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.
Jake even surmised that his mom could have entered the witness protection program. Complicating Ellen's disappearance was the fact that on March 3, 2005, federal prosecutors indicted Ellen on four counts of tax fraud. The government alleged that Ellen lied on her tax returns, telling the Internal Revenue Service that she had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but instead hid her money in an international tax-shelter scheme called Anderson's Ark. In the years surrounding Ellen's disappearance, Anderson's Ark's principals were found guilty of various federal crimes.
Jake also explored the idea that someone associated with Anderson's Ark harmed her. He refused to believe that she would have walked away on her own. She left her passport behind. There was $128,000 in cash in her Whitefish bank account. He figured these were items someone would take if they were going to disappear. If she did just walk away, he adds, "I don't think that I could ever reconcile with her."
In his desperate search for clues, Jake kept coming back to Gholson as the prime suspect in his mother's disappearance. He pleaded with the Lake County Sheriff's Office to scrutinize his mom's boyfriend as a suspect. In October 2004, Lake County had charged Gholson with felony incest for sexually assaulting his stepdaughter multiple times while she was between the ages of 12 and 18. Ellen Sloan had posted bail for him.
"It was really difficult to get any level of cooperation from (Lake County law enforcement)," Jake says. "When they found her truck up in Missoula, I said, 'Well, what do you guys do with the truck now?' They suggested that I drive it home so it didn't get towed. They didn't want to look at fingerprints, or the position of the seat, or anything like that. They weren't interested in any of that."
Lake County detective Kim Leibenguth was initially assigned to the Ellen Sloan case. She says that while law enforcement at first did suspect that the woman fled to avoid prosecution, now they're not so sure.
"At first that was true," Leibenguth says. "Since there's been no passport (use), no activity on any of her accounts, those types of things, just kind of makes us wonder, you know, maybe she didn't disappear (of her own volition)."
Prior to his hearing on the incest charge, Gholson jumped bail and left the state. Leibenguth says that Lake County never interviewed Gholson about Ellen Sloan's disappearance. "He took off," she says.
As soon as Barbara Bolick set foot in the Bitterroot Valley, she fell in love with her surroundings. "She said, 'This is the place I want to be,'" Carl Bolick recalls.
In 2001, the couple moved to Corvallis after Carl retired from JP Morgan Chase, where he worked for 17 years, most recently as the assistant director of the firm's worldwide security operations. Barbara, a natural athlete at 5 feet, 115 pounds, quickly got acquainted with the local hiking trails.
Barbara's fitness—she ran nearly every day—and the fact that she carried a revolver fueled Carl's disbelief when the Forest Service called to say that she was missing. "You know what I said, I said, 'B.S.,'" Carl says. "I thought that if anybody was lost, it would have been her hiking companion."
Ramaker, who was dating Carl's cousin, Donna Biles, and visiting with her from California, said that he searched the trail repeatedly after Barbara vanished, even blowing a whistle to draw her attention. He said that he saw two young men hiking near the overlook that day. They were never identified.
By 5 p.m. on the day that Barbara disappeared, law enforcement initiated its own search. Carl arrived to the trailhead that afternoon and remained until midnight. "There was no Barbara," Carl says. "They couldn't find hide nor hair of her."
That morning Barbara left with only the clothes she wore—khaki shorts and a pastel blouse. Her new passport, a driver's license and $55 in cash remained at home in Corvallis.
Carl theorized that an animal could have taken her, but searchers found no signs of predators. He wondered if someone could have abducted her, but law enforcement nixed that idea. "I went on the theory for a while," Carl says, "that maybe she could have been kidnapped by some backcountry recluse."
The authorities briefly looked to Carl as a person if interest. "At one point (a Ravalli County investigator) says, 'Well, you know darn well what happened,'" Carl recalls. "It kind of ticked me off. And I says, 'All I know is she went hiking on that Wednesday morning and she didn't come back.'"
Then, as now, there were more questions than answers, says Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman, who helped orchestrate the search. In the Bitterroot Valley, made up of a handful of small communities, such an event unnerves everyone, even the investigators who worked the case, he says. "I would say that (law enforcement) who worked closest with Carl during that time grieved with Carl and the rest of his family," he says.
Hoffman, who's served in law enforcement for 30 years and is finishing his third four-year term as sheriff, says that the strange circumstances surrounding Barbara's disappearance make the case stand out. "It's something that I don't think we go a week without thinking about," he says. "We don't like mysteries. We like cold facts. And we want to get to the bottom of it."
Ravalli County hasn't ruled out any scenario, Hoffman says. Barbara could have decided to leave, or maybe she fell and hurt herself, and somehow the search and rescue effort failed to find her. The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness sprawls across some 2,000 square miles. It would be impossible to search the entire terrain. "If you don't feel about that big in that country," Hoffman says, making a pinching sign with his fingers, "then you're not seeing it for what it is."
As for Ramaker, Hoffman says that while he was initially a "person of interest," the department "for the most part ruled him out."
A few days after Barbara disappeared, Ramaker and Biles returned to California, as they had planned to do prior to the incident.
Carl says he doesn't want to speculate about Ramaker's status as a person of interest. He does say, however, that he wishes that the Ravalli County Sheriff's Department took Ramaker up on his offer to submit a polygraph test prior to leaving the Bitterroot. "I think that they could have done more with him early on," Carl says, "before he had the opportunity to get in touch with a lawyer."
