photo: The Hunt For The Zodiac Killer / History

  • The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann
    Photo: Netflix

    Madeleine McCann was a British child who was abducted from her bed in a Portuguese resort town. She was only 3 years old. Madeleine’s case has been labeled “one of the biggest missing-child cases in history.” On the night of Madeleine's disappearance, her parents and their friends dined in a nearby restaurant, 180 feet away from where the children was sleeping. An hour and a half after the families had left for dinner, Madeleine's mother, Kate, checked on the children and discovered that Madeleine was missing. 

    The documentary The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann takes a deep dive into Madeleine's unsolved case. Director Chris Smith focused heavily on creating a realistic viewing experience, and he aimed to take the viewer on a journey similar to the one the British and Portuguese public went on. Over the course of eight episodes, viewers find themselves in a world of news footage and interviews with key figures like the journalists and detectives responsible for educating the public on the case. Although the documentary was released without the support of the McCann family and has not brought in any new tips regarding the case, the family continues to search for answers to solve the case for good.

  • Who Took Johnny

    Who Took Johnny
    Photo: GathrFilms

    In 1982, Johnny Gosch, a 12-year-old from West Des Moines, IA, disappeared after leaving to complete his paper route two blocks from his home. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Johnny enter a blue car that sped out of the area. In searching for Johnny’s possible whereabouts, investigators were only able to recover the red wagon Johnny would use to carry his undelivered newspapers. After almost 40 years, the disappearance of Johnny remains a mystery, and his mother still searches for answers.

    Who Took Johnny focuses on the efforts of his mother, who has worked to find clues regarding his disappearance since the day he was abducted. Also following the plight of Johnny's father and local investigators, the film combines recent interviews and archival footage to help find answers to the Des Moines mystery.

  • In 1994, teenager Nicholas Barclay disappeared after playing basketball with his friends in San Antonio, TX. After searching the city for Barclay to no avail, authorities and Nicholas’s family presumed he was murdered, but a body was never discovered. Following years of grieving, the Barclay family received the surprise of their lives. Three years after their son's disappearance, the Barclay's telephone rang, and on the other end of the line was the voice of their son. After the family prompted Nicholas for answers, he claimed to be in Spain, scared, lost, and wanting to come home. Without hesitation, the family insisted that Nicholas fly home, and when he arrived, they welcomed him back with open arms. Suddenly, the family felt whole again, but people around the Barclay family noticed something was not quite right. 

    The Imposter focuses on the central investigation of Nicholas Barclay's disappearance, as well as the imposter who invaded the Barclay home, claiming to be their long-lost son. Through interviews with the Barclay family and the imposter himself, Frédéric Bourdin, we hear the various stories and emotions of their lost hope and how the imposter was able to trick the Barclay family and the Spanish and American governments. With twists and turns that grip the viewer to the end, The Imposter is a nail-biting must-watch for anyone interested in diving into the mind of Texas’s No. 1 trickster.

  • Out of Thin Air

    In January 1974, Gudmundur Einarsson was at a local nightclub in Iceland when he decided to walk home in a blizzard. He was noted to have been drinking heavily, and the blizzard made for a frigid night. When Einarsson did not return home, investigators were notified of his possible disappearance. Investigators searched around the nightclub and surrounding areas for days, but Einarsson’s body was never discovered, and they deemed his disappearance the result of hypothermia. In Iceland, disappearances like Einarsson's are not uncommon; therefore, investigators did not further express the need to explore his case. However, 10 months later, Geirfinnur Einarsson - no relation to Gudmundur - vanished, and investigators believed both Einarsson disappearances may have resulted from something sinister.

    Out of Thin Air, directed by Dylan Howitt, tells the story of Iceland's most significant criminal investigation. When police originally began their investigation, the community thought they were at a loss when no bodies or suspects were found. However, six suspects soon confessed to the murder of the two men. These confessions shocked the people of Iceland, and it seemed as if justice had been served. However, the investigation soon went awry when the six suspects lost trust in their memories, and the investigators were under intense scrutiny. Out of Thin Air uses first-person testimony to take viewers on a reconstruction of the haunting Einarsson case.

  • The Keepers

    The Keepers
    Photo: Netflix

    A mystery that has plagued the Catholic Church and its members for over 50 years plays out in The Keepers, directed by famed documentarian Ryan White. The film focuses on a Catholic scandal from the '60s that is still being uncovered today. In 1969, Sister Cathy Cesnik, a teacher at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School, was found murdered in a secluded wood. 

    While Cesnik's disappearance remains unsolved, the documentary dives into the potential idea that Cesnik may have found herself in abusive circumstances. The seven-episode series follows White and former students as they dive into the mystery of Cesnik's murder and the possible involvement of former school chaplain, Father Maskell. Maskell, now deceased, was revealed to have participated in shocking sexual abuse and institutional cover-ups. The series reveals the disturbing truths behind Cesnik's murder and the role of the Catholic Church through intensive interviews and reenactments.

  • The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer

    Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the Zodiac Killer terrorized America with strange codes, letters, and unidentified serial murders. Investigators have followed the killer's endless trail of codes, but they are ultimately more difficult to decipher than the Nazi Enigma Code, and the Zodiac Killer has never been found. Nearly 50 years later, HISTORY launched a limited nonfiction series, The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer, to finally crack the puzzling code. 

    Broken into five parts, the series follows a team of investigators, codebreakers, and a supercomputer named CARMEL that was programmed to think like a killer who believe they have broken a significant portion of the killer's code. The partial discovery allowed the team access to police files, witnesses, clues, and the cooperation of the CIA and FBI. The discoveries made throughout this miniseries may be what investigators have needed to bring the Zodiac Killer to justice, but so far, the case remains unsolved.