Where is Nieko Lisi?
That’s what several hundred people in Elkland, Pa., were asking on Saturday, April 25. Friends, family members and community members, some of whom work lime green shirts with #TEAMNIEKO written across the front in black lettering.
It’s been more than nine years and six months since anyone last saw Lisi.
Some of these people knew Lisi while others maybe just saw his missing poster circulated online, but together they gathered at the Durk Sherman Memorial Complex in what might have seemed like any other event with a chicken barbeque and bake sale, a raffle for a Florida vacation, live music and a cornhole tournament. But this event was not to celebrate, but an effort to help find a missing son and brother.
Lisi, an 18-year-old man from rural Steuben County, New York, just across the Pennsylvania state line, is believed to have been in Middle Tennessee in late September or early October of 2011 and he has never been heard from since.
Lisi is believed to have traveled to Franklin, Tenn., in September 2011 in a stolen 2004 GMC Canyon pickup truck that he left New York in with a friend, first traveling to Michigan before making it to Williamson County.
While Lisi was reportedly last seen in Addison, New York, on Sept. 30, he spoke with a family member on the phone on Oct. 1 — the last time his family would speak to him.
Two days later Lisi’s mother received an envelope with Lisi’s driver’s license and a note saying it had been found in Hornell, New York, just some 20 miles away from Lisi’s home.
Once police began investigating they discovered that Lisi’s phone had been pinged on a cell tower in the early days of October in Franklin, Tenn., and someone possibly saw him on Oct. 1 on Franklin's Flintlock Drive.
Lisi was not unfamiliar with Franklin or some of its residents, as he spent several months as a student at Franklin High School while living with relatives before returning to New York.
The case seemingly went cold until the summer of 2016 when New York State Police investigators and Franklin Police Department detectives got a huge break in the case. They found the stripped and disassembled frame of the 2004 GMC pickup truck stored in a residential detached garage in Nashville.
Law enforcement is not disclosing the exact location of the garage and adjacent home, but the Sylvan Park home was known at the time to have been rented out to tenants and was the location of frequent house parties for teens and young adults.
At that point in the search, the New York State Police were the lead investigators, but in October of 2017 TBI took over as the lead agency in the investigation. They refocused the search in Middle Tennessee with this new piece of the puzzle that hinted at the possibility of foul play.
“It just only made sense with as much information that we could gather down here that it would be more feasible for a state agency in Tennessee to be involved and essentially take it over so we could follow up on it,” TBI Special Agent Nathan Neese said while sitting in a fluorescent-lit training room filled with table and chairs inside TBI headquarters.
“New York State Police did a tremendous amount of work prior to us getting involved and some of that work included their local communities up in New York and down to Michigan that was part of this investigation,” Neese said.
Neese has been on the case since 2017, four of his 21-year law enforcement career, and while he said that he’s never had a case where they’ve found all of the pieces of the puzzle, he insisted that TBI is not slowing down in their search for any hint at an answer.
“This is not a cold case,” Neese said. “This is an active investigation, that is a case that I must report on every 90 days.”
Neese carries the case files with him daily, allowing him to review reports and evidence whenever he has a minute to reexamine the narratives, the details, the gaps between information that he’s hunting.
“It doesn't matter how small the information or how trivial you might think it is,” Neese said. “It could be the breaking point for a case if you have any information. So it’s important that we try and get out there and get every piece of the puzzle that we can get in a case like this.”
Neese said that the case is classified as a missing persons case, one that he hopes will end with finding Lisi alive and healthy, but he’s not unaware of the chance that Lisi may have met an unfortunate end years ago.
“That’s the worst case scenario, that Mr. Lisi has passed away, and the circumstances behind that is what I’m trying to figure out,” Neese said. “Just like I told his mother, though, if I’m incorrect and he’s alive, and that’s the best case scenario, that we find him and he’s well and we can reunite them. But I just know that somebody who hasn't made contact with family members, that they've lived with and loved, and not reached out for any reason — it's just hard to say that he hasn't met some kind of foul play."
For Lisi’s mother Monica Button, the search, the stress and the grief has brought her to a place of just wanting to close this chapter of their lives and be able to lay her son to rest.
"My main focus is just to find my son's remains," Button said. "If anybody knows anything I want them to come forward to the police, to me, anonymously to either, I don't care. My focus is to find my son. My focus is not on the people responsible anymore — I need to know where my son is. That's my focus, to find him, and I hope that someone with information will come forward."
Button’s been working since the very beginning to bring Lisi home, since she first reported to the police in New York that she believed he had stolen the GMC truck. Button said her goal was always to just get Lisi home, but she had no idea how long she would be waiting.
"Time stopped for me,” Button said. “Nieko is still 18 to me."
Button has spent much of the last nine and a half years looking for answers — questioning people on what they may know, posting up missing flyers in New York and Franklin, attending the annual Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons conference, speaking publicly about her son, raising money for a reward fund and at times advocating for law enforcement to do more to find Lisi.
She’s also still a mother to three other children, one of whom was born just 13 months before Lisi.
"I look at him and think, what would Nieko be doing right now, where would he be in life?” Button said. “It's sometimes hard because I look at my 12 year old and I think about how I've spent a lot of time away from her because it's the benefit, or I'm going to Tennessee or I'm going to the CUE conference, it's all surrounding Nieko because he's missing, but I would do the same for any of my children."
