Hundreds of people joined a search party Monday to help find a missing 18-year-old high school senior after her car was found on Sunday in a church parking lot in Highland County, Ohio.
Madison “Maddie” Bell left her home in Greenfield, Ohio, around 10 a.m. Sunday morning to go tanning at Country Corner Market, Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera told Dateline. But there is no evidence that she made it to the salon, he said.
He added that she was never spotted in Highland County and that the last time she was seen was at her home.
“I was cleaning when she left and she yelled out, ‘Mom, I’m going to tan. I’ll be right back,’” Maddie’s mother, Melissa Bell, told Dateline as she struggled to hold back tears. “But she never came back.”
Melissa said she could always trust Maddie to go straight to the tanning salon and come right back. Sometimes Maddie would stop at McDonald’s for an iced coffee. But when she did, she would always call or text so her mother didn’t worry.
As the hours passed with no word from Maddie, Melissa said she began to panic.
“I tried not to panic - I know she just turned 18,” Melissa said. “But something felt wrong.”
Maddie’s boyfriend also attempted to reach her, but Melissa said he was unable to. Melissa tracked her daughter’scell phone and it pinged back and forth between the tanning salon and a church near the salon.
So Melissa and Maddie’s boyfriend drove toward the tanning salon keeping their eyes on the road and embankments, thinking she might have been in a car accident.
“Every possible scenario was playing through my head,” Melissa said. “But I never imagined this.”
When they pulled up to the Good Shepherd Church which is located on S.R. 28, just 100 yards from the tanning salon, they spotted Maddie’s car in the parking lot. It was unlocked and the keys were in the ignition. Maddie’s cell phone was on the driver’s seat.
“She would have never left her cell phone in the car,” Melissa said. “And we don’t know if she pulled into this parking lot on her own or if someone coerced her to stop. She was a very cautious girl. She wouldn’t have stopped for someone she didn’t know.”
Sheriff Barrera told Dateline they received a report from a church employee who had spotted a white car with California plates in the parking lot early that Sunday morning.
Additional witnesses also saw the car and reported seeing a male described as being in his late 20s early 30s with light hair and wearing a polo shirt. Sheriff Barrera confirmed spotting the car on security video, but authorities were not able to make out whether or not there were occupants inside.
On Thursday, the Highland County Sheriff's Office released a photo of a man who may have information on Maddie's whereabouts, along with a photo of a white sedan they believe could be connected in her disappearance.
“This is an ongoing search and investigation and we’re doing everything we can to bring Maddie home safe,” Sheriff Barrera told Dateline.
The Ross County Sheriff’s Office, Greenfield Police and the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation have joined the Highland County Sheriff’s Office in the search for Maddie. Sheriff Barrera said Ross County is involved because Maddie was last seen at her home, which is in Ross County. They continue to search on foot and by drone.
Hundreds have gathered to search for Maddie, including family members, friends, classmates, teachers and even strangers in the community.
“Everyone is so worried about her,” Melissa said. “She has made such an impact on the people in her life. She’s just so loved.”
Melissa told Dateline Maddie just turned 18 and is expected to graduate high school this week. She describes her daughter as being a leader at her school with a bright future ahead of her.
“We just want her home safe,” Melissa told Dateline as she continued to search with the rest of the community. “Whoever has her, please, please, just let her come home to us.”
Maddie is described as being 5’6” tall, approximately 120-125 pounds and has brown hair and brown eyes. She is known to sometimes wear gray contacts. She has a cross tattoo on her neck and a ghost tattoo on her side.
Anyone with information on Maddie’s whereabouts is asked to call the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, 937-393-1421, the Ross County Sheriff’s Office at 740-773-1185 or the Greenfield Police Department at 937-981-4466.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include the latest information from the Highland County Sheriff's Office, including a photo and description of an unidentified man and vehicle they believe to be connected to the disappearance of Madison Bell.