Every year, on January 29, family and friends gather to celebrate Nicole Dawn Markley’s birthday. There’s food, fellowship, and even a birthday cake. But the guest of honor - Nicole - has missed every birthday, every milestone, since she disappeared in January 2003, just two weeks before her 17th birthday.
“She had her whole life ahead of her,” Nicole’s mother, Sherry Quinn, told Dateline. “And now it’s gone.”
Nicole was last seen by her family on January 17, 2003, when she left her home in the Four States area of West Virginia, and walked over to her grandmother’s house nearby. Something she did all the time, her family said.
But this time was different. She did not show up at her grandmother’s house. And she never returned home that evening. When her mother Sherry realized she hadn’t even received a call from Nicole that day, she grew concerned.
“She was a good kid and would always check in with me,” Sherry said. “I thought maybe she was with the new guy she had been dating. But she wasn’t.”
Sherry told Dateline she had a bad feeling and wasn’t taking any chances, so she called the Marion County Sheriff’s Department and reported her missing.
Family and friends immediately started searching the hills in the Four States area, looking in backyards, sheds, ditches, and combing through the woods. But there was no trace of Nicole.
Nicole’s 17th birthday on January 29 came and went, and her family was still left without any answers.
Nicole’s mother Sherry told Dateline she’ll always remember the day Nicole was born because it was in the aftermath of the fatal space shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986.
The day Nicole’s body was found, on February 1, 2003, would also be marked by a major disaster. It was the day of the space shuttle Columbia explosion that killed all seven crew members.
“It’s just something I’ll never forget,” Sherry said.
Marion County Sheriff Jimmy Riffle told Dateline it was a hunter who discovered Nicole’s lifeless body face down in the Teverbaugh Creek in the Four States area of Marion County.
Sheriff Riffle was a roadway deputy at the time, but remembers the impact the case had on the community. What was initially believed to be a runaway juvenile quickly turned into a homicide investigation. He told Dateline that the medical examiner concluded that Nicole’s death was a homicide, which jump-started the investigation.
In July 2003, 20-year-old William Hammond of Four States, was charged with first-degree murder in connection with Nicole’s death. Sheriff Riffle did not get into specifics on what led investigators to Hammond or whether or not the two knew each other. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Hammond five months later.
According to NBC affiliate WBOY, former Marion County Prosecuting Attorney, Susan Riffle, said in December 2003, “We felt the case needed more investigation. We felt the best thing for the victim and for justice was to dismiss the indictment without prejudice.”
No further charges have been filed and there have not been any significant updates in the case.
“It’s not fair and it’s not right,” Nicole’s mother Sherry told Dateline. “The one who took my child’s life is out there running around free. It’s not fair for her, not fair for her family, not fair for her son.”
Nicole’s son, Jeremiah, who was just a month away from turning two years old when his mother was killed, was raised by Sherry and her husband, Jeff. When he graduated high school last year, he said it was in honor of his mother, who wasn’t able to graduate before she was killed.
“She’d be so proud of him,” Sherry said, adding that he’s the spitting image of Nicole, from her bright smile to her spunky attitude.
“We keep her memory alive for him, and for us,” Sherry said. “Every holiday, every birthday, every day of our lives, we talk about her.”
Sherry said they hope keeping Nicole’s memory alive will also fuel their never-ending fight for justice. She believes the person who killed her daughter was infatuated with her, and that the charges should have never been dropped.
“He continues to be free, while our family mourns,” she said. "It's like a nightmare that never ends."
Sheriff Riffle told Dateline that he understands that the family is frustrated over the lack of closure and stresses that they haven’t given up on her case.
“Throughout the years, the investigation slowed down as we exhausted all of our leads and tips stopped coming in,” Sheriff Riffle said. He added that the case is cold, but as detectives have time, they work on it.
“Anyone with information should contact us and we’ll follow up,” Sheriff Riffle said. “We’re always hopeful that someone, even years later, will come forward with answers.”
For now, Nicole’s family and friends continue to keep her memory alive by sharing her story in the community and online with the Facebook group “In Memory Of Nicole Dawn Markley.”
Sherry said it’s the simple absence of her daughter that hurts the most.
“It’s like a piece of you is gone,” she said. “And there’s no way to get it back.”
This week, the family gathered on January 29 for what would have been Nicole’s 35th birthday. A tradition for the past 18 years, they visit the memorial near where her body was found, and Nicole’s grave where her son places fresh roses. They then return to the house for a meal and, of course, birthday cake.
“I just hold on to her memory,” Sherry said. “Her smile. And her happiness. She loved life. And she was so kind to everyone she met. That’s what I want people to remember about my Nicole Dawn.”
Anyone with information on Nicole’s case is asked to call the Marion County Sheriff’s Department at 304-367-5300.