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Disappearance, death of Bates County mother Nicole Mallatt still haunts family, investigators

Posted: 2:38 PM, Mar 01, 2023
Updated: 2023-03-14 17:36:29-04
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Editor's Note: This story spans two video reports. The second report will be added to this story when it airs on Thursday, March 2, 2023.

Nicole Mallatt was one of the sweetest people they've ever met, those closest to her tell me.

"She was so pretty," Debbie Lewis, Nicole's mom, said. "And so sweet."

She went through some setbacks in her life, but her kids were always the most important thing in the world to her.

"She was the epitome of the best mother ever," Nicole's friend Heather Smith said. "I give her credit for being the kind of mother I am today."

Nicole's disappearance and death still haunts her friends and family three years later, as they wonder where the case stands.

Investigators themselves are frustrated because they say someone knows what happened.

Was it a homicide? Was there a crime at all?

As a reporter with the KSHB 41 I-Team, I've been following this story since Nicole disappeared in 2019.

"I think a lot of people know what happened to my daughter," her mom Debbie told me in a recent interview.

Nicole, a mother of four, disappeared and was found dead just down the road from her own house.

"There's a lot of rumors we chase down around there, but somebody firsthand knows, and that's what we're looking for," Bates County Sheriff Chad Anderson told me recently.

Rumors surrounding her death in rural Bates County have haunted Nicole's family for three years.

"We've gotten phone calls from people saying they've seen things," her mom said. "Until I find justice for her, she'll never be at peace and I'll never be at peace."

Some may consider Bates County the middle of nowhere, a place where farmland stretches as far as you can see in some parts.

Investigators searched for Nicole across vast fields and rivers, only to discover she was practically next door the whole time.

The timeline

Nicole disappeared around Thanksgiving time - Nov. 26, 2019.

Searchers found clues days later along a nearby creek, just down the hill from the home Nicole shared with her longtime boyfriend, Brad Shreve, and their four kids.

The home sits off SW County Road 3508 and SW County Road 4647, running along the east side of the property line. The creek cuts through the property north of the home and underneath 4647 road, going into a neighboring bean field.

"That's the location where we found her shoes and backpack," Sheriff Anderson told me. 

That's where they also found her phone.

Anderson said her belongings were located along the creek, about 100 yards off 4647 road.

Anderson is leading the investigation. He says they treat death investigations like a homicide, unless proven otherwise.

Anderson learned Nicole had been with her ex-husband, Richie Mallatt, the night of Nov. 26. Anderson said Richie told investigators he picked Nicole up down the road from the house. They hung out for a little while and afterward, he told investigators he dropped Nicole off right where he picked her up.

"I do know her ex-husband was the last one to see her in that general area and that was up by the road," Anderson said.

We have reached out to Richie multiple times to ask him about what happened that night but he declined our requests.

According to a Bates County Sheriff's Office call report, a neighbor was driving when he saw who he believed to be Nicole, standing on the road next to her house the night she went missing.

I talked to that neighbor, Josh Mellenbruch, who said he slowed down and asked Nicole if she needed a ride since she was standing out in the dark. She declined the ride, saying she was waiting on someone to pick her up.

Mellenbruch said he continued driving and that's the last interaction he had with her. Mellenbruch said he remembers her wearing a hoodie and having a backpack.

Days went by.

On Friday, Nov. 29, Brad's family reported Nicole Missing after having no contact with her.

A missing persons advisory at the time said Nicole might have suicidal ideations, which Nicole's family strongly denies.

"She would not leave her kids, I don't care what anybody says," her mother told me.

Sheriff Anderson convened a large search party the following week with help from other agencies, activating the Southwest Missouri Major Case Squad. They searched waterways, wooded areas and fields.

Brad's property he shares with his mother was also searched and processed by the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department's Crime Lab.

Nicole's family gathered to do searches and vigils of their own.

The family hired a private investigator, hoping he could narrow down some leads.

The relationship between Nicole's family and Brad's family soured in the initial months after Nicole after missing.

Tensions came to a head in June 2020 when the sheriff's office received several calls about a disturbance when Nicole's supporters came to the area to do searches and vigils.

Arguments broke out between Nicole's family and Brad's family, according to police reports obtained by KSHB 41. Nicole's supporters pointed fingers at Brad for Nicole's disappearance and Brad's family accused the other side of making threats and blocking their property's driveway.

Finding Nicole

I was in Bates County at the end of 2019 when the search was underway. What I didn't know at the time was that Nicole's remains were just a bit further down the creek from where her belongings were found, about 500 yards away from her property line and the surrounding search parties.

No one would know that until a year later.

"When the farmer plowed his field, they found her femur inside her sweatpants in his field," Lewis told me.

The farmer who found Nicole's leg bone in the field discovered the rest of Nicole's remains at the edge of the creek. It's the same creek where crews searched and the same creek where they found her phone, shoes and backpack.

