Kelly Nolan went out with friends on the evening of Friday, June 22, 2007. Around 11:30 pm, Kelly’s friends decided they wanted to call it a night, but Kelly wasn’t ready to go home. The 22-year-old said goodbye to her friends and went off on her own; witnesses recalled seeing her walking on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin around 2:00 am Saturday. Kelly, a student at the University of Wisconsin -Whitewater, was subletting an apartment in downtown Madison for the summer. She never made it back to her apartment and she was never seen alive again.
Kelly’s family reported her missing when they were unable to get in contact with her, and the Madison Police Department appealed to the public for help in locating her. They did not, however, launch a large-scale search for Kelly at that time, hoping that she would show up on her own after a couple of days. When she didn’t return the following week, they conducted a routine check of the lakeshore area and called area hospitals, but were unable to develop any leads to Kelly’s whereabouts.
By Thursday, Kelly’s friends and relatives were growing increasingly concerned as it was unusual for her to be out of contact with them for so long. They spent the day hanging missing person posters throughout Madison and distributing missing flyers to people on the street. That night, they held a candlelight vigil in downtown Madison to raise awareness about Kelly’s disappearance and to pray for her safe return.
More than 50 people attended the vigil, and Kelly’s mother, Mary Jane Nolan, thanked the community for their support. She also had a message for her daughter. “We’re going to find you, Kelly, wherever you are, and we’re going to bring you home and we’re going to be back the way we were as a family, having good times.”
Kelly’s sister, April, told reporters that Kelly had separated from her friends and they left the downtown area around 11:30 pm. “She was by herself at that time. And beyond that, no one knows exactly for sure who she was with or where all she went.” April said that it was unusual for her to go more than 12 hours without talking to her sister, and she was extremely worried for her safety.
April said she had spoken to her sister on the phone early Saturday morning, but detectives asked her not to discuss the call or any other details about who she had been with Friday night for fear of jeopardizing the investigation.
Joel DeSpain, the public information officer for the Madison Police Department, said that investigators had received some tips and were following up on all of them. “There are many people out and about running down these routine leads hoping that one of them is the one that will lead us to Kelly.” He noted that detectives hadn’t found any evidence to suggest Kelly had been a victim of foul play, but they hadn’t been able to rule it out, either.
On July 2, 2007, Kelly’s disappearance was profiled on a national news program, giving her case some much-needed publicity and fueling hopes that she would soon be found. Joel DeSpain said the phone had been “ringing off the hook” since the story aired. “These people are providing detectives with information, as are a number of callers to the Crime Stoppers tip line.” He said Kelly’s case was still considered a missing person case, as they still had no evidence indicating she had been harmed.
Detectives obtained surveillance video from downtown businesses and were scouring the footage for any sign of Kelly, hoping to determine where she had gone after she parted ways with her friends. They also released a photo of the pocketbook Kelly was believed to be carrying when she vanished. Joel DeSpain noted, “We haven’t found her handbag…or her clothing. There is no evidence of foul play. That doesn’t mean it isn’t foul play.”
Megan Janeway, one of Kelly’s co-workers, said that Kelly was “always up for a good time, like any other college student.” Alcohol had gotten her into some trouble in the past; she had been arrested for drunk driving in 2004 and then again in January 2007. The second arrest led to her serving 12 days in jail and losing her driver’s license for a year. Despite her troubled history with alcohol, there was nothing to suggest that it had anything to do with her disappearance.
Mary Jane said that her daughter would have put up a fight if anyone tried to abduct her. “She’d say no and she’d mean it.” Co-worker Megan agreed. “Under most circumstances, I’d be less hopeful, but if you knew Kelly…she’s just a really tough girl. I’m sure she’s out there. I’m sure she can be found.”
Kelly grew up in Waunakee, Wisconsin, and graduated from Waunakee High School in 2003. Brian Kersten, the principal of the school, recalled that Kelly had been a good student who had never gotten into any kind of trouble. “No behavioral issues…a very pleasant young lady to have as part of our student body.” She was smart, athletic, and artistic, with a bright future ahead of her.
Although Kelly’s friends and relatives were optimistic that the missing student would be found alive, as days passed without any word from her their concern increased. No one believed that she was missing voluntarily; she had gone to a job interview the morning before she went missing and was hoping to start work soon so she could earn some money before starting her senior year at the University of Wisconsin in the fall.
On July 7, 2007, Kelly’s family announced that they were offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to Kelly’s return or the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for her disappearance. The money for the reward was donated by an anonymous businessman as well as from the Carole Sund/Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation.
On the same day that the reward was announced, some new facts about the night Kelly went missing were made public for the first time. Reporters learned that Kelly left Lava Lounge around 2:00 am Saturday with a young man named Andrew, who walked her part of the way back to her apartment. He had called police with this information as soon as he learned that Kelly was missing; he said they ran into another young man who knew Kelly on their walk, and he left Kelly with this man.
