NEIL-VO: Chapter One: The Call.
Shawn White: And all I remember is buckling in. I’m like looking down at the pipe, and I’m like, I don’t know. I could just see, I literally can see the run unfolding. I’m like-
Neil Strauss: Wow.
Shawn White: … ‘I’m gonna hit this wall, I’m gonna travel this far.” I’m like looking at it and everything got really still.
Neil Strauss: The voice you hear is that of snowboarder Shawn White. We’re in the offices of his talent agency, and I’m interviewing him about his Olympic win. On the table rests his Olympic gold medal. At this exact moment, just five miles away on Hollywood Boulevard, Adea Shabani is disappearing, possibly even worse. And here I am, freaking out over a tiny piece of metal.
Shawn White: So this landed perfect and I’m like, “This is it, you got … you can do this.”
Neil Strauss: Right.
Shawn White: And I just gave it a little more oomph than normal, and I ride it away like, “Holy fuck I just”-
Neil Strauss: Yeah, yeah.
Shawn White: “I’m gonna win the Olympics.”
Neil Strauss: Yeah.
Shawn White: “It’s over.”
NEIL-VO: But this is my job. Rolling Stone assigns me to do things like ride motorcycles with Tom Cruise or go to rocket factories with Elon Musk, or shop for Pampers with Snoop Dogg. And then I write about what it’s like hanging out with them. But what I don’t do is investigating crime and hard news and missing people.
NEIL-VO: At least I didn’t. Not until I received this call.
Jayden Brant: So I wanted to ask you a question about this other case that I’m working?
Neil Strauss: Yeah.
Jayden Brant: You might have seen it in the news. I don’t know, but it’s another missing persons case. Her name’s Adea Shabani. She’s a girl from Macedonia, she’s been here like for about 18 months, hired by her family. She lives in Hollywood. Anyway, she was last seen on Friday and, you know, I mean-
Neil Strauss: Which … this Friday or the Friday the week before.
Jayden Brant: No, this Friday.
Neil Strauss: Okay.
Jayden Brant: Yeah.
Neil Strauss: Wow.
NEIL-VO: That’s Jayden Brant. I’m not sure how to best introduce Jayden, because our relationship is a little odd. About a year earlier, a 20 year-old student went missing in my neighborhood in Malibu, California, and as a community member I volunteered to help find her. Jayden, a former police detective who’s now a highly in-demand private investigator, was working with the family of that missing student in Malibu, and I guess as a new father, I felt the need to help the missing woman’s family and also just make sure our community was safe. So I began reaching out to Jayden, probably initially as a pest. But eventually, he began calling me for advice.
NEIL-VO: So this call was another one of those conversations. It just happened to be about a new case.
Jayden Brant: Basically, at this point we have no leads, no suspects. We do know that she was last seen on some video surveillance in Hollywood, kind of right near her apartment around 11 am. She had last communication with friends at around 2-2:30. We know her apartment door was left unlocked. The real odd thing is that there appears to be some usage on her computer that night. But no phone activity, no communication with anybody but …
NEIL-VO: As Jayden spoke, I looked through Adea’s social media.
Jayden Brant: so, I don’t know …
NEIL-VO: It is, in a word, glamorous. There are professional modeling shots, exotic European beach vacations, and pictures on the red carpet at premieres and events. In short, it looks like a Hollywood dream, and many of the inspirational quotes underneath the images are also about dreams. Such as this one from Michael Gambon: “Dreamy kids become actors, don’t they?”
Jayden Brant: I don’t know. We’re tryin’ to get some press going on it. I don’t know if it’s something you’re interested in, maybe write a story for Rolling Stone or, you know, just one of those compelling cases. I mean, she’s young, she this beautiful aspiring actress. You know, I think it could be a good case. I mean, obviously, we’re hoping to find her, but I don’t know. What are your thoughts?
NEIL-VO: I told him I’d think about it and to keep me in the loop.
Newscaster2: We found these flyers at several businesses at Hollywood and Wilcox, where police say she was last seen.
Newscaster3: Her name is Adea. Adea Shabani. Beautiful inside and out, say her close friends, who also say they’re worried sick over the 25 year-old.
Newscaster4: She’s been missing since the morning of February the 23rd. That’s when she went to the Rise and Grind coffee shop and vanished.
Jayden Brant: There’s absolutely no evidence that she is a voluntary missing, that she’s a runaway.
Newscaster5: Jayden Brant is the private investigator hired by the Shabani family to try and find Adea. The 25 year-old’s mother flew into town from the Republic of Macedonia a couple of days ago.
Newscaster6: Now, there’s nothing yet to indicate foul play, but friends suspect that Adea Shabani is being held against her will.
NEIL-VO: As time continued to pass-
Newscaster7: She’s been gone for more than a week.
NEIL-VO: … with no leads and no developments.
Newscaster8: It’s been 11 days since anyone has seen or heard from Adea Shabani.
NEIL-VO: Initial press coverage started to fade.
Newscaster9: No one has actually seen her in almost two weeks.
NEIL-VO: The police had very strangely asked the family not to do any interviews, so they’d spoken to no one and frustration was mounting.
Jayden Brant: It’s just another case, and the media has died down-
Neil Strauss: Yeah.
Jayden Brant: … see, that’s the other thing. Like, if the media comes back it puts pressure on the police.
Neil Strauss: Right.
Jayden Brant: Because they were much more active, engaging, doin’ shit when it was all over the nightly news.
NEIL-VO: As Jayden went on describing the family’s plight, I wondered to myself why I hadn’t gotten involved yet. I felt like one of those people who sees a car crash and just rubbernecks and holds up the traffic. Maybe there was something I could do to help. Maybe, unlike the Malibu disappearance, if I really started reporting on this for an article or a piece or a podcast, I could make a difference for this family.
NEIL-VO: Little did I know that this small conversation would soon turn into a serious commitment that would put me and my family at risk. In fact, I’ve recently been told that if I release this podcast, “bad things” are going to happen to me in the sense of a threat on my life, or my safety, or that of my family. I’ve decided obviously to go ahead and release this. I wish I could give you a good reason as to why I’ve made that decision, but I’ve discussed it with my family, and I suppose it’s that if someone is threatening your life to stop you from doing something, it’s a good sign that you’re pretty close to the truth.
NEIL-VO: Chapter Two: Zest for Life
Neil Strauss: Hi, I’m Neil, nice to meet you. And this is Alex, who works with me.
Neil Strauss: Yeah, yeah, thanks for taking the time.
Nora: You want me to get you some coffee now?
Neil Strauss: I’ll … I can get you something.
NEIL-VO: I’m at the Rise and Grind coffee shop on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s the last place Adea Shabani was seen, and I’m meeting her mother, Nora, for the first time. And formally, I suppose, beginning this investigation. Just one day has passed since I told Jayden I’d get involved, and he’s trying to get me caught up to speed as quickly as possible, which means speaking directly with Adea’s family and friends.
Neil Strauss: Thanks for coming.
Nora: So, speak here or in the apartment?
Neil Strauss: I think what we’ll do is, we’ll just go up to the apartment, but definitely not here ‘cause it’s too loud.
Nora: Yes, it’s too loud.
NEIL-VO: Together we walked back to Adea’s apartment to speak. I’m nervous, because I don’t know what to say to someone who’s in Nora’s position, with so much fear and sadness and uncertainty about her child. Especially since, just a few days earlier, it was Adea’s 26th birthday, and her loved ones didn’t have their friend, their classmate, their daughter to celebrate with.
Nora: Just come in.
Neil Strauss: Thank.
Nora: I bought her flowers because it was her birthday on Friday.
Neil Strauss: Oh, it was her birthday on Friday?
Nora: Yeah. And also when we came into the apartment, there were flowers, because she always buys herself-
Neil Strauss: Right. Yeah.
Nora: And they bought them together with Emma, but I don’t know which day, Thursday or Wednesday.
NEIL-VO: We sit down at a small breakfast table, and Adea’s mother begins the first interview she’s ever done about her daughter.
Neil Strauss: So this is … you’ve been staying in Adea’s apartment?
Nora: Now, yes. And it’s difficult. Really difficult. I’m not from here, so it feels kind of weird. I’m going through her stuff, I’m staying in her room, feeling her energy, feeling her smells every day, but she’s not around. And she wanted me to come here desperately. She invited me so many times. And now, I mean, I’m here and she’s not around. I mean it’s such a difficult situation. For me, it’s a nightmare.
