17 High Profile Cases That Captivated Us During 2021

These compelling cases sparked national conversations around issues of justice, domestic violence, abuses of power and more.

December 06, 2021

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The most talked-about cases of the year

While this year brought unspeakable tragedy to some, it also brought justice for victims in some of the most notorious cases in recent history.

Jelani Day

The Illinois State University graduate student was reported missing on August 25. His car was discovered in Peru, Illinois, the following day, and the 25-year-old’s body was found in the Illinois River on Sept. 4. In mid-November, the LaSalle County Sheriff’s Department told ABC 7 in Chicago that Day’s phone had been recovered and sent to the FBI for analysis. Day’s family suspects foul play in the case.

Robert Durst

The New York City real estate heir was found guilty in September for the 2000 murder of his friend and confidant, Susan Berman. Durst reportedly killed Berman because he feared she was going to speak with investigators looking into the mysterious disappearance of his first wife, Kathie, in 1982. In October, he was indicted for Kathie’s murder after the Westchester County, New York, prosecutor’s office presented evidence to a grand jury.

Ghislaine Maxwell

The British socialist and assistant to financier Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in July 2020 for her role in allegedly recruiting and grooming teenage girls to be sexually assaulted by Epstein. Her trial began on November 29, and is expected to last for about six weeks. Maxwell is charged with enticing a minor to travel to engage in criminal sexual activity, transporting a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, conspiracy, and perjury, according to NPR.


A two-day music festival turned deadly when 10 people died during a crowd surge. Rapper Travis Scott organized and headlined the Houston festival, and he has been accused of encourging his audiences to defy security personnel in the past. Scott has promised to pay for the funerals of those who died at Astroworld, but the family of the youngest victim has publically declined his offer.

Gabby Petito

The nation was captivated when the 23-year-old went missing in August while on a cross country trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. Laundrie told authorities conflicting stories about what happened to Petito when he returned home to Florida without her on Sept. 1. He disappeared on Sept. 13. Petito’s body was found in Wyoming on Sept. 19 and her cause of death was homicide by strangulation. Laundrie’s body was found in a Florida nature preserve on October 20. His cause of death was suicide.

Britney Spears

The #freebritney movement came to a head this summer when the now 40-year-old pop star filed to end the conservatorship her father, Jamie Spears, first gained in 2008. In August, Jamie Spears was completely removed from overseeing the conservatorship, and the agreement allowing a CPA to control Britney Spears’ finances was terminated in November.

Alex Murdaugh

The prominent South Carolina attorney found himself in the spotlight after he found his wife and son dead in their Islandton, SC, home in June, but the story of what’s really going on in the low country just keeps getting deeper. As of mid-November, Murdaugh is now charged with a variety of financial crimes totaling nearly $5 million in allegedly ill-gained funds. Investigators are still looking into the deaths of five people who reportedly have connections to Murdaugh.

Kyle Rittenhouse

The teen who killed two men and wounded one more during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, 2020, was found not guilty after a jury deliberated for more than three days following his November trial. Rittenhouse, now 18, testified that he only fired his automatic-style weapon in self defense after the men charged at him. Rittenhouse testified he was at the protests to protect businesses from people protesting the Kenosha police shooting Jacob Blake in the back during a domestic violence call.

Henry Ruggs III

The former Los Angeles Raiders running back was reportedly drunk and speeding when his Corvette slammed into Tina Tintor’s Toyota RAV4 on November 2. Tintor and her dog died at the scene. Ruggs was charged with two counts of DUI causing death or substantial injury and two counts of reckless driving. He was released from jail on house arrest, though found himself in trouble with a judge in late November for a delay in taking a remote breath-alcohol test. Ruggs’ case is due in court for an evidence hearing in December.

John Wayne Gacy Victim Identified

The 28th victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy was identified in October using genetic genealogy. Francis Wayne Alexander, of North Carolina, was 21 when he went missing in 1976. His remains were among the bodies recovered from the crawl space of Gacy’s home in 1978. Genetic genealogy allowed investigators to match Alexander’s DNA to a second cousin. Collecting further DNA from the family allowed them to positively identify the victim.

Alec Baldwin

A cinematographer was killed and a director was injured after Alec Baldwin shot a prop gun on the set of the movie, Rust, in New Mexico in October. The prop gun was supposed to be loaded with dummy rounds, but instead contained live rounds. The investigation into what happened continues, but it appears that blank rounds and live rounds were mixed into the bullets used on set. It is unknown how or why live arounds were on set. In a December interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Baldwin said he didn’t have his finger on the trigger when the gun fired.

Elizabeth Holmes

The founder of the now-defunct Theranos medical technology company is still in the midst of a trial that began in early September. Holmes faces 12 charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Holmes claimed her blood testing technology needed only a small amount of blood to perform hundreds of tests. After raising millions of dollars from investors, an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal discovered that Theranos wasn’t even using its own technology to run the tests. The trial is slated to end in mid-December, according to the Washington Post.

Atlanta Spa Shootings

Eight people—most of whom were women of Asian descent—were killed in an Atlanta-area shooting spree in March. The gunman, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, pleaded guilty to four of the murders in Cherokee County, Georgia, in July. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possiblity of parole. The remaining four victims were killed in Fulton County, and the trial is set for April 2022.

R. Kelly

The R&B singer and songwriter who married a 15-year-old girl when he was 27 came under intense scrutiny when seven women came forward to describe their experiences with Kelly. Five of them were underage when they became sexually involved with Kelly. In September, a federal jury found Kelly guilty of racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child, kidnapping, bribery and sex trafficking. He is incarcerated pending a May 2022 sentencing hearing. He is also facing a separate August 2022 trial for charges relating to child sexual abuse material.

Faith Hedgepeth murder suspect arrested

Nine years after the UNC Chapel Hill student was found murdered in her apartment, a DNA match allowed authorities in North Carolina to arrest Miguel Enrique Olivares for her murder. Olivares was ordered held without bond, and prosecutors do not plan to seek the death penalty.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

A young Native American woman intent on highlighting issues surrounding murdered and missing indigenous women is herself still missing. Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, part of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, has been missing for four years. She disappeared without a trace after a party and is just one of the thousands of native women who have been murdered or are missing. There are growing grassroots efforts to shed light on the lack of attention and lack of resources afforded in cases of missing indigenous women.

The Murder of Ahmaud Arbery

The 2020 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery sparked outrage when three white men chased and killed Arbery, who is black, because they suspected him of burgling homes in the neighborhood. Arbery was jogging through the neighborhood when father-son duo Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael began tailing him in their pickup. They were joined by a neighbor, Roddie Bryan, who followed in his own vehicle. All three men were found guilty of Arbery’s murder in late November. A sentencing hearing is pending.