For more than five years, the parents of missing Lisa Irwin — who disappeared in October 2011 from her crib just a few weeks shy of her first birthday — have insisted she was taken from their home in Kansas City, Missouri.
Police don’t know what to believe, or who might be to blame.
“It’s hard to say that somebody isn’t a suspect when you don’t have any,” Kansas City police Maj. Steve Young tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands now. “But truly, there isn’t anybody that is or isn’t.”
The unsolved mystery began the night of Oct. 3, 2011. Lisa’s father, Jeremy Irwin, was working a late job as an electrical contractor; her mother, Deborah Bradley, was at the family’s home in their working-class neighborhood with 10-month-old Lisa and her two older brothers.
Deborah spent the evening drinking wine outside with a friend. She initially told authorities she put Lisa to bed around 10:30 p.m. Then her account shifted, as she said she may have consumed enough alcohol to black out and couldn’t recall the exact time she’d last seen her daughter.
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When Jeremy came home after 3 a.m. on Oct. 4, he found the front door unlocked, lights on and Lisa missing from her bedroom. During the couple’s panicked search inside and outside, he also discovered a pushed-in window screen at the front of the one-story home — and cell phones missing from their charging spot on the kitchen counter.
Those phones gave police a promising lead: They were able to trace a call from one of the missing phones to the ex-girlfriend of a person of interest, a familiar transient in the area who later spent a short time in custody. Police also investigated reports of a man seen on foot nearby, carrying an infant in the early-morning cold.
But neither lead cracked the case, as eyewitnesses failed to agree on a suspect’s identification.
• For more on this case, watch “What Happened to Baby Lisa?” on our new true crime show, People Magazine Investigates, Nov. 14 (10 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.
A parallel look at Lisa’s parents soon put Jeremy and Deborah on the defensive. Though they denied it, were they somehow involved?
“They were very quickly able to rule Jeremy out,” says defense attorney Cyndy Short, who worked with the family during the initial search and investigation into Lisa’s disappearance.
A surveillance camera showed Jeremy on the job. But Deborah was different: No independent witnesses could corroborate her timeline of that night, Short says.
“In any investigation like this, the police must look at the people that are closest to the missing child,” she says. Deborah “did everything that she could do to help them clear her, so that they could move forward.”
Police never named them as suspects, but both parents were angry and frustrated they’d been placed under scrutiny — Deborah agreed to a lie detector test and was told she failed — while they feared their daughter’s abductor may have been moving Lisa farther and farther away.
“I completely understand,” Deborah tells PEOPLE now about the unwanted focus on her. “But there comes a time where your vision has to be less myopic. And when you’re not getting anywhere, you have to look in a different direction.”
She also says that police remain the best hope for Lisa to be found and reunited with her family (who promote Lisa’s case and collects tips on FindLisaIrwin.com).
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“No matter what, I still have faith in them,” Deborah says of law enforcement. “We still forward all our tips. Any information we get goes right to them, and eventually they’re going to put this together and they’re going to get her home.”
Jeremy, too, has placed his trust in police to find the person or persons who he thinks may have abducted Lisa. He says that he and Deborah have repeatedly run possible scenarios through their heads since the day Lisa vanished — but haven’t settled on firm answers.
“Five years later, I think we have a pretty good idea of what happened and [a] pretty good idea of some of the players involved, but we don’t have anything for sure,” Jeremy says. “We’re not the police.”
They do not trouble themselves over whether others might still question their role in Lisa’s disappearance.
“Some people make up their mind immediately, and that’s it — there’s no change in it,” Jeremy says. “As time goes on, it absolutely becomes infinitesimal, the amount of people or the thoughts that they have. You just can’t listen to it. You have to write it off.”
Says Deborah: “The most important thing is that they’re just keeping an eye out for her.”
“It’s not important who’s on our side,” she says. “We just want everyone on Lisa’s side.”
People Magazine Investigates airs Mondays (10 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.