Into Thin Air

A Mother Disappears Leaving Behind A Mystery That Would Take Her Daughter 30 Years To Solve

Produced by Brian Leonard, Daria Hirsch, and Sara Ely Hulse

This story originally aired on Oct. 18, 2008. It was updated on June 20, 2009.

When Jean Zapata vanished from her home in Madison, Wis., in 1976, she left behind her daughter Linda, two other children, a lot of friends, and a mystery that would take more than 30 years to solve.

"I spent my whole life from age 11 just telling people when they asked, 'My mom abandoned me,'" Linda remembers.

She only knew what her father had told her when on the day her mother disappeared. "At age 11, when my dad said she took off because she was stressed out, it was cemented in my head. She took off and she's raising another family somewhere."

Had Jean really taken off and left her family and friends behind? As Richard Schlesinger reports, a set of new detectives would take a fresh look at the case decades later, and try to solve the question everyone wanted to know: what really happened to Jean Zapata?

Jean's best friend, Peggy Weekly, never believed that Jean would simply abandon her family. "Because she could not have walked out on her children because of the way she was raised. It was just too deeply ingrained in her to take care of those kids, to be a mom," Peggy says.

A lifetime of nagging questions and haunting memories would bring Peggy and Jean's daughter Linda together. Neither could have predicted it, but digging for the truth would involve terrible choices and betrayal.

It all started in Madison in the early 1950's, when Peggy and Jean first became best friends. Peggy was with her best friend for all the good times, including when Jean married a promising engineer, Eugene Zapata. They had three children: Christine, Steve and Linda.

Eugene went to work for the Department of Transportation, but Jean was no stay-at-home mom: once the kids were in school, she returned to her other love, flying, and became one of the few female flight instructors of her day.

But at home, not all was well. According to Peggy, Jean was happy in her marriage with Eugene for the first half of their time together. It became one of those marriages where behind closed doors, there was trouble.

"She told me that they were having problems in the bedroom, but she didn't go into any detail at all. She seemed to think that he had a lot more testosterone before she said 'I do.' But we didn't talk about that a lot. After all, we were nice girls. And nice girls didn't have problems with their marriage," Peggy says.

Jean wanted to keep the spark alive, even if it meant agreeing to do things nice girls didn't always do. But no matter what she did, nothing worked. In May 1976, about 17 years after they married, Jean filed for divorce.

Eugene moved out of the house and Jean began to explore life as a newly single woman. Before long, she met Paul Lee, and they had an instant connection. Jean and Paul talked every day, but the relationship didn't last long.

On Monday, Oct. 11, 1976, Linda remembers seeing her mother drinking her morning coffee. "She was in the kitchen and I was looking down the foyer hallway. And I was leaving for school. And I just caught a glimpse of her in the kitchen as I was shutting the door and I took off for school."

Linda never saw her mother again.

Ivan Norton worked with Jean at her flight school, and was surprised when she did not show up to teach a student pilot that day.

At the house where Jean and the kids lived, Eugene was already explaining to his children where their mother was. "I asked, 'Where's Mom?' And he said, 'She probably needs a break or a vacation. And she'll probably be home in a couple weeks,'" Linda remembers.

When Jean didn't show up for work after three days, Ivan called the police and then called Eugene. "I says, 'Well, hey, have you turned in her missing to the police?' 'No, I haven't done it.' And I said, 'Well, you don't have to. I did,'" Ivan recalls.

A week after Jean went missing, Police Officer Greg Martin showed up at the Zapata house. He was just trying out for the detective squad, so he was assigned what had been classified as just a routine missing person case. "I went in and I noticed there was no damage, no evidence of a fight, no evidence of a struggle or anything that we could see. The first thing I noticed that was totally out of order was that her purse was there," he remembers. "A woman goes nowhere without her purse."