In 1996, a Grand Forks teen vanished without a trace. 25 years later, her family still hopes for clues
A retired Grand Forks detective said Kristi Nikle's case disturbs him because the 19-year-old developmentally disabled woman seemed to vanish into thin air.
GRAND FORKS -- When Mike Nikle didn't hear from his daughter the night of Oct. 3, 1996, he knew immediately that something was wrong.
Nineteen-year-old Kristi Nikle was well-known and well-liked around town -- the bubbly, sociable 19-year-old had lots of friends, and frequently wandered from place to place downtown on her own. She had a developmental disability, and her family said she had the mental abilities of a 10-year-old, but she was also known for being very street smart, capable and independent, and it wasn't uncommon for her family to go a few days without seeing her.
Without fail though, she always called, Mike said.
"She always told me where she was going to be," he said. "I mean, if she was going to spend the night or something, she'd call me right away. When I was at work she would call me and say, 'Hey, I'm going to be doing this, or I'm going to be doing that.' She always let me know what she was going to be doing."
The last time her family saw her, she was planning to go to bingo with a friend, Mike recalled, something she did frequently. He heard later that she won $500 that night.
No one seems to know what happened next.
Kristi is what police would consider her a "high-risk" victim due to her extremely trusting personality. She never imagined anyone would mean her any harm, said her brother, Lonnie Nikle.
"If you offered her like, a piece of candy to get in someone's car, she would go," he said. "She would do anything, if you asked her to do something. She would be gone. No questions asked. I mean, people would take advantage of her just to get things that she has, like a jacket, or anything. You could offer her a cigarette, and she'd take it."
Retired Grand Forks Police Detective Mike Sholes, who took over the Kristi Nikle case a few years after she was first reported missing and was the lead investigator until his retirement in 2009, said the 25-year-old cold case disturbs him because Nikle seems to have vanished into thin air.
"I've been gone for a decade now," he said. "But once it's in your blood, it's always there."
The day after her family last heard from Kristi, they attempted to file a missing person report with the Grand Forks Police Department, Mike Nikle recalled. However, because Kristi was an adult, police advised the family to wait 72 hours before making a report.
So her family and many friends mobilized their own search. Mike recalled driving to all Kristi's known hangouts, like the bingo hall, and the Grand Forks Listen Drop In Center -- but there was no sign of her. She was formally reported missing a week after her family last reported hearing from her, on Oct. 10, 1996.
"They could have done more investigation, but they didn't. If they'd have taken that report that night, I could see something happening, but, you know, within 24 hours -- I mean, you could be anywhere in 24 hours."
- Mike Nikle, father
Sholes has long believed that if someone took Kristi, she likely went with them willingly.
"A lot of times, it's not what you see, but it's what you don't see," he said. "You know, what is it? What are we seeing here? Well, what's missing? Because there was no crime scene, there was no event, there was no police call of somebody screaming, or a disturbance call where this person was involved in or reported threats or anything. It's, she's here today, and then she vanishes."
Sholes estimates that there's about a weeklong timeframe when Nikle might have disappeared, give or take a few days. After her disappearance, many people reported seeing her around town, but most -- if not all -- of these sightings were likely false, Sholes said.
For years, no suspects or leads were uncovered, Sholes said.
The investigation left Kristi's family deeply frustrated with law enforcement.
"They could have done more investigation, but they didn't," Mike Nikle said. "If they'd have taken that report that night, I could see something happening, but, you know, within 24 hours -- I mean, you could be anywhere in 24 hours."
A break in the case
After years without progress on the Kristi Nikle case, Sholes got a call from a tipster in 1998 asking if police had looked into Floyd Tapson as a possible suspect.
Tapson, originally from Hannah, N.D., a town north of Devils Lake on the Canadian border, had recently been sentenced to life in prison for the aggravated assault and attempted murder of a 22-year-old developmentally disabled woman in Montana.
According to archival Herald coverage, Tapson pleaded guilty to kidnapping the Montana woman, shooting her twice and leaving her to die along a roadside outside Billings. A rape charge was also dropped from the case as part of his plea agreement.
"Everything here is conjecture, but these circumstances are powerful. Keep in mind, he's also a suspect in a Moorhead, Minn., case where basically everything is the same, we just changed the name. And guess who happened to be working there at the time?"
- Retired Grand Forks Police Detective Mike Sholes
He seemed to move around somewhat frequently, but tended to work in group homes that provided services to the developmentally disabled, including in Grand Forks. Although he was working in Montana at the time of Kristi's disappearance, he came back to visit the area frequently, and police can place him in the area around October 1996.
