It's been six and a half years since Barbara Bolick left her Corvallis home on a warm July morning and never returned, and her husband, Carl Bolick, still wakes up in the middle of the night wondering what happened to her.
"You're waking up out of a dream," Carl says. "And then you get this chilled feeling."
On a clear day, Carl, 72, can look through his kitchen windows to see the Bitterroot Range overlook where Barbara was last seen alive. On a recent afternoon, he sits with his back facing the view as he recalls the days immediately following his wife's disappearance, and the thoughts that still run through his head. He wonders what he's missing. He tries to pinpoint the one piece of the puzzle that no one, not the Ravalli County Sheriff's Office, nor private detectives, has found that could solve the mystery. "There's just nothing," Carl says. "That's what's so perplexing."
On July 18, 2007, Barbara set off early for a 2.6-mile trek up to the 7,000-foot elevation Bear Creek Overlook Trail with a family friend, Jim Ramaker, who was visiting from California. According to a statement Ramaker provided to police that was obtained by the Independent, Ramaker noticed Barbara missing at 11:35 that morning, after the two stopped for a snack.
"(I) turned to look at a distant peak off to the West for about a minute with my back to her," he said. "When I turned back to continue heading down, Barb was nowhere to be seen."
Ramaker reported Barbara missing to a U.S. Forest Service supervisor at 2:30 that afternoon.
In the week that followed, helicopters and Ravalli County Search and Rescue volunteers combed the hillsides. They found no sign of Barbara—not her clothes, nor the .357 Magnum that her husband, a former Air Force officer, insisted that she carry for protection when hiking in the area.
During those initial days after Barbara's disappearance, the Bolick home was a hub of activity. Law enforcement, friends and neighbors came and went. The phone rang. Media clamored for updates. "Then after about three weeks," Carl recalls, "it started slowing down. And then everybody just kind of fades off into the sunset, so to speak. And it just got very lonely."
Carl says he couldn't sleep and didn't eat. He lost 35 pounds that summer. He agonized over whether he could have been a better husband, if he had taken Barbara for granted.
"You say, 'Oh my God, why did I do that?" he says. "Why wasn't I more attentive?"
As of January 2013, the FBI listed 87,217 active missing person cases. The Montana Department of Justice is responsible for 129 of those, including the case of Barbara Bolick. For each name listed on the registry, there is at least one person like Carl, a loved one who is left behind to second-guess and ultimately wonder, "When is it time to stop looking?"
When she disappeared, Ellen Sloan was wearing a necklace with a heart-shaped pendant that said, "Mom." It was a Mother's Day gift from her children years earlier.
In the early 1990s, Sloan moved to Polson with her two children, Jake and Breeyan. A divorce left her with a financial settlement that she invested wisely in western Montana real estate. "I think she kind of had a knack for understanding what made sense," says her son, Jake Sloan, now 31, from his home in Denver.
Ellen Sloan's upbringing motivated her to attain financial success, her son says. "She came from almost nothing," Jake says. "I don't even believe that she graduated high school."
Jake was in seventh grade and his sister a freshman in high school when their mother moved them to Montana. Neither of the kids liked Polson, which prompted Breeyan to return to Colorado. Jake, however, stayed to look out for his mother.
"I just decided I couldn't leave my mom up there by herself," he says. "I always felt really protective of her."
Five years later, when Jake returned to Colorado to attend college, he remained close with his mother, speaking to her weekly on the phone. Ellen talked to her daughter, who had recently had a baby, almost daily.
When Jake returned to Colorado from a vacation in Mexico on April 24, 2005, his sister told him that she had been trying unsuccessfully to reach their mother for nearly a week. That, coupled with the fact that Ellen hadn't called Jake on his birthday the day before, alerted her children that something was wrong.
"It was always the first call I ever got on my birthday, was from my mom," Jake says.
The day after the Sloan children reported their mother missing, Jake drove from Colorado to the Flathead to find her himself. Upon his arrival, he found her boyfriend, William Gholson, then 45, living in his mother's home. Jake says Gholson had used his identity to take out several lines of credit and charge a new laptop computer. "It was ordered in my name," Jake says, "which I didn't order."
On April 28, law enforcement found Ellen Sloan's silver 2002 Toyota Tundra extended cab truck parked in the Barnes and Noble parking lot on North Reserve Street in Missoula. Inside the vehicle was a bag.
Jake says the bag contained clothes that seemed completely out of character for his mom. There were five pairs of socks and five shirts that he couldn't imagine his mother liking, alongside her driver's license and a graduation card for him. Jake was slated to graduate from college the first weekend in May.
"It seemed like somebody packed the bag for her," Jake says.
He started to grasp for answers. He hung missing person fliers in post offices across western Montana and hired a private investigator. Racking his brain, he looked for Ellen in places that, under normal circumstances, would seem bizarre, such as homeless shelters and mental hospitals.