Details of Disappearance According to Bonita Karen's mother, who is also named Bonita, her daughter was last seen strapped in her stroller on the porch of her family's residence in the Virginia Court Apartments in the 900 block of Baltic Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey at 6:00 p.m. on September 14, 1986. Bonita Karen was eating a popsicle and Bonita's other children were playing outside at the time.
Bonita claimed that she looked outside at approximately 7:00 p.m. that evening and discovered Bonita Karen had disappeared from her stroller. Bonita claimed that she searched Baltic Avenue and the surrounding streets for her daughter, but she could not locate her. She reported her daughter as missing at approximately 8:30 p.m. Bonita Karen has never been seen again.
Bonita Karen's father, Abdul Salaam, was immediately eliminated as a possible suspect in his daughter's case. He had been seeking custody of Bonita Karen at the time she vanished and was imprisoned on a robbery charge.
He and Bonita were together for eight years and Bonita had four children during this time, two of whom were Salaam's, but she and Salaam never legally married. Salaam has stated he never believed Bonita's account of their daughter's disappearance. Photos of Bonita and Salaam are posted with this case summary.
Bonita allegedly abandoned Bonita Karen at birth and also attempted to abandon another newborn after Bonita Karen disappeared. Bonita reportedly walked out of an Atlantic City hospital in 1984 and left Bonita Karen at the facility. She was not charged in that case, but Bonita did face charges when she gave birth to a son in October 1986, one month after Bonita Karen was last seen.
Bonita checked into Atlantic City Medical Center under the alias "Laura Smith" to deliver and was discharged on October 7, 1986. Bonita apparently then left with her newborn son and took a cab to an Atlantic City bus terminal. She boarded a bus to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and left the baby lying face-down in a terminal restroom in Atlantic City, where he was rescued shortly thereafter.
Bonita was sentenced to nine months in jail for endangering the welfare of a child in January 1987 and her three other children were placed in foster homes. She was paroled after five months, but served another 15 months when she was arrested for shoplifting baby clothes while on parole.
The father of Bonita's newborn son told authorities that she lied to him and said she had an abortion when she was pregnant with the child. He did not know she had carried the baby to term and given birth until he was contacted by law enforcement. Bonita had three more sons after the one she abandoned in 1986.
The prosecutor in Bonita's case told the court that she was uncooperative during the investigation into Bonita Karen's 1986 disappearance. He stated that she provided false leads and also lied to authorities. Bonita evidently never inquired as to the status of her daughter's case.
Salaam believes that his daughter was not abducted and has asked investigators to search the yard in back of the Virginia Court Apartments for human remains. Authorities utilized cadaver-sniffing dogs earlier in the case and could not locate any evidence in the area.
Salaam also stated that New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) was supposed to check on Bonita Karen's well-being prior to her disappearance at his request. DYFS arrived at the Sanders's residence, only to discover no one was home during their first visit.
By the time DYFS prepared for a second attempt to see Bonita Karen, she had vanished. Salaam continues to search for his daughter.
In 2009, authorities began searching a wooded area in Pleasantville, New Jersey for Bonita Karen's remains. Reportedly, Bonita's best friend went to police and said Bonita had buried her daughter there.
Nothing was recovered at the search site, however, and investigators discontinued their efforts after a week. A forensic anthropologist noted that given Bonita Karen's age and the time that has passed since her disappearance, it's possible that even if her body had been there at one time there would be no trace of it now.
Some law enforcement officials believe that Bonita Karen choked to death on the popsicle stick she was holding on the day of her disappearance and was buried somewhere off the family's residence. There is no evidence to support this theory, however.
Bonita Karen's disappearance remains unsolved and is still open. Authorities now believe she was never kidnapped, but died on the day she vanished and was buried.
- Atlantic City Prosecutor's Office
- Major Crimes Unit
Updated 5 times since October 12, 2004. Last updated May 19, 2009; distinguishing characteristics and details of disappearance updated.