Neil Strauss: Probably, she’d probably want you here. Probably wants you here, not somewhere else, anyway. To be close.
Nora: We are very, very connected. Very. I mean, I know she somehow knows that I’m here. I’m convinced that I’m the only person she wants to see now.
NEIL-VO: It’s uncanny to look at Nora. Her face, her lips, even her gestures are almost exactly like what I’ve seen of Adea’s. She moves with a solitude, a mournfulness, around the studio apartment. Occasionally she goes to the window to smoke a cigarette, and she looks forlornly over the dirty and desperate streets of Hollywood. It’s warm inside, but Nora’s wearing a sweater and a jacket that she doesn’t take off. There’s a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street on the wall. There’s several photos of Justin Bieber scattered around the bed. And Nora takes special care to show me the positive, inspirational slogans that are emblazoned on everything from photo frames to paperweights on Adea’s desk. But most notable is a whiteboard above the bed, on which Adea has written phrases like, “The source of all creation is my role model,” and then, below that, she’s written just three words in black marker, “Zest for life.”
Nora: So this is Adea. From very early on she had this passion for being on the stage, for expressing herself, for reaching out beyond her small community, beyond borders. I mean, if you look at her diaries, recently we were moving and we found her diary from a very young age. She was drawing, she was writing like, “I want to be a star. I want to be …” Even this picture here, that she bought from Marilyn Monroe…
Neil Strauss: Oh yeah. “I am born to be a star.”
Nora: “I’m born to be a star.” I mean.
Neil Strauss: Yeah. Yeah, I noticed on Instagram, too, there’s a picture of her next to an artwork where it said something like, “Be a star in a different way,” or-
Nora: Yeah. I’m gonna be a different star.
NEIL-VO: Outside Adea’s apartment is the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame, the famous landmark with the names of A-list celebrities pressed into the coral-pink stars on the sidewalk. This, of course, was a place where Adea wanted her name to be one day.
Nora: She was feeling so great. She was basically walking on the streets, and she would put the camera on and, “I feel so great, mama. I want you to come here. We have to make sure you transfer and you work in the US, so we are close together, because this is I’ve found happiness.” She really found herself.
NEIL-VO: And then suddenly, just after Adea booked her first role in a Macedonian animated film, she disappeared. Adea’s mom and I speak about Adea’s childhood in Macedonia, her education at the American University in Paris, and her job at a jewelry store in Dubai where she decided that regular nine to five work was not the life she wanted. I asked Nora what her theories are on Adea’s disappearance, and she suggests that I speak to the last person known to have seen Adea, her friend Emma.
Emma: Every day is passing by you’re losing hope, but I’m really hoping she’s still alive. I’m really … it’s too bad to, you know. She’s only 25.
Neil Strauss: Yeah.
Emma: Her life is in front of her. It’s only the beginning.
NEIL-VO: Emma is tall and thin, with a strong jaw, a chiseled face, and long, jet-black hair. She’s wearing bracelets which you may hear jingling during the interview, along with music leaking through the paper-thin walls of this Hollywood apartment complex. This is a building designed specifically for Hollywood hopefuls. In the lobby, there’s a picture of the Hollywood sign, and nearby there are large neon letters that read, “You’ve arrived,” a message to all those who drive and fly into the city of dreams from small towns around the world.
NEIL-VO: Emma recalls the exact moment she knew something was wrong.
Emma: How I found out that Adea is missing was this guy, Listianne, who is common friend of me and Adea, so I call her, the phone was off. I let it go, but Listianne call me then Saturday, which was the 24th February, and he said, “No Emma, she is not answering.” So I just started running from my place to her … to the building, so I can knock on the door …
NEIL-VO: Emma drove to Adea’s apartment, contacted the building manager, and explained the situation. But the manager wouldn’t let Emma up to Adea’s apartment, no matter how much she pleaded. Eventually, Adea’s friends had to contact the police to do a welfare check, and not only was Adea not there, but the door was left unlocked, which they found very suspicious and very unlike Adea.
Emma: And then we contact the mom, the mom said go to the police and report that she is missing.
NEIL-VO: Adea’s friend, Angel, continues the story. Angel runs a company called the Hookah Guys, and what they do is they set up mobile hookah lounges at clubs, and Adea, along with Emma, were working as basically volunteer hostesses at his hookah nights.
Angel: So, we go in on Monday. We spoke to the detectives. They seemed to take whatever information they had, or whatever, and it didn’t seem like they were about to do anything. So we went out … as a matter of fact, they called us and they called Listianne, the person who filed the report, and said that you shouldn’t go down to the police station, because you guys are just, you’re there for nothing. You know, don’t come down to the police station. Our officers have other things to do.
NEIL-VO: It’s hard to believe that you could have a friend go missing under suspicious, with their door literally left unlocked, and the police would tell you that they have better things to do than go search for your friend. I was shocked to hear this from Angel and asked him how this could be possible.
Angel: If they’re not looking, and I think I had that conversation with one of the detectives when he said, you know, we wanna find her. Do you not trust that we wanna find her? And I said, “No, I don’t trust that you wanna find her. I trust that you wanna build a case.”
Neil Strauss: Right.
Angel: “That’s more important to you than whether she’s alive or possibly dead.”
Neil Strauss: All these interviews have taken place in Adea’s apartment. As we leave, I tell Jayden that it seems like her friends are holding back with me a little bit. Like they know something more than they’re comfortable sharing right now.
Jayden Brant: There are a lot of clarifications.
Neil Strauss: Yeah. So not all the information’s accurate. Got it.
Jayden Brant: It’s all like, it’s all sort of like, best of their knowledge.
Neil Strauss: Got it.
NEIL-VO: He tells me there’s another person I should talk to, an ex-boyfriend of Adea’s who probably has more information on her than anyone else. This is because, for some reason, her cellphone bill is in his name, and in addition, his name is on the lease to her apartment, although he never actually lived there. And this guy has a lot of the facts I’ve been looking for. He’s an odd, fast-talking and very intense European, who’s asked to remain anonymous for reasons that will soon become clear. So for the purposes of this podcast, we’ll call him Ivan.
NEIL-VO: I’ve recreated Ivan’s side of the conversation here.
Ivan: I have all the information from T-Mobile and WhatsApp. Last date on the phone was 12:50, I called in to the bill from T-Mobile.
Neil Strauss: Oh, got it. ‘Cause you have her phone bill, so you can see the data.
Ivan: Yes, the phone bill’s in my name, I took a screen shot, and I sent it to the police, too.
Neil Strauss: I’m gonna text … are you on WhatsApp? If I text you on WhatsApp I’d love to see that.
Ivan: Yeah, yeah. You can text me on WhatsApp and I’ll send you the screen shot from T-Mobile with the data and of the last text she sent.
NEIL-VO: Ivan explains that not only does he have all of the Adea’s cell phone data, but he’s managed to have a hacker crack her iCloud and get her crucial last messages on text and on WhatsApp. He shared with police the message that I’m about to share with you now. However, and this is worth noting, he has not shared Adea’s full iCloud account and text message logs with Jayden, the private investigator.
NEIL-VO: It seems a bit weird to me that her ex-boyfriend is the gatekeeper of all her personal information.
NEIL-VO: The text was sent to a friend from acting class, named Christiane, just 48 minutes before Adea’s phone shut off for good. And Adea made a very strange request. She wrote, “Baby, do you know where I can buy candles? Red ones.” And that was the last time Adea Shabani communicated with anyone. It remains unclear just why she was asking for red candles minutes before she disappeared, and whether that’s an innocent question or a significant clue.
Neil Strauss: Yeah, so we’re in Adea’s apartment right now, and we’re leaving and, thank you Adea for sharing your family and your friends with us, and hopefully we can find you, or be of good or of service.
Jayden Brant: You got everything?
Neil Strauss: You have the key?