Button got help from around 40 people to put on this spring’s fundraiser whose money will aid in supplying the $8,500 reward fund set up by the family or other expenses such as possible legal services.
Button said that the support, especially from some in her community who just didn’t initially understand the severity of the situation nearly a decade ago is vital to her mission to bring Lisi home, but despite that support, no one can really understand what she’s been experiencing for so long.
"I miss hearing him laugh, I miss hearing him come down the hallway and yelling my name or I miss him coming into the kitchen and wanting to help me make a lasagna, I miss watching him play basketball and being excited on Christmas and having him say that Thanksgiving is his favorite time of year and always wanting to help with the turkey, I miss all of that stuff,” Button said with a tearful, cracking voice of a mother.
"I carried that little boy in my stomach, I carried him for nine months, I delivered him and gave birth to him, I cared for him, I fed him, I bathed him, I clothed him everyday," Button said. "And even when he was old enough to take his own showers and make his own peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I was always there."
Button does not believe that her son is alive, but without answers or some semblance of closure she is left most days to try her best to suppress those feelings of hurt, anger, torture and anxiety.
"People don't understand it," Button said. "They just can't understand until they've been in my shoes."
She has found some support in the Center For Missing Persons, a bond through trauma and unanswered questions with mothers, fathers, brothers, and daughters just like her.
"You're never judged there. They just accept you, and we all understand what each other are going through," Button said. "When I am with the people at the CUE Center, it's like you can let it all out and let it all go and it's like a thousand pounds lifted off your shoulders."
Button recalled a moment about six months after Lisi had been missing, when she met a woman whose son had been missing for five years.
“Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought that I would see a five-year anniversary of my son being missing," Button said. "Now I am going on 10 years."
And while their shared connection offers support in the face of endless unanswered questions, Button said that "it's the club nobody wants to belong to type of thing.”
"The feeling never goes away, the loss, the torture, the unknown is the worst part for all of us in this situation," Button said. "Even if their loved one is found, they don't always find out all of the details as to what happened to their loved one. They have comfort in knowing that their loved one has been returned, but you don't always get the whole story, and that's something that keeps us up at night."
While Button is now focused on bringing her son home, she knows that the answers, the puzzle pieces and the path ahead lie with those who know something, who may have done something to Lisi.
“These people are obviously older now and some of them may have children, and they need to really think about that and put themselves in my position and ask themselves, 'Oh, my god, what would I do if anything ever happened to my child?'" Button said.
Button acknowledges that Lisi wasn’t perfect, wasn’t always in the right and did some things wrong, but like any loving mother, that love is not bound by tallied mistakes and missteps.
"It's an unconditional love, and no matter what your child does wrong or right in life you always want to know where they are. I do not think that my son is alive, but I think that I'm owed that by the people who did whatever they did to him," Button said. "Somebody needs to man-up and just tell us — just tell us where he is."
For Neese, every year that goes by makes his investigation that much more challenging.
“Over time talking to people becomes more difficult because of certain circumstances, whether they move out of state, whether they pass away, witnesses forget, their memories fade so a lot of things kind of hinder once you start talking to people about what they remember back from ten years ago,” Neese said.
But while some people may have attempted to move on from their memories of Lisi, Neese is in it for the long haul, trying to put himself in the shoes of those hurting.
“These types of cases are difficult as I get invested. This is what I do. This is what I’ve done the better part of my life and it’s all I know, and for me it’s personal,” Neese said. “I went to a training class one time, and the motto was when we got done — it was a homicide class — ‘Remember we work for God.’ We’re out there for the family as well, but we’re trying to do what some people don’t want [us] to do, so it’s important for me to do that with 100 percent effort everyday.”
At this point in an investigation, Neese is relying on people who are willing to come forward with anything — a memory of the truck or house in Nashville, something somebody told them about Lisi long ago, a secret they’ve been hiding for years. He says nothing is too small or insignificant.
“My prayer and hope to everybody out there who reads this and gets this information, is I want them to come forward, and that they have the courage to come forward and the security to know that our case files are confidential,” Neese said. “Call 1-800-TBI-FIND and tell them that you have information on the Nieko Lisi case and it will get to me.”
“Come forward,” Neese said. “I understand the fear because of maybe knowing that the information that they know could be detrimental to someone else, but come forward. I would hope that it’s not something that someone wants to live with if they have information that could help bring a son home to their mother, regardless of what condition that may be, weather it’s to have a proper funeral or if it’s for a joyous reunion of someone who was scared themselves and just scared of what would happen after time passed.”
Every so often Franklin residents on their way to school, work or the grocery store will see missing posters featuring Lisi’s face posted to stop signs, as printed yard signs or on a billboard.
In just a few months they will once again be posted just outside of where Lisi walked the halls of FHS, and as they become part of the landscape for the 10th year, the mystery still remains painful and raw for Lisi’s family and friends who still ask, “Where is Nieko?”
Button continues to advocate for her son on the Search For Nieko Lisi Facebook page, and law enforcement asks that anyone with any information about Lisi or his disappearance call 1-800-TBI-FIND, or submit a tip online by emailing [email protected].