Who Killed Kelly Nolan?

Date Published 07.22.07
Murder stories follow a similar narrative: a series of small events, some seemingly inconsequential at the time, lead to violent death. In the story of Kelly Nolan’s murder, the first event that would change the course of her life, the moment if you were watching a movie you’d say, “No, don’t do it,” happened at 11:30 p.m. on June 22. That’s when Kelly told her three girl friends that she wanted to stay at the State Street bars in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, a while longer. The friends wanted to go home, though, so they said good-bye to Kelly and parted ways with her. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.

Kelly Nolan

By all accounts, a solo nightlife adventure wasn’t out of character for Kelly. She’s been described as ” extremely social,” “free-spirited,” and “laid back.” At 22, she’d already experienced some bumps in the road - the recent death of her father, a couple of drunk-driving convictions. But she was on track to finish her senior year at UW-Whitewater in the fall.

Madison was where she wanted to be for the summer, so she rented an efficiency apartment and was interviewing for part-time jobs. She was likely familiar with Madison because she grew up in Waunakee, a small town about fifteen miles north.

Kelly’s story picks up a few hours later at the Lava Lounge, another popular bar. That’s where an acquaintance, known only as Andrew, says he offered to help Kelly walk home to her apartment, about 3 blocks away. Whether or not Kelly was too intoxicated to walk herself home is unclear. It was 2 a.m., and the bars were closing. People flooded the streets. At some point Kelly and Andrew crossed paths with another man, who claimed he knew Kelly and would take her from there. According to Andrew, he left Kelly with the other man.

That's where the story stops, until July 9, when cell phone pings from Kelly's phone led investigators to a town ten miles south of Madison. There's a horse stable nearby. Cell phone technology allowed investigators to focus on a densely wooded property owned by an elderly woman. They found Kelly's body about 25 feet from the road.

Lava Lounge

Police changed the case from missing person to homicide, but have remained tight-lipped about the crime scene. Reports suggest that they believe Andrew’s story, and consider him a witness and not a suspect. Early in the investigation they showed a sketch to bar employees - it was described as “simple,” and showed a man with round glasses and a goatee. The sketch was never released. Police were aware of Andrew at the time; a sketch of him would have been more detailed. The sketch was likely that of the unknown man who claimed he knew Kelly and left with her. Andrew may have provided only a simple description because it was dark, or he was drunk, or he didn’t take a good enough look at the man. The encounter wouldn’t have seemed important to him at the time.

Kelly’s murder remains an active homicide investigation, and Madison police say they’re pursuing numerous leads, though no suspects currently exist.

I wondered if sifting through the available evidence and using common sense could help narrow the suspect pool.

1) No one reported witnessing an abduction or struggle that night. While it’s unclear how intoxicated Kelly was, we can assume whomever she was with didn’t raise huge red flags, either for her or people walking by. Together they didn’t stand out in a crowd. She was either familiar with him, as he claimed, or he was a peer who seemed acceptable enough on the surface. Given the time and location, State Street around 2 a.m., he was likely around college age, as someone much older than that would be remembered.

2) The suspect must have had a vehicle to transport Kelly from downtown to the small town of Dunn, ten miles away, where her body was found. Use of a car suggests a functioning adult - this wasn’t a person living on the street, for instance, or a severely mentally ill person living in a group home.

The car is also a key clue for another reason. Greta Van Susteren on her show On the Record with Greta Van Susteren reports that police sources say Kelly was dragged 25 feet into the woods and that “another crime happened there.”

So we know the suspect didn’t kill Kelly in Madison and use his car to drive and dispose of her body. He took her on a drive. It’s unlikely someone with a home base in Madison would bother to do that; why not just take her back to his place? He wanted to be alone with her, and the only place available was his car.

The car and the subsequent drive suggest someone who needed transportation to get into Madison that night. That would mean he lives in one of the outlying towns, not downtown, where many young people live. That eliminates a lot of suspects right there.

It may be that the suspect is college age but not a UW-Madison student. And whatever he does for work, it likely isn’t in Madison.

3) Reports indicate Kelly was killed where her body was found. The killer wouldn’t risk taking her to an area unfamiliar to him - too many unknown factors and chances at discovery. He must know this place. He lives or works nearby. Further support for the local angle is the fact that Kelly was found on the property of an elderly woman, 86, who lives alone. She was unlikely to be up, or hear anything. Who would know that? Neighbors, or people who have done work for her.

4) Most people Kelly’s age have MySpace pages. I did a search on MySpace for young men around Kelly’s age who live five miles or less from where she was found. Most seemed harmless. Still, I kept circling back to one guy. He was one of the only ones not to have a picture of himself in his profile. In an effort to protect his privacy, I’ll keep details general and say that the picture was of an inanimate object. He seems to value these objects a lot, as most of his other pictures were of them, too. There was something about the fact that he chose to highlight inanimate objects rather than human beings that made me look closer at him.

He does outdoor work for a living in the town where Kelly’s body was found. He lives less than a mile from the crime scene. From the information provided on his MySpace page it appears that he’s lived in the area most of his life, except for a short duration when he worked in another small Wisconsin town: Waunakee.

Waunakee, you’ll remember, is Kelly Nolan’s hometown.

I should point out that there’s nothing obviously menacing about this guy. His quotes and tastes reveal a fascination with and immaturity about women, but what small-town, 21-year-old guy’s wouldn’t? I debated calling his name into the tip line. It’s probably nothing, but so much fits - the age, the familiarity with the area, the possible connection to Kelly. I finally decided to do it after I took a closer look at one of the few pictures he’s provided of himself. He’s got round glasses and a goatee, like the sketch generated early in the investigation. It may be nothing, but it's worth a try.

Every murder story contains a body, and, if the victim’s family is lucky, a degree of justice. Kelly Nolan's story is unfinished, but it's not over. Someone knows what happened in the woods on Schneider Road. My guess is that the answer will be found very close by.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.