On July 9, 2007, the search for Kelly came to a heartbreaking end, when searchers combing through a wooded area off Schneider Drive in the town of Dunn, Wisconsin found human remains. Although an autopsy would have to be performed to confirm the identity, police were confident that Kelly had been found. The coroner confirmed their hunch the following day.
Investigators said that information obtained from Kelly’s cell phone had prompted the search of the wooded area, which was around 10 miles away from where Kelly was last seen. More than 100 police officers from several different agencies began their search of the area at 4:30 am, and the body was found about four hours later.
The 28-acre property where Kelly’s body was found belonged to 86-year-old Eleanor Killerlain, who was not a suspect in the crime. Kelly’s body was lying just 15 feet away from the road. A neighbor thought he smelled a foul odor when he drove his tractor down Schneider Drive the previous week, but he brushed it off as likely belonging to a d*ead animal and hadn’t called anyone. Eleanor noted, “I rode my four-wheeler up along the road a week ago Sunday, but I didn’t smell anything then.”
Search teams spent the next several days scouring the wooded area for any clues that might lead them to Kelly’s k*iller while detectives continued following up on all leads they received. The missing person case had become a homicide investigation, and detectives admitted that they didn’t have any suspects. Joel DeSpain stated, “We cannot rule out that she is the victim of a stranger. We cannot rule out that she left with an acquaintance or someone who was something more.”
Dane County Coroner John Stanley confirmed that Kelly’s d*eath was a homicide but refused to comment on the cause, stating, “A ruling on the manner and cause of de*ath will not be made as long as there is an open homicide investigation.” In 2014, however, Kelly’s de*ath certificate was updated and the cause of d*eath was listed as blunt force trauma to the torso with fractures. The exact time of de*ath could not be established, but investigators believed she was k*illed shortly after she was last seen.
Kelly’s funeral was held on July 21, 2007. Hundreds of people came to say goodbye to the young woman who was taken from them far too soon. She was remembered as a person who always lived life to the fullest, a kind and loving person who was passionate about music and art.
While Kelly’s loved ones mourned her loss, detectives were continuing to chase down leads as they struggled to find her k*iller. Joel DeSpain made another public appeal for information, noting, “There may be people who have yet to come forward. We would call upon the good conscience of people out there to help this family out and help resolve this case.”
A month after Kelly’s body was found, detectives admitted that they still didn’t have any suspects in the mur*der but were continuing to follow up on leads. “Leads that have looked promising are still promising. Others have dea*d-ended and are no longer viable.” They had collected a lot of forensic evidence from the crime scene and sent it to the crime lab but they were still waiting for results.
When the fall semester started at the University of Wisconsin, police warned students to be vigilant, especially when they were out drinking. Mike Hanson, a spokesman for the Madison Police Department, stated, “There’s a k*iller in the community that has not been caught, and the police department is working very hard to try and catch this person. Until we have him in custody, we don’t know his future intentions.”
Detectives initially said that the k*iller was most likely someone Kelly was acquainted with, though they couldn’t completely rule out the possibility that she was k*illed by a stranger. After extensively interviewing the two young men who came forward to say they each escorted Kelly during part of her walk home, investigators were able to rule both men out as possible suspects.
As the first anniversary of Kelly’s disappearance approached, detectives still had no suspects. They had interviewed nearly 600 people and followed up on hundreds of tips, but they were no closer to solving the case than they had been on the day Kelly’s body was found. The reward for information was up to $12,000, but the number of tips was dwindling.
Although the Madison Police Department remained committed to finding Kelly’s ki*ller, the investigation eventually stalled and the case went cold. A decade after her mu*rder, both police and Kelly’s family were still searching for answers. In a written statement, her family noted, “The passage of time in no way diminishes the heinousness of the crime, the guilt of the criminal(s), nor the need for accountability.” They believed that there were people in the Madison area who knew what happened to Kelly and begged them to come forward and speak with detectives so Kelly’s k*iller could finally be found.
In June 2022, Kelly’s family members announced that they were increasing the reward for information to $25,000 in an attempt to finally get the answers they had been seeking for 15 years. “We know there is someone out there, whether locally or elsewhere, that can shed light on what happened to Kelly during the final moments of her life”.
As of June 2023, Kelly’s mu*rder remains unsolved. Detectives have never been able to develop any solid suspects and have been tight-lipped about any potential evidence they might have. Her family is still offering $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for Kelly’s de*ath.
Kelly Kathleen Nolan was just 22 years old when she was mur*dered after spending a night out with friends in Madison, Wisconsin. Kelly was just months away from starting her senior year at the University of Wisconsin — Whitewater, where she was majoring in communications and was especially excited about a journalism class she was going to be taking. She was an intelligent and loving young woman with a bright future, but this was stolen from her by a ki*ller who has never been identified. If you have any information about Kelly’s mur*der, please contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at 608–266–6014.