MONTANA – When you walk in to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, you walk past a three decade old mystery.
“My gut tells me she is deceased,” said a somber Jefferson County Sheriff Craig Doolittle.
Rewind to a sunny summer afternoon in 1983 when Nancy and Kim Marshall brought their children to a ham, or amateur, radio gathering with other enthusiasts in a meadow in the Elkhorn Mountains outside of Boulder, off Warm Springs Creek Road.
Saturday, June 25 – A date that would change the lives of many.
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It was a very nice afternoon for a picnic, until she went missing.
Four-year-old Nyleen Kay Marshall 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 explained, “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 and 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, even 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.
Searchers pushed into the night and, “It became even more intense because of the priority and the need to find this young child before dark,” explained DeCunzo.
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 blonde haired blue eyed 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.
Click below to listen to an interview with Tim Campbell, who was a sheriff’s deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office during the search for Nyleen Marshall.
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 tenth day, the search was called off.
With an icy tone of voice, 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 a defeated 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.
Derek VanLuchene worked on the case when he was with the Montana Division of Criminal Investigations in 1999 and 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 frustrations 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 boards 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 confidently.
“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 remains 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 interview extensively, at several different times,” explained 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.
Whenever I’d hunt or chase cattle in that part of the country, my eyes were always looking for yellow.
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:
Click here for an online exclusive interview with Ken Gardiner who describes a piece of information he found during the search.