THE mother of a woman who has been missing for almost five months received a series of disturbing Cash App requests from her daughter’s account in the aftermath of her disappearance, warning her to pay up or risk finding her “in pieces.”
Layla Santanello, 21, has been missing from her hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee, since June 27.
She was last seen at an ice cream shop on North Eastman Road, barefoot and in an apparent state of distress.
Layla asked to borrow the phone of one of the workers inside the eatery. She then left, telling them she was going across the street to a Five Below to buy some shoes but never made it to the store.
Where she headed next remains a total mystery. Layla’s mom, Jennifer Santanello, told The U.S. Sun she has spent the last five months meticulously tracing her daughter’s final steps in search of answers.
Three days before she was reported missing, Jennifer received a message from Layla’s boyfriend via Layla’s Facebook account, asking if she was “in jail” or in the hospital because he didn’t know where she was, messages viewed by The U.S. Sun show.
Later the same night, Layla messaged her mom from the same account, telling her “I’m fine mom […] I been with a friend [sic]. I don’t have a phone to text or call. I’m using someone els’s [sic].”
“Ok. I love you,” replied Jennifer, to which Layla responded, in what would prove to be her final message, “I love you so much more.”
Layla and her boyfriend, according to Jennifer, had a falling out days prior and Layla had been staying with friends for a few nights before checking into the Americourt Motel, along American Way, on June 25.
But by the time she made it to the hotel, she looked disheveled and appeared paranoid as if she was “trying to hide in the shadows”, witnesses have told Jennifer.
On June 26, other guests at the motel reported seeing Jennifer going door to door, wearing a white tank top, black leggings, and no shoes.
Again, she appeared to be in a state of distress but declined help from numerous strangers who asked if she wanted to borrow a phone or needed a ride home.
“There was some kind of commotion happening in another part of the hotel and the people that were outside that night saw her just kind of freak out and take off across the parking lot into the woods behind the motel,” Jennifer said.
“She apparently stayed in those woods until morning. When she got up she was seen coming across a field next to a warehouse, where one man said it looked like she was trying to find something in the grass.
“She asked someone for a cigarette, but they didn’t smoke, and then she took off in the direction of the Kingsport Greenbelt trail.
“And – this is the part that really gets me, so if anyone saw her that morning please come forward – around noon an employee at the Marble Slab [ice cream store] found her on the back patio, sitting under an umbrella at one of the tables.
“She looked disheveled, distressed, and distraught so she gave her ice cream and they chatted for a bit […] she told her she was going to go to Five Below to get some shoes but she never made it.”
Another question eating Jennifer up, aside from where her daughter could be now, is what was she so seemingly afraid of before she went missing.
Jennifer added: “She hasn’t ever been afraid of anything. I’ve never seen her in the state that she’s been described as being in.
“She was never panicky, she never met a stranger, and the idea that she may have slept in a field that night just breaks my heart.
“I ask myself all the time, ‘Why did she not pick up the phone and call?’ I know we didn’t always agree on everything in life, but I’d never not show up when she needed me.”
THREATENING CASH APP REQUESTS
After leaving the ice cream shop, Layla’s trail goes completely cold.
Jennifer and Layla’s father reported her missing in the early hours of June 27th. They’ve had few updates from investigators since.
Roughly two weeks after she disappeared, Jennifer received a glimmer of hope in the form of a Cash App request from Layla’s account.
She had spent days searching around Kingsport, handing out flyers, and visiting the last places her daughter had been spotted in search of her own leads when a request for $100 flashed up on her phone.
In the subject line for the transaction was the string of letters “twlmg”.
Several requests were made with the same subject line over a period of minutes, and so Jennifer sent her daughter’s account $1, with a message asking if she was okay.
As a back-and-forth of transactions ensued, Jennifer said she believed the acronym in the subject line of the first request meant “they won’t let me go” and so she believed her daughter was being held hostage.
She contacted the police and began asking the requester of the funds more specific questions to verify it was Layla sending the messages.
“At some point, I started asking, ‘What’s your brother’s name?’, ‘What’s your baby brother’s birthday?’ and other specific questions like that, that only she would know, but this person was just ignoring them,” recounted Jennifer.
“And I thought, ‘No, something is wrong here.’ But then, periodically throughout the next several weeks, they kept coming in […] and then the requests got more and more threatening.”
One such threatening request was made for $95, with the caption: “For 15 mins or you’ll find her n peaces [sic].”
“They were very detailed about the things they were going to do if we didn’t send the money,” said Jennifer.
“But that’s the sad thing, over all those conversations, because you had to send $1 to send a sentence, we probably did send the money they were asking for.”
Authorities were eventually able to access the account and determine who was sending the messages.
“I’ve never backed down from a fight when it came to making sure she was okay, so this isn’t going to be the time I start. I’m going to keep going until it breaks me or until we find her.
According to Jennifer, the Cash App messages had all been part of an elaborate hoax, concocted by one of Layla’s so-called friends, who attempted to profit from the tragic situation by impersonating her.
“I can’t say who it was, but it added torture and trauma on top of an already terrible situation,” Jennifer confessed.
“As of right now, there’s no reason to believe the person who did it had anything to do with her disappearance, it just seems like it was somebody who thought they could have a little come up at our expense.”
Jennifer said the culprit’s home was searched and there were no signs that Layla had been there recently. The individual was not one of the friends she’d been staying with in the days before she vanished.
She called it a crime of opportunity and said the person responsible had allowed Layla to log into her account weeks earlier but never logged back out.
The Kingsport Police Department has been contacted to verify Jennifer’s version of events.
