Stacey Colbert (right) smiles with her mom (left), Ronna Colbert, at a venue in 1998. Ronna wishes she could see this smile again. Credit: Jack Long | Special Projects Director

Applause and standing ovations blasted from the television set in Danielle Nusbaum’s living room late Monday evening on March 23, 1998. 

The night of the 70th Academy Awards, in the wake of the blockbuster hit “Titanic,” Nusbaum flooded her younger sister Stacey Colbert’s inbox with voicemails about heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and the film’s Best Picture win. She had just taken Stacey to see the movie for her 23rd birthday.

Her excitement was met with silence on the other end. Twenty-six-year-old Nusbaum went to sleep that night thinking Stacey was away on a business trip, and her sister was sure to return her calls the following morning.

Instead, it was Stacey’s employer who was on Nusbaum’s answering machine when she arrived home from work the next day. Her sister hadn’t been to work in days and hadn’t called in.

“That’s not like her. I knew something was wrong right away,” Nusbaum said. “My life is really before that call and after that call.”

According to police, Stacey was seen on Saturday, March 21, by a pizza delivery driver who delivered breadsticks to her Governours Square apartment, just 15 minutes northwest of campus, at approximately 6 p.m.

Stacey Colbert (second row from the bottom, far left) poses with her sorority sisters in 1995. Credit: Jack Long | Special Projects Director

He was the last person to report her alive.

Within days, fliers of Stacey’s smiling face, dark brown hair and brown eyes, cropped from the Colberts’ holiday card the previous December, were plastered on buildings and lampposts lining the streets of Columbus and Ohio State’s campus. Just a year prior, Stacey graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. 

It had only been six months since she started her first job in her chosen career field as a marketing assistant with American Electric Power in Columbus. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to the recent alumna and beloved member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority. 

“Everybody was sort of taken aback by that,” Matt Reese, who experienced the shock on campus firsthand as an undergraduate student in ’98 and attended her vigil as a Lantern photographer, said. “You don’t think about that kind of thing happening, and when it did, it was pretty surprising.”

Stacey’s remains weren’t found until years later in 2004, and how she was killed is still a mystery more than 20 years after her disappearance.

Her family said they are reopening old wounds in hopes of carrying out justice and finally finding her killer. 

“She was an amazing person. She didn’t deserve to die the way she died,” Nusbaum, now 47, said. “She deserved to be here.” 

Part one — Stacey’s disappearance 

After receiving the call from AEP March 24, Nusbaum rushed over to Stacey’s apartment after work, only two miles away from her own, to be met with shock. Stacey’s car was parked out front, and her apartment door was unlocked, just slightly cracked. There was no evidence of a burglary or theft.

Nusbaum entered the apartment.

Clothes were strewn about, the refrigerator door was open and a half-eaten box of breadsticks sat on the counter. 

Stacey’s keys, purse and credit cards hadn’t been taken. Nothing was missing, except her cat Boots who had escaped through the open door.

Stacey Colbert stands with her family on graduation day in 1997. Credit: Jack Long | Special Projects Director

“It was a nightmare,” Nusbaum said. “I walked in, and all of her stuff was there, but she wasn’t there.”

Panicked and confused, she called her father, Larry Colbert.

“Have you heard from her? Like Dad, she’s not here,” Nusbaum

recounted. He said he hadn’t heard from Stacey. 

“I called the police right away,” Nusbaum said.

Police started by questioning Stacey’s neighbors and the pizza delivery driver, who might have heard or seen anything amiss. 

When he dropped off the breadsticks that evening, the pizza driver felt very strongly that she was not alone in her apartment and sensed somebody else was present, he told police.

One of her neighbors, who lived in the upstairs Apartment C, reported being woken up at 4 a.m. Sunday to horrible screams coming from the apartment directly below his. 

It was Apartment A – Stacey’s.

The screams continued, and he couldn’t go back to sleep. He also heard loud banging. According to the report, the neighbor did not check on Stacey until 2 p.m. the next afternoon, only to be met with no answer and Boots patiently waiting outside.

