The Tragic Disappearance Of Nyleen Marshall

 The Committee for Missing Children reports that nearly half a million kids go missing each year in the U.S. Fortunately, nearly 98% of them are recovered. Teenage runaways, non-custodial parent kidnappings, and abductions by other relatives comprise the vast majority of children that vanish of which thankfully most are returned safely to their homes. 

But what about the ones that remain missing? Some are eventually found alive living with their abductors, like Elizabeth Smart. However, the more time that passes after a child is reported missing, the less the odds are that they will be recovered safely. 

Some families don't easily give up, with hopes that one day they'll get that knock at their door from a police officer who has their child safely in tow. Others might be resigned to one day getting a phone call that investigators have closed the case after having found their child's remains. It's a horrible reality for any parent to face, and the idea of at least getting some sort of closure isn't much solace.

But what is a family to think when several years after their child is abducted letters are received by authorities from the abductor who claims that their child is alive and well? That is precisely what happened in the case of Nyleen Marshall, an abduction that has continued to baffle investigators for nearly 40 years.

Nyleen Marshall disappeared on a picnic with her family

The day Nyleen Marshall disappeared, Crime Online reports that Marshall and her family were picnicking not far from their home in the Elkhorn Mountains in Montana. Marshall, 4, was playing with other children in the picnic area and began to follow them as they explored the area. Younger than her new playmates, Marshall fell behind. When she was last seen, she was sitting on one of the beaver dams near a creek (per The Charley Project). The date was June 25, 1983.

Noticing her missing, her family contacted authorities. A thorough search of the area was done, but it turned up nothing. The only possible clue was that a man in a jogging suit was reported in the area and he'd been near Marshall. But authorities could not identify him, and it's not certain whether or not he was her abductor. No one was certain if Marshall had been abducted at all. There was a possibility that she wandered off the path on her own and got hurt, yet no one could find her. 

Marshall's stepfather was questioned about her disappearance and was briefly considered a person of interest in the case. But he was soon cleared, leaving investigators scratching their heads. Was Marshall abducted by a stranger? Was she simply lost in the woods? Or had she perhaps fallen into the creek and drowned, being swept downstream and away from the search party?

Mysterious phone calls and letters

More than two years later, someone phoned the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and claimed that they had Marshall with them. The Charley Project reports that these calls were made in November 1985, and police were able to successfully trace them. Investigators determined that they were made from a payphone in the town of Edgerton, Wisconsin. But after they identified the source of the calls, they mysteriously stopped. 

But the phone calls weren't the last time the alleged abductor was heard from. In January 1986, investigators received two lengthy letters from whom they believed was also the person behind the phone calls. The Billings Gazette reported that the letter writer stated they were raising Marshall and that she now went by her middle name, Kay. 

Crime Online tells us that in his letter, the alleged abductor gave details about Marshall's case that wasn't available to the general public, giving credibility to the theory that they were responsible for her disappearance. The letters stated that the writer was independently wealthy, living off of investment income and a home-based job. He said "Kay" was loving and affectionate, that she was well taken care of, and that he loved her so much that he couldn't let her return home.

The writer claimed that "Kay" joined him on trips to many U.S. states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and even lived with him for a month in Great Britain. There were also some disturbing details in one letter that outlined forms of sexual abuse.

False hopes

The case went entirely cold for years after the letters stopped. A glimmer of hope for getting some closure occurred in 1991 when a man named Richard James Wilson turned himself into police in Livingston, Montana. Wilson claimed he had murdered Marshall and a woman from nearby Great Falls. Morbidology reports that while having a criminal history, Wilson was also suffering from mental illness. 

Doing their due diligence, investigators took Wilson to the area of the Elkhorns where he claimed to have buried Marshall. The search yielded no results, perhaps giving investigators reason to doubt Wilson's confession. While being questioned again, Wilson recanted the confession. He was released from police custody without charges. 

In the late 1990s, a woman who worked at a hospital in New Orleans contacted the FBI after seeing Marshall's case on a rerun of "Unsolved Mysteries." She reported that a man and woman came into the hospital two years before, attempting to get the woman admitted for the delivery of her baby. But the pair got noticeably uncomfortable when questioned about medical and family history and abruptly left. 

The FBI was able to track the woman down in Oklahoma, where she agreed to give a blood test to see if it matched Marhsall's father. She stated that she didn't know anything about her early childhood, but thought that her mother's first name was Norreen. Investigators awaited the results, hoping to get answers on this now cold case. When they arrived, it was conclusive that the woman was not related to Marshall's father. Another dead end.

The Marshall segment on "Unsolved Mysteries" had a bizarre twist ending

Crime Online reports that the popular show "Unsolved Mysteries" ran a segment on the Marshall disappearance in 1990. Using age progression software, viewers could see what she probably looked like at the age of 12, and how old she was when the show first aired.

A caller phoned in to the show after it aired, claiming that they believed that Marshall was one of his classmates at a school in Point Roberts, Washington. The L.A. Times reports that when police investigated the matter, they made an unexpected discovery. The young girl wasn't Marshall, as the caller suspected. Rather, she was Monica Bonilla, who was reported missing by her mother from their Burbank home in 1982. 

As details emerged, it was determined that Bonilla's biological (and non-custodial) father kidnapped the girl and the pair lived under assumed names up the Pacific coast. Told her mother was dead, Bonilla didn't question the false backstory her father established. Bonilla was returned safely to her mother.

The case today

The Charley Project reports that the Marshall case is still classified as a non-family abduction. Though it is possible that Marshall did wander off and succumb to the elements, investigators consider this highly unlikely. The long and thorough search they conducted with hundreds of volunteers yielded no results. Creek beds were investigated, mine shafts explored, and cadaver dogs brought in, none of which produced any leads in the case.

Sadly, the Marshall family was beset by another horrific tragedy in 1995. Nancy Marshall, Nyleen's mother, was sexually assaulted and strangled to death in a hotel room in Mexico City. It's said that to her dying day that she believed that her daughter was still alive and would one day be found (via Channel 3000 News). 

KXLH News reports that investigators have no solid leads in the case. One detective commented that he believed her to be alive, but that she probably has no idea who she is.