Her mother wonders how no one found her at first.

"That killed me when I found out," Lewis told me. "I knew it was so close. I knew we were close to Nicole."

The Bates County Coroner, Greg Mullinax, said because of all the time that had passed, he and other experts can't definitively say how Nicole died just by looking at her remains. An autopsy didn't show any signs of trauma.

"Seems unlikely that it would be a natural death, but it does not mean necessarily that it's a homicide," Mullinax says. "There are other possibilities."

Mullinax goes more in-depth about the autopsy later in this story.

Retracing Nicole's steps

"I don't know what to do anymore. If I don't leave here soon, he's only going to end up killing me."

Debbie told me she talked to Nicole on the phone the day she disappeared. It was a Tuesday and Thanksgiving was two days away. Debbie says Nicole wouldn't miss a holiday with the kids.

"She called me for recipes and stuff," Debbie told me. "She was going to have this dinner for her kids. They were going to help mom cook."

Nicole was looking forward to the holiday, but some of her family and friends say they received messages from Nicole in October and November that they found troubling.

I've reviewed screenshots of those messages and confirmed each conversation with the people Nicole was talking to. Sheriff Anderson confirmed the messages are part of the investigative file.

Sheriff Anderson says he believes Nicole was scared at home and the messages were likely about her boyfriend, Brad. In some of the conversations, however, the messages don't say who she's talking about.

In October, a month before she disappeared, Nicole texted one of her aunts.

"I don't know what to do anymore," Nicole wrote. "If I don't leave here soon, he's only going to end up killing me."

The next day, she sent out another text to a close friend.

"He flipped out on me last night. I need to get away ASAP," she wrote.

Heather Smith, who was friends with Nicole for more than 20 years, told he Nicole "just wasn't in a good place."

Heather Smith and Nicole Mallatt

Smith told me that she saw Nicole that October and talked for hours.

"I begged her to leave, you know?" Smith says. "She said after Thanksgiving that if things continued to go the way they were going, she was going to leave."

Then, on Nov. 25, the day before she disappeared, Nicole sent out more messages to friends and family.

"Please come and get me today," Nicole wrote. "He is going to end up killing me. I just have to get out of here please."

Also on Nov. 25, Nicole messaged her sister-in-law saying she might need to stay with them for a couple of days, detailing a fight she and Brad got into just days prior.

I spoke to Brad over the phone. He acknowledged their relationship wasn't good, but says he had nothing to do with Nicole's disappearance and death.

He said right before Nicole's disappearance, the two were fighting so he left for his dad's house in Butler, Missouri, about 20 minutes away. I was able to corroborate Brad's story with his father.

When Brad got back to his house, he said Nicole was gone.

I asked him about the texts and Brad told me he didn't know why Nicole would send texts like that. He said he would never take his kids' mother away from them.

Nicole's home life

Several friends and family members told me domestic violence had been a part of Nicole and Brad's 18-year relationship.

One of those times is documented in court records, when, in 2018, Nicole was with another man in his home. The probable cause statement says Brad walked in and beat them both up, which led to a pair of assault charges filed against Brad.

The court records say Brad punched Nicole in the face.

In October 2019, a month before she disappeared, court records say Nicole called the police for a "domestic disturbance" at their home. When a sheriff's deputy knocked on the door, Nicole said she'd told dispatchers not to send anyone after all.

Brad ended up charged with an illegal marijuana grow operation and felony possession of a gun after the deputy looked around the house.

Brad and Nicole told the deputy the disturbance was just verbal and they wouldn't pursue charges.

In the police report, the deputy told the pair that if the sheriff's office got called back, both could possibly go to jail.

Then the deputy wrote that Nicole was "upset and kept insisting I take Shreve to jail."

The deputy noted in a court document that due to Brad's prior drug and assault charges, he felt Brad was a danger to the community.

Persons of interest

"We have not excluded anybody, whether it be family, friends, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands."

Sheriff Anderson told me they know about the arguing going on in Nicole's home and those messages, but it doesn't mean they can arrest someone in connection to her disappearance and death.

It's something that doesn't sit with with Nicole's family.

"We're kind of still just stuck from day one, like 'What happened to Nicole?,'" her mom told me.

Anderson says they don't want to rush into bringing charges against anyone.

"I'm not saying we agree or disagree with the family, but we have to work off what the evidence shows and what we can show in a court beyond a reasonable doubt," Anderson says.

The sheriff's office says both Brad and Richie are persons of interest in the case, which they say is standard because one is a domestic partner and the other is one of the last people who saw Nicole.

The sheriff's office said "a couple" other people within their circle are also persons of interest but wouldn't give us names.

"We have not excluded anybody, whether it be family, friends, boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, ex-husbands," Anderson says. "We're still treating it like there could be foul play."

