Madalina Cojocari vanished five weeks ago. Her parents never told police she was missing. What happened?

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

Six weeks have passed since 11-year-old Madalina Cojocari was last seen.

For three of those weeks, no one was even looking for her.

Christmas Day has now come and gone and the sixth-grader is still nowhere to be found, with her parents denying all knowledge as to what has happened to her.

But police in Cornelius, North Carolina, believe the 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 on Tuesday.

“We know everyone has a lot of questions. We also have questions and are doing everything we can, with proper legal authority, to get those answers.”

On Tuesday, Cornelius police issued a plea to the public to report any information they had concerning the girl’s whereabouts.

“It has been 42 days since Madalina was last seen as she got off of her school bus on 21 November, 2022,” the Cornelius Police Department wrote on its Facebook page. “We need your assistance in finding her.”

The police have asked anyone with information on the girl’s whereabouts to call the department at 704-892-1363.

As the police captain said, there are many unanswered questions around the case: What has happened to Madalina? Why did her parents not report her missing for 22 days after they claim they last saw her? And why are her parents still seemingly holding back information 11 days after they were first arrested in connection to her disappearance?

While investigators are working to get answers to those questions, here’s what we do know so far:

Reported missing

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

Her mother Diana Cojocari and stepfather Christopher 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

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

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

School officials then alerted law enforcement, who immediately launched an investigation to find the missing 11-year-old.

Last known sighting

Cornelius Police said that the last confirmed sighting of Madalina was on Friday 21 November 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.

The young girl is dressed in a plain t-shirt and a backpack and is fixing her necklace and hair as she walks.

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

Footage shows last known movements of missing 11-year-old Madalina Cojocari

Parents’ arrests and versions of events

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

Both suspects were scheduled to appear in Mecklenburg County Court on Wednesday morning.

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

Both claim to have last seen Madalina on 23 November.

Investigators have been unable to verify this claim with the last confirmed sighting being the moment she exited the school bus.

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, Ms Cojocari claims she found her to be missing.

She said that Madalina does not have a phone or any friends or family she could be with and that a bookbag and some of her clothes had gone missing from their family home.

The arrest warrant states that Ms Cojocari told investigators she then waited until Mr Palmiter returned home – two days later on the evening of 26 November – to ask if he knew where Madalina was.

When asked why she didn’t report her daughter missing before mid-December, 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

She also claimed that family members in Moldova had urged her to call the police about her daughter’s disappearance, but that she hesitated to do so.

The documents also reveal that Ms Cojocari said that she believed her husband had “put her family in danger”. It is not clear what she meant by this statement.

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”.

The search

In the two weeks since the alarm was raised for the missing 11-year-old, more than 100 law enforcement officials from agencies including Cornelius Police Department, the FBI and the SBI have been drafted in to help find her and multiple searches have been carried out at the family home.

On Tuesday, Capt. Thompson said that investigators have so far followed more than 250 leads spanning across both state lines and the globe, carried out 100 interviews with individuals in North Carolina and further afield, and canvassed door to door at about 245 homes and businesses in the Victoria Bay neighbourhood around Madalina’s home.

Multiple agencies including Cornelius Police Department, the FBI and the SBI are working together on the case.

The police captain said that 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

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

“One of the challenges in this case simply put is we were not notified she was gone – a delay of three weeks,” she said.

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, 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.

It is unclear if the search teams removed the boards and scoured that particular area of the property.

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 which they said they were “shocked, “devastated and absolutely heartbroken” over her disappearance.

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.

They thanked the law enforcement and the public for helping try to track down the “beautiful, smart, kind and loving” 11-year-old and urged people to continue sharing information.

“We, as a family, are devastated and absolutely heartbroken to learn that Madalina is missing,” the note reads.

“We love Madalina and are shocked by these circumstances. This is something no child or family should ever have to endure.”

The note goes on to say that the family is doing everything possible to find Madalina and “bring her home”.

“Madalina is a beautiful, smart, kind and loving 11-year-old girl with greatness in her future,” it says.

Madalina’s family shared this handwritten note

Madalina’s family wrote that they were ‘heartbroken’ by her disappearance

“We are desperate to find her right now, she needs ALL of our help,” adding that “each and every share may be one step closer to finding her”.

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.

In the days after the young girl’s disappearance, neighbours also expressed shock at such a thing happening in their neighbourhood.

“I’ve lived here my whole life so I’ve never seen anything like this,” said neighbour Sydney Capps.

“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.