Left and Center: April circa, 1986
Right: Age Progressed to age 33
Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance
Missing Since: December 13, 1986
Missing From: Rancho, Riverside County, California
Classification: Non-Family Abduction
Date Of Birth: May 13, 1979
Age: 7 years old
Height and Weight: 4’6″ and 60 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: Caucasian female, Blonde hair, Blue eyes, April’s upper front teeth were missing at the time of her 1986 abduction
Clothing/Jewelry Description: A white sweater, a lavender dress, a white leotard, and a pair of white leather dress shoes
NCMEC Number: 600818
Details of Disappearance
April was last seen in Rancho, California on December 13th 1986. She was reportedly last seen at the Woodchuck Camping Resort located 11 miles east of Temecula on Highway 79. On the day of her disappearance, April went to work with her mother, Debra “Debbie” Hamilton, at an Old Town Temecula thrift store or craft shop. Her neighbor, William James Bannister, offered to babysit April so her mother could work. William has previously babysat the child prior to her disappearance. He came by her job and picked up April.
This was reportedly the last time anyone actually saw April. At 5:00 pm, Bannister reported April as missing from the campground where she resided with her mother in a small travel trailer. He claimed he gave April $5 to go and play video games at the Woodchuck Campground arcade and that she left to go there. Some news accounts from that time state April was seen at the arcade at some point between noon and 1:00 pm of that day. According to Bannister, April never returned from the arcade so he reported her missing.
Bannister claimed he had last seen the child at approximately 4:15 pm. The official search for April occurred later that afternoon after she was reported as missing. Debra was unaware of her daughters disappearance until after she got off work. The initial search included county search and rescue units, underwater recovery teams, search dogs, and helicopters. Buts despite the searches, no trace of April was ever found.
When tracking dogs were brought to the area, they were able to detect April’s scent at the campground but nowhere else. Investigators believed it was possible April had gotten into a vehicle at the camp that drive away with her but that was simply a theory. Investigators believed it was likely that April was abducted by a non family member soon. Many agencies helped in the search for April, including the Adam Walsh Foundation. They printed posters out of April and had them put up throughout the nation.
April’s father, Thomas Cooper, searched relentlessly for his lost daughter and tried to get the word out on his daughter and other missing children. He lived in Crestline, California at the time of his daughters disappearance and he is not considered a suspect in the case. After April went missing, he hired a private detective to try and locate her and used his job to spread the word about April.
Thomas worked for Mickey Thompson who promoted off road racing events throughout the United States. Coopers job was to make sure each and every car involved in a race were lined up in proper order. Cooper arranged for April’s photograph to be shown on the computerized television screen at the Anaheim Stadium a few weeks after her disappearance.
Thomas also put up hundreds of posters bearing her photograph and description were put throughout the stadium as well. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also partook in the efforts to find April. They had her photograph placed on the sides of milk cartons, ADVO cards distributed by the Pennysaver, and on grocery bags. The Adam Walsh Child Resource Center also helped distribute posters of April.
Despite the many efforts made to raise awareness about April’s presumed abduction, she was never found and police never had a strong suspect in her disappearance. Shortly after her disappearance, investigators began to look into the possibility that April’s disappearance was connected to another missing child case that occurred two days before she was reported missing.
On December 11th 1986, Phoebe Hue-ru Ho disappeared after leaving her residence so she could walk to Arroyo Vista Elementary School which was four blocks away from her home in South Pasadena, California. Investigators at the time believed she was abducted by a stranger. Her body was found a week later by a passerby in a roadside field in Glen Avon, California. This is approximately 45 miles away from the sight of Phoebe’s abduction.
According to an autopsy, Phoebe was sexually assaulted before being strangled to death. Warren James William was named as a suspect in Phoebe’s abduction and slaying in January of 1987. He has an extensive criminal record which dates back to the 1950s and includes child molestation, rape, and torture. He was questioned in early January regarding Phoebe’s abduction but authorities had no evidence against him and were forced to release him.
In January, investigators obtained a search warrant for Bland’s residence and his van. They found that carpet fibers and paint chips from the van matched those that were found on Phoebe’s remains. After this, an arrest warrant was issued for Bland in relation to Phoebe’s murder. He was found in San Diego, California on February 9th 1987 after being confronted at a taco stand. He attempted to flee the area but he was shot in the buttocks by a police detective.
Bland nearly bled to death from his injury but he recovered from it eventually. He was charged with murdering Phoebe and was also considered a suspect in yet another child’s disappearance. On January 20th 1987, 14 year old Wendy Rachelle Osborn disappeared while on her way to school in Placentia, California. She was presumably abducted as well. Her body was found on February 1st near Chino, California.
Investigators who were looking into the Osborn slaying discovered similar fibers and paint chips on her remains. She and Phoebe disappeared under very similar circumstances; both were taken while walking to school. Both appeared or have been sexually assaulted with a similar flier like object and they were both strangled to death. They were both dumped in relatively remote areas miles away from where they disappeared.
After Bland’s arrest, investigators from Rancho announced they would likely question him in connection to April’s disappearance. They noted that April bore similarities to Phoebe which included the fact they both were missing their front teeth and they were the same age. Investigators also noted that they disappeared while walking alone presumably. However, investigators stated they had no evidence to indicate Bland was anywhere near the campground when April disappeared.
Bland was convicted of killing Phoebe in February of 1993 and was sentenced to death for the crime. He died in while on death row in 2001. No evidence was ever found to indicate he was involved in April’s disappearance and he is no longer considered a suspect in her case.
In January of 1987, investigators announced they were searching for an unidentified man wanted for kidnapping as a possible suspect in April’s disappearance. On January 23rd 1987, three girls aged 9, 11, and 12 were all abducted by a man near their bus stop in Sage, California. The man took the girls to a remote area after taking them and attempted to sexually assault one them. After failing to do so, he fled the area and left the girls there.
The man was driving a white Volkswagen bug. He was not identified at the time. According to police reports, several witnesses saw a man matching the kidnappers description in the Sage area that same afternoon and he appeared to be following several children as they walked home. Authorities felt the man might’ve been involved in April’s disappearance which only occurred a month earlier and Sage was only 20 miles away from where she went missing.
Authorities questioned residents of the campground and asked if they had seen the man or the Volkswagen bug. No one saw anything like that on the day April went missing. Its unclear if investigators still consider this individual as a suspect currently.
April’s family and law enforcement kept hope that the girl would be returned home safely. It was considered that April was abducted by someone who intended to keep her alive. Investigators received various sightings of April from all around the world. They got them from Mexico, Canada, every state in the United States, and from other international countries. They even got calls from people who said they saw April selling mistletoe outside grocery stores around Christmas time.
Despite the various possible sightings and the immense hope for her safe return, April is believed to be deceased by investigators and they believe she was murdered. William James Bannister was considered a suspect in April’s case for quite some time after she went missing. He was employed as a truck driver from Colorado at the time of April’s 1986 disappearance.
Apparently, the day after April was reported missing, Bannister showed up to his fathers wedding reception with extremely dirty clothing. He claimed that his clothes were messed up because he had been participating in search efforts for April. It was later determined that Bannister did not participate in the search efforts for the child after her presumed abduction. He apparently spoke to his father in private before leaving the reception shortly thereafter.
That evening, Bannisters father told his new wife that he had “done it again.” On October 17th 1978, Bannister allegedly murdered his then girlfriend in San Diego County, California as she slept in the home they shared together. He then proceeded to perform sexual intercourse on her body. He was convicted of second degree murder in relation to her death and was sentenced to seven years years in prison. He was released from his sentence in 1984 after serving five years in prison.
In 1986, Bannister moved and lived on the Woodchuck campground where he became friends with Debra and April. Investigators didn’t disclose as to whether Bannister was named a suspect in April’s case in 1986 but several of her family members believed he had murdered the child. Debra later stated she was unaware of Bannister’s criminal record as a murderer and she too believed he was responsible for her daughters disappearance.
On July 15th 1993, Bannister was arrested after he allegedly attempted to murder a teenaged girl he knew. According to the girl, she awoke to find him attempted to strangle her to death. She survived and he was arrested at a truck stop on Interstate 70 in Colorado. The girl was 14 years old at the time of the attack and was a friend of Bannister’s family. She was traveling with him on a trip to Kansas. The girl said she was sleeping at the time. She was from Aurora, Colorado.
Bannister was charged with attempted murder and child abuse. He was convicted of first degree assault in August of 1994 and was sentenced to sixteen years in prison for the crime.
On March 21st 1995, a Riverside County grand jury indicted Bannister for April’s presumed murder. After hearing testimony from witnesses regarding the Cooper case, the grand jury felt there was enough evidence to give out the indictment. Bannister faced a charge of murder with special circumstances and was ordered to stand trial for the alleged crime. The break in the case occurred after Bannisters son, Justin, came forward with information about April’s case. Her case was reopened in 1990 and Justin came forward in 1995.
According to Justin, Bannister admitted that April had died in 1986. He allegedly stated that April was killed after she fell from a rock and broke her neck. He also recalled hearing Bannister saying the same details to his father. Although Bannister told the story in a way that it sounded like an accident, investigators believe Bannister murdered April as a part of a brutal sexual fantasy and hid her body afterwards. It’s believed he reported April as missing to further cover up her death.
Investigators believe April died the same day she allegedly disappeared and that the story of her disappearing while going to the arcade was false. Investigators noted that Bannister was uncooperative in the investigation into April’s vanishing and refused to be interviewed regarding her disappearance. During his trial, the jury never debated his guilt in the crime, they fully believed Bannister had killed April in 1986 but they needed to figure out if April’s death was worthy of a first or second degree murder charge.
In December of 1998, the jury reached a decision after examining the evidence collected in the case and Bannister was ultimately convicted of first degree murder. He could have faced the death penalty for her murder due to his prior murder conviction. Since Bannisters son’s testimony was relied heavily on throughout the trial, it would’ve been harder to get the death penalty since Justin probably didn’t want his father to go on death row and get executed. It was hard enough to get his cooperation at all.
In January of 1999, Bannister was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for April’s murder. Investigators don’t know if he’ll ever own up to what he really did to April that day or where her body is hidden. Investigators have searched several areas for April’s remains but nothing has ever been found. April’s mother, older sister, and other relatives were satisfied with the conviction of Bannister and are relieved to know the person responsible for her disappearance is behind bars where he won’t harm another person again.
At the time of her disappearance, April was a first grade student at Cottonwood Elementary School. She was described as friendly and street smart in 1986. Foul play is strongly suspected in her disappearance. Her case continues to be classified as a non-family abduction by most agencies.
If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:
Riverside County Sheriffs Office 714-674-2183