Nearly seven years ago on the afternoon of December 18, 2011, bubbly 23-year-old Phoenix Coldon backed out of her St. Louis-area driveway to never be seen again.
A few hours later, authorities found her car on an East St. Louis street still running with her keys in the ignition. While the college student’s glasses and shoes were in the vehicle, Phoenix herself was nowhere to be found.
Frantic to find out what happened to their beloved daughter, her parents, Goldia and Lawrence Coldon, pleaded with law enforcement, but the investigation was slow to start with the national media paying her story little mind.
Sadly, as many of us know, the type of treatment Phoenix experienced isn’t new or rare when it comes to African-American women who go missing. Too often, national news ignores and overlooks women of color who disappear, instead often exhausting themselves covering white women like Natalee Holloway.
Whether or not the lack of national media attention played a role in the outcome of Phoenix’s case, we can say with certainty that after all these years, her disappearance has gone unsolved.
But for St. Louis-based investigative reporter Shawndrea Thomas, who covered Coldon’s disappearance from the very beginning for KTVI News, she just couldn’t shake her soul of this story. For Thomas, she was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery by any means necessary.
“I had a picture of Phoenix posted at my work station years after and people would come up to my desk and ask me what was that about,” Thomas told HelloBeautiful.
“I was clear, I wasn’t taking it down until her case was solved.”
Thomas’ fierce desire to find out what happened to Phoenix led to her leaving her full-time job to work along with retired Deputy Police Chief Joe Delia to reopen the case in hopes to uncover leads that the local police couldn’t.
Oxygen’s upcoming two-night special “The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon,” not only chronicles the duo’s journey to find Phoenix justice, but opens our eyes to who the young woman was before she went missing; provides us with exclusive interviews with her family and friends; and offers up numerous theories of what could have happened to the promising 23-year-old.
HelloBeautiful sat down with Thomas to discuss Phoenix’s story, why our readers should watch the special and what needs to be done to ensure that the media stops ignoring missing Black women.
HelloBeautiful: How did you initially come across Phoenix’s story?
Shawndrea Thomas: One day I was at work and we were about to head into our daily news meeting and an intern, a young black female, showed me a missing flyer of Phoenix. She told me that while she didn’t know Phoenix, they both went to the same college and these flyers were posted all over campus. She said everyone was worried about Phoenix.
So, I took that flyer into the meeting and pitched and pushed to do this story for the network. I even offered to shoot the story myself, to ensure that it happened. I was persistent that we tell this girl’s story and they said OK.
I never gave up on this story either. Over time, I kept up on it and did updates a year and more later.
This story really stayed with me.
HB: Without giving up too much, what can you tell us about the “The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon,” and your process in re-opening the case?
First, Joe and I came together to reopen the case of this young beautiful woman who disappeared in 2011. As you know, Phoenix’s car was found without her being in it. On that day, her social media pages, her bank accounts, everything just went dark. She hasn’t been seen or heard ever since.
We wanted to pick up where the police left off and tread some new territory with the case. We tracked down Phoenix’s friends, garnered new leads and present a lot of new information about who Phoenix was before she went missing. We found some pretty interesting stuff and from what we gathered, we ended up speaking with people the police hadn’t spoken to.
HB: Who was Phoenix before she was went missing?
ST: First, I want to say that Phoenix was a bright college student, I believe a sophomore in college on her way to being to junior. She was the only child, homeschooled when she was young by her mother. She had very involved parents, was a fencing champion and played multiple instruments. She was really well-accomplished.
Phoenix was also the type of person who attracted a lot of different types of friends and people. People often said she was a very sweet kid, caring, the type of person that everyone wanted to be around. But sometimes the people around her weren’t as awesome as Phoenix.
In addition, I learned that she was very complex. Her parents were very religious and so Phoenix had some secrets about her life that her parents didn’t know including that fact that she had a boyfriend that she lived with for years.
She had a lot going on for a 23-year-old.
HB: Picking up a case where the police left off can spark some resentment with law enforcement. How did local authorities react to you and Joe doing this special?
ST: Actually, they were pretty supportive. Granted, because the case is still active, there were things they wouldn’t and couldn’t tell us, but they welcomed any new leads we found. And we do have theories about what may have happened to Phoenix.
I believe their openness was because they knew both Joe and I and they knew how we rolled. We are legit people and they trusted us. Had we been strangers coming in and working on this case, they may have been apprehensive.
HB: I have read repeatedly that Mrs. Coldon believes that had Phoenix looked like Natalee Holloway, then perhaps the national media would have picked up this case more. Given that studies have proven that the media has “missing white woman syndrome,” often ignoring Black women who disappear, what can be done to ensure that cases like Phoenix’s stop being overlooked?
ST: It just boils down to diversity in the newsroom.
It’s about having people of all walks of life in those meetings, pitching those stories that impact people and communities that often get ignored.
It’s also about having the people who make the decisions to assign those stories to not have tunnel vision. They need to be able to understand that news that doesn’t affect them per se, is still important, newsworthy and affects other people. They just can’t have blinders up and only care about and see the issues that impact their own lives.
We also need journalists to be more persuasive and push harder in these situations with producers, the assignment desk, etc., to make sure these stories get told.
HB: A project like this one can be taxing, not just the workload, but on your spirit, given the subject matter.
ST: You know one of the hardest parts was the transitioning to this type of work. The long hours, the amount of time and the pace of the work. We found ourselves working 12-13 hour days, but thankfully we had a great team of hardworking smart people surrounding us.
In terms of the emotional side of it all, working with her parents, who’ve I known for years, was hard. Her mother has really taken Phoenix’s disappearance hard, as most mothers would. Her health has been failing, she is in so much agony. I know her father is hurting too, but he puts on a strong face.
I also saw how much her friends are reeling and can’t move forward in their own lives, they are utter turmoil. They feel stuck and wonder that if she’s out there, why hasn’t she reached out to them. It’s truly heartbreaking.
Finally, one thing that really got me was watching these old videos of Phoenix, talking and walking around. Even though i have been covering her story for seven years, this was the first time I had ever heard her voice. I watched them over and over again, seeing her being alive. That was a lot.
HB: Last question: Why should HelloBeautiful readers watch The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon?
ST: For so many reasons. First, I think that people with missing loved ones can learn a lot of from Phoenix and her family’s story, especially around ways to deal and cope.
Also, I think it could open people’s eyes to sex trafficking here in the U.S. Often, we think it only happens to women from other countries, who are brought to the States. But in reality, more often that we may want to think sex trafficking is happening to women born right here. There are young women and girls being sold by their boyfriends, their family, you name it.
Finally, we want people to watch the special because we clarify some of the fact from fiction, clearing up rumors about the case, and laying out a more nuance understanding of who Phoenix was, squashing some assumptions that have been made about her.
In the end, telling Phoenix’s story is just a piece of a bigger puzzle and what happened to her and how her story can be the story of many other people out there who are also missing.
***This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“The Disappearance of Phoenix Coldon,” premieres Saturday, Nov. 3 and Sunday, Nov. 4 at 7/6c on Oxygen