GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Kristi Nikle, 19, was a bubbly, outgoing young woman with developmental disabilities and the mental abilities of a ten-year-old. But she never let them get in the way of living her life.
Nikle participated in Special Olympics bowling in November 1990, placing 3rd in Division III of the 12-15 age group.
She was well-known and well-liked by those fortunate enough to know her. Nikle was also street-smart and independent; Her family often went days without seeing her, but she always told them of her plans.
Nikle’s brother, Lonnie Nikle, stated in 2021 that she would get into someone’s vehicle if they offered her a piece of candy. If someone asked her to do something, she would not hesitate. Therefore, people took advantage of her trusting nature.
One of the things Nikle loved to do was play Bingo. On Oct. 3, 1996, she played with a friend at the local bingo hall and reportedly won $500. Nikle disappeared sometime after she left, but what happened afterward remains a mystery.
Her family attempted to file a missing person report on Oct. 4, 1996, with the Grand Forks Police Department, but officers told them to wait 72 hours.
Meanwhile, the Nikle family and friends searched for Nikle by driving to her known hangouts, such as the bingo hall, but found no sign of her.
The family officially reported her missing on Oct. 10, 1993, one week after she vanished into thin air.
Now-retired Grand Forks Police Detective Mike Sholes became the lead investigator on the case years after Nikle disappeared. He told the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021 he believed if someone had taken Nikle, she willingly went with them.
Hannah Shirley of Grand Forks Herald reported Sholes “estimates that there’s about a weeklong timeframe when Nikle might have disappeared, give or take a few days.” There were a few sightings of her after Oct. 3, 1996, but Sholes said they were “likely false.”
In September 1998, police used a hypnotist to hypnotize a man who believed he saw Nikle with several people in a vehicle in Grand Forks about two days after she vanished. He approached her and informed her that she had been reported missing. The man said Nikle “seemed aloof and told him she needed no help,” The Bismarck-Tribune reported.
Sholes said the man provided a detailed description of the people and vehicle but did not release further information.
Mike Nikle said his daughter had turned two neighbors into police for a drug deal. Nikle hated drugs, and her father wondered if someone had harmed her in retaliation. But police have not been able to confirm this theory.
In 1998, Sholes received a telephone tip from a person asking him to look into Floyd Tapson as a possible suspect.
Tapson was originally from Hannah, near the Canadian border. In 1999, he was sentenced to life for the aggravated assault and attempted murder of a 22-year-old developmentally disabled woman in Montana.
In a 6-1 ruling, the Montana Supreme Court threw out his conviction after discovering District Judge G. Todd Baugh spoke with the jury during deliberation. According to a 2002 piece in The Bismarck Tribune, “Any time that might occur and the defendant does not waive his constitutional right to attend, convictions are automatically thrown out.”
At a 2002 retrial in which Tapson pleaded innocent, the victim told the court the defendant lured her into his car, handcuffed and locked her in his basement for several hours, then repeatedly raped her.
Tapson subsequently drove her to a secluded area west of Billings, shot her twice at close range, and left her for dead. But the victim survived the shooting and crawled through a barbed wire fence. She then made it to a nearby home for help.
Later that morning, authorities went to Tapson’s home and discovered the gun and handcuffs wrapped in plastic in his closet.
Tapson claimed the sex was consensual and that he accidentally shot her when they went target shooting afterward.
Sholes interviewed Tapson several times. Tapson agreed to a polygraph, and Sholes later said the results did not eliminate him as a suspect in Nikle’s disappearance.
Minnesota investigators suspect Tapson of involvement in the disappearance of Carla Beth Anderson, 23, of Wadena, and the 1994 murder of Renae Lynn Nelson, 22, of Moorhead. Both women were developmentally disabled like Nikle. Tapson had lived in the area when the women vanished.
Anderson was last seen on Nov. 13, 1987. She and her family went to Taco John’s to celebrate Anderson’s promotion at Hardee’s. Around 8 p.m., Anderson’s mother and stepfather rented movies for her to watch and dropped her off at her place in the Greenwood Apartments complex.
Police discovered she had entered her apartment that evening because they found one of the videos still in her VCR. Anderson was never seen again.
Renae Lynn Nelson, 22, was last seen walking near Eighth Street and Eighth Avenue South around 3 p.m. on Oct. 28, 1994, in Moorhead.
Police recovered Nelson’s body on April 6, 1995, near the Red River west of Comstock.
Tapson pleaded guilty in November 2003 in Billings in exchange for a 75-year prison sentence as part of a plea agreement in which the state dropped the rape charge, and Tapson agreed never to file any future appeals in the case.
He has always denied killing Nikle but remains the prime suspect in her case.
Tapson moved frequently but always sought employment in group homes for people with disabilities, including in Grand Forks. Police can place him in the area around October 1996.
The Nikle investigation lay dormant until 2004, when human remains were found in Montana by a father and son who had pulled over to the side of a highway to take a bathroom break.
The remains belonged to a female and were found among bones and debris, suggesting someone had pushed her down the ravine and left her to die.
“A forensic analysis suggested the woman had a developmental disability of some kind,” Shirley writes.
Sholes told the Herald, “The body was found near the area where Tapson had left his last victim.”
However, DNA testing ruled out that the remains belonged to Nikle and were never identified. It was another dead end.
On Aug. 9, 2022, investigators excavated property in the 1000 block of First Avenue North. The house that currently sits on the lot was moved there in 1996. Police received a tip that Nikle was buried near the home’s foundation when it was built. The information came in from one of the construction crew.
The news release said that Valley Water Rescue used two cadaver dogs at the site that showed positive indicators of human remains. However, the search failed to find a body or evidence of Nikle’s fate.
Nikle’s disappearance is part of an ongoing investigation and remains active.
Anyone with information is encouraged to call (701) 787-8000. You can also submit a tip online via the GFPD’s Facebook page, website, or the Tip411 app.