A small army of volunteers searched the square mile surrounding Ann Marie Kelley’s home a few days after she disappeared on April 15, 2008.
The rural Filley woman had taken off once before, leaving for a night before returning home in the morning, but this time she hadn't come back.
The last anyone heard from the 37-year-old was earlier that day, when she keyed in to her job at Southeast Community College in Beatrice, and later called her boss about an issue with one of her kids at school.
The final text message sent from her phone was a simple "What's up?" to her husband, William.
After that, Ann Marie and the dark gray 1991 Plymouth Voyager minivan with wood paneling she was last seen driving in Beatrice vanished.
Her family learned she was missing when Head Start called to say no one showed up to pick up the Kelleys' youngest child, or two others from St. Paul's Lutheran School.
That night, William called Ann Marie's sister, Rhonda Rickers, asking what he should do. William later called Beatrice police at 7:30 p.m. to report his wife missing, and the sheriff’s office responded.
“At first, it was just a missing persons case,” said Randy Ritnour, who was county attorney until 2011 and who spearheaded much of the early effort to find Ann Marie.
Law enforcement focused on finding the boxy minivan -- the kind that would stick out in 2008 -- and distributed Ann Marie’s driver’s license photo.
The hope was if someone spotted the vehicle Ann Marie wouldn’t be far away, said Sheriff Millard "Gus" Gustafson.
Neither turned up, despite a deluge of tips from all corners of the state and beyond, including one describing a woman resembling Ann Marie driving a van in Wyoming.
It was a coincidence, Ritnour said. Investigators traveled to Wyoming, where they met a woman named Anne Kelly driving an early 1990s minivan.
But it was not the Ann Marie Kelley they were looking for.
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The investigation shifted back to the Kelley house.
A search of the property turned up drugs, Ritnour said, and an angry William Kelley sped home to confront law enforcement, more upset with the direction of the investigation than the fact his wife was missing.
Unbeknownst to William, he was becoming a suspect.
The summer before, according to former coworkers interviewed by deputies, William had talked about killing his wife and bragged that he knew several bodies of water in the area “deep enough that he could get a vehicle into it and that no one would be able to find.”
But the coworkers had brushed aside his comments at the time. They knew him to be a hothead who often argued with his wife over money troubles.
With a new direction to search, Nebraska State Patrol divers waded into farm ponds, sand pits and limestone quarries dotting Gage County to look for vehicles. The sheriff’s office bought a sonar device to scan the muddy bottoms for a minivan.
Nothing tied to the case has been found.
Investigators pried into phone records to look for clues to Ann Marie's disappearance. Court records show William reported finding a note, as well as Ann Marie’s cellphone, on a pillow in the couple’s bedroom at around 12:30 a.m. on April 16, 2008.
The search of the house, however, also led deputies to discover Kelley had been trading drugs and alcohol with a teenage girl for sex.
Deputies arrested William Kelley, charging him with child abuse, drug possession, providing false information on a handgun application and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
A little more than a year after his wife disappeared, William Kelley was sentenced to 16 years in the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution by Judge Daniel E. Bryan Jr.
He is scheduled for a parole hearing later this month, court records show.
At a post-sentencing hearing, Kelley requested Gage County return several items taken from his property: VCR tapes, a fishing boat and pictures.
Bryan asked Ritnour if there was any reason to deny the request.
“We believe she might be dead,” Ritnour told the court. “So we need to keep the evidence.”
Bryan sided with Gage County, in whose hands the evidence remains, although Kelley has never been charged in Ann Marie’s disappearance.
His alibi: Kelley was with his employer from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Lincoln on April 15, 2008, and didn’t return to Gage County until around 5 p.m.
The last message from Ann Marie's phone was sent around 12:30 that afternoon.
The case remains an active homicide investigation, Gage County Attorney Roger Harris said, and the sheriff’s office as well as the State Patrol are still looking into leads and combing over old evidence.
“We’ll treat it as a homicide until they show it differently," Harris said.
Missing persons cases -- like homicides -- are treated carefully by law enforcement, although cases involving adults can often be tricky, particularly when time has passed, he said.
“We’re going to stay on top of it and continue to search for an answer,” the county attorney said. “Sometimes it comes from the dangdest places, but it’s difficult for the family when you start wanting to have closure.”
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The day William was arrested, Rickers went to bring three of Ann Marie's kids home to the house she shares with her husband, Dale.
“I was informed they were going to be at the house, they were going to put them into foster care, so I went to pick them up,” Rickers said. “We thought Ann would be coming home soon.”
She never has. Nor has she withdrawn money from her bank account, nor made any attempt to contact her children, now teenagers growing up in the Rickers’ home.
The family has reached closure, in some sense, even as questions about Ann Marie persist.
The contents of the note left on Ann Marie’s pillow remain a mystery, as do other details about the house that night. Some cellphones tied to the case were also destroyed as the investigation widened beyond a missing persons case, Ritnour said.
Rickers asked deputies if Ann Marie’s glasses or contacts were left at the home. Ann Marie couldn’t see without them, she told investigators, and it would be unlikely she would leave them behind if she left on her own.
But answers -- there have been three lead investigators from Gage County on the case over the past eight years -- have been hard to come by.
The three younger Kelley kids living with Rickers still wonder about their mother.
The youngest for a time believed his mother was at the bottom of the ocean after being attacked by whales. The older kids voiced theories that Ann Marie fled to Mexico in that dark gray 1991 Plymouth Voyager minivan with wood paneling to escape the husband she feared.
Once, the kids wanted to retrieve old family videos from the rural Filley home, to remember what their mother’s voice sounded like and to see her in motion, but pornography had been recorded over all the tapes, Rickers said.
It’s never easy to talk about, and while the kids have moved on to make friends and make the honor roll, a missing mother and a father in prison are never far from their minds, Rickers said.
In those conversations, Rickers often finds a common refrain: “We’re not in control and we don’t know why this happened.”
“Our faith, at least for me and my husband, and we’re trying to instill that into them, is the comfort we have,” she said. “We honestly believe she’s in God’s arms.”
Through a supportive family and others, Rickers said, the family has been pushing through.
“Prayer, that’s the biggest thing. The power of prayer," she said.
Fliers showing Ann Marie and her minivan are still posted around Beatrice, and the sheriff’s department is still investigating leads as they come in.
A few years ago, Gustafson said, the department even asked a nationally known psychic to look into Ann Marie's disappearance. “It is what it is,” he said at the time. “We’re trying everything.”
There is an active warrant for Ann Marie’s arrest tied to the drugs found in the home, although officers say it’s in hopes that if she does cross law enforcement’s path, she’ll become a blip on the radar once more.
If her remains are ever found, the DNA will be compared to samples taken from her children.
Rickers said she hopes someone who knows something about her sister’s disappearance will come forward, although she believes the one who knows most about it sits in a Nebraska prison.
Ritnour, the former prosecutor, said what he thinks happened to Ann Marie and what he can prove “are two different things.”
“I think she was killed and we just don’t know where the body is,” he said.
“Just in Gage County alone, there’s a lot of woolly country out there, and there’s a lot of open space,” he added. “If something has happened to Ann Marie Kelley, unless somebody just happened to cross it, that might be the only way you find her out there.”