Madalina Cojocari vanished after getting off her school bus. Her parents never even reported her missing

Madalina Cojocari has not been seen for more than a month  (Cornelius PD)
Madalina Cojocari has not been seen for more than a month (Cornelius PD)

It’s been eighteen months since 11-year-old Madalina Cojocari was last seen arriving home after a day of school.

But for one of those months, no one was even looking for her.

Last month, she turned 13 years old – with no one knowing where she was, what she was doing or whether she was even able to celebrate it.

The sixth-grader’s mother and stepfather have been behind bars in North Carolina for over a year. On 20 May 2024, her mother Diana Cojocari pleaded guilty to a felony charge of failing to report her missing. Meanwhile, Madalina’s stepfather Christopher Palmiter began his trial on 21 May after pleading not guilty to the same felony charge.

But it’s still not clear what happened to the middle schooler. Theories about what may have happened to her – laid out in recent court documents – are chilling to say the least.

Was she taken to the North Carolina mountains? Was she sold by her stepfather? Was she placed in the care of a relative?

The answer is still a mystery.

One thing police in Cornelius, North Carolina, do know is that someone – in particular her parents – know more than they are letting on.

“This is a serious case of a child whose parents clearly are not telling us everything they know,” Cornelius Police Captain Jennifer Thompson said in a video statement back in January.

Reported missing

Madalina was last seen on 21 November 2022 when surveillance footage captured her getting off a school bus at her home in Cornelius.

Her mother Ms Cojocari and stepfather Mr Palmiter claim they saw her two days later at their home. Police have been unable to verify this claim.

The last confirmed sighting of Madalina Cojocari was on 21 November (FBI)
The last confirmed sighting of Madalina Cojocari was on 21 November (FBI)

For the next three weeks, staff at Bailey Middle School contacted her mother Ms Cojocari to inquire as to Madalina’s whereabouts when she failed to show up at school.

Finally, on 15 December 2022, Ms Cojocari went to the school and told a school resource officer that her daughter was missing.

Last known sighting

Cornelius Police said that the last confirmed sighting of Madalina was on Friday 21 November 2022 when she got off her school bus at the stop near her home.

In the footage, released by authorities, the sixth grader is seen walking down the aisle of the bus and getting off at 4.59pm.

“This is the last time we have independent confirmation of when she was last seen,” the Cornelius Police Department said.

Parents’ arrests and versions of events

On 17 December 2022 – two days after she was officially reported missing – Madalina’s mother and stepfather were arrested and charged with failing to report the disappearance of a child to law enforcement.

Ms Cojocari has remained in jail since 2022 under a $250,000 bond. Meanwhile, Mr Palmiter was released from jail in August after posting a $25,000 bond.

Since their arrests, they have both continued to insist that they don’t know where the 11-year-old went.

Both claim to have last seen Madalina on 23 November 2022.

Court documents obtained by WBTV reveal that Madalina’s mother told investigators she last saw her daughter at around 10pm on 23 November when Madalina went to her room to go to bed.

Ms Cojocari claims that she and her husband got into an argument that night and the next morning he drove to his family’s home in Michigan, according to the arrest warrant.

When she then went to check on her daughter at about 11.30am on 24 November 2022, Ms Cojocari claims she found her to be missing.

The arrest warrant states that Ms Cojocari told investigators she then waited until Mr Palmiter returned home on 26 November 2022 to ask if he knew where Madalina was.

When asked why she didn’t report her daughter missing before mid-December 2022, she “stated she was worried it might start a ‘conflict’ between her and Christopher,” the warrant states.

Diana Cojocari, 37, and Christopher Palmiter, 60, pictured in mugshots (Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office)
Diana Cojocari, 37, and Christopher Palmiter, 60, pictured in mugshots (Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office)

The documents also reveal that Ms Cojocari said that she believed her husband had “put her family in danger.”

Meanwhile, Mr Palmiter also told investigators that he doesn’t know what happened to his stepdaughter, claiming that he returned from his three-day trip and asked his wife where Madalina was.

Over the next three weeks, he claims to have spoken with Ms Cojocari “several time[s] about Madalina’s whereabout[s] … and both stated they did not know where she was but they did not contact the police to report Madalina missing”.

