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The Roar of the PumpJack

Updated: Apr 11

Small town, USA, just 60 miles south of the Canