Carmen Keibler’s dream always begins the same way. She and her younger sister, Nicole Waller, are playing in the backyard as children. It moves on to their weddings and the births of their children. And then the phone rings and Keibler wakes up crying again.
The phone call that changed Keibler and her family forever came on Feb. 18, 2013, four days after her sister’s maroon 1999 Ford Expedition was abandoned along U.S. Highway 2 near Poplar, northwest of Sidney. State and federal law enforcement almost immediately suspected foul play, but the ongoing investigation has revealed few details about what may have happened.
In November, the Montana Department of Justice announced that it believed Waller, 31, had been murdered, but one year after her disappearance a body has still not been found.
“I’m exhausted and I’m angry,” Keibler, 34, said last week from her home in Columbia Falls.
“I’m tired of not having answers.”
Waller was a “social butterfly” who loved her family and animals, according to her sister. She was born in the Flathead Valley in 1981 but moved to Alaska when she was young. In the late 1990s, the family returned to Kalispell, and soon after Waller’s parents got a divorce. In 2002, Waller married and she eventually had three children. For a while, Waller worked as a certified nursing assistant and later as a cashier.
In 2008, doctors discovered that Waller had a pseudotumor in her brain. A shunt, which helps drain internal blockages, was later put in, but following the operation, she was unable to work and spent most of her time taking care of her children. In 2011, she and her husband filed for divorce, but friends and family say the two remained close.
In late 2011 or early 2012, Waller began dating a man in Fairview, on the Montana–North Dakota border, who she had met in Kalispell. She began making the nine-hour drive across the state to spend time with him and considered moving there. She had already stored some of her belongings in the town of 840 people.
Friends and family said the relationship seemed typical, though her sister also pointed out that Waller kept her personal matters private following her divorce. But in early 2013, Waller was reportedly having second thoughts about moving to eastern Montana. She thought it had become dangerous due to the influx of workers because of the nearby Bakken oil boom, according to her mother, Alexis Kelly Armer.
In early February 2013, Waller had again driven to visit her boyfriend. A few days later, on the morning of Feb. 14, she called a friend to let him know she was returning to Kalispell. What happened next is unknown. Seventy miles northwest of Fairview, just outside of Poplar, Waller’s SUV was found abandoned on the side of U.S. Highway 2. When a Montana Highway Patrol trooper found the vehicle, the keys were still in the ignition and doors locked. All of Waller’s belongings, including her children’s pet guinea pigs, were found untouched.
When Waller failed to return home, friends alerted authorities. But her family didn’t find out about the disappearance until Feb. 18. Keibler, the younger sister, said she first heard about the situation from Waller’s caretaker — a personal assistant to aid Waller with household chores, including lifting, while she was still recovering from the operation. Keibler said she thought the call was a joke until someone from the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office called.
That afternoon, a sheriff’s deputy and a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent came to Keibler’s house near Columbia Falls and interviewed the family and collected photos of Waller. Keibler and her mother spent the rest of the afternoon calling every police station and hospital from Kalispell to North Dakota in hopes of gleaning information about Waller’s whereabouts. There was no sign of her.
As the days turned into weeks and weeks to months, the family’s hope that Waller would be found alive dimmed.
Armer, Waller’s mother, said there were days when she simply could not get out of bed. She hasn’t gone to work since learning her daughter was missing. A month after Waller’s disappearance, Armer began seeing a therapist to deal with depression. She has since begun taking medications for sleep deprivation.
“She was my baby and she’s not here anymore,” Armer said, crying last week. “I don’t know why I can’t be happy. Maybe it’s because I don’t think I deserve happiness after this.”
A few months after Waller disappeared, her ex-husband and three children, ages 9, 11 and 13, moved to Dillon. Armer said she has been unable to bring herself to talk to her three grandchildren over the last year.
“I know that the moment I hear their voices I’ll just start crying and they don’t need any more sorrow in their lives,” Armer said. “What am I going to say to these children?”
In June the family emptied Waller’s house in Kalispell and while Keibler had hoped the experience would provide closure, it presented more heartache. Armer said the same thought kept arising: what if Waller comes home and we gave all of her things away? In the end, most of the items were donated to Goodwill.
In November, Waller’s cold case was transferred from the FBI to the Montana Department of Justice and Mark Hilyard, who has been involved with the investigation since the beginning. Soon after, state investigators announced that they believed Waller was murdered.
Keibler, who said it was the toughest call she has ever made, broke the news to her mother.
“I cried all day,” Armer said. “I cried and cried and cried until I didn’t have a tear left. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. I mean, who wants to believe that their child has been murdered?”
Hilyard, with the Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, said he suspected foul play as soon as he started reviewing the evidence a year ago. The case evidence suggests that whoever killed Waller was probably not from Poplar or the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, he said, but declined to elaborate on specifics. When asked if the Department of Justice had any suspects in Waller’s disappearance, he responded, “It’s still under investigation.”
Authorities interviewed Waller’s boyfriend after she went missing, but family members say they do not believe he had anything to do with the disappearance.
Waller’s case has led some, including her own family, to make comparisons to the murder of Sherry Arnold, a 43-year-old schoolteacher in Sidney who was attacked by two men while on a morning jog in 2012. Crime in eastern Montana and North Dakota has skyrocketed in recent years, due in part to the region’s sudden economic draw because of the oil boom. In Roosevelt County, which includes Poplar, crime is up 855 percent since 2005.
While there are still more questions, Hilyard is confident that Waller’s case will eventually be solved.
“Every case is solvable, it’s just a matter of having the right skills and having a little bit of luck,” he said. “I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about these cases because I have families out there looking for answers.”
Keibler said she would continue to pester investigators. She’s also taken an active role on social media getting the word out about her missing sister. A Facebook page called “Find Nicole Waller” was founded by a family friend and now has more than 2,600 followers.
Keibler said her husband can tell when she is stressed because she begins rubbing a necklace Waller gave her just weeks before she went missing. On the back of the small metal butterfly medallion the word “sisters” is engraved – although one year later, fingers have tarnished the gold coating.
Armer said not knowing what happened to her daughter is the hardest part of losing her. The family has not held a memorial service because they worry if they do before the body is found, they will have to go through the same painful event twice. She said her depression worsened as the anniversary approached.
“It’s something I think I can get a handle on, but I can’t, I keep failing,” she said. “It’s like I’m crawling up a hill and I can see the sunlight, but then something happens and I just roll down into the darkness again.”