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June 30, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Leaving nothing but a wallet, a cellphone, his keys and a dumbfounded community behind, Nicholas Coppola walked away. On Dec. 12, the friendly, blond-haired, blue-eyed 24-year-old MU student from Weldon Spring abandoned his car on the eastbound shoulder of I-70 near Foristell and left everything he knew. He did pick up one new thing as he walked from the car: the title of missing adult.
After Nick completed two years at St. Charles Community College in St. Peters, his parents, Nellie and Gene, had little doubt their easy-going, intellectual son would earn a degree at MU. Less than a year after he started at MU, however, Nick, a former economics major, withdrew from his classes and intended to follow a highly secretive group out to California. Three months later, he went missing.
Nellie and Gene submitted their DNA to a national missing persons database, hired a private investigator, posted flyers across the state and offered a $3,000 reward that expired on June 15.
In the initial weeks following Nick’s disappearance, clues about his whereabouts surfaced. People told Nellie and Gene that they’d seen him in Columbia, spotted him in Wright City or had given him a dollar for gas money to Montgomery City, but there were no proven leads. After six months without viable information, Nellie and Gene followed professional advice and revoked the reward money.
Foristell Police Chief Douglas Johnson says evidence suggests there was no foul play at the vehicle site. His parents fear he might have joined a spiritual cult.
“I just want him safe,” Nellie says. “Of course I want him found. But if he would call today and say, ‘I’m not telling you where I am at, but I’m OK,’ that would be OK. I’m OK with the wondering.”
On Monday, Dec. 20, without knowledge of Nick’s disappearance eight days prior, Gene discovered a fax on his business line detailing his son’s impounded car. When neither he nor Nellie could reach Nick, they filed a missing person report with the Foristell Police Department, and Gene left work for two weeks. He led most of the initial investigation in Warren County himself, determined to know what his son had done after leaving his 1993 black Subaru on the side of the highway at mile marker 202.6.
Although Gene says it drains him to not have every answer about his son, fear of the worst is something he can’t dwell on. Both he and Nellie continue to search for concrete evidence that Nick is still alive.
“There are so many variables,” Gene says. “We just don’t know. I just don’t know. There’s all these stories. I just want a picture of my kid. Just show me he’s alive somewhere.”
Family members, such as Gene’s sister Shari Rotherham, have been vital to the search effort. “We felt we should try to find him right away,” she says. “We’re an Italian family. We couldn’t celebrate Christmas knowing a family member was not among us.” Rotherham updates the website Nick’s uncle Kurt Stocker set up shortly after Nick’s disappearance.
In Missouri, there are fewer resources available to help locate missing adults than there are to help children because it is not against the law for people 17 and older to willingly disappear. According to the National State Highway Patrol website, there are currently 665 adults missing in the state.
“Today, hypothetically speaking, if a law enforcement officer comes in contact with Nick and runs him through the system, they’ll get a hit on him as a missing adult,” Johnson says. “A police officer will ask him questions, and they’ll check his mental state. As long as he doesn’t make suicidal comments, we have no law for us to take him into custody. It would be documented, but they couldn’t do anything. They’d release him.”
In the months prior to his disappearance, Nick’s friends and family noticed a significant change in his character and overall outlook on life.
In the months following his January 2009 transfer to MU, Nellie and Gene say religion became a new preoccupation with Nick, who took to heart James Redfield’s novel The Celestine Prophecy. Nellie’s happiest times in Columbia with Nick are when they’d scour Goodwill for books on theology. She says they’re not regular churchgoers but describes the family as spiritual.
His parents noticed that on visits home, Nick became quiet, avoided eye contact with family and would seclude himself in his bedroom, where Nellie and Gene say he’d spend hours alone reading the Bible or meditating. He stopped eating meat and restricted his diet to fresh fruits and vegetables.
While attending summer classes in Columbia, Nick sought medical help for what his doctor diagnosed as ADHD. He was prescribed Adderall but told his parents the medication made him feel unlike himself. Nellie and Gene say Nick’s doctor advised him to reduce his dosage by half, but he eventually stopped taking it altogether. Nick’s parents say he then began to question the government. He didn’t support synthetic medicine as a necessary cure-all and criticized American society for being materialistic. He told Nellie and Gene he no longer wanted to earn a degree in economics and would rather work in a profession that helped people. On Aug. 5, Nick sent a heated email to his father:
“Music keeps me motivated and on the right track, it does what Vicodin does but naturally. It’s like math, its part of my life. It won’t deceive me, won’t lie to me, it will always be there for me. It’s what gets me through my back pain … Keep in mind: this entire thing started with me finding the solution to your problem. Learn to be open and accepting, not controlling and stupid. It’s never too late to start over and I will never give up caring.”
Nellie and Gene say he considered leaving the state after he met a spiritual group he called “the gifted people” at a Camp Zoe Schwagstock concert. Nick, a fan of the Grateful Dead cover band The Schwag, attended one of its camp-out concerts in September 2010 in Salem, Mo. He had gone with friends from high school but wandered off alone for hours and returned with the idea to go to California and work on a commune. Four days later, he dropped all of his classes at MU.
Nick’s behavior became more erratic after his experience at the concert. He had always been interested in computers and, in high school, evolved into a gamer known as “Ox.” He was named “one of the quickest rifles” in the video game Day of Defeat by gaming news site gotfrag.com and even took time off from community college to compete and tutor elementary school children in computer programming.
By October, Nick stopped using his laptop and gave it to his mother.
During the transition from summer to fall, before he dropped out of classes, Nick began to cut off his friends. Jeff Ponder’s friendship with Nick began in middle school with a shared love of hockey. “You never heard anyone say ‘Man, I don’t like that Nick Coppola,’” Ponder says. “He was always Nick. That’s what was so great about him.”