Mountain trip and possible sightings

Investigators believe that Madalina’s mother took a trip to the mountains of North Carolina during the three-week period that she claims her daughter was missing – but she failed to report her missing.

Search warrants, unsealed in July, state that Ms Cojocari sent a text message on 2 December 2022 indicating that “she was in the presence of the missing child”.

The next day, she was seen at a service station in Hickory getting an oil change on her vehicle. The car attendant told investigators that they saw children’s toys in the car but no sign of a child.

One day later, Ms Cojocari then allegedly drove to the mountains of North Carolina “claiming to be searching for Madalina,” documents state.

Less than two weeks later – on 16 December 2022 – surveillance photos captured a girl and a man together in Sugar Mountain.

The documents say that the pair were “physically consistent with” Madalina and her “only known blood relative” in the US. They were also seen together at a Lowe’s Foods in Linville, the warrants say.

Search warrants reveal that Ms Cojocari asked a distant relative if he would help with “smuggling” her and Madalina away because they needed to get away from her “bad relationship” with Mr Palmiter.

Court documents obtained by local outlet WCNC in May 2024 indicate law enforcement officers also spoke with Ms Cojocari’s cousin, who said Madalina and her mother were in trouble from a third-party unrelated to Mr Palmiter.

Ms Cojocari wanted to flee the country with her daughter after plans to stay with Mr Palmiter’s extended family fell through, Ms Cojocari’s cousin told police, according to WCNC.

Despite the sightings, police say the last confirmed sighting of Madalina is still when she got off the school bus on 22 November.

The search

Since the alarm was raised for the missing 11-year-old, over 100 law enforcement officials from agencies including Cornelius Police Department, the FBI and the SBI have worked to help find her.

Multiple searches have been carried out at the family home for clues as to her whereabouts.

Three cell phones and dozens of other items were seized from the home in the searches, documents show.

Meanwhile, investigators have also “scoured” hours of surveillance video from local businesses and carried out land and water searches around nearby Lake Cornelius.

Search teams out on Lake Cornelius as part of the probe to find Madalina (Cornelius PD)
Search teams out on Lake Cornelius as part of the probe to find Madalina (Cornelius PD)

However, police acknowledged that the three-week delay in law enforcement learning about Madalina’s disappearance created an instant setback to the investigation.

Much of the search appears to have focused on Madalina’s home where multiple search warrants have been obtained and executed over the last two weeks.

On 21 December 2022, a large search team was seen descending on the home for what marked at least the second time.

During an earlier search, officials were seen digging up the backyard.

Inside the property, officials found a secret area in the kitchen blocked off with plywood, according to court documents.

When asked about it, Mr Palmiter allegedly told investigators that he had been planning to make a separate apartment in the space.

One of the concerning lines of inquiry is that Madalina may have been the victim of human trafficking.

In a jailhouse call, detailed in court documents, Ms Cojocari and her mother are heard discussing a large bad of money and a theory that the girl’s stepfather “gave the girl away for money”.

Meanwhile, Mr Palmiter was heard in calls with his brother and sister-in-law saying that Ms Cojocari had a lot of cash and that he didn’t know where she had got it.

Extended family and community express ‘shock’

One week into the investigation, Cornelius Police shared a handwritten note from the missing girl’s family members.

In the note, the unnamed relatives said they are holding onto “hope and positivity” that the young girl will be found safe, as more than a month has now passed since she was last seen.

Madalina’s family shared this handwritten note (Cornelius PD)
Madalina’s family shared this handwritten note (Cornelius PD)
Madalina’s family wrote that they were ‘heartbroken’ by her disappearance (Cornelius PD)
Madalina’s family wrote that they were ‘heartbroken’ by her disappearance (Cornelius PD)

It is not clear which family member wrote the heartwrenching note, but an FBI official confirmed to WBTV that it was not Madalina’s mother or stepfather.

“It’s odd that it seems like she went missing back in November, and it’s just now being reported.”

Madalina was last seen wearing jeans, pink, purple and white Adidas shoes, and a white t-shirt and jacket.

She is described as having brown hair and brown eyes, being 4 feet 10 inches tall, and weighing around 90 pounds.

Anyone with information about Madalina’s whereabouts is asked to call the Cornelius Police Department at 704-892-7773.