Mystery Trail

Date Published 02.27.08
Monday, January 7 was an unseasonably warm day in Chesterton, Indiana. The rise in temperature brought people outside, particularly to the Prairie-Duneland Trail, a roughly 3 mile walking and biking trail that was converted from an abandoned railroad.

In the late afternoon a man walking his dog along the trail noticed a young woman exit her car in the parking lot. She was dressed casually in a black fleece jacket and tennis shoes. She began walking the trail. She was alone.

Later, the dog walker observed the young woman again; this time she was in her car, sitting in the driver’s seat. She was still alone.

Prairie-Duneland Trail

Soon it began to get dark, and the weather turned bad. By 6:00 p.m. a storm had rolled in --- according to one local resident, it was the worst thunder and lightning storm she’d ever seen. The rain continued all the next day, which is probably why no one noticed the lone car, seemingly abandoned, left in the trail parking lot.

On Wednesday, the rain let up. Adjacent to the trail is the Brassie Golf Club, a semi-private 18-hole course. It was shortly after 1:00 p.m. when a member of the grounds crew, looking for flags and balls, glimpsed a black fleece jacket in some brush at the base of an electrical tower.

The young woman reportedly lay face down. She was fully clothed, but when investigators searched her pockets for clues to her identity, they found no driver's license or I.D.

The maroon 1997 Oldsmobile left in the trail parking lot provided investigators with a name: Rylan Cotter.

Rylan Cotter

They learned Rylan, 20, was a junior at Michigan State University. Her death presented an obvious mystery: how did she die, and why?

Porter County Coroner Viki Deppe answered the first question. Rylan died of massive blunt force trauma to the chest and abdomen, injuries consistent with a variety of scenarios, such as car accidents, being struck by a fast-moving object, or falling from a high distance. Deppe estimated Rylan was dead for about 24 to 36 hours before her body was discovered.

That’s where the solid facts end. Investigators initially assumed they would find a reasonable explanation for why Rylan was in Chesterton; they hoped that background information would allow them to classify the case as either a homicide, a suicide, or an accident.

But no one close to Rylan knows or can explain why she traveled 175 miles to a small town she had no connection to, or how she ended up dead on the edge of a golf course.

"This does not make sense in any direction," wrote one local resident on a crime message board.

Google Earth Map of area where Rylan's body was found

Rylan grew up in Mason, Michigan, a small town 15 miles south of Lansing.

“Rylan is one of my true best friends,” wrote Sheena Chadwell in an email interview with True Crime Diary. Chadwell, a University of Missouri student, met Rylan in kindergarten and the two girls became close. “I say is and not was because she is still with me just not in physical form.”

In high school Rylan, the daughter of an art teacher, took part in band and school plays. Friends recall an irreverent sense of humor and original style.

“She never tried to be anyone else,” Chadwell said, echoing others.

But most of all, friends recall Rylan’s unselfishness. She was known as a reliable friend who would help others through break-ups or hard times. Her compassionate nature grew in perspective when she attended MSU and decided to study international relations with a focus on African politics; she planned to go to South Africa next year and intern at the Mandela Peace Center.

“Rylan always talked about making the world a better place,” Chadwell said.

A reflective person, Rylan was known to write frequently in her journal, but friends say it would be unusual for her to drive such a far distance just to clear her head. What drew her to Chesterton baffles them.

What Happened?

Chesterton detectives have pieced together some details of Rylan’s last days. They know that she left her East Lansing apartment around 2 a.m. on January 7, the same day classes were to begin at MSU after winter break. She drove to Benton Harbor and checked into a motel about 90 minutes later. She was alone. She checked out at 11:30 a.m. and was possibly seen next by employees at a local tourist’s bureau north of Chesterton.

Surveillance video shows her visiting an unnamed Chesterton business at 12:44 p.m. The next confirmed sighting is by the dog walker at Prairie-Duneland Trail in the late afternoon.

The coroner’s calculations put the likely time of death on Monday night, which would correlate with the fact that Rylan was found in the same clothes she was last seen in Monday afternoon; that her car was parked in the same spot; and that the golf club was closed Tuesday due to flooding, which explains why no one found her earlier.

What happened to her? Why was she in the area? Here are several possible scenarios:

She committed suicide by climbing the electrical tower and jumping.

No one who knows Rylan well believes she was suicidal. They describe her as upbeat and her usual self. And while suicidal people are not in the most stable frames of mind, why drive to an unknown town and climb an electrical tower during a thunderstorm in order to kill yourself? A local source says there was another tower closer to Rylan’s car that would have made more sense to climb. This source also inspected the tower near where Rylan’s body was found and said Rylan “would have to be extremely tall and incredibly strong” to climb it.

If she did climb the tower, but slipped rather than jumped, she may have been taking part in some kind of geo-caching game or scavenger hunt. A social network for pranksters has an entry about climbing electric towers and signing one’s name at the top.

She was meeting up with someone and the encounter turned violent.

There are contradictory and vague reports that Rylan was planning on either picking up a friend or friends in Chicago, or going to visit them. Chesterton is a well-known stop between Chicago and Michigan, and could have been a meeting point. The South Shore Line, a commuter train system, operates between Chicago and northwest Indiana, with a stop in Chesterton.

Chesterton Detective Lt. David Cincoski gave some support to the homicide theory when he said that something suspicious was found at the scene. Cincoski declined to be more specific. Interestingly, interviews with Coroner Deppe have focused on advanced toxicology reports she ordered and is waiting on; it’s possible the suspicious piece of evidence is a bottle of liquor or pills, though friends maintain that would be out of character for Rylan.

A planned meet-up should leave a record of some sort, such as emails, IM’s, or cell phone calls, so the fact that police are still stumped makes the existence of such a meeting less likely. However, it might be that Rylan stopped in Chesterton and crossed paths with someone by chance.

She was the victim of a hit-and-run.

It was rainy that evening. Dense woods in the area make the roads difficult to drive even on clear nights. A Google search of "Prairie-Duneland Trail" and "Chesteron" brings up articles about collisions on the trail. One article describes a head-on collision between bicyclists. A particularly tricky S-curve played a part in the accident.

A second article proves even more intriguing. Almost exactly a year before Rylan’s death, a young man in an all-terrain vehicle assaulted Chesterton Park Superintendent Bruce Mathias on the trail. Mathias was walking his dog around 4:30 p.m. when he advised three young men in ATVs that they were on restricted grounds and needed to leave. The men agreed to leave, but while driving away one of them swerved into Mathias and knocked him to the ground.

A local source says ATVs are often in the area illegally, and are known to frequent the field by the edge of the golf course where Rylan’s body was found.

Rylan Cotter

Right now, until more information is known, no one scenario makes perfect sense. A blank puzzle obscures the last hours of a life that was, by all accounts, full of light and high spirits.

“Rylan always made the room glow,” her friend Sheena Chadwell wrote to True Crime Diary, “and whenever I was upset, she always made things better for me.”

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
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@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.