Lisa Sullivan’s latest attempt to locate her 19-year-old daughter was a bright yellow billboard bearing her image placed at a busy King George County intersection.
She believes her former husband, James Branton, was probably the last person to see her daughter, Katelin Akens, on Dec. 5, 2015. She also believes Branton has additional information he still has not shared with authorities.
“I was hoping [the billboard] would put him on a guilt trip, seeing her face every day,” said Sullivan. “He needs to talk; he needs to come forward. He’s got to know where she is.”
For the last three months, the billboard bearing Katelin’s image was in plain view where State Route 206, or Dahlgren Road, meets U.S. 301. That billboard came down recently, but is going back up nearby. Sullivan believes Branton, who works at Naval Support Facility Dahlgren, will continue to see the billboard every day on his way to work, and so will the people he works with.
“His co-workers would know,” said Sullivan. “I was hoping people in his office would whisper and talk, make him feel uncomfortable.”
The free billboard, provided by the Roanoke-based AWARE Foundation, is part of a nationwide effort to track down missing people.
“We’re given billboards on a space-available basis,” said AWARE founder and CEO Kenny Jarels, whose group also uses a social media network of over 100,000 followers to help track missing people.
“We reach a lot of people and we reach them quickly,” Jarels said.
On Dec. 5, 2015, Katelin was scheduled to fly from Washington’s Reagan National Airport to Arizona. Branton, who lives in Partlow, had agreed to drive his former stepdaughter to the airport that day for her flight home to Lake Havasu, Ariz. Katelin had flown to Virginia to visit her newborn nephew.
“He was 2 weeks old when she came down,” said Sullivan. “That’s the reason she came.”
On her way to work the morning of Katelin’s return flight, Sullivan dropped her daughter off at Branton’s home about 9:15. About 4 1/2 hours later, Branton texted Sullivan, saying he had dropped Katelin off.
“Did you drop her off at the airport in [Washington, D.C.]?,” Sullivan inquired.
Branton told Sullivan he dropped her off at the Springfield Metro station.
“She was going to take the Metro to the airport since there is a stop at Reagan [National Airport],” Branton replied.
Eight minutes after Branton’s message, Sullivan received another text from Katelin’s phone that read, “I’m at the airport. Battery dying so I won’t be able to text for a bit.”
But investigators later said the young woman never made it to the airport, and her phone never left the Fredericksburg region.
“I can tell you, her phone was never there at 2 o’clock,” said Spotsylvania Detective Sharon Williams. “Her phone was in Fredericksburg; it was in Spotsy, and it never went farther north than Stafford.”
Williams said investigators also examined surveillance camera footage in hopes of finding additional clues connected to the case.
“We pulled video from the Springfield Mall, from the Metro station and from the airport, and Katelin’s not on any of them,” said Williams.
Later that same day, at 7:15 p.m., Sullivan received another text from Katelin’s phone that read, “I’m staying with a friend. I need some time alone.”
“Call me,” Sullivan responded. “I am very worried about you. Please call me.”
Two days later, a worker found Katelin’s blue suitcase in a ditch along River Road in Stafford County. The suitcase contained Katelin’s wallet and identification card, but her clothing and high school diploma were missing.
At first, Branton cooperated with investigators, who later searched his home and seized his cellular phone.
“He provided us his timeline of events, which also does not match up to the cell tower information that we have received,” said Williams.
But Williams said Branton eventually decided not to cooperate any further. He also refused to turn over the password to his phone and declined to take a polygraph test, she said.
Branton could not be reached to comment on the case or the billboard for this article, but Sullivan hopes another billboard in the same area will help push Branton to step forward with more information.
“I’m hoping he sees it every day and thinks about it every day,” said Sullivan. “No matter where they put it.”
Although there are no new leads in the case as a result of placing Katelin’s billboard near Dahlgren, Sullivan remains hopeful that she will one day find her daughter. Still looking for clues, Sullivan returned to the River Road area just two weeks ago, where some of Katelin’s personal belongings were found in 2015.
“We’re going to keep working on this and we’re going to find Katelin,” said Sullivan. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to keep putting this in his face.”
Sullivan said Spotsylvania Crime Solvers is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case. Contact the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office with information or tips on this case by calling 540/582-7115.
James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438