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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."