Kristian Burnstad grew up in the small, quiet town of Enumclaw, Washington. It’s a close-knit community, resident Stephanie Signani says, where the kids become adults and send their own children to the same high school they attended decades before.
Kristian’s story was no different, as he stayed in Enumclaw through his twenties and into his thirties. But things turned south for the funny, popular 33-year-old, according to his friend Tony Signani who is Stephanie’s husband. Despite having caring family and supportive friends, Kristian got into drugs, according to Tony, and fell in and out of touch with his high school friends.
Stephanie, who also grew close to Kristian, knew of the problems their friend was going through. But she told Dateline she thought things were taking a turn for the better when she and Tony ran into Kristian at a local gas station in January of 2017.
“My husband talked to him and when he got back in the car he said, “Well, Kristian looks better. He’s an addict, but he looks like he’s doing a lot better. He’s in a good mood, he’s happy about things,’” Stephanie recalled to Dateline.
Both Stephanie and Tony felt relieved after the brief conversation with their old friend. But just three weeks later, the Signanis learned that Kristian had disappeared. Friends told the couple that Kristian was last seen in Enumclaw on February 8, 2017.
“There were times when he did go missing for periods of time and no one really thought anything about it,” Stephanie told Dateline. “But this time, even after a while, he didn’t come home. That’s when his mom realized something was wrong.”
Kristian’s mother Judy Burnstad filed a missing person report for Kristian in May of 2017, three months after he disappeared. Stephanie said Judy told her she waited three months because she kept hoping Kristian would find his way home.
In the eight months that followed, the community continued to grieve Kristian’s disappearance. But almost as soon as the investigation opened, it turned cold. Feeling the cobwebs growing on her friend’s case, Stephanie grew increasingly determined to find Kristian.
“After eight months, there was still nothing. There was no news, there were no flyers, there were no posts about it,” Stephanie told Dateline. “It really bothered me. And that’s why I stepped in and took over.”
Stephanie became Kristian’s self-appointed advocate and personal detective. She met with Kristian’s parents and offered to help, pulling together a list of “people Kris would hang out with and names of places he’d go.” Stephanie printed “hundreds and hundreds” of flyers and started conversations online with the Facebook page called Finding Kristian Burnstad.
“I started getting messages on the Finding Kristian page – people giving me tips and locations, with people saying, ‘I think I saw him here, I think I saw him there,’” Stephanie said. “And so I’d go to those places, whether it was deep in the woods, to homeless camps or homeless shelters -- Seattle, Tacoma, Puyallup, Bonney Lake.”
Kristian’s case became a desperate search for answers, not just for Stephanie but for Kristian’s devastated family. Stephanie said she was dedicated to Kristian, despite his addiction, and, as the mother of four children herself, she felt his parents’ pain.
Through the Facebook page, Stephanie received hundreds of tips from community members. And, in the beginning, she said she had “high hopes” of bringing Kristian home. But when Stephanie gained access to Kristian’s own Facebook through a password-reset process, her heart sank.
“I saw that his last message was February 8, and I kind of knew that he wasn’t there. But I still followed up on all the tips,” Stephanie told Dateline. February 8 was the same day Kristian disappeared. “It was really tough, but when I had met with Kris’s parents, I promised them that I wasn’t going to quit until we find him. And they were just crying. Looking into their eyes, I was just like, ‘I can’t quit.’”
And she didn’t quit. In September of 2018, over a year and a half after Kristian disappeared, there was a break in the case. After Stephanie received an anonymous tip on the Facebook page, she says she shared it with the Enumclaw Police Department. The tip led a search and rescue team back to a marshy area near Kristian’s home to investigate.
Dateline reached out to the Enumclaw Police Department but did not hear back by Sunday afternoon.
“I heard that there were police near his house, so I drove over there and I saw the search and rescue, the police and the detective there,” Stephanie told Dateline. “They said, ‘We found remains.’ And I just started crying, because I knew. And they said, ‘Listen, we don’t know yet.’”
Authorities later identified the body, recovered from a waist-deep marsh, as being Kristian Burnstad. Stephanie says she was crushed.
“I started getting really hopeful thinking, ‘Maybe this is somebody else,’” Stephanie said of the days before the sheriff’s announcement. “I just broke down crying, because this had been my life for a year -- 24/7. I thought that I was prepared for it. I thought I would be ready. But I just wasn’t prepared for that.”
A cause of death has yet to be publicly released. Now, two years after Kristian’s disappearance, the case is being investigated as a homicide, although no arrests have been made.
Stephanie says she is dedicated to bringing justice to her friend. On February 3, Stephanie hosted a memorial event to celebrate Kristian’s life, complete with a photo slideshow, music and a symbolic balloon release.
“People were able to share some memories and talk to people who they hadn’t talked to in a while. There were some tears, but there were also a lot of good stories,” Stephanie said. “The case isn’t over, but we have his body and that’s a big thing. We didn’t think we’d get there.”
If you have any information on the circumstances surrounding Kristian’s death, please call the Enumclaw Police Department at (360) 825-3505.