MORRIS, Minn. - Nathaniel Williams left Morris in late September 2004. His friends and family never saw him again.
When the remains of Jacob Wetterling were found in September, 27 years after Wetterling was abducted, local law enforcement and Williams' friends couldn't help but be reminded about Williams and wonder yet again what might have happened to him all those years ago.
Williams, a University of Minnesota Morris student, was last seen in Morris on Sept. 28, 2004. Williams told friends he was going on a fishing and hunting trip in northern Minnesota. He was reported as missing nine days later.
Although Williams' pickup was found on a back road near Kawishiwi Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota, no other signs of Williams were found after extensive searches. His case is unsolved. The case is listed on the Morris Police Department's website.
"It's still cold but it's still open," Jason Reed, an investigator with the Stevens County Sheriff's Office, said. "My fear is that I will retire some day and I won't have been able to tell his parents, 'This is what happened.'"
Although missing persons cases have been solved years after the disappearance, "The odds are stacked against us," Reed said.
The odds are stacked because searches and the investigation turned up scant evidence. The investigation focused on Lake County in northern Minnesota. A wooded county full of lakes, bogs and trees.
Lake County has terrain that friends said Williams' friends said he would have been comfortable in Lake county's terrain, but it also terrain that is not forgiving if someone is lost, hurt or meets the wrong person.
When a missing person is discovered or when remains of a missing or kidnapped person are found, it triggers thoughts of Williams, law enforcement and friends said.
And it stirs the possibility of hope.
Chuck Grussing is a retired University of Minnesota Morris police officer. Grussing lives in Alexandria. Gene Arlook is a childhood friend of Williams. He lives on the East Coast in Virginia
The two men met their friend Williams in different parts of the country but both were drawn to Williams' personality.
Fourteen years after Williams disappeared from the campus in Morris into the northern woods of Lake County the men will still falter with emotion when they describe him.
Arlook and Williams were students at private school in the Washington, D.C. area. Unlike most of their classmates, Arlook and Williams lived less than two miles from school. Arlook grew up in Washington, D.C. Williams grew up around the globe. His parents, David and Sandra, were scientists and their work took them to South America and other countries before they returned to the U.S.
"He had this button-down shirt with all different kinds of fish on it," Arlook said of one of their first encounters. "We hit it off right away. We both liked the outdoors."
Early on, Williams became Fish. "His nickname was Fish because he never stopped talking about fishing," Arlook said. "His parents call him Nathaniel or Nate but I've never called him Nate or Nathaniel, (it's Fish)."
Arlook, Williams and Williams' dad drove from Maryland to Morris when Williams started as a freshman at UMM. Arlook said UMM was the only college Williams had applied to.
"He looked at a map at where he wanted to spend time hunting and fishing," Arlook said. UMM was that place.
Grussing was working a day shift on the UMM campus when he got a call about someone up a tree.
"It was the fall term of Nathaniel's freshman year," Grussing said. "It was a week or two into the year when I got this call about someone who had shimmied up a tree near Pine Hall."
"It was too early for someone to be intoxicated," Grussing said. He was right, the student was not intoxicated, instead he was a student with whom he became friends.
"Nathaniel was 20 feet in the air sitting on a good-sized limb," Grussing said. "We had a short conversation about refraining from that type of activity. After that first meeting, we got to be kind of friends."
"He was a bright kid," Grussing said. The two men would talk about fishing and hunting.
Williams and Grussing would talk when Williams picked up his gun or archery equipment in the campus police station where it was required to be stored. They'd chat when Grussing was in his squad car on campus.
"Every week, I'd run into him somewhere," Grussing said.
He'd often see Williams during one of the student's regular runs. Grussing said he recognized Williams' gait as he ran.
"The last time I saw him he was jogging by my squad car, running north to south on East 4th Street," Grussing said.
Reed was an investigator with the Morris Police Department in 2004. Today he's an investigator with the Stevens County Sheriff's Office.
"The case still follows me today," Reed said.
Although it's unlikely Williams would be found alive, "stranger things have happened," Reed said. "You don't want to give up hope."
For Reed and Morris Police Chief Ross Tiegs, the Williams missing person case is difficult.
Tiegs was an officer on the police department in 2004.
"There's not a whole lot of evidence to support anything," Tiegs said of what happened to Williams. "There is nothing to indicate any which way."
Morris Police, the Stevens County Sheriff and UMM Police worked with law enforcement in the Lake County area. Tips were followed, theories were tested, searches were conducted but there is no clear conclusion as to what happened to Williams.
Although Williams' pickup was found, Tiegs said the pickup was low on gas. Did Williams park there and leave to get gas? Did he decide to park there to fish and hunt?
Kawishiwi Lake is in the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The area is thick with trees. Much of the area is only accessible by canoe or kayak or rugged hiking trails.
Searches turned up nothing. No clothing, no fishing gear, no hunting gear.
The lack of evidence is frustrating, Reed said.
Did Williams get lost in the woods and die from exposure? Was he kidnapped? Did he injury himself and die from injuries? Did he drown or fall in a bog and drown?
"There is a couple hundred thousand square acres of woods up there," Tiegs said. "So many different things could have possibly happened."
According to various cold case websites and information published by various news reports, Williams was last seen on Sept. 28 on the 400 block of east 10th Street in Morris. He was reported missing on Oct. 7.
Arlook said Williams had told college friends he was taking up to two weeks away to fish and hunt in northern Minnesota.
Arlook said he and Williams often hunted and fished together. Williams also often did his own solo multiple- day hunting and fishing trips. Friends weren't surprised that Williams had planned a solo multiple-day trip several hours away from Morris, Arlook said.
"Leaving alone for a fishing trip for him, wasn't unusual," Arlook said.
Arlook said when Sandra Williams contacted her son's friends in Morris, they didn't tell her Williams was missing classes to go hunting and fishing. They didn't want their buddy to get in trouble, Arlook said.
Grussing said he was contacted by Williams' parents who were concerned because they hadn't been able to contact Williams for a few days. They had learned their son had missed several days of classes. David Williams was on his way to Minnesota.
"I talked to his roommates who said Williams planned a fishing trip to the Pomme de Terre River Valley," Grussing said.
Grussing arranged for David Williams to scour the Pomme De Terre Valley by airplane.
"That proved fruitless, he wasn't in the Pomme De Terre Valley," Grussing said.
The gap between the time Williams left Morris and when he was reported missing is frustrating, Tiegs, Reed and Grussing said.
They place no blame on anyone because of Williams' previous solo trips, Grussing, Tiegs and Reed said.
Law enforcement believed Williams wasn't in the Morris region. When Williams' pickup was found in Lake County, law enforcement had new area to search.
"We started off behind the 8-ball," Reed said of a search. "When the vehicle was recovered that was a big piece for us. We knew a general area."
Credit cards and receipts indicated Williams had made purchases in the Brainerd and Grand Rapids area, Grussing said.
"That was helpful, the search could be expanded," Grussing said.
Lake County law enforcement coordinated the expanded search.
"I was very impressed with the strategic search in Lake County," Reed said. The search include ground and air methods.
Law enforcement did not lock in on any particular theory but focused on recovering evidence and Williams, Reed said.
WHAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED
Grussing said Williams had read a book about living off the grid or disappearing days before the trip. Yet, living a life with no contact with his friends or family is contrary to Williams' personality, Grussing said.
"He would never do it," Arlook said of a possible planned disappearance. "He would never do that to his family. They were extremely close."
Suicide is an unlikely possibility, Arlook said.
"Even now, no one thinks anything was going on his head, that something was wrong," Arlook said.
"There was never indication of suicidal thoughts," Tiegs said.
Arlook said Williams was skilled and confident in his outdoor skills.
Williams may have decided to take a shortcut rather than follow a traditional path through the woods, Arlook said. He may have been injured or knocked unconscious, Arlook said.
Lost, injured or unconscious he could have died of exposure, drowned in a bog or lake, Arlook said.
As confident as he is in Williams' survival and outdoor skills, Arlook also knows there is the possibility that his skills weren't enough.
Reed said the searchers and others who hunt, hike and fish in the Lake County area have never discovered any of Williams' clothes or gear.
"It's befuddling," Reed said. "That's how a case can be solved, somebody hunting or hiking sees something."
Yet, the terrain and vegetation of northern Minnesota can easily hide and eventually destroy evidence that someone was there.
And Grussing said as "adept as he was at getting things done in the wild, he didn't know a lot of things about the wild." Williams may have been overconfident in his skills and ability to handle the hills, bogs, lakes and woods of northern Minnesota, Grussing said.
THE INVESTIGATION TODAY
The case remains open but not actively investigated, Tiegs said. Yet, leads are followed and Williams is in the national missing persons network.
"If it's a reliable tip, we will check it out," Tiegs said.
"We keep watching all the unidentified missing persons to see if any match up," Tiegs said.
"Last year there was an unidentified body in Wisconsin. The dental records were close but the person was six inches too short," Tiegs said. "There was a little excitement there that maybe we would finally be able to close it out."
When fires destroyed trees in 2015 in Lake County, those working in the woods were reminded of the open Williams case, Tiegs said.
Areas that couldn't be reached in 2004 were open in 2015 because of the fires, Tiegs said. But nothing was found in 2015, he said.
"I think this case gnaws on everybody who was directly involved in it," Tiegs said.
"My family and I were just on vacation in the Ely area," Reed said. "I saw a sign for the trail to Kawishiwi Lake and thought of Nathaniel."
"I want to be able to call his parents and tell them this is what happened," Reed said.
The Williamses stay in contact with Tiegs and Reed roughly once a year to every 15 months.
Grussing considers the Williamses friends. He has watched the family continue the relationships with their son's friends from UMM.
The parents were in Morris in August to attend one of their son's friend's weddings, Grussing said.
Fish had a positive impact on those who met him, Arlook said. Those who call him friend meet regularly including those from UMM. Arlook, through Williams and those who met at UMM, was drawn to the university several years later. He graduated from UMM.
"His parents are at the epicenter of our group," Arlook said. "He brought us all together."
"He was a special young man," Grussing said. "I feel fortunate to be able to get to know him."
"Obviously, we won't ever forget him," Arlook said.
And Arlook and Grussing still hope for one possible resolution, that Williams could be alive.
There are stories of missing people who have lost their memories and are recognized by others, Arlook said.
Although he's a retired law officer who dealt with facts, "I continue to have hope," Grussing said. "I probably will through the remainder of my allotted time here."