Part two – Remembering Stacey 

Stacey Colbert poses with a tennis racket during high school. She varsity lettered for Charleston High School in Charleston, Illinois. Credit: Jack Long | Special Projects Director

Positive. Enthusiastic. Vibrant. Those are the three words Molly Behre, one of Stacey’s co-workers at AEP, used to describe Stacey’s spirit, which quickly spread throughout the entire office.

“She was the kind of person you wish all your co-workers could be,” Behre said.

At Ohio State, her radiant energy filled the hallways of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority house on 15th Avenue.

“She had the most amazing smile. This big, beautiful, warm, friendly smile,” Paula Shupe, one of Stacey’s sorority sisters, said. “You couldn’t not be attracted to Stacey if you knew her.”

Living on the third floor in a small — yet cozy — room on the top bunk, Alycia Cassini, Stacey’s roommate, remembers conversations filled with compassion and kindness, without judgment.

Stacey was the one everybody could turn to.

“She was such a positive influence for the sorority,” Cassini said. “She was more than a friend. She definitely was a sister for me.”

From the day she joined ADPi in January 1994, Stacey participated in various volunteer opportunities, including at the Ronald McDonald House. Her giving spirit earned her the role of vice president at the sorority, alongside Katie Knostman, former president. 

“She felt pretty passionately about that. She was willing to help out on pretty much anything that needed to be done,” Knostman said. 

While balancing her engagements and sorority life, Stacey prioritized her schoolwork and was an active member of the American Marketing Association. Having overcome a problem with her eyesight that created a learning disability, she worked especially hard to achieve her grades and sought out opportunities for her future, Knostman said.

Her hard work landed her an internship at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with McDonald’s, for which she was tasked with creating a marketing plan. This opportunity gave her a look into her dream career.

“She loved, loved, loved that,” Nusbaum remembered of her sister. “That was like an instant match for her personality.”

With her head in the books during the week, her feet were on the dance floor on weekends. Dancing at any opportunity she had, Stacey quickly became the life of the party with her extroverted personality and bubbly style, Knostman said. Once on the Trojets dance team at her high school in Charleston, Illinois, Stacey’s moves stuck with her.

“She was probably the most into dancing of anybody that I’ve had in my life,” Knostman laughed.

College parties and sorority events soon turned into jobs and weddings. After graduation, Stacey remained an active member of Ohio State’s ADPi chapter and enjoyed mentoring new members and participating in recruitment events for the sorority.

“She loved all the women that were involved and was happy to stay and help out,” Knostman said. 

Knostman remembers Stacey right by her side at her wedding. 

Within six months of Knotsman’s wedding, her vibrant, loving, cheerful, dancing best friend-turned-sister was gone.

Part three – Searching for Stacey

The night she discovered her younger sister was missing, Nusbaum stayed up with police until 3 a.m., answering the same questions again and again to several detectives and units.

“When was the last time you saw her? Is there any reason she might leave in a hurry? Was she planning any trips? Could she have just gone out running? Who were her friends? Is there anyone who doesn’t like her?” detectives asked.

Police were running out of time. Since the crime occurred during spring break, many of Stacey’s friends were still out of town. Seventy-two hours had passed by the time her employer called to alert Nusbaum that Stacey was missing.

“If you’re not finding things within 24 hours, there is less and less of a chance of it being resolved,” Nusbaum said.

By March 31, a week had passed since Stacey’s disappearance, and the campus mourned.

Hundreds of students huddled together underneath the canopies of the heritage trees, and members of the Greek community and Columbus locals covered the Oval. They left behind a trail of lit candles and printed posters in hopes of bringing Stacey home.

“It was just a sobering reminder of the evil and the harsh realities that are out there in the world when you’re just starting to learn about the world while you’re in college,” Reese said.

The grief was carried among the masses and publicized by local news networks, capturing it all. Community awareness was an essential aspect in the police’s strategy to find Stacey.

Judge Amy Salerno, then-state representative in the Ohio House of Representatives, spoke to the large crowd at the vigil. 

“This was our university, our town, our community, and we’ve lost a woman,” Salerno recalled. “We don’t know where [she went]. I mean, what woman could not think about, ‘What if it were my child, my daughter, my sister or my best friend?’ and then not knowing what happened to her?” 

