The harrowing true story of a high-school senior, her parents, her secret online relationship with a handsome, manipulative stranger, and her well-laid plan to leave home and country to marry a man in Kosovo she thought she loved.
The Baldwins were a strong, tight-knit family living in Texas. When their seventeen-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, met Aadam in an online chat room, she fell for his good looks, his charm, and his respectful conversation. He lived in Kosovo, and they began talking regularly. The more attached Mackenzie became to Aadam, the more detached she became from her family.
Mackenzie’s parents, John and Stephanie Baldwin, had no clue there was a man behind their daughter’s sudden change in personality, her surprising interest in Islam, and her withdrawal from friends and family. When Mackenzie’s attachment to Aadam increased and they became “engaged,” Mackenzie started making plans to fly secretly to Kosovo and marry Aadam.
But twenty-five days before Mackenzie was scheduled to leave the country, three friends in whom Mackenzie had confided told Mackenzie’s father. Through the help of their pastor, John Baldwin contacted the FBI and asked for help. The FBI did not believe Aadam was involved with ISIS or that he was trying to radicalize her, but they were concerned about Aadam’s intentions, as that part of Kosovo was known for sex-trafficking and money scams. With just 72 hours left before Mackenzie’s planned departure, three FBI agents confronted her and urged her to stay.
Told from the viewpoint of both father and daughter, Almost Gone allows us to walk with this family through Mackenzie’s network of lies and deceit and John and Stephanie’s escalating bewilderment and alarm. More than a cautionary tale, this is the story of unconditional parental love and unwavering faith, and how God helped a family save their daughter from a relationship that jeopardized not only her happiness, but also her safety.
It’s not easy sharing our story—at least it wasn’t at first. Our family is much more than this one crisis year, yet this one year nearly destroyed all that we had built and cherished.
Throughout half of that year, my husband, John, and I kept silent about what we were going through. We struggled and prayed alone. When we finally did tell our closest family and friends, we were humbled by their support, love, and prayers and realized just how much we needed them. We saw God bring just the right people, at just the right moments, into our lives. Then the bravery of three girls who spoke up proved to be an essential piece in saving our daughter, Mackenzie.
We came within mere days of losing our daughter forever. She was victimized by someone she thought she knew, but didn’t. In the pursuit of this relationship, she cast aside her faith, her family, and her closet friends. Almost Gone is the story of how all this unfolded and how our precious daughter was ultimately saved.
When it was over, Mackenzie was safe, but she was distraught, embarrassed, and confused as to what she had done and why she had done it. It took time for her to heal and come to grips with what had happened. Forgiving herself was the hardest part. Mack found herself at a crossroads: she could spend her life trying to hide from what had happened, or she could take ownership of it. She chose to own it.
We wrote Almost Gone to share what happened to our family so that other young people will not repeat the mistakes Mackenzie made, and to give the parents of those young people hope that through God’s love and grace, anything can happen. I am immensely proud of how Mackenzie regularly shares her side of this story with both small and large groups of people in an unvarnished and authentic way. Today, as I watch our brave and adventurous daughter telling her story around the country, I marvel at God’s hand at work in the smallest details to save her from almost certain disaster.
We see Almost Gone as our way to help other families realize that things are not always as perfect as they look from the outside, that individuals can make a profound difference in other people’s lives, and that love and forgiveness can transcend every barrier. The story is told from two perspectives—John’s and Mackenzie’s, father and daughter. We hope this will allow you to experience John’s and my perspectives as parents whose daughter changed dramatically in ways we didn’t understand; and understand our daughter’s point of view, as she reveals how and why she was nearly lured away.
Mackenzie’s story will allow you to see inside our daughter’s mind—the mind of a very strong-willed and independent young woman—as she was slowly manipulated and enticed away from her family, her faith, and even herself. From the moment any parent first holds their newborn, their greatest fear is of losing that precious child, or of harm coming to him or her. We came very close to that fear becoming our reality.
One night, after everything was over and Mackenzie was safe, we had company who stayed over, so John and I ended up staying in Mack’s old bedroom for the night. I found myself staring through the darkness at the photographs of her days in camps, horseback riding, and four-wheeling. Sprinkled among them were spiritual and inspirational messages, as well as photos of family vacations and happy memories. I felt tears welling up as I wondered how, though we had done so much together, she had been so willing to leave it all. Where did we go wrong? I asked myself. Later, I came to realize that those memories were the foundation of love and faith that allowed us to survive and heal as a family. We spent years building that foundation, and when it counted, the foundation held strong. I know that not every story has a happy ending. Even in the strongest families with solid foundations, a child can make choices that have tragic results. But if our story can help even one family have better insights into potential dangers and how to navigate them, we will have accomplished our goal.
Our perspective is one picture of the journey, challenges, heartaches, and confusion parents experience when a child is in crisis. We also hope it shows that partnership in marriage, unconditional love, and the generosity of friends and strangers are gifts from God to help us weather the storms we face as parents.
Our entire family feels that God has given us a responsibility to speak up. We pray that by telling our story, God’s hand of guidance will be revealed, and that other families will be encouraged, comforted, and offered help in their own times of trouble.
Friends leaning on friends through the sharing of our most intimate times builds trust and relationships. I was reminded of this truth while I was shopping in a local store, where I happened to see a retired couple from our church. We made small talk for a few minutes, and I asked them to pray for Mackenzie because she “just isn’t where she should be spiritually.” The great reward for me came when they shared their story of their own daughter’s struggle years earlier. They explained that they were always trying to “fix things”; but they eventually realized that God wanted them to “get out of His way” and allow Him to reach their daughter. Their story made me realize that perhaps I, in the midst of our crisis, needed to “get out of His way” and allow God to handle it. From that day on, I changed my prayer from, “God, please change her,” to, “God, tell me what You want me to do.”
Our remarkable journey has taught our family that despite the hardships we encounter, God is always faithful, even when we can’t see Him for a time. For Mackenzie, she rediscovered God’s faithfulness and love even after she had turned away. As parents, we learned to love our daughter no matter what, and to love her where she’s at. Through it all, we discovered that God loves us no matter what, and He loves us where we’re at.
John Baldwin is a deacon and has served in many ministries at Parkway Hills Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. He also serves on the board of directors for High Adventure Treks for Dads and Daughters and Dads and Sons (HATS). This organization promotes father/daughter and father/son communication, leadership, and relationships through shared adventures such as white water kayaking, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities. By day, John is a business technology consultant working with the largest credit card banks.
Mackenzie Baldwin is a college student pursuing a double major in Psychology and Child Development. She is adventurous, enjoying activities such as rock climbing, camping, backpacking, and water sports. She is scuba certified and as a certified skydiver, she has made more than fifty solo jumps.