Cold Case: What happened to Nyleen Marshall?

Posted at 4:57 PM, Feb 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-07 17:57:17-05

When you walk in to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, you walk past a mystery more than three decades old: what happened to Nyleen Kay Marshall?

“My gut tells me she is deceased,” said a somber Jefferson County Sheriff Craig Doolittle.

On a sunny June afternoon in 1983, Nancy and Kim Marshall brought their children to a ham radio gathering with other people in a meadow in the Elkhorn Mountains outside of Boulder, off Warm Springs Creek Road.

Four-year-old Nyleen vanished from the fields where she was catching frogs with other children.

“Since then, we have gone back to the area where she went missing,” Doolittle said.

But no trace of Marshall has been found, not even a scrap of clothing she wore that day.

Doolittle said, “We still have no solid leads.”

The area where Nyleen disappeared is full of dense forests, nestled between steep rocky cliffs and mine shafts.

Ralph DeCunzo, then with the Lewis & Clark County Search and Rescue, was one of the people who led the effort to try and locate the girl.

“For a long, long time, and even somewhat today, that search still haunts me,” recalled DeCunzo, 33 years after the initial search.

Hundreds of volunteers poured into the area, including members of the Mormon Church and even strangers to the Marshall family, all to find the barefoot girl dressed only in a yellow t-shirt and shorts.

“If she was barefoot, our thought was that she couldn’t have gone very far,” DeCunzo said.

Ken Gardiner was one of the volunteers who was out there, and to this day remembers the feeling of frantically trying to find Nyleen.

“I can actually kind of feel it right now,” Gardiner said with tears in his eyes. “I just got kids of my own.”

Gardiner allowed himself to remember the details of the efforts from him and the others, especially a search technique called grid searches.

“Stretch your hands out, so my arm out to your arm out to his arm. Grid searches. Huge areas, huge areas of grid searches,” Gardiner explained. Despite those efforts, “Nothing.”

Other tactics were used to try to find the girl; search dogs, divers to search the mine shafts and ponds, even a psychic and the FBI were brought in to help. But they all came back empty- handed.

“They brought in heavy equipment and actually drained the pond because they were convinced that she was in there,” remembered DeCunzo. “She wasn’t.”

Five days into the search the weather turned and so did the mood.

“I think after about day five, with the elements and the potential of dangerous critters out on the hillside, it kind of came into our minds that we may not have a successful end to this,” DeCunzo said.

But that realization didn’t stop the volunteers from looking, sun up to sun down.

“We show up one more time. Again and again. One more time,” said Gardiner. “Maybe today, maybe there’s something today. We weren’t quitters.”

After the 10th day, the search was called off. Gardiner recalled, “It’s the fourth of July, snow on the ground, hope is gone.”

“We did everything we thought we could do, but we weren’t successful,” said DeCunzo.

Calling off the search in 1983 didn’t close the book on the disappearance of Nyleen Marshall. It just ended that chapter.

“How could a little girl go missing with just no sign of here at all, just go missing off the face of the earth, basically?” wonders Derek VanLuchene.

VanLuchene worked on the case when he was with the Montana Division of Criminal Investigations in 1999 and now runs Ryan United, an organization he started after his brother Ryan was kidnapped and murdered in rural Montana, dedicated to helping communities and criminal justice organizations protect children.

But a fundamental question remains – was she abducted or did she simply get lost in the woods?

“That’s still the frustration to me that this little girl is still out there,” VanLuchene explained. “She’s not, whether deceased or alive, you know, she’s out there and not been found, and it’s something that no one has answers to at this point.”

In the years since Nyleen vanished the case took many bizarre turns; from anonymous letters claiming to be from an abductor in 1986, to Marshall’s mother, Nancy, being murdered in Mexico in 1995.

The case has become a favorite topic of internet sleuths on chat forums and websites.

“We kind of look at those too, just to see what’s out there, and we check the internet,” explained Doolittle.

People from all over the country continue to keep up with Nyleen’s case, take an interest in the latest developments, and try to give any help they can.

“I probably would say somewhere around two inquiries a month of somebody has seen something or somebody has heard something or somebody has a question or somebody will send something to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” Doolittle said. “It’s always out there.”

With little facts to go on, many people have come up with theories of their own.

“I think she was abducted and sold and will probably never know her real identity,” said DeCunzo.

“I think actually she’s alive,” said a hopeful Gardiner.

“I think someday maybe there’ll be an answer, but…it’s been a long time,” VanLuchene said hesitantly.

For the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, the case is still open. “It’s not something that we ever just put away,” Doolittle said.

Anyone in the area during the picnic in 1983, including family members, have been interviewed extensively, at least several times, according to Doolittle.

The Sheriff and a group of volunteers even went back to the site in the Elkhorns where Nyleen is believed to have disappeared.

“We ran cadaver dogs through there for body parts. We actually had some anthropologists from the college in Missoula that were out there with us,” said Doolittle. “We had an excavator that we dug up a lot of spots with.”

If Nyleen’s body was in the mountains above Boulder, after 33 years, “even the remains might have disappeared, even if there was something there, we might not have even found it,” Doolittle said discouragingly.

But some still have hope and have not stopped looking – and the search for Nyleen Marshall will not be over until the family has answers.

If  you have any information regarding her whereabouts, or any details about her disappearance, contact the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office at 406-225-4075.

Nyleen is just one of scores of missing people from Montana listed on the Missing Persons Clearinghouse website.

The Missing Children Act of 1985 established a Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse within the Department of Justice.

The clearinghouse is a real time, updated list compiled with information from the FBI.

“Clearinghouses are a network basically, between states. So if we have a case that crosses state lines, we can contact the clearinghouse manager in another state and we work together to try and locate the missing people,” explained Jennifer Viets of the Montana Department of Justice.

As information about a missing person is entered in the federal database, Montana’s missing persons list is updated, and varies daily.

According to Viets, “As soon as an agency enters a missing person record into the FBI missing persons’ file, some of that information is posted to the website.”

The TV show "Unsolved Mysteries" featured a segment on Nyleen’s disappearance: