Laura Nimbach had been going through a rough patch in life at the beginning of 2009, but she was taking steps to turn things around and was optimistic about the future. The 22-year-old had been staying in a domestic violence shelter after leaving her abusive boyfriend but checked out of it on February 16, 2009, for reasons that are unclear.

A deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office found Laura sleeping behind a building on 49th Street in St. Petersburg, Florida on the evening of Tuesday, February 17, 2009. The deputy woke her up and recommended that she check into one of the homeless shelters in the area. After speaking with the deputy for a few minutes, Laura left the area where she had been sleeping but never checked into any local shelters and was never seen again.

At the time of her disappearance, Laura had been living in Florida for about three years. She was born and raised in Livonia, Michigan; she initially lived with her mother and two older sisters. Her mother had some mental health issues, and when Laura was 5 years old her father gained custody of her.

Laura learned to be self-sufficient at an early age. Her father had a gambling addiction and seldom had money to spare. Determined to attend a private Catholic high school, Laura worked as a nanny in order to pay for her own tuition. She was an excellent student, maintaining high grades while participating in volleyball, soccer, and softball. Her sister Rene noted, “She was the golden child.”

After she graduated from high school, Laura enrolled in the nursing program at Wayne State University, working nights at a bar in order to pay for the program. She spent two years at Wayne State, but eventually the pressure of trying to both work and go to school full-time became too much for her and she ended up dropping out.

In 2006, Laura decided to leave Michigan. She was in an abusive relationship with a man named Nick and was ready to make a fresh start somewhere new. She moved to Clearwater, Florida, where her high school best friend, Amanda Botts, was living with a roommate. Laura soon found a job at a local restaurant and started taking classes to become an ultrasound technician. She bought herself a new car and rented a nice apartment on the beach. To her sisters, she seemed to be living a dream life in Florida. Amanda eventually moved back to Michigan, but Laura loved living in Florida and decided to stay there.

At some point, Laura started dating a man named Sean Wheeler. He had been arrested several times in the past for various weapons and drug charges, and he was very abusive toward Laura. Despite his propensity for violence, Laura was drawn to Sean and seemed unable to break free from him.

Laura was in a car accident in 2007 and prescribed oxycodone to help manage her pain. Although she had never had any drug problems in the past, she soon found herself addicted to oxycodone. She later told her sister, Marilyn, that the addiction was something she never saw coming. “She switched from using what the doctors gave her to drug dealers…one day she was taking pain pills, then she was snorting them.” Although Laura realized that she had a problem, she tried to hide it from her friends and family whenever she spoke to them on the phone. They had no idea that Laura’s life was beginning to spiral out of control.

Sean was a known drug dealer and made sure Laura always had a steady supply of the drug. Like many users, Laura became a different person when she was under the influence. Amanda could tell that something was wrong; she described Laura as being erratic, violent, and very aggressive when she was high. She tried to convince her to get help, but Laura seemed unable to break the hold that oxycodone had on her.

Laura hit rock bottom in November 2008. She and Sean got into a violent argument that spilled outside; police were called after a witness saw Sean repeatedly slamming Laura’s head on the sidewalk. Sean was arrested and charged with battery.

Shortly after Sean beat her, Laura found the duffel bag where he kept his drug supply and took a bottle of oxycodone out of it. Tired of dealing with everything, she swallowed 250 tablets in an apparent suicide attempt. She was taken to the hospital where she remained in a coma for a few days; doctors determined that the overdose had caused organ failure. Her sisters, Rene and Marilyn, flew to Florida to be by her side.

For Laura’s loved ones, her descent into drug addiction and resulting suicide attempt had been completely unexpected. As Marilyn later recalled, “This all happened very fast. We had a normal sister that was going to college and had her stuff together, and then the next thing we knew, this literally happened within a year…we were just stunned.”

Miraculously, Laura survived her suicide attempt and was released from the hospital, though she was warned that she would likely suffer some lingering effects from heart and kidney damage. Her sisters were determined to help her get her life back on track. They helped her pack all her belongings and arranged for her to enter a drug rehabilitation facility in Kentucky, where their mother lived. Laura was ready to get clean; over the next month, she managed to break free from her addiction and was determined to remain sober.

When Laura returned to Florida in late January 2009, she didn’t plan on staying there indefinitely. She had to appear in court on a charge she had picked up while she was on drugs; she also planned to testify against Sean in his upcoming battery trial that was scheduled for February 18, 2009. She vanished the night before he went on trial.

It didn’t take long for Laura’s loved ones to realize that something was wrong. When she returned to Florida, Laura didn’t have a permanent place to stay so she bounced between a cousin’s house, friends’ couches, and women’s shelters. No matter where she stayed, she made sure that she was in constant contact with her sisters and mother. According to Marilyn, “We talked every day and she was staying sober…she was doing well.” Then, without warning, she stopped calling.

Rene, Marilyn, and Amanda all tried reaching Laura on her cell phone, but within a couple of days her voicemail was full and it was clear she hadn’t checked any of her messages. Concerned, they started calling hospitals and shelters throughout Pinellas County, but none of them had any record of Laura.

By the end of the week, Rene was convinced that something was wrong. “It went from us talking to her on a daily basis to nothing at all.” From Colorado, she and Marilyn struggled to get Florida law enforcement to take Laura’s disappearance seriously. “We got nowhere…they refused to look for her and they refused to take a missing person report.”

Officials at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office had a multitude of reasons — or excuses — for why they didn’t consider Laura to be a missing person. They told Rene and Marilyn that Laura was an adult, free to go missing if she wanted. She had battled a drug problem in the past and might have disappeared to avoid going to court. They also implied that Laura wasn’t really a resident of Florida at the time she went missing — they considered her to be a homeless transient. It took six weeks — and a phone call to the FBI — before Pinellas County finally agreed to accept a missing person report.

It was a frustrating time for Laura’s loved ones. Marilyn noted, “Laura wasn’t just some drug addict on the street, Laura had a whole life…she was close to her family.” Both Rene and Marilyn did everything they could to gain publicity for Laura’s disappearance, but they were living in Colorado and the distance was a problem.

Amanda, who was living in Michigan, decided to use the power of the internet to spread awareness about her missing best friend. She created Myspace and Facebook pages about Laura’s disappearance and soon built a small network of local volunteers who distributed missing person fliers throughout Pinellas County.

Melissa Hutcheon was one of the volunteers assisting in the search for Laura. She didn’t know Laura personally, but they had some mutual friends and when she learned she was missing she was quick to offer her help. “So many people are hurting and you can’t do anything, but in this case, I can do something.” She, along with dozens of other locals, spent hours visiting gas stations, coffee shops, and markets, hanging up missing posters and looking for anyone who might have information about Laura.

As word about Laura’s disappearance spread, her family started receiving tips about possible sightings of the missing woman. They passed each tip on to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, but they didn’t believe that police followed up on any of their reports.

From the beginning, Laura’s loved ones thought that Sean Wheeler was possibly involved in her disappearance. The timing was certainly suspicious; Laura went missing immediately before she was due in court to testify against Sean. They told law enforcement about their suspicions, but deputies appeared to brush them off, insisting that Sean had no involvement in Laura’s disappearance.

It doesn’t appear that the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office made any real attempt at finding Laura. Her family believes that they wrote Laura off as “just another drug addict” who had vanished to avoid having to testify in court. Marilyn noted, “Detectives never call us…I don’t think I’ve gotten a call from a detective in years. Even when she first went missing, they didn’t really seem to care.”

The fact that six weeks went by before police would agree to take a missing person report is certainly a tragedy; if Laura did meet with foul play, her killer had ample time to get rid of any evidence.

Laura has now been missing for more than 14 years, and her family knows no more than they did on the day they first realized she was missing. Rene continues to hope for the best. “We don’t give up hope. We want her to come home but there is no closure. I’ve lived through death…in a bizarre kind of way, this is worse.”

Laura Marie Nimbach was just 22 years old when she went missing from St. Petersburg, Florida in February 2009. A smart and friendly young woman, Laura had experienced some tough times but was on the road to recovery when she suddenly vanished. Laura has brown eyes and brown hair that she usually dyed blonde. At the time of her disappearance, Laura was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 105 pounds. Her ears, nose, tongue, and upper lip are pierced and she has a pink flower tattoo on her lower back and “LN” tattooed on her left wrist. If you have any information about Laura, please contact the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office at 727–582–6333.

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