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Twenty-Five Days: The Mackenzie Baldwin Story

Elizabeth Price, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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Every fall, tens of thousands of high school seniors across the country go back to school shopping, cheer at football games and attend prom with their friends. These are rites of passage nearly every student looks forward to. The memories made are ones that they will cherish forever, but alumni Mackenzie Baldwin does not remember any of this.

“I don’t remember my senior year very much at all,” Baldwin said. “It honestly felt like brainwashing. It’s like I just wasn’t there for a year.”

Mackenzie’s father, John Baldwin, remembers the fear in his body the minute he found out what Mackenzie was about to do.

“I was on a business trip and a friend called me and asked if I had seen any changes in the way Mackenzie was acting,” her father John Baldwin said. “When I said yes, he told me she was involved in an online relationship with a man overseas and that she has plans to leave the country in a couple weeks.”

The man’s name was Aadam. He lived in Kosovo, a disputed territory halfway across the world known for organ-theft.

“When I first heard the news, I asked him to repeat it because that is not what I was expecting him to say,” John said. “I felt my heart sink. It was that feeling in your stomach when something really bad happens. I got a real cold feeling about how much danger she was in.”

Mackenzie met Aadam on an online chat site. Over the course of 14 months, they began talking every day.

“He asked me if I would meet him in Dallas,” Mackenzie said. “At first, I didn’t even think we would be talking a year from now, but I told him I could meet him for coffee.”

Mackenzie began growing attached to the idea of meeting him in Dallas, but he eventually claimed he did not have the money for Dallas and could only meet in New York City.

“I started romanticizing the whole thing, believing I really loved him,” Mackenzie said. “He told me we couldn’t be together unless I was Muslim. It got to the point that I realized I had to convert.”
Aadam changed the plan again and ultimately the couple decided that if they wanted to be together, Mackenzie would have to move to Kosovo.

“I was completely in love with Aadam, and I would do anything I could to be with him,” Mackenzie said. “At this point, I looked around and felt like I didn’t have my friends or my family anymore. I felt the need to go, as if it was my only option.”

Mackenzie’s mother, Stephanie Baldwin, recalls the sleepless nights that led up to her planned departure.

“After we found out, we went through many nights driving to her place of work to see if her car was still there,” Stephanie said. “We were afraid that she would have left. Every night before her curfew, we would be on pins and needles hoping and praying that she would walk through that door.”

Her entire personality became different and she turned down many events she had long looked forward to, such as scuba diving. Stephanie and John noticed her friends were not coming over as much and she was working more than ever. They tried anything they could to bring their daughter back.
“She always wanted to go to prom and go on dates, but all of the sudden she had no interest in that stuff anymore,” John said. “Her whole senior year was a mystery to us.”
Mackenzie felt as though she was obsessed with Aadam, claiming that when she spoke to him, she would feel complete for a short amount of time. When they did not talk, she grew anxious.

“If you wrote the situation down on a piece of paper it looked a lot like drug addiction,” Stephanie said. “She was pushing away from friends and family, her grades were failing and her personality had changed.”

Mackenzie’s foundation was eroded. She was a blank slate, coping by not showing any emotion whatsoever.

“He convinced me that my friends and family weren’t good for me,” Mackenzie said. “At this point, I changed my entire life for him. I made such a path of destruction.”
Mackenzie knew her actions were impacting those around her. She had convinced herself that her friends and family members would not want her to stay, and that leaving was her only option.

“It took me awhile to process what she was planning on doing,” John said. “In that time, I realized that I had been treating her as a rebellious high school senior, but that wasn’t what this was. In actuality, she was a victim to someone that was trying to manipulate and hurt her. It changed the way I looked at it. All our focus went to how we could help her.”

Now that they knew Mackenzie’s plan, they launched into action. They decided to keep it a secret, meeting secretly in their garage to strategize a way to somehow stop their daughter from this decision.

“As hard as it was to keep it a secret, we knew how much she was at risk and we absolutely could not afford to tell her we knew,” Stephanie said. “It was like going into a survival mode. We did what we had to do because we knew if we let our guard down, we might lose her.”

The anxious parents reached out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who began devising a way to save Mackenzie, but the time was ticking. Mackenzie was planning to leave in twenty-five days.

“When the FBI heard the story, they determined that she was with someone who was trying to take advantage of her,” John said. “We decided the best thing to do was to scare her into understanding she was in a lot of trouble.”
The FBI automatically ruled out her being exploited by ISIS, but they concluded that Aadam was taking advantage of her in some way.

“In a nutshell, she underestimated the risk she was taking by talking to him,” Stephanie said. “Once she started having feelings for him, she overestimated her ability to handle it.”

With the help of the FBI, John and Stephanie were able to save Mackenzie from fleeing to Kosovo. The hardships they endured for 14 months were over and they could be at ease for the first time in a long time.

“In the end, Mackenzie was able to realize on her own that she was in a dangerous place and that this guy was not in it for love,” John said. “Once she realized this, she blocked him on social media and walked away from it all. She wanted to go, so for her to come to that conclusion on her own was really important.”

After the investigation was over, the family was able to heal. Mackenzie stayed at home the first year after high school and the family began to grow close again.

“We were so fortunate that she is still here,” John said. “If you would have told me when I got that phone call that we would have been able to stop her, I would never have believed you.”

Months after, John and Mackenzie wrote a book about their experience. The book, Almost Gone, was published in November 2017, details both father and daughter’s point of view.

“I wanted to write a book to capture that moment,” John said. “I never wanted to forget what happened and how God helped us through it all.”

Though senior year may have been a bit of a blur, Mackenzie learned a lot about herself.   

“I have learned my value,” Mackenzie said. “I know now what my path is, and I would never change myself for anyone.”

Twenty-five days before Mackenzie’s planned departure, a couple of her friends came forward in an attempt to save her. They told their parents, who ultimately made the fateful call to John.

“If it wasn’t for my friends coming forward, I don’t think I would be here today,” Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie, now a junior at the University of Texas at Dallas, is studying to be a counselor, specifically for youth. She credits her experiences to catalyzing her career path.
“Throughout speaking, I realized the impact my story is having,” Mackenzie said. “There is a message that needs to be shared.”

Though Mackenzie felt she was empty and alone, her parents stress that she was loved unconditionally throughout the entire duration of her experience.

“Even though Mackenzie thought her friends, family and faith were gone, we were actually there the whole time,” John said. “She just didn’t believe we were all there for her. When youth face a crisis, a lot of times they feel isolated and they feel alone. This is not the case. There are people that love you. You are never alone.”

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