If you’ve seen Kayla, say something

Kayla Unbehaun at age 9 (left) and how she might look today at age 12. CONTRIBUTED
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Kayla Unbehaun at age 9 (left) and how she might look today at age 12. CONTRIBUTED

Father looks for girl missing since 2017, thinks she could be in Athens area

Ryan Iskerka still hopes his daughter will turn up one day, not as a grown woman but still the little girl he remembers — soft-spoken, a little shy, picky about what she eats, kind and caring, and more than anything, still interested in building a relationship with him and the family she left behind.

Last time he saw her in the summer of 2017, Kayla Unbehaun was 9 years old, with long blond hair and a penchant for hippie-styled clothing and lots of jewelry — the more necklaces, earrings and rings, the better — much like her mom.

Only God knows what she prefers now.

Since many children are never reported missing, there is no reliable way to determine the total number actually missing in the U.S.

In 2019, however, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization that serves as the national clearinghouse and resource center for information about missing and exploited children, assisted law enforcement and families with more than 29,000 cases of missing children.

Of those, 91% were reported runaways, while 4% were believed abducted by a family member, like Kayla, who’s believed to be somewhere in metro Atlanta, most likely Athens.

According to the FBI, there were 424,066 National Crime Information Center entries for missing children in 2018.

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It’s been nearly three years since Iskerka last saw his little girl, but he’s hopeful.

For the first time since Kayla Unbehaun’s disappearance, NCMEC just released an age progression image of what she might look like today.

“We know that this new picture can help us find Kayla. It just needs to reach the right person,” says Angeline Hartmann, communications director at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “We ask everyone to take a moment out of their busy day to look at this new photo and then share it on social media. You may be the person who brings her home.”

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Heather Unbehaun allegedly abducted her daughter Kayla in July 2017 and is believed to be in metro Atlanta, most likely Athens. CONTRIBUTED

Heather Unbehaun allegedly abducted her daughter Kayla in July 2017 and is believed to be in metro Atlanta, most likely Athens. CONTRIBUTED
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Heather Unbehaun allegedly abducted her daughter Kayla in July 2017 and is believed to be in metro Atlanta, most likely Athens. CONTRIBUTED

Kayla was allegedly abducted by her mother, Heather Unbehaun, from South Elgin, Illinois, in July 2017, a few months after her father was awarded full custody. Unbehaun, who according to the Chicago Tribune is charged with felony child abduction, is believed to have ties to Georgia, and there have been reports of the two of them staying in the Athens area.

January being Kayla’s birthday, Ryan Iskerka has penned a happy birthday letter to her on NCMEC’s blog in the hopes that it will find her.

“Hello and happy birthday,” Iskerka writes in the post. “I can’t physically give you a gift for your birthday so I hope this letter finds you. I hope you are safe and that you have seen many happy times since you’ve been away. I hope you enjoyed your birthday and I want you to know that I love you so much and so does the rest of your family. We all miss you so much and think about you every day. I want you to know that your absence has by far been the most difficult trial of my life.”

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Kayla Unbehaun with her dad, Ryan Iskerka, at his wedding in June 2014. CONTRIBUTED

Kayla Unbehaun with her dad, Ryan Iskerka, at his wedding in June 2014. CONTRIBUTED
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Kayla Unbehaun with her dad, Ryan Iskerka, at his wedding in June 2014. CONTRIBUTED

According to Iskerka, he was scheduled to pick Kayla up from Heather’s grandfather’s house in Wheaton, Illinois, the day she went missing.

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“I was in total shock when I found out they were gone,” he said. “I couldn’t believe Heather would do something that would jeopardize mine or her relationship with our daughter.”

Iskerka, a resident of South Elgin, said he believes Heather fled with their daughter to Athens because mother and daughter lived there for over six years. Iskerka had also briefly lived in Atlanta with Heather while the two of them attended the Art Institute of Atlanta in 2003.

Because Heather and Kayla lived for three years, from 2013 to 2016, in Athens with Heather’s brother, Iskerka believes some of the parents of his daughter’s classmates during those years would likely recognize the girl and her mother.

“Heather had always wanted to live in Athens for as long as I knew her,” he said. “However, she could be anywhere.”

Iskerka said the two of them had always planned to get married, but two weeks after Kayla was born in 2008, Heather suddenly broke off their relationship.

“I was devastated,” he said.

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Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
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Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Iskerka, in the blog post, tells his daughter that when he found out she was gone, his heart was shattered into a million pieces, and though he has managed to live through the past few years, there is nothing he wants more than to have her back.

“We all want you back,” he writes. “I think about you all day, every day. I pray for you and your mother every day hoping that you are safe and that you will return into my life soon.”

He assures her that he is not angry at her and that she will always have a warm bed to sleep in, a place set for her at the dinner table.

“I realize you are growing and changing and you probably look different like in the age progression photograph, which is hard for my mind to accept,” he writes. “You are probably too old to play the games we used to play but I promise we will find new and fun things to do together. I miss you sweetie and I will never give up on you.”

Happy birthday, Kayla, I hope you’re reading this. At the very least, I hope someone who has seen you, a teacher or friend, is reading it and will call the South Elgin Police Department (Illinois) at 1-630-232-4739 or NCMEC immediately. That number is 1-800-843-5678.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.