Sara Bushland was a social butterfly, according to her sister Lesley Small. “She could fit into any group,” Lesley told Dateline. “She could bounce around from one clique to another and she always fit right in.”
Just 18 months apart in age, sisters Sara and Lesley were also close friends as they grew up in Colorado with their father. They got into trouble together, too, according to Lesley; in December of 1994, Sara got caught shoplifting. Rather than face her father’s disappointment, 13-year-old Sara fled to their mother Marie Lambert’s house in Spooner, Wisconsin, Lesley said.
Sara moved into the house with her mother, her stepfather Jim and his sons, Dean and David. According to Lesley, things didn’t get any easier for her younger sister. Lesley said the Lambert home wasn’t always happy, but Sara did develop a group of friends and started dating Travis Lane, a local man who was five years older than she was. Through the ups and downs, Lesley said she and Sara always stayed in touch.
“She always took care of everybody and didn’t bring much attention to herself,” Lesley told Dateline. “She was very good at hiding her feelings.”
But on April 3, 1996, Sara’s life changed course.
The day began like any other Wednesday for the high school sophomore. According to sister Lesley, early that morning, one of Sara’s stepbrothers gave her a ride to a friend’s house in Spooner. Sara and her friend then walked to Spooner High School in time for the morning bell.
Around noon, Sara’s boyfriend Travis picked her up from school and the pair spent Sara’s lunch break together. Sara then returned to school and at the end of the day, she boarded her bus and headed home.
Around 4:00 p.m., four students saw Sara get off the bus at her usual stop. According to Washburn County Sheriff Dennis Stuart, witnesses said Sara then started walking up her family’s long driveway.
According to law enforcement and Sara’s family, she never made it to the house. Somewhere along the gravel driveway, Sara disappeared.
According to phone records, at 4:37 p.m. that spring day, Sara’s stepbrother David called his father to tell him that Sara hadn’t come home from school. Both Sara’s mother and stepfather were out of town that day and hadn’t been planning on coming home until the following day. But when Sara’s mother Marie learned that Sara hadn’t returned from school, she hopped in her car and headed to Spooner.
After a night of phone calls to Sara’s friends and a visit to her boyfriend Travis’s apartment nearby, Marie reported her daughter missing on April 4. But in the days and weeks that followed Sara’s disappearance, Marie’s initial urgency waned.
“My mom would basically tell me that I didn’t need to worry,” Lesley, who was 17 at the time, told Dateline. “This wasn’t a big event. And I’ve since been told that she was reported without a sense of urgency. I don’t understand it. No matter how your child disappeared, it should always be urgent. But at 17 years old, I just listened.”
Lesley also told Dateline that despite her mother reporting Sara missing, investigators initially did not search for the teenager. The Washburn County Sheriff’s Department treated Sara’s disappearance as a runaway case. According to Sheriff Stuart, law enforcement conducted the first of several searches at the Lambert property in July of 1999 – more than three years after Sara disappeared. He said investigators also combed through a trash dump on the property in 1999 and dragged nearby Spring Lake in August of 2000. They found nothing of significance.
Sheriff Stuart, who assumed his position in early 2019, told Dateline he can’t explain why investigators lagged in their search for Sara. The original investigators have since retired, he added.
In May of 2013, a group of more than 70 officials, made up of Washburn County officers and Wisconsin’s Division of Criminal Investigation, searched the Lambert property once more. Again, they found nothing.
Sara’s stepfather Jim died in June of 2017. Just one week later, investigators executed a search warrant on the Lambert’s property for a fourth time. Again, nothing of significance was found.
“The case has changed hands so many times. And each new detective assumes that the last group took care of it and looked into all the evidence,” Sara’s sister Lesley told Dateline. “It’s awful. At 17 years old, I believed law enforcement was doing everything it was supposed to be doing. It affects me every single day.”
Sheriff Stuart says investigators won’t give up on the fight to find Sara.
“The Sara Bushland case is still an ongoing investigation. We constantly get leads and we are doing follow-up with it. The case has never been closed,” Sheriff Stuart told Dateline. He would not describe the nature of the leads his office has received.
Lesley’s only aim is to bring her sister home. “I will never give up hope that she’s still out there; there’s no evidence to say otherwise. I wouldn’t look poorly on her had she left,” Lesley said. “I won’t give up. I’ll continue to help find answers for Sara.”
Sara Bushland would be 38 years old today. At the time of her disappearance, Sara was 5’0” and weighed 104 lbs., with blonde hair and a mole above her upper lip. If you have any information on Sara’s case, please contact the Washburn County Sheriff's Office 715-468-4700.