A few years ago, John and Stephanie Baldwin discovered that their 17-year-old daughter Mackenzie was involved online with a man from Kosovo, a well known hotbed of human trafficking and citizenship fraud. She was secretly making plans to leave the country to marry him. But he wasn’t who he said he was.
Told from the viewpoint of both father and daughter, Almost Gone follows Mackenzie’s network of lies and deceit and her parents’ escalating alarm once they discovered her secret. With help from a local church, mosque and the FBI, they had 72 hours to save Mackenzie.
I met the Baldwins to discuss Almost Gone, Mackenzie’s incredible story and the inspiring path she’s on today.
Read more on human trafficking in Collin County.
Tell me about Aadam, the man you got to know online.
Mackenzie: Now, looking back things he told me didn’t make sense. There were a lot of things about him that just didn’t add up. But he was literally my world.
Stephanie: We were at a loss before we knew what was behind it. We saw her pulling away from her friends and us, changing her religion and we had no idea why. If you saw his picture, you’d be shocked. He looks like a male model. You can see why girls would fall for it.
John: It was clear to the FBI that she was in trouble. They said they’d seen this situation over and over.
M: It started slow. He started telling me my friends weren’t good for me–which they were–and I would tell myself that really he was just worried about me because he cared about me. We didn’t start out with this plan of me coming to Kosovo. Originally he was going to come to Dallas. Then he moved it a little further out and suggested we meet in New York. Then it was Switzerland. Slowly, until I was fully invested, when I didn’t have my friends and wasn’t talking to my family–that’s when he told me to go to Kosovo and at that point I had nothing else so I agreed.
S: She can tell you in ten minutes how it went from meeting to moving to Kosovo but the subtlty of it and the timeline–it was just masterful.
M: At the end, the FBI agents showed me that whatever he wanted from me, he didn’t love me. If I showed up at Kosovo, I probably never would have ever even seen him. I’d probably just be gone.
Do you think that he could have done this to other girls?
M: I’m sure he has. We show his photo when we speak. I’m waiting for that moment when a girl comes up to me and tells me that she’s talking to him.
Tell me about Almost Gone.
J: After it was over, Mackenzie wouldn’t talk to us about it for months. I wanted to write Almost Gone because it was an incredible story. We made a deal to write it and decide later if we wanted to publish it.
M: Even originally I didn’t want to speak about it. Once it happened I tried to put it behind me and not think about it. Then we decided to write a book just for our family. And one day when I have kids I’d share it with them. Once we started writing it, bigger names got involved and it was very clear that there is a designated path where this is going. It’s bigger than I could have imagined. Eventually I stopped worrying about people finding out. If you’ve been through something traumatic and embarrassing, you can run from that or you can own it. After a lot of thinking I decided I was going to own it. I’ve got incredible support. Now I’m happy and confident in speaking about it. Now I’m excited to speak about it. I like connecting with people and sharing my story. The book has a life of its own. We’re along for the ride.
Almost Gone is real. It doesn’t skip around. It doesn’t skip the bad stuff. It’s our good bad and ugly. That’s the way it is. When people read it they’ll know we’re putting ourselves out there and being real. Everyone has been through something. I want people in situations like mine to know they aren’t alone.
J: It really helped us heal. Almost Gone helped us think through that whole year. The writing process drew us closer together.
How did you start getting speaking engagements?
J: We started speaking at some schools, some churches and rotary clubs and stuff like that
S: It’s amazing. She walks out on stage and everyone’s surprised by how she looks–and how Aadam looks when we show his picture. She just–you know, she looks like any other kid out there. That shakes people up.
M: I’m a psychology and child development major. I want people to come and talk to me. Girls come to me after I speak and tell me things they’ve never told anyone. I feel humbled that they feel that they can trust me. This has been life-changing. For me, this process has been great. I love it. I never saw myself going out there and saying, “I’m Mackenzie and this is my life’s biggest mess up.” But so far everyone has been really good about it and supportive. Just seeing the way this impacts young people, it’s all worth it. It doesn’t matter what people think if it helps others.
Almost Gone is being released by Simon & Schuster November 14, 2017. Find more at simonandschuster.com