Mystery lingers around woman's disappearance

2007-12-23T00:00:00Z Mystery lingers around woman's disappearanceBy PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian missoulian.com
December 23, 2007 12:00 am  • 

CORVALLIS - From his kitchen table, Carl Bolick can look across the Bitterroot Valley to the place his wife vanished off the face of the earth last summer.

Barbara Bolick was only supposed to have been gone a few hours on July 18.

Instead, her hiking partner said the experienced hiker disappeared in less than a minute as he took one last look at the scenic view.

The view was what brought Barbara back time after time to this place.

Carl's wife of 14 years was an energetic hostess who loved showing visitors the scenery from Bear Creek Overlook. On this morning, she'd volunteered to take Jim Ramaker - a friend of her husband's cousin from California - for the relatively easy hike up to the overlook in the Bitterroot Mountains.

"Anytime anyone came to visit, she'd always take them up there," Carl said, staring out the window toward the cloud-shrouded mountains. "The view up there is absolutely spectacular, just breathtaking."

Carl's cousin was feeling the effects of one too many frozen drinks the night before and decided not to go that morning. Carl was still sleeping when Barbara came and told him she and Ramaker were going hiking to the overlook.

The last thing he told her was not to worry about dinner. He'd take care of it.

"I'll see you a little later," she said softly as she walked out the door.

It was somewhere between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

Carl spent the morning working on a carpentry project. When noon rolled around, his cousin started getting a little antsy about the fact Barbara and Jim hadn't returned.

"I wasn't concerned a bit," Carl remembered.

His wife was an avid hiker. She kept herself fit by running, riding and taking long walks into the mountains. And, as an added bit of insurance, Carl knew she had the .357 Magnum pistol he'd bought her packed away in her daypack.

"I always used to kid about packing that gun away," he said. "If she met up with a mountain lion or a bear, she wasn't going to have time to dig around and find that pistol. She was only about 5 feet tall and slight in build. She only weighed about 115 pounds."

Still, Carl was sure his wife could take care of herself. She'd never venture far off the trail. And she didn't like heights. He knew she'd not get too close to the edge of any precipice.

By 1:30, Carl's cousin was getting scared. He told her to calm down. Maybe they'd had a flat tire. An hour later and she was really upset.

"She told me I needed to call somebody," Carl said. "About that time, the phone rang. It was a Forest Service law enforcement officer. She asked me if my wife's name was Barbara and I instantly thought something terrible had happened."

Barbara's been reported missing, the officer said.

"I said to her, 'No way,' " he remembered.

Carl told the officer he'd meet her at the trailhead.

In the back of his mind as he began the 20-mile drive to the Bear Creek Overlook trailhead, Carl was certain his wife would be there waiting for him.

"I just couldn't accept it," he said. "I just knew that she was going to show up one way or another, but it didn't happen. It still hasn't happened."

He's still waiting for her to return.

"This whole case challenges our life experience," said Perry Johnson, lead investigator on the Barbara Bolick case for the Ravalli County Sheriff's Department. "Whenever we go hiking, we expect that we'll return to our vehicle with our hiking partners. We think nothing about it. That's just the way it is."

Only this time it wasn't.

On this morning, the road leading up the trailhead was blocked something less than a mile down the hill so a Forest Service crew could replace a culvert.

By the time the crew arrived this day, there was already a pair of vehicles parked at the road closure sign: Ramaker's vehicle and a light-colored older SUV that could have been a Chevrolet Blazer with Missoula County license plates.

The Forest Service crew was busy digging up the roadway when a pair of young men in their early 20s came strolling into the work site. One of the men was considerably darker skinned than the other.

"They were well-tanned, average fit young guys," Johnson said. "They walked right through the construction site. Š They stopped and talked for a bit."

The crew remembered the black collie-like dog with white markings that enjoyed a few moments in the creek. The morning was already turning hot.

The men walked off, seemingly without a care.

Somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour later, Ramaker walked into the site and asked the crew if they'd seen Barbara. One of the road crew walked with him back to the vehicle to see if she was there.

Ramaker walked back up to the overlook one more time.

When he returned about an hour and a half later, he told the crew he needed help. He couldn't find Barbara anywhere.