Neil Strauss: At home that night, I review the only facts I’ve been able to gather so far. One, Adea Shabani was last seen on February 23rd, 2018. Two, the last place she was seen was at her local coffee shop, Rise and Grind. Three, at 12:21 pm, according to data retrieved by Ivan from Adea’s Google account, her YouTube search history shows her listen to music by Coldplay, Beyonce, Eminem, and then at 12:48 pm, she does her last search and listens to her final song, “God’s Plan” by Drake. Four, the last time her phone was in use transmitting data appears to have been immediately afterward, at 12:50 that afternoon. I’ve gotten a couple of other times from people, but this is what the data from Ivan actually says.
NEIL-VO: Five, according to another screen shot that Ivan sends me, her computer shows that it was powered on and her Chrome browser used from inside her apartment at 1:08 am that night. So that’s over 12 hours after her phone went out of commission. Six, the front door of her apartment was found unlocked, which is unlike Adea, though there were no signs of struggle inside the apartment. Seven, and most bizarre of all, her last text was asking about where to get red candles.
NEIL-VO: It’s a lot of information, but it really doesn’t point toward any specific direction or to any theory whatsoever. So far, the only suspicious person I’ve spoken to is her ex-boyfriend, Ivan. But it turns out he was in Europe at the time of her disappearance. It almost seems as if someone snatched Adea right out of her apartment. But I ask Jayden about that, and there weren’t any signs of a struggle. However, that night, as I’m going through all my interviews, I get this call.
Jayden Brant: Hey, just wanted to give you an update. Just got a call from Angel. He’s got a call that came in on his cell phone which was, it’s sort of acting as the de facto tip line until we get ours up and get the new media out, but basically he got a call from a guy, anonymous, didn’t leave a name, a blocked number saying that he saw Adea and she was being put into the bed of a pickup truck out in front of her apartment. He said that she was out of it, like the implication was like maybe drugged? And then the truck took off and drove south down toward Hollywood Boulevard. He gives us a description of the truck, and he even has the plate number.
NEIL-VO: Coming up on Season One of To Live and Die in LA.
Neil Strauss: All right, I’m in my car, man. I don’t do this. I’m terrified.
Newscaster2: It’s still a mystery what happened to 25 year-old Adea Shabani, an aspiring actress and model who went missing February 23rd. Now, a twist.
Female Speaker1: And the bed had been stabbed several times, and there was a huge knife left in my bed.
Emma: He was panicking like, every second word he was telling me “Shit, shit, I don’t know, I don’t know.” I’m like, “How do you know? When was the last time you saw her, and what did she say?”
Male Speaker 1: This shit is so fuckin’ … it’s deeper than I ever, than you could ever go.
Jayden Brant: Well, I mean, just think about it. If you have … if the bullet is existing this window … Well, first of all, nobody shoots themselves four times in the head.
Crying Speaker: They searched our apartment, they searched his birth father’s place in Sacramento, they showed up in Colorado.
Neil Strauss: He said, “I’m gonna tie-” this is talking about you and again, please keep this between us, okay? He said, I’m gonna go back, we’re gonna tie him up, and we’re gonna torture him. We’re gonna find out where he put Adea, even if we have to kill him.
Nora: You get a sense that you have a person who is above the law, and can do anything to play with all of us.
Neil Strauss: I got one last important question. How worried do I have to be if we don’t work things out and I do this? Physically.
Jayden Brant: I don’t know.
Male Speaker2: Girls go missing from LA every single fucking day.
NEIL-VO To Live and Die in LA has been a production of Tenderfoot TV and me, Neil Strauss, in conjunction with Cadence 13. The executive producers of this podcast are myself, Donald Albright, and Payne Lindsey, along with producers Alex Vespestad and Mike Rooney. Because this is an open case, anything you know about Adea Shabani or anyone mentioned in this podcast, we want to know. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 213-204-2073. The music and score that you’ve heard in this podcast is by Makeup and Vanity Set. Our theme song is “Love and War,” by Fleurie, and our show art and design are by Trevor Eiler. You can follow us on social media at livedielapod, or you can find our website with bonus content at livediela.com.
NEIL-VO: I want to extend a special thanks to Brian Fishbach, to Rich Burner, Kevin Richter, Station 16, Oren Rosenbaum at UTA, Eric Lynn at Shangri LA, and the Nord Group.
NEIL-VO: It helps a lot when you subscribe, rate, and review the podcasts that you enjoy and listen to. Thank you for listening and for your support.