Produced by Jonathan Leach and Jamie Stolz and Mead Stone
(This story was originally broadcast on Jan. 15.)
Jeami Chiapulis seemed to have lived quite the amazing life - highlighted by military combat, from Afghanistan to Iraq. He even had a photo of the elite Ranger unit he had served in.
It all appealed to single mom Leisa Hurst and her father, Lynn.
"I was impressed with him and everything else because of my military background," Lynn Hurst tells "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Maureen Maher.
"He seemed like a very nice man," Leisa's mother, Debbie Welch, agrees.
A man who sensed Leisa's kids, Ashlyn and Tyler, were the way to her heart.
"He knew like our jokes and stuff," Ashlyn says.
"He'd give us gifts and stuff," Tyler adds. "And he'd get stuff for mom."
Asked if his daughter was in love, Lynn Hurst replies, "Yeah. Oh, she was."
MISSING: 24 HOURS
Leisa was a graduate student living in Barstow, Calif. The mother of two young girls had lived 31 years without making an enemy. That's why, in the hours after she went missing in January 2009, it made no sense at all.
Leisa grew up surrounded by love and the safety and security of close family. Those were the gifts her parents, Lynn and Debbie, and her older brother, Valden, gave the little girl.
"[She was] happy-go-lucky, always smiling," Lynn says. "I think what really set her off her personality was her deep blue eyes."
Leisa's parents describe her as more of a tomboy than a girlie girl. "She played baseball," Lynn says. "She was very good."
Home was the endless, starkly beautiful desert, outside Barstow. Lynn was a Vietnam veteran; a working man. Debbie worked as a medical assistant. "It was a good place to raise kids," she tells Maher, smiling.
Debbie says her outgoing daughter wasn't a kid for very long. "And then [she] just blossomed into a beautiful woman, I thought."
Leisa was an adventurous teenager and struggled to manage all the new-found attention from the boys. She was unlucky at love, starting with her high school boyfriend, Jesse Pouvaranukoah.
"So when she came home and told you she was pregnant what was your reaction?" Maher asks Debbie.
"I wanted to strangle her, but I mean there's not much you can do," she replies. "You realize you gotta be there for your kids."
Baby Ashlyn was born.
"I told her I'd be there," Lynn says. "And I was."
Leisa's family was incredibly supportive and the teenager worked hard at being a good mom even after she and her boyfriend broke up.
"She was a little scared at first, but realized she was bringing a life into the world, and she was accepting it," Debbie says. "She was really proud of [Ashlyn]."
There would be another relationship with cross country truck driver Ruben DeLeon. It was serious, lasting almost 5 years.
Leisa got pregnant again, with daughter Tyler. Leisa and Ruben seemed ready to be a real family.
"I thought they were going to get married," Lynn explains. "I thought Ruben and Leisa were gonna get settled down and have a family."
Leisa even bought a wedding dress. But, as her mother explains, that didn't work out.
"She got really upset and it tore her apart," Debbie tells Maher. She says Leisa was so devastated, she cut up the dress with scissors.
So in 2005, Leisa became a single mother again trying to make it all work for Ashlyn, then 8, and Tyler, who was 5.
"She was our mother and took care of us. And she taught us a lot," says Tyler.
Under the desert sky, the three girls settled down and began repeating the precious rituals of family that Leisa had learned as a child.
"I don't think you could find a better person for her situation, raising two girls," Lynn says. "They were very well brought up."
Leisa Hurst, along with her two daughters, was finally growing up. She would attend Barstow College, with plans to become a teacher.
But Debbie says life without a partner was lonely and difficult for Leisa. "She really wanted to get married, I think, and settle down and have a family - someone to actually be there for her and be part of her life."
Then, in October 2006, at Barstow College, she met fellow student Jeami Chiapulis.
"She said, "OK, do you want to go meet my new boyfriend?" Tyler recalls.
Jeami Chiapulis was anything but a typical student. He was a 34-year-old war hero and a cancer survivor. He had a big house, a big heart - and as far as Leisa could tell - he was single and available.
"Obviously, she wanted him to be in her life," says Debbie.
And Jeami wanted Leisa in his life. She graduated and they were set to finally become a family. The kids and their single mom were thrilled.
"I really thought she had found the right person," says Lynn.
So in January 2009, a new life seemed to be truly dawning for Leisa and her two girls. That's why what happened next was such a surprise to Leisa's family.
Leisa's abandoned car had been found 50 miles south in the town of Hesperia.
"The police department came and knocked on my door," Lynn says. "The windows down, the keys in the ignition. I say, 'That's not Leisa,'" Lynn tells Maher.
"My heart sunk," says Debbie.
A massive search for Leisa Hurst would soon begin. And another search would also start to find out who Jeami Chiapulis really was.