Ramaker told investigators later that he and Barbara stopped at the overlook and had a snack. They'd seen the two young men and said something like, "How are you doing?"

The pair then enjoyed the mountain views for maybe a half-hour or 40 minutes before deciding to head back down the hill. Ramaker said Barbara was only about 20 or 30 feet away when he turned to take one more look at the scenery.

It was a short look - maybe 45 seconds, maybe a minute.

When he turned around, Barbara was gone.

It was the last time he saw her, he'd tell investigators later.

"This is really a tough one for me," Johnson said. "It's outside of my scope of experience. I haven't been able to find anyone else who's had a similar experience. We're talking about a minute and then you look back and she's gone."

The area isn't tightly timbered, and there is a lot of loose shale rock around it.

"It's hard to creep quietly across that loose shale rock," Johnson said. "You'd make some noise. Just the fact that someone simply disappears like that is a cause for concern.

"I just don't have that life experience," he said. "How could that possibly happen?"

Johnson believes the key to the case lies in identifying the two young men who were hiking the trail that day.

He assumes they were local guys because of the Missoula license plates and the fact they were hiking on a Wednesday morning. The family of Barbara Bolick has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to their identification.

"I don't suspect them of doing anything wrong," Johnson said. "I don't think they were even in the wrong place at the wrong time."

What the men can do is confirm that Barbara Bolick was there that morning.

"Right now, I don't have a witness to confirm or conflict with the information we've gathered so far," he said. "These guys are the key to the whole thing."

Johnson has been surprised that no one has stepped forward to help identify the pair.

"This is the first time that we've had a $10,000 reward offered to help us locate a witness," he said. "The person who helps us locate them will get $10,000."

As of now, Barbara Bolick's case remains a mystery.

Right after her disappearance, the sheriff's department deployed search teams, brought in highly trained dogs and even called in high-tech infrared helicopters to scour the area.

Johnson said they never found a thing.

Ramaker has returned to California, but continues to cooperate in the investigation, Johnson said.

"He's been cooperative and returned all of our calls," Johnson said. "He's stayed in contact with us. Until something else happens - we find Barbara or find her body, I think he's just a witness.

"I want to be fair to Jim Ramaker," Johnson said. "There's no evidence he did anything to Barbara."

Meanwhile, Johnson said Barbara's family and friends can only wait and hope.

"I think these kinds of cases are just devastating to families," Johnson said. "There's no closure. Every day they are looking for something, some kind of answer."

It's going on five months since Barbara disappeared and the phone calls to Carl's home are more infrequent now.

The couple met when Carl was still an Air Force officer working on an air base in New Jersey. They decided later to move to Montana, but Barbara really didn't take to the wind and cold of his hometown in Dillon.

The first time he saw the Bitterroot was with her. She fell in love with the place and they eventually bought some land near Darby. Later they settled on a home near Corvallis.

"We used to hike a bit together before I had my heart attack and couldn't go anymore," Carl said. "I think she hiked every canyon here. She knew them all pretty well."

It's hard for Carl to fathom that she disappeared on the trail that was her favorite.

"There are a lot of theories bandied about," he said.

Some think foul play was involved. Others have wondered if a mountain man spotted in the area might have played a part. Still others have asked Carl if he thought maybe his wife had just walked away.

In his mind, Carl is sure she didn't just leave.

She wouldn't have left without her beloved dog that had adopted her at a gun show. Nor would she leave her cat. All of her childhood keepsakes were still at the house. Her billfold, identification, and passport were all still there.

But mostly, Carl believes she wouldn't have done that to her family and friends.

"Over the last five months, no one has heard anything from her," he said. "I'm not the only one agonizing over this. Her family, my son, my daughter, my mother, our friends. It's been hard on a lot of people."

Barbara was 55 when she disappeared. She would have turned 56 on Aug. 25.

People don't want to talk about it as much.

"It's to the point that people don't want to bring it up any more," he said. "It's too emotional. … The only answer that I have right now is that I just don't know. I don't know what happened to her.

"None of it makes any sense," he said, staring out the window toward the Bitterroot Mountains. "None of it makes any sense. She was only 20 feet away. That's not that far."

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