Search for Zachary Bernhardt continues after 22 years

Missing

(NewsNation) — Zachary Bernhardt was 8 years old when he vanished from an apartment complex in Clearwater, Florida, in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2000.

After 22 years, little is known about his disappearance and his case remains unsolved to this day.

Bernhardt’s missing person case is still open. Clearwater police said they are committed to finding out what happened the night the little boy sleeping in his mother’s bed went missing.

“We’re still making strides to find those children, no matter if they’ve grown up to 22 years old or 30 years old. They may be out there,” said Mark Glass, Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner.

Bernhardt would be 30 years old today.

Police say Zachary’s mother, Leah Hackett, called to report him missing just before 5 a.m. She worked overnights and kept a late schedule.

According to reports, Hackett told police she went for a walk and a swim in the middle of the night. She left the apartment unlocked and when she came back, Zachary was gone.

Carole Bernhardt, Zachary’s grandmother, remembers getting the phone call.

”They called us on the phone, Leah did, and said Zachary was missing,” she said.

Zachary’s grandmother said she remembers how quickly they thought this ordeal would be over.

“We just thought he was hiding over there in the apartments,” she said.

The Clearwater community turned up to look for Zachary. Police canvassed the area by air, through the brush and even used WaveRunners.

”We’re hoping it would work out,” said Chief Daniel Slaughter of the Clearwater Police Department. “But as the days progressed, it just became very, very long, all-consuming days of trying to follow up every imaginable lead to try to locate him.”

Zachary Bernhardt
8-year-old Zachary Bernhardt, left, and an age-progressed photo of Zachary Bernhardt at age 29. (Credit: Florida Department of Law Enforcement)

Authorities released two images on the anniversary of Zachary’s disappearance. The first photo is what Zachary looked like around the time of his disappearance. The second photo is an age progression of what he might look like now.

The year after Zachary’s disappearance, a man in a white pickup truck attempted to lure three boys with talk of treats. A 5-year-old wandered closer and was snatched.

The boy was found alive in a dumpster 10 hours later and nearly 80 miles away. The case was never solved.

”There’s the theory that Zachary might have been a first attempt,” said documentarian Steve Gans. “If you successfully get away with that, well, you get a little bit bolder: ‘Maybe I can do this in broad daylight.’”

Police thought they had a breakthrough in the case when a tip informed officers about a man in the area who had been bragging about kidnapping children.

The suspect, Kevin Jalbert, went to prison on 60 counts of child pornography, attempted murder and attempted kidnapping. He referenced Zachary’s apartment building and said he had kidnapped a child from there. 

Police investigated but found no ties to Zachary.

“No one’s been excluded. So it’s an open investigation. So we just kind of take us where the evidence leads us,” said Sgt. Daniel Loder of the Clearwater Police Department.

Zachary’s family says they still haven’t lost hope.

“We want him to come home. We’re all here waiting. So please don’t stop looking for Zach,” Zachary’s mother said at the time of his disappearance. She permanently ducked from public view days later, leaving many to wonder.

“Emotionally it’s taken a toll on our entire family,” said Billie-Joe Jimenez, Zachary’s aunt.

“We love him. We miss him. We want him to come home,” Jimenez added. “We’re still here. We’re still actively looking for you. We’ve never given up hope and we never will and he will come home.”

Anyone with information that could help detectives is asked to call 727-562-4242.

NewsNation affiliate WFLA contributed to this report.

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