Ponder says Nick was always the first to do something crazy and recalls an instance in high school when football players poked fun at Nick’s weight. They had drawn pizza on a piece of paper, and Nick responded by eating the paper. “He liked to make people laugh,” Ponder says.
The two remained close while they were both at community college, but when Nick came to MU last year, their communication started to wane. Phone calls grew farther apart, and Ponder saw him only three times last summer.
“I’d see him at a party,” he says. “He’d be kind of drunk or whatever, and I’d ask him ‘Hey man, what’s up with you?’ He would just scream at me, like, ‘I’m on meth!’ and we always thought he was kidding. He would laugh, too. But, I don’t know, the last year it was like ... is he serious?” Ponder says it was torture when he learned Nick was missing.
Last November, Nick returned home for Thanksgiving after he had withdrawn from the semester’s classes. His parents encouraged him to return to MU and complete his degree. Nick told them he was no longer going to California and would go back to Columbia, where he was still living, call his academic counselor and re-enroll. “But when he made that comment, I also said ‘Nick, what made you change your mind?’” Gene says. “And that’s when he wouldn’t look at me.” Gene says he believed Nick was still undecided.
The last time Nick was home, the weekend of Dec. 3, his family thought he seemed back to normal. He put up Christmas lights and promised to help Nellie with the oversized tree in a couple weeks.
Later that weekend, Nick abruptly told his brother, Joe, that he was going for a walk. But after two days, he still hadn’t returned. No one knew where he had gone.
On Dec. 6, Nellie discovered that Nick was back in Columbia. By then, he had purposely turned off the cellphone she had given him. She and Gene were fed up. Nellie drove to Columbia four days later to tell Nick that his recent behavior was unacceptable. He apologized, told her he loved her and hugged her.
“There will be times when you won’t hear from me,” Nick told his mother on that Dec. 10 visit. It was the last time a member of his family saw him. Two days later, Nick was missing.
At around 1 p.m. on Dec. 12, Johnson drove by the abandoned car on his way to Wright City. Its tank was near empty, which might explain why Nick was pulled over five miles earlier in Wright City by Officer Matthew Eskew and ticketed for driving on the shoulder at 10:09 a.m.
Nellie says she’s convinced this is what shook him up. “You have to understand: Nick never got in trouble,” she says. “Not with the law. Not anybody. Up until seven or eight months ago, he never lied.”
It is hard to understand what went through Nick’s mind after the citation. He continued to drive, though his tank was on fumes, but stopped with a gas station in sight. Nick placed his wallet on the passenger seat with his credit cards and $50 cash inside and left his cellphone beside it.
Police reports suggest he then walked away from his car in 16-degree weather, wearing only jeans, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes and gloves.
According to witness statements and police reports Gene and Chief Johnson have since gathered, the following events occurred on Dec. 12 prior to Nick’s disappearance:
• Nick abandons his car and walks away from the gas station less than a half mile up the road.
• Nick crosses the service road and walks west two-tenths of a mile from his car to a house off Archer Road. He knocks on the tenant’s door and asks for gas but is told to go away.
• Nick does not leave the property but finds shelter in a barn behind the house.
• A friend of the homeowner searches the property, finds Nick and tells him to leave. Nick apologizes and complies.
• The homeowner watches Nick walk west on the southbound service road opposite the direction of the nearby gas stations.
• At 3:18 p.m., Wright City Police are called by a second homeowner about a man trying to break into the house. The homeowner asks what Nick is doing and says the man responds that he is trying to “get away.” The homeowner takes a candid picture of the man believed to be Nick as he leaves the property.
• Eskew finds and arrests Nick outside of Midwest Petroleum by mile marker 199. Eskew drives Nick seven miles east to Warrenton.
• At 5:11 p.m., Nick is charged and processed for trespassing and peace disturbance at the Warrenton County Jail.
• At 5:40 p.m., officers release Nick from the facility.
Gene questions why the police released his son, wearing only a sweatshirt, back out into frigid temperatures. He says that jail personnel said Nick had told them his brother was picking him up, but he never made a phone call while in custody. “They didn’t care,” Gene says.
No one knows where Nick went after he was released. There are no videos, no reassuring stories.
Nick’s car mileage raised red flags to Gene. After he obtained the impounded car, he realized Nick had traveled nearly 14,000 miles in one year — far more than he could have accumulated on the trips between Weldon Spring and Columbia.
Gene also pulled up credit card statements made on the account he shared with Nick. He noted four or five months’ worth of gasoline receipts from the Wright City area.
“He was driving back and forth, but we don’t know to where,” Johnson says.
Johnson’s official police records report that Nick’s roommates in Columbia said he hadn’t really been living at their duplex the month before his disappearance. The report also states they noticed signs of depression and extreme behavioral changes in Nick during the six months prior to Dec. 12.
Nellie says it was difficult to function after she first learned of Nick’s disappearance. “At first we were brain dead,” she says. “We couldn’t even talk. You know, it’s like you wake up thinking about it. You go to sleep thinking about it.”
“You wake up several times a night thinking about it,” Gene says.
The reward money might have been taken down, but the search for Nick is far from over. The private investigator continues to aggressively follow leads. But, Nellie and Gene say they are mostly kept in the dark about updates in the ongoing case unless the investigator considers it relevant. They say he doesn’t want to give any false hope.
“Maybe no news is good news,” Gene says.
“We don’t want that bad news call,” Nellie adds.
Maybe Nick is gone forever. Maybe Nick will return tomorrow. But until he does, each moment hangs in the balance of hope for his family and friends.