I've reached out to Richie multiple times, but he would not speak to me.

Anderson says his detectives have questioned both men multiple times but can't provide any information about what came out of those talks. They've also administered lie detector tests to more than one person but say they can't say who or provide the results.

Lie detector tests are not admissible in court.

"I think it's best for us to keep it as an open case and continue to investigate it so we can get answers for the family," Anderson told me.

In the meantime, Nicole's family is left waiting, hoping the truth will surface.

"I just want justice for Nicole," her mom says. "I want someone to come forward and tell us what happened."

The autopsy

"She was in a place that doesn't make sense. The overall setting is certainly unusual."

Because Nicole's case is still open, the sheriff's office is limited to what information they can provide.

Instead, I spoke with Greg Mullinax, the coroner, to walk us through Nicole's autopsy.

"If there was an answer there, I would have found it," he told me.

He says with no other choice, the cause and manner of Nicole's death were marked "undetermined."

By the time the farmer had found her remains, there were only bones, which didn't give Mullinax and other experts much to work with.

"Toxicology is extremely helpful," he said. "This field depends hufely on bloodwork."

But he didnt' have any blood in ths case, which he told me "hugely" limits him.

"It leaves questions permanently unanswered," Mullinax said.

Mullinax sought help from a forensic pathologist at Forensic Medical of Kansas & Topeka and Washburn University's forensic anthropology lab.

They concluded that Nicole's remains were in a wet environment for some time and eventually settled into a depression in the dirt on the side of the creek and stayed there.

They concluded her remains were there for less than 18 months, which matched up to how long she was missing.

They couldn't see any evidence that anyone dug a hole or buried her there.

"She was in a place that doesn't make sense," Mullinax said. "The overall setting is certainly unusual."

They examined the bones, looking for any perimortem trauma, which are injuries that happen at the time of death - oftentimes the most important indicators as to how someone died - but didn't find any.

They found a healed fracture in Nicole's collar bone and fractures in a bone where her neck meets her back, but Mullinax said those injuries could have happened earlier in her life.

"Looking at remains like these forces me to consider options that are not traumatic in death, which is hard to conceive based on where she was found and what we know of circumstances," Mullinax said.

He said nothing else on her remains told him anything else.

Mullinax even asked outside experts at the University of Nebraska Forensic Anthropology Lab to analyze the remains. He wanted to see if they could find evidence of trauma.

They couldn't.

"I am very hopeful that I will get to draw a conclusion," he told me. "It saddens me that of my own work, I won't be able to do that, it won't take me there. I do hope the rest of the story is told."

How did no one find her at first?

Her loved ones might have more answers today if Nicole was found sooner.

"It just makes me sick because I was so close to her," her friend Heather Smith told me.

Nicole's body was found not even 600 yards away from the property where she lived.

You'll recall that teams of people searched all throughout that same area when she initially went missing.

"Our speciality is on the diving end of it, the water searches," Dan LaDue, Chief of Newton County, Missouri's Rescue and Recovery unit, told me.

LaDue's dive team was one of the search crews. He has 15 years experience himself.

Bates County called them in to search the creek on Dec. 4, 2019 because Sheriff Anderson said a cadaver dog picked up on a scent at the edge of the water.

"They said, 'This is where we think. We've got some evidence that shows us this might be the place,'" Ladue told me.

His crews searched for hours over two days. His divers are experienced, he says. He only puts the best people in the water.

"I got a lot of confidence that she was not in the area we searched," LaDue told me.

Newton County Rescue and Recovery was called out to search the creek for Nicole Mallatt.

LaDue's team wasn't instructed to search the entire creek. LaDue gave me his crew's location and it was just a little further north, maybe 200 yards, from where Nicole was eventually found.

It's at that same time that Sheriff Anderson believes Nicole was in the water, possibly hung up in the many tree branches and roots.

"Had she been found sooner, would that have made a difference? If very well potentially could have," Anderson told me. "I don't know what else we could have done short of a miracle."

The thought eats away at Nicole's mom every day.

"How horrible is it for them kids to know that their mom's body was laying practically next door to them for a year?" her mom asks.

And it's painful for Nicole's friends, who say the world lost a good person when she died.

"She never judged anyone for anything," her friend Heather Smith told me. "She loved everybody."

But the answers are there, they say, and they're going to surface one way or another.

"Just to lay her at rest and let her kids have some peace," her mom says. "Maybe let her kids see what really happened. I can't help her. She's already gone."

Nicole's story does not end here.

It's possible investigators have more information that they can't release to the public right now.

It's important to remember that no one has been charged in Nicole's death at the time this story was published. A bad home life does not immediately point to guilt.

But the case is still open and investigators want to bring a resolution to this case.

If you have any information about what happened the night Nicole went missing, call the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-8477. If you have a piece to the story that I should investigate, e-mail me at