When someone disappears, their loved ones are left with nothing but questions, including the most brutal: When is it time to stop looking?

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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."

click to enlarge Ellen Sloan
  • Ellen Sloan

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.

click to enlarge Carl Bolick stands in his backyard and points to the part of the Bitterroot Range where his wife was last seen. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Carl Bolick stands in his backyard and points to the part of the Bitterroot Range where his wife was last seen.

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."

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