The Grand Forks Police Department wasn't the only law enforcement agency with their eyes on Tapson for old, unsolved crimes. Police in Moorhead, Wadena, Minnesota, and Baltimore also explored Tapson as a person of interest for the disappearances or suspicious deaths of young, developmentally disabled women around the time he was known to be in the areas.
"Everything here is conjecture, but these circumstances are powerful," Sholes said. "Keep in mind, he's also a suspect in a Moorhead, Minn., case where basically everything is the same, we just changed the name. And guess who happened to be working there at the time?"
Because Tapson was a former employee of a Grand Forks group home Kristi was frequenting at the time, it was possible -- even likely -- that he and Kristi knew each other, Mike said.
The first time Sholes met Tapson in prison, he was surprised by what he found.
"He wasn't what I expected," he said. "I figured he would be more of a tougher kind of a fellow, but he was just a real polite, timid individual. You know, you stereotype someone that's going to take someone to a ravine, shoot them in the face, let them roll down the hill, and go look for them to finish them off, and you don't think that person would be a timid, polite, kind person. And so, when I first met him, it kind of set me back, and I thought, 'Boy, you don't fit the stereotypical profile of someone that would do this.'"
Tapson cooperated with police, although he denied any involvement in Kristi's case, Sholes recalled. Sholes returned to speak with Tapson in prison several times, and it became increasingly clear that his story was inconsistent, and he was telling police easily-debunked lies, Sholes said. While he declined to go into detail, citing the ongoing investigation, he added that a polygraph test did not eliminate Tapson as a suspect.
Tapson's pleasant demeanor never wavered, but eventually he complained to police that he had answered all their questions and done what they had asked of him, and they clearly still considered him a suspect. Sholes said that was when he realized they likely weren't going to get anything else out of Tapson. Sholes didn't visit him again.
No new leads
Afterward, the case essentially fell dormant again, Sholes said, until 2004, when a father and son pulled off to the side of a Montana highway for a bathroom break and discovered human remains instead. The woman's remains were found among bones and debris, as if she had been pushed down the ravine and left there, Sholes recalled, and forensic analysis suggested the woman had a developmental disability of some kind. He also noted that this body was found near the area where Tapson had left his known victim.
For a brief period of time, hopes were high that they'd finally found Kristi -- but a DNA test showed the remains weren't a match for the missing Grand Forks woman. To his knowledge, Sholes said the body was never identified.
It's unclear where the investigation stands today. Grand Forks Police Lt. Jeremy Moe, the current lead investigator on the case, declined to discuss details of the investigation due to its ongoing nature, other than that there has been a renewed push to revisit local cold cases since he stepped into his new role as the commander of the criminal investigations unit earlier this year.
It's possible police have made strides in the case since Sholes left the department a decade ago, but the Nikle family say they haven't heard from police in months. To Sholes' knowledge, Tapson was the only person who was ever developed as a person of interest.
Does he believe Tapson did it?
"I wasn't there -- but I would say that the circumstances would indicate that he did," Sholes said. "And I would also say that nobody else has surfaced. There isn't any significant circumstantial, physical, or anything else right now, and so that's going against him. But to come right out and say he did it? I don't know for sure. I'm assuming he did. But that's basically an assumption. That isn't 100%. And even with a confession, you've still got to prove it. So to say with absolute certainty, there's no way I can say that."
"There's so many things, we just don't know what to believe and what not to believe. It's just hard to say. We really don't know."
- Lonnie Nikle, brother
Lonnie and Mike are less confident. Mike said he's at a loss for what to think about what might have happened to his daughter.
He said shortly before her disappearance, Kristi turned two neighbors into police for a drug deal. She always hated drugs, Mike said, and after she disappeared, he always wondered if someone had acted in some kind of retaliation.
Lonnie said he's still holding out hope that Kristi is out there somewhere with a family of her own, and just doesn't want to be bothered.
"There's so many things, we just don't know what to believe and what not to believe," her brother said. "It's just hard to say. We really don't know."
Although years are continuing to pass, Sholes emphasized that these cases may be cold, but they're certainly not forgotten. Even in his retirement, he said he continues to periodically check news sites to see if any new information about Kristi's disappearance has been released. He's still optimistic that one day, Nikle's family will learn what happened to their daughter.
"Conscience plays a role," Sholes said. "In fact, conscience plays a bigger role as you age. And so, something could surface. People sometimes see something and they don't want to get involved, and then after some time, they decide they'd better say something. This case isn't over. It's just got some lag time right now."