Carl notes that for three weeks after Barbara went missing, Biles called to see if there were new developments. When Biles suggested to another family member that Barbara could have killed herself, Carl could no longer stomach maintaining ties with his cousin and her boyfriend.
"It kind of just, you know, broke up the family relationship," he says.
Of course Barbara was happy, Carl says. She was learning to pilot a plane and had recently taken up skiing. The couple travelled frequently and was scheduled that fall to go on a cruise through the Mexican Rivera.
When contacted by the Independent, Biles, who still lives in California, quickly asks if there was any news to report about Barbara. While she has nothing to say about her relationship with her cousin, she does express frustration about the lack of closure in Barbara's disappearance. As for Ramaker, he reiterates what he told law enforcement: "I've never laid a hand on Barbara," he says. "I never harmed her in any way."
Ramaker adds that he empathizes with the Bolick family's loss. He, too, wishes that he knew where Barbara went. After all, it's not easy being labeled "a person of interest" in a missing person investigation.
"I've had a cloud over my head since 2007," Ramaker says.
If anyone understands what Carl Bolick, Jake Sloan and other friends and family members of missing persons are going through, it's Monica Caison. Known as "the searcher," Caison founded the nonprofit Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons in 1994 to help find those who have disappeared and support their families during the search. Her North Carolina-based nonprofit and its network of unpaid volunteers has helped more than 9,000 families during "what is often the most confusing and desperate times of their lives," with Caison personally involved much of the time. The CUE Center hotline rings directly to her cellphone.
"I don't really consider it a business," Caison says. "I consider it a calling."
Since starting CUE, Caison has seen all types of cases, from successful searches to faked disappearances. Those cases that remain unresolved, like Barbara Bolick's and Ellen Sloan's, can take a heavy toll on loved ones. Caison says second-guessing among family and friends is completely normal. They often feel confused, desperate, stuck and unable to move on.
"A missing person's family is thrown into this hurricane, if you will, with no tools, no guidance and not even a flashlight," Caison says.
CUE's goal is to provide the tools and emotional support otherwise lacking. The nonprofit specializes in free search and recovery services, and acts as a counselor of last resort for the loved ones of people with unknown whereabouts. Caison says she has roughly 10,000 volunteers from across the nation who attend CUE-facilitated courses on search and rescue tactics and investigatory skills. The organization accepts between 800 and 1,500 cold cases annually, with some dating back to the 1980s. Most recently, Caison says she had a crew in Blanca, Colo., searching wooded areas for a man named Casey Berry, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances on Valentine's Day in 2007.
Caison estimates that nearly half of her organization's membership is composed of people who have lost a loved one through circumstances such as homicide, kidnapping or to the unknown. Those personal connections to loss help make CUE members uniquely equipped to provide support and guidance. Many of them also understand all too well how it feels when law enforcement calls to report that they have a lead or that remains have been found. Often, those calls are followed by another one explaining that the lead didn't pan out or the remains were not a match.
"Every time a body is found it's like a punch in the gut, because they want it to be theirs, but they don't," Caison says. "It just jump-starts all of the pain and anguish all over again."
In the years since Ellen Sloan went missing, the only time Jake Sloan ever felt hopeful that he had found her was when law enforcement called to report that they'd discovered human remains that could be her, as was the case in 2007.
Maybe if her body turned up, Jake says, Lake County would be able to compile sufficient evidence for a prosecution. "No one wants to get that phone call that says, 'Hey, we've located the body. We ran DNA tests on it, it's your mom,'" he says. "No one wants to hear that. But it would be such a relief just to have a little bit more closure."
Lake County Detective Kim Leibenguth says that she too would like closure. After investigating Sloan's 2005 disappearance, Leibenguth left her detective position for five years to work as a school resource officer. One year ago, she returned. Leibenguth says that she's now following up on the Sloan case. In 2006, Gholson was arrested in Knoxville, Tenn., and returned to Montana. That same year, he was found guilty of incest and sentenced to 10 years in Montana Department of Corrections custody. He's currently incarcerated at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.
As the years go on, Jake says that it gets easier for him to talk about his mother. The discussion, however, almost always makes new acquaintances uncomfortable.
"It's always a very challenging conversation to have with people, when you meet someone, and they just happen to ask you, 'Is your mom still in Montana?' To tell that story, it's a lot different than, 'Well, my mom is no longer around,' to just say that she's missing."
Jake is cautious not to downplay the grief that accompanies death. "But losing someone to an unknown is even more tormenting," he says. "Like, 'When do you stop looking?' Am I doing enough? Am I upset enough? Am I doing all of the right things? Have I exhausted every effort?"
Losing someone to an unknown reshapes the way one interacts with the people they care about. Carl says that losing Barbara leads him to value now more than ever his personal relationships. Two years ago, he packed up Barbara's belongings, donating many of them to local charities. In March 2013, he met a woman from Post Falls, Idaho, on an online dating website. The two married in November and she moved into the Corvallis home. As part of Carl Bolick's effort to make a fresh start with his new wife, Sharon, they're remodeling the house.
On a recent blustery day, he looks toward the empty spaces awaiting new appliances not far from newly installed hickory flooring in the living room and says that he's ready to let go of Barbara.
"You just resign yourself to the fact after a while, she's gone. And she's not coming back," Bolick says. "At least, I don't think she is."