Nyleen Kay Marshall was a four-year-old girl living in Warm Springs Creek near Alhambra in Montana with her parents, Kim and Nancy Marshall, and her two siblings. On the 25th of June, 1983, the young family were attending a picnic for the Capital City Radio Club which her father was a member of. The picnic was being held in the picturesque Elkhorn Mountains in the Helena National Forest near Helena, Montana.
Nyleen was barefoot and wearing shorts and a t-shirt while playing with two other children near beaver dams on Maupin Creek. The group of children were also playing around the remains of an old cabin. As the two other children walked ahead of Nyleen, she seemingly vanished without a trace. When they turned around, she was gone. At the time of her disappearance, Nyleen had brown hair and blue eyes. She also had a chipped baby tooth. As for any identifying features, she had a small mole above her left eyebrow and dimples on both cheeks.
Nyleen’s disappearance sparked the most massive search ever conducted in the area for a missing person. Early on in the search, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office requested help from the Lewis and Clark Search and Rescue teams. The search party was assisted by helicopters with heat-sensing devices, divers and hundreds of volunteers who combed through the area. A trained search dog named Duke and his handler were also called in to assist in the search. Duke’s strong point was in finding missing persons and he had successfully located 37 lost persons during his career as a search dog.
As Duke picked up a scent, he followed it for just a short distance before losing it. Searchers combed creek bottoms, mountain ridges, and mine shafts. They drained beaver dams and crawled through the undergrowth on their hands and knees. The terrain was rugged and the forest was dense. As a result, the search wasn’t an easy task. The already sombre mood declined even further when a downpour of rain hit the area, hindering the search and potentially washing away any evidence that could indicate what happened to Nyleen.
While it was initially believed that Nyleen could have quite simply wandered off and got lost, within days of her disappearance, it was suspected that Nyleen had likely been abducted. As searchers were still searching the woods several days after the disappearance, a child came forward and said that a strange man had stepped out from behind a tree a few feet from Nyleen just moments before she vanished.1
The following day, another child came forward and gave the same account. The man was said to be dressed in a jogging suit and had apparently spoken to the two children and Nyleen for a brief moment. One child said they ignored him and continued to walk while the other one said they became afraid and ran away. Nyleen, however, was left standing with the man and moments later, she and the man were gone. One child told police that he heard Nyleen say that she “had to follow the shadow.”
Investigators – and Nyleen’s family – thought the story the two children both gave was credible as neither one had spoken to each other following the disappearance meaning they wouldn’t have been able to come up such a similar story if it weren’t true. Moreover, investigators said that the account fit with other tips they had received from people in the area at the time of the disappearance. By the time police started to investigate Nyleen’s disappearance as an abduction, thousands of feet had trampled through the woods and trampled across potential evidence.
There were a number of leads early on in the investigation. A composite sketch of the suspicious man was drawn up. It was said that the sketch eerily resembled a man who was wanted for child molesting and grand larceny in other states. In fact, the sketch resembled several unsavoury characters wanted for various crimes including: a man wanted in connection with a child pornography ring and a man wanted in connection with another abduction and murder of a child.
Shortly after the publication of the composite sketch, a photograph of a girl resembling Nyleen was discovered in an apartment where a suspect in the disappearance had been staying. The girl in the photograph appeared to have been beaten. However, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ruled the girl in the photograph out as being Nyleen. None of the other leads panned out, either.
Over the forthcoming weeks and months, Nyleen’s face was plastered on billboards and milk cartons across the country. In addition, thousands of fliers containing a photograph of Nyleen along with her description were distributed in department stores and shopping areas. Coming from a tight-knit family, Nyleen’s siblings found it particularly difficult to adapt to life without their sister. “Mom, my heart feels like it wants to cry,” said her 6-year-old brother, Nathan, around a month after Nyleen disappeared.
Nancy later recalled one afternoon that she looked outside the kitchen window and saw Nathan pushing an empty swing before letting his arms drop to the side with a sad expression on his face. She said that afterwards, he walked over to Nyleen’s tricycle, lightly touched the seat, and then walked back into the house. “I really miss Nyleen,” he told his mother. “I really love her and I want to play with her. Do you think we’ll ever find her?” Nyleen’s other sibling, Noreen, was only 22-months-old when her sister vanished. Nancy said that when Nyleen disappeared, Noreen couldn’t sleep or eat. Before Nyleen vanished, the two sisters loved to play with their dolls together in their bedroom. However, Noreen refused to play with a doll for over a year after the disappearance.
The case went cold until 1985 when a phone call was placed to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children from an unidentified man in Madison, Wisconsin, who claimed he abducted Nyleen. Shortly afterwards, a letter was sent to law enforcement in Madison, Wisconsin, from somebody claiming he had kidnapped “a girl named Kay.”
The letter included details about Nyleen’s abduction that weren’t made public. The author of the letter claimed the girl was still alive and was being home-schooled. He said she was safe and that he wasn’t molesting her. He also claimed that he had been raising Nyleen as his own child and that she often accompanied him on his frequent travels across the country and to Europe and nobody had ever recognised her. The typewritten letter was postmarked in Madison, Wisconsin.2 Child Find of America also received a very similar letter.
Around the same time, Nyleen’s parents received phone calls from public phone booths in Madison, Wisconsin, presumably from the same man. “There were about three calls placed from Madison,” said special agent Kent Miller of the Madison FBI office.3 The last correspondence came in June of 1986 when the man sent a letter to Nancy and Kim. Again, it came from Madison, Wisconsin.
The letter to Nyleen’s parents read in part:
I picked “KAY” up on the road in the Elkhorn Park area between Helena and Boulder. She was crying and frightened and as I held her she was shaking and I decided that I would keep her and love her. I took her home with me.
I have a nice investment income and I can work at home so I care for her myself all the time. I teach her at home and she likes to go with me when I travel. She would gladly recount to you trips to San Francisco, New York, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Nashville, Chicago, Puerto Rico and Canada. We were even in Britain for a month last year and she loved it. Nobody questions passports.
Her hair is short and curly now and she has really grown. She is about 45 inches and around 50 pounds. She has all four of her permanent upper and two of her lower incisors at this time. She takes a bath and brushes her teeth every day.
I give her medicine from the bathroom every morning. It is actually a spoonful of my semen. It doesn’t affect her physically. I have NEVER “molested” her in any other way.
She is a sweet little girl and it is because of how much I have grown to love her that I realize how much her family must miss her. But she has adjusted and seems happy. She trusts me and isn’t afraid. We play [sic] alot and she laughs when we clown around. She smiles and acts coy when I tease her. She giggles when we snuggle and hugs me sometimes for no apparent reason. I love her and I have her. I just can’t let her go.4
Following these phone calls and letters, investigators speculated that the kidnapper may have travelled through Madison, potentially as a salesman or truck driver. The letters and phone calls came sporadically. There was also speculation that after abducting Nyleen, the kidnapper linked up with a female accomplice. “When you eliminate the request for ransom, if money is not a motive, it must be to have a child of your own,” said special agent Neil Purtell.
In 1990, an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” focused on the disappearance of Nyleen. Following the airing, a tip came in from a young viewer who said that one of his classmates looked similar to Nyleen. Upon following up on the lead, investigators were astounded to discover that the tipster’s classmate was actually Monica Bonilla, another missing child who had been abducted by her biological father, Guillermo, almost eight years prior. Bonilla was from the Los Angeles area but was found alive and well in British Columbia. While Nancy and Kim were obviously disappointed that the girl wasn’t their daughter, they were pleased that the tip led to the recovery of another abducted girl. “We were just tickled… and so was her mother Nancy Marshall, that at least some good came of it,” said an operator for the show.5
In August of 1991, there was another break in the case when Richard James Wilson handed himself into Livingston police and confessed to killing Nyleen and a woman from Great Falls. Wilson, who had a history of mental illness, had been on probation since a 1984 conviction in Lewis and Clark County for sexual assault against a minor.
Following his confession, he gave investigators directions to where he had buried the unidentified woman but they were unsuccessful in locating any remains. Investigators also took him to Elkhorn Mountains and asked him to take them to where he had allegedly disposed of Nyleen. Again, this attempt to uncover a body was unfruitful. “Based on the information he has given us, it behoves us to follow through and determine the validity of what Mr. Wilson had to say,” said one investigator.6 Following his confessions, Wilson recanted them and he was subsequently released as there was not sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime.
Seven years later, there was a glimmer of hope that Nyleen had been found alive and well. A nurse at a New Orleans hospital contacted police after watching a re-run of “Unsolved Mysteries” to inform them of a strange incident that happened two years previously. The nurse told them that a woman named Helena and an unidentified man had come into the hospital to try and admit her for childbirth.
However, when the hospital staff started to ask them questions about their identities and medical history, the couple started acting very peculiar and quickly left the hospital. After providing the FBI with information about Helena, she was tracked down in Oklahoma City and agreed to have blood drawn and compared to Nyleen’s father. Helena said she remembered very little about her childhood but thought that her mother may have been called Nyleen. Unfortunately she was ruled out as being Nyleen.
To this day, nobody still knows what truly happened to Nyleen. Did she get lost or was she abducted? All evidence points towards the latter. The unidentified jogger spotted talking to Nyleen moments before she vanished was never identified and neither was the anonymous letter writer and caller. Many speculate that these two are the same person. Tragically, Nancy Marshall was raped and murdered while in Mexico in 1995; she went to the grave not knowing the fate of her daughter.
- The Independent-Record, 28 July, 1985 – “Hope: A Golden Thread”
- Independent Record, 31 March, 2017 – “Nyleen Kay Marshall”
- Wisconsin State Journal, 20 August, 1991 – “Kidnapper, Victim, Once in Madison”
- Unsolved Mysteries – Season 3, Episode 10
- The Independent-Record, 7 February, 1991 – “Nyleen Marhsall TV Episode Locates a Missing Girl”
- The Independent-Record, 15 August, 1991 – “Remains”