Nieko Lisi had only been missing for six months when his mother, Monica Button, attended an event for another missing child, one who had been missing for five years.
The New York mother told Dateline that she was heartbroken for the family, but felt like she didn’t belong in the community of parents with missing children.
“When I left the family’s home that night, I told my sister, ‘That’s not me. That’s not me,’” Monica recalled. “’I’m not one of them, I don’t belong here. Nieko will be back. He’s coming home.’”
Six months without her son was hard, but Monica had hope. But now those months have turned into years, and the end of this month will mark a full decade since her 18-year-old son Nieko vanished without a trace. It’s an ongoing nightmare Monica and her family are still hoping to wake up from.
“It's a community, a club that nobody wants to be a part of,” she said. “And it’s not what you expect to happen, no one does. Then you realize that you need all the support you can get. You need that community, someone who understands. Whether it’s been 6 months or 10 years or a lifetime, the hurt is the same.”
As the 10-year mark approaches, Nieko’s mother told Dateline she wants nothing more than to pull the covers over her head and spend the day in bed. But she has three other children to raise, a family to provide for. And she still has a job to do - to find out what happened to Nieko.
“I know in my heart that he’s gone,” Monica told Dateline. “But that doesn’t mean we have stopped looking for him. He’s out there somewhere and he needs to be brought home. He doesn’t deserve to be thrown out like discarded trash. He deserves peace. And his family deserves peace.”
The mission for peace and justice has been Monica’s driving obsession since her son disappeared back in 2011. For years, New York State police believed Nieko, who had been in trouble with the law previously, had skipped town to avoid charges.
But when police in Franklin, Tennessee found the truck Nieko had been traveling in, stripped down and dismantled, New York State investigators started to consider what she has suspected all along — that something terrible had happened to her child.
“If he were alive, he would have contacted us,” Monica told Dateline. "He would have contacted us."
Over the past 10 years, the New York mother has dedicated her time to tracking down leads, traveling back and forth from New York to Tennessee, and she writes down every detail.
Nieko was 18 when he disappeared, and had been living with his parents and siblings in rural Steuben County, New York, just across the Pennsylvania state line. They were a busy, but tight-knit family, Monica explained, and they always checked in with each other throughout the day.
“It was just natural for us to keep in touch,” Monica said. “And we still do that, even more so.”
She told Dateline that the last person in their family to see Nieko was his uncle. On September 30, Nieko and his friend Robert “Robbie” Knight stopped by Nieko’s uncle’s house in Addison, New York around 2 p.m., and told him they were driving to Buffalo to meet some girls they had met online.
They were in a 2004 GMC Canyon pickup truck that Robbie said was his grandfather's. Monica told Dateline that Robbie’s grandfather didn’t own a truck and it was later determined by New York State Police that the truck had been stolen from Steuben Street in Addison.
But instead of driving to Buffalo, Robbie ended up at his father’s house in Romulus, Michigan in the early morning hours of October 1. Nobody in Robbie’s family saw Nieko, who Robbie said dropped him off.
Monica told Dateline that Nieko's great-grandmother called his phone sometime in mid-afternoon and Nieko told her that he couldn't talk and would call her back. Monica added that it was unusual for him to not talk with his grandmother.
“He’s her favorite and everyone knows it,” she said. “They were inseparable.”
But Nieko never called back.
Two days after Nieko left New York, his mother received an envelope with his driver’s license and a note saying it had been found in Hornell, New York, about 20 miles away from their home.
“I knew something was wrong,” she said. “I was blowing up his phone with calls and texts. I had his siblings do the same. It was not like him to not answer.”
Nieko was reported missing on October 5. His friend Robbie passed away on October 10 and his death was a suspected drug overdose.
An official investigation into Nieko’s disappearance was launched by the New York State Police, who discovered that Nieko’s phone last pinged on October 1 in the area of Flintlock Drive in Franklin, Tennessee.
According to the New York State Police, Nieko's phone pinged for the last time at 5:05 p.m. from Flintlock Drive in Franklin, Tennessee. New York State Police Investigators said they suspect foul play.
Franklin was a place Nieko was familiar with, his mother said, explaining that he lived there for a year in 2009. When she got a call on October 19 from a teenager on Flintlock Drive, stating Nieko had been there on October 1, Monica knew she had to get herself to Tennessee.
But when she arrived at the teen’s house, she said she heard different versions of Nieko’s whereabouts earlier that month, leaving her with more questions than answers.
Nieko’s mother continued to conduct her own investigation into his disappearance, but his cold seemingly went cold until the summer of 2016 when New York State Police investigators and Franklin Police Department detectives got a break in the case, according to authorities.
The dismantled and stripped down 2004 GMC pickup truck Nieko had been traveling in, according to Franklin Police and New York State Police, had been found stored in a residential detached garage in Nashville. Authorities are not disclosing the exact location of the garage, but said the Sylvan Park home adjacent was known at the time to be the location of parties that catered to kids Nieko’s age.
In October 2017, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) took over as the lead agency in the investigation.
TBI Special Agent Nathan Neese, who has been on the case since 2017, told the family he carries the case files with him daily, and has told the family he is not giving up on Nieko
TBI released a video in 2020 with the latest information on the case, which is classified as an active missing persons case. In the video, Agent Neese said he believes there are people who know how the truck got to the garage and know what possibly happened to Nieko.
There have been various amounts of reward money offered throughout the years, but the tip to lead to Nieko still hasn’t come.
Nieko’s mother told Dateline she’s not only frustrated with the lack of progress on the case, but the lack of arrests and a strange twist to the case: the number of people connected to the case are now dead.
“Ten days after Nieko and Robbie left, Robbie is dead,” Monica said. “Police didn’t even question him when he was released from the hospital. They didn’t question his father or brother either. Now? They’re all dead, too.”
In the video, Franklin Police say the investigation has been made more difficult because of the deaths of possible witnesses.
Monica Button explained to Dateline that Robbie’s father passed away in 2012. His brother, Christopher Knight, died in 2018. Monica told Dateline that while she’s grateful for the work of the TBI, she says they’re on different pages with an outcome.
“They want to build a case and make arrests,” she said. “I want that, of course, I want justice. But most of all, I just want to find my son. I know he’s not alive, but I want to bring him home.”
She wants peace for her family. She wants peace for her 92-year-old grandmother, who adored Nieko, and for his 12-year-old sister who was only 2 when he disappeared, leaving her without any memories.
“I’m not going anywhere until I find my son - until I bring him home,” she said. “That’s my goal, and always has been since he disappeared 10 years ago. I just had no idea how long I’d be waiting.”
For 10 years, Monica has searched for answers — questioning people on what they may know, posting missing flyers in New York and Franklin, and raising money for a reward. She advocates for her son on the Facebook page Search for Nieko Lisi and shares updates on a website that was published this week.
And when she attended the annual Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons conference, to publicly speak about her son, she discovered that she was in fact part of that community.
“I found people who understood what I was going through and accepted me,” she said. “There is no judgement. At that conference, when I spoke about my son, and felt the support of those people, it felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”
She remembers back to the woman with the missing child she met when Nieko had only been missing for six months.
“Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought that I would see a five-year anniversary of my son being missing. Now I am going on 10 years," she said.
“The feeling never goes away, the loss, the torture, and the unknown is the worst part,” she said. “All I want is to bring my son home. But even then I don’t believe we’ll know the true story or have all the details of what happened to him.”
Monica told Dateline that she acknowledges that her son wasn’t a saint, and that he had been in trouble in the past, but that didn’t mean his life meant less than any other missing person.
"It's unconditional love, and no matter what your child does wrong or right in life, you always want to know where they are and if they’re safe,” she said. “I miss hearing him laugh, I miss watching him play basketball, and hearing him yell my name and saying that Thanksgiving is his favorite time of year - I miss it all.”
At the time of his disappearance, Nieko was 5’10” tall and weighed about 165 lbs., with a muscular build. He has brown hair and brown eyes and has an unfinished tattoo of a guardian angel on his left side, and four Chinese symbols on the back of his upper right arm.
Anyone with information on Nieko’s whereabouts is asked to contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations at 1-800-TBI-FIND, or submit a tip online by emailing TipsToTBI@tn.gov.