(NewsNation) — Last November, a North Carolina girl got off her school bus and vanished. The case has had many twists and turns, but as the anniversary of her disappearance approaches, there are still no answers to what happened to Madalina Cojocari.
Police in Cornelius, North Carolina, have been searching for Madalina for more than nine months. Her mother and stepfather have been charged with failing to report her missing because they waited three weeks before filing a police report. That report came only after the girl’s school demanded to see her.
Since NewsNation last reported on Madalina’s case, unsealed warrants have revealed new details about her mother’s trips to the mountains of Western North Carolina, recorded jail calls discussing bags of money, potential sightings of Madalina and a distant relative appearing in theories about the case.
This time of year, Madalina should be preparing for her first day of seventh grade. She should be picking out what to wear on the first day back and deciding how to style her hair.
New video of Madalina and the reminder of what the child should be doing right now are part of the latest efforts by Cornelius Police to keep the case on people’s minds.
“We’ll do anything and everything we can do to draw attention to this case so that we can hopefully find the information that we need to lead us to her,” said Cornelius Police Department Chief David Baucom.
In an exclusive interview with NewsNation, Baucom talked about the efforts to bring Madalina home.
“I can say with confidence that we have followed up on hundreds of leads and spent thousands of man-hours between our agency and all of our partner agencies,” he said.
The last images of Madalina are from Nov. 21, 2022, showing her getting off her school bus.
Police say Diana Cojocari, Madalina’s mother, told them she last saw her daughter on Wednesday night, Nov. 23, 2022. Diana and her husband, Christopher Palmiter, had an argument, and he drove to his family’s home in Michigan.
When Diana went to check on Madalina on Thanksgiving morning, she was gone. A backpack full of clothing and some of her favorite toys were also missing.
Both parents are facing charges for not reporting their daughter missing for three weeks.
In the latest development, two conflicting theories have begun to emerge about what happened to Madalina.
Brandon Roseman, Palmiter’s attorney, says his client has cooperated with police and believes Diana is hiding her daughter away.
“He told police on several occasions that he believes that Diana had taken Madalina somewhere into the mountains,” Roseman said. “He told detectives specifically that he believes Diana took her somewhere and that she is safe.”
What reason could Diana have for hiding her daughter away?
Palmiter says Diana believed that he was putting Madalina in danger by naming her as a beneficiary on an investment account.
“In these interviews he gave to police, he’s adamant that he does not believe Diana harmed Madalina. He believes that Diana fervently believes that Madalina is in danger from some unknown third party, apparently related to him placing money and assigning benefits to her in a 401K account, something that doesn’t make any sense,” Roseman said.
According to police, in a text message from Dec. 2, 2022, more than a week after Madalina’s disappearance, Diana indicated she was in the presence of the missing girl.
That was the same day she allegedly had extensive conversations with a male cousin, identified as Octavian Cebanu, about smuggling her and Madalina away from Palmiter.
On Dec. 3, 2022, Diana was seen in Hickory, North Carolina, an hour west of her home, getting her oil changed. An attendant said there were children’s toys in the car, but no child was present.
The warrant states that on Dec. 4, 2022, Diana traveled toward the North Carolina mountains. A local TV station reported that a sheriff’s deputy found Diana sleeping in her car that night near Lonesome Mountain.
Police have asked any witnesses who saw Diana or her Prius in the area around that time to come forward.
NewsNation traveled to the mountains of Western North Carolina to investigate a possible sighting of Madalina, the description matching her and a male relative.
On Dec. 16, 2022, a woman reported seeing a girl resembling Madalina with a male companion at a Lowes grocery store in Sugar Mountain, North Carolina.
“There was a possible sighting at the Lowes Foods here in Sugar Mountain. We were able to track down video-still footage of that and forwarded that to Cornelius,” said Sugar Mountain Police Department Chief Casey Turbyfill.
Police said the sighting, along with another one in California, did not turn out to be Madalina.
But the area is vast, and outdoor experts say it would be easy to stay hidden.
“There’s a lot of remote locations here. It would be easy to hide somebody if you really wanted to. Or to spend time away from anything you want,” said local store owner Mark Russ.
“There’s just a lot of open space. A lot of places without internet or cell phone signal. A lot of woods. A lot of roads that go way off and dead end,” resident Jon Council said.
Affidavits also revealed recorded jail calls. One was between Palmiter and his brother, saying Diana had a lot of cash with her, and he didn’t know where it came from.
Another call was between Diana and her mother, discussing a bag of money, withdrawing cash and a theory that Palmiter gave Madalina away for money.
Diana’s mother repeated the claim, speaking in Russian to reporters outside the courthouse.
“My children were caught up by child traffickers. My granddaughter is alive. She was sold along with Diana for $5 million,” Rodica Cojocari said.
Warrants show police have combed through the couple’s financial records as well as social media, messaging accounts and phone data.
Cornelius police declined to give details, only saying they are looking into every lead.
“We’re taking everything that the grandmother has said into consideration during this investigation, and we’re following up on all possibilities,” Baucom said. “But we have no indication right now that there’s any sort of trafficking ring in our community.”
Both Palmiter and Diana Cojocari have pleaded not guilty to charges of failing to report a missing child.
Palmiter was released on Aug. 18, 2023, after posting a reduced bail of $25,000, ignoring questions from reporters.
Baucom has pledged his department won’t give up on the search.
“I’m confident we will solve this case, and we will find Madalena,” he said.
Diana Cojocari remains in jail, with a bond set at $250,000.