After 46 years in law enforcement, Richland County Undersheriff Bob Burnison has one case the hangs heavily over his career. Nicole Waller went missing on Feb. 14, 2013, and launched an investigation that ended up in a murder conviction, but one thing still haunts Burnison. Seven years later, Waller has yet to be found.
“I want to keep this case alive,” Burnison said. “Even though there was a conviction, her body has never been found. It’s possible that someone other than the person convicted may know where the body has been placed.”
Sidney native Cody Johnston was convicted of deliberate homicide in 2016 and received a life sentence in 2017 for the death of former girlfriend Nicole Waller. During the sentencing hearing, Waller sister Carmen Keibler read a statement.
“It all seems like one nightmare after another,” the letter read. “I hear your screams, your pleading voice calling for help, knowing I’ll never be able to get to you in time. Cody will always have a hold on us. We will never have closure and never have a headstone to visit, but you will always be remembered — forever and always.”
Johnston and Waller were romantically involved on and off from 2011 to the time of her disappearance. Johnston was also romantically involved with a woman who later became his wife, Amber Fleming.
Throughout the investigation, Burnison said he believed Johnston panicked when Fleming was planning a visit to Fairview, as Waller was at his residence there at the time.
A circumstantial case was built over the course of the next year. Waller’s vehicle was located on the highway near Poplar, cell phone records showed numerous text conversations and locations for Waller and Johnston, and statements from those who knew both parties were collected. But Waller’s whereabouts remained unknown.
“Wherever his phone pinged was searched by local law enforcement,” Burnison said. “About 20 areas were searched based on cell phone records and information from individuals.”
There was also evidence of Johnston seeking to obtain a barrel on his way back from dumping Waller’s vehicle outside Poplar, although it was never determined if he was able to secure one or not.
While the case is considered officially closed, Burnison is still holding out hope that law enforcement can bring Waller home to her family in Flathead County.
“For me it’s threefold. I feel that Nicole, even though she wasn’t a longtime resident of the county, it’s important that we never cease to quit until we are able to put her to rest,” Burnison said. “Second part is for the family. The family needs to have closure... The third reason would be selfish. It’s for my own closure.”
A lot of law enforcement professionals have that “one” case that lingers. For Burnison, he still carries Waller’s memory with him.
“It still hangs,” he said. “Of all of them, it’s the one.”
Burnison, who was the case’s lead law enforcement on the local level, gives immense credit to state prosecutor Brant Light, who secured the conviction against Johnston. Montana Department of Criminal Investigation agents Mark Hilyard and Bruce McDermit were also acknowledged by Burnison for their work in the case, as well as FBI agent Craig Overby.
Despite Waller and Johnston both having connections to Flathead County, Burnison said the team always felt she was in the Richland County area. Johnston knew how to operate heavy machinery and had access to it through his job. There were also several oil well sites in development that had heavy equipment on location are the Lambert area, where cell phone records show Johnston visited.
Despite extensive searches, Burnison remains steadfast in his goal to bring Waller home.
“Someone, somewhere knows something,” he said.
To provide information about the Waller case, visit the Richland County Crimestoppers website at richlandcs.com. Waller’s case is listed under “Missing Persons.”