According to the Columbus Police Public Records Unit, 498 missing persons reports were filed in 1998. 

Only one or two cases end up going unsolved most years. Those cases are often homicides, a representative of the Columbus Police Missing Persons Division said.

As the vigil came to a close, Nusbaum recalled former WCMH News Channel 4 reporter, Holly Hollingsworth, sharing a story with her about another missing girl, who was captured for a week but managed to escape. After hearing this, Nusbaum said she believed Stacey could come back home, too.

“Having that little light of hope was something that I desperately needed,” Nusbaum said.

Part four – A new development

As the investigation went on, police kept Nusbaum informed on new developments, information in the media, or any tips as they conducted interviews.

By 2004 — six years after Stacey’s disappearance — police had exhausted all suspects, and leads slowly began to dry up. The case was at a standstill.

“It just kills you from the inside out,” Nusbaum said. “You pray for their safe return. You want them to come back.”

On Saturday, Nov. 27, 2004, Ray Parsons, a hunter, went in search of his lost companion dog along a wooded area by the Scioto River on State Route 257 North in Delaware County, Ohio.

Beneath tree leaves and scattered debris, Parsons stumbled across something — human bones.

The Delaware County coroner joined the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation at the scene. In the next two to three days, 70 percent of a person’s skeletal remains were found across the same general area. Dental records identified the remains as Stacey Colbert’s. 

With a lack of physical evidence at the scene, her cause of death remains undetermined.

What started off as a missing person’s case could now be confirmed as a homicide, something Franklin County detectives had suspected all along. 

“When Columbus [Police] initially took the report as a missing person’s report, they handled it as a homicide because things just didn’t add up based on the evidence that was at her apartment,” Detective Jeff Bessinger said. Bessinger has been with the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office for nearly 20 years,13 spent as an investigator. 

He said he could not go into detail about the evidence found at the apartment.

Swapped from one jurisdiction to the other, Stacey’s case became even more challenging. 

“All of a sudden, we have a victim of a homicide in our county that we knew nothing about,” Bessinger said. “So we’re already behind the eight ball, to say, because we’ve lost six years where we’re not involved.” 

Bessinger is used to working between jurisdictions as many homicide cases from Franklin County end up in Delaware County jurisdiction due to a body being discovered, such as in Stacey’s case.

“Unfortunately, Delaware County a lot of times turns out to be what we refer to as a dumping ground for bodies,” Bessinger said. “We find ourselves dealing with the aftermath from bodies from other agencies.”

Bessinger said Delaware County’s cold case unit is currently dealing with about 15 unsolved cases, including Stacey’s. The oldest dates back to 1971, the newest from 2007.

He’s reexamined every detail, starting from the very beginning of Stacey’s case file. From reinterviewing suspects to going back to the original scene at the apartment, Bessinger’s given every inch a new set of eyes. 

There are many barriers to reaching a resolution in cold cases, including lack of physical evidence and DNA, exhausted leads, suspects refusing to speak with police and a lack of evidence to indict them. As time passes, people’s memories fade, witnesses die and victims get forgotten, Bessinger said.

He faced all of these issues in trying to solve Stacey’s case. There’s no clear suspect to this day.

“With cold cases, they’re cold for a reason,” Bessinger said. “It’s not for a lack of effort from investigators for trying.”

Fifteen years have passed since Bessinger was assigned Stacey’s case. He still calls Nusbaum regularly to check in. Like clockwork, he reviews Stacey’s case file every morning and goes to sleep with it on his mind every night. 

“It wears on you,” Bessinger said. “I know that [Nusbaum] is depending on me to solve this case, and if I’m not doing anything, I’m letting her down.” 

As the years have gone by, Bessinger has formed a bond with the Colbert family, even though close members have now died. 

“I’ve watched her dad pass away. I’ve watched her Uncle Gerry pass away,” Bessinger said. “I answer to Danielle, and I answer to Stacey. Unfortunately, she’s not here to tell us what happened, we need to figure that out.”

Part five – The aftermath

Ronna Colbert (left) and Danielle Nusbaum (right) flip through old photo albums of Stacey created by her sorority sisters for her family. Credit: Jack Long | Special Projects Director

Twenty-one years ago, Stacey’s family got the phone call that she was missing.