The hoax was the only glimmer of hope Jennifer has had in the last four-and-a-half months that her daughter may still be alive.
Insisting she’s now living every parent’s worst nightmare, Jennifer has admitted that her optimism of finding Layla alive is waning with each passing day.
“We fear our kids disappearing or losing them, but you just never believe that it’s going to happen to you,” she said.
“You see it happen on the news and you empathize, and you can try to think about how that might feel, but unless it’s happened to you, you just can’t.
“It’s the not knowing, the daily trauma; it’s like an open wound all the time.
“There’s no closure, there’s no answers, you have no idea if she’s alive or not; you have no idea whether she’s sick, or cold, or tired.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
VULNERABLE AND AFRAID
As she patiently waits by the phone for updates, Jennifer says she routinely tries to prevent her mind from going to the darker places and exploring less favorable outcomes as she otherwise clings to what she calls a “slither” of hope that Layla’s still out there somewhere.
She described feeling as if she’s living in a bubble, disconnected from the outside world as she remains consumed by the whys and what-ifs leading up to June 27.
The Cash App incident is an indication that her daughter perhaps wasn’t keeping the best company in the months before she vanished, Jennifer said.
During those months, she also noticed a change in Layla’s behavior, describing her as more withdrawn and isolated.
It’s Jennifer’s opinion that Layla, who was “inseparable” from her boyfriend, had shunned many of her own friends in favor of his.
On the day of her disappearance, Jennifer fears that Layla may have been abducted by sex traffickers or suffered some kind of psychotic break – perhaps even both.
Layla ran away once as a teenager for a few days, during a typical rebellious phase, but Jennifer doesn’t believe her daughter left of her own accord on June 27.
If she believed she was in any danger, Jennifer says she still can’t understand why Layla didn’t call home for help, suggesting she may not have been of sound mind at the time.
“She knows my phone number by heart and she’s known it for a long time,” said a tearful Jennifer. “It blows my mind that she didn’t call me.
“I sometimes wonder if she had some kind of psychotic break, or if she was struggling with something mental health-wise.
“My father passed away two years earlier, and my dad was a very stable figure in her life – they were incredibly close.
“Losing him broke her, and she had just had a baby at the time, Nova Grace, who was only three months old then, and she was already struggling with postpartum depression.
“She’s right around the age that if something was affecting her, a deep mental illness, that would start to show through now.
“And that’s where my mind goes when I think about how people described how she was acting.”
SERIAL KILLER FEARS
Just over a month ago, a second woman, 19-year-old Hollynn Snapp, vanished in mysterious circumstances in Kingsport just two-and-a-half miles from where Layla was last seen.
Jennifer and Hollynn’s mom, Heather Snapp, believe the two disappearances may be linked.
Both of the women are under five feet tall, of a similar build, and appear “child-like” at first glance, said Jennifer.
Layla and Hollynn were also both seemingly vulnerable at the time of their disappearances.
Heather told local NBC affiliate WCYB-5 that Hollynn is very sweet and trusting and is especially concerned because her daughter functions significantly lower than her actual age, like that of a “9 or 10-year-old.”
Further investigation found that Layla and Hollynn swam in the same social circles and knew many of the same people.
Heather and Jennifer have both said they believe the two girls may have been trafficked.
Jennifer also wonders whether there could be an even more sinister link between the two cases.
She told The U.S. Sun: “A lot of things pop into my head. I wonder about trafficking, but also aren’t serial killers the type to pick a specific height and weight and that kind of thing?
“These are thoughts that hadn’t fully occurred to me until we had another girl going missing.
“There could be a serious problem going on around here. There are a lot of theories that roll through my head over and over, every day.
“It’s a scary world we live in these days […] anything is possible.”
‘SWEET GIRL, WE MISS YOU’
On November 10, Jennifer and Heather held a vigil for their two missing children in the center of town.
Jennifer said she has been moved by the outpouring of public support but she is desperately trying to raise awareness about Layla’s disappearance further afield, conceding she could be anywhere in the country by now, this many months down the line.
To aid her search, she has set up a GoFundMe to raise additional funds to pay for private investigators to work the case and increase reward money for any information that leads her to Layla.
Currently, she is offering a $3,000 reward but hopes to increase that amount by the end of the year.
“If you know something, please say something,” urged Jennifer.
“I know it’s a hard thing to do, but there’s an entire family that’s wounded right now because we don’t know what happened to our person.”
Speaking directly to Layla, she added: “Oh sweet girl, we miss you terribly.
“Life is not the same without you here, and if you don’t ever come home life will never be the same again.
“There’s a giant void in our family without you. And we all hope you know how much we love and miss you.”
Life is not the same without you here, and if you don’t ever come home life will never be the same again.
The Kingsport Police Department has not yet responded to a request for comment seeking further information about the case.
Publicly, no suspects or persons of interest have been named and Layla’s disappearance is still being investigated as a missing persons case.
Hollynn, meanwhile, was reported missing on October 15 but her family hasn’t heard from her since Oct. 5.
‘I WON’T REST’
Jennifer said she won’t rest until her daughter is found.
“My heart won’t let me stop […] Layla didn’t have any quit in her, when she had a goal in mind, and she wanted something, she was going to get it.
“And when it comes to her, and fighting for her […] I’m not going to stop either.
“I’ve never backed down from a fight when it came to making sure she was okay, so this isn’t going to be the time I start.
“I’m going to keep going until it breaks me or until we find her.”
Anyone with information that may help locate the two women is asked to contact the Kingsport Police Department at (423) 343-9780.
Credit Gist New Today News in Newspaper Nigeria Headlines