Fifteen years ago, they got the call that her body was found.

Now, they wait for the call that her killer has been caught.

“The next phase, if there’s justice, those wounds will be reopened,” Nusbaum said. “As much as we need this to happen for the full case to close, and for it to not happen to anybody else, going through that next phase is a little daunting as a family.”

The next phase would mean undergoing a trial, if someone is indicted for Stacey’s murder.

With 11-year-old twins of her own, Nusbaum worries how this could affect their young lives and the toll the investigation has already taken. 

“I don’t think any family should suffer the way that my family has suffered,” Nusbaum said. “Even the guy who did it, I would not wish that on them.”

Stacey’s mother, Ronna Colbert, waits for what may never come: closure.

“The hardest thing as a parent is when someone says, ‘How many children do you have?’ and to say ‘I had two’,” Colbert said through tears. “You’re always waiting for that shoe to drop and your life to go back to what it was. The physical pain is gone, but the sorrow and the grief is never gone.”

Her family keeps Stacey’s memory alive through pictures or telling a story that brings her into the scene. But it’s never the same. At every gathering, there’s always an empty chair, Nusbaum said.

“Someone who’s a part of your life, day in and day out, a part of your being, a part of what you know,” Nusbaum said. “When they disappear, it’s hard. You still want to make that call to them.”

A website, “Find Stacey” is still online today, a remnant with her missing poster and contact numbers of family members who died waiting for the phone call. 

Knostman said she has dreams of sitting around and talking with her best friend again.

Nusbaum waits for another one of Bessinger’s phone calls.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Nusbaum said with tears in her eyes. “You think after all these years, you’re just used to living with the pain, but you don’t. You can’t get used to it.”

With information on Stacey Colbert, contact Detective Jeff Bessinger at 740-833-2892 or JBessinger@co.delaware.oh.us

Campus-area cold cases

Stacey Colbert is one of at least five students or recent Ohio State graduates whose homicides took place in the late ’90s and early 2000s and still remain unsolved. Each case remains a mystery with no explanation and few details to go off of, leaving family members still searching for answers.

This information has been gathered from Lantern archives and police reports, as detectives of some cases were unable to be reached, and some detectives declined to speak on the case. Family members contacted did not respond to phone calls and emails.

Kyle Schaulin

On March 18, 1997, three men walked into the 11th-Avenue apartment where Kyle Schaulin, a 19-year-old second-year at Ohio State, and his roommates lived around 11 a.m.

One roommate heard a scuffle coming from Schaulin’s bedroom and went to investigate. According to police, the roommate was backed down the hallway at gunpoint and escaped out the bathroom window upstairs.

Schaulin was gunned down in his bedroom. He was pronounced dead 20 minutes later at the Ohio State Medical Center. The men ran out and headed southbound toward an alley behind the house, then ran east.

Charles “Chico” Ballard

On Feb. 9, 2000, Charles “Chico” Ballard, a 22-year-old fourth-year in mechanical engineering, was found murdered in the basement of his apartment on 17th Avenue. 

Half of his body was partially burned and gunshot wounds were found to his head, chest and abdomen. A gun was found at the scene, which police believed was Ballard’s.

His body was discovered by police at 6 p.m., after a friend of his called to report his back door open with no trace of Ballard.

Kohler Barker 

At the Harrison House apartments on Lane Avenue, just steps away from North Campus residence halls, police responded to a noise complaint coming from 25-year-old Ohio State alumnus Kohler Barker’s apartment on Saturday, June 3, 2000.

After hearing nothing unusual and receiving no response from Barker, police left.

The following Wednesday morning, an apartment complex employee discovered Barker’s body in his apartment. He bled to death due to a cut on the upper region of his body.

David Slater Jr. 

During the early hours of June 9, 2002, David Slater Jr., a 22-year-old fourth-year, died from a gunshot wound to the chest on 16th Avenue. 

The bullet struck him through the rear window of his friend’s car.

Before he was killed, Slater reportedly got in an argument with the suspect or suspects.

Clarification: Though police told The Lantern in August that Kohler Barker’s case is still considered open, a man admitted to his involvement in 2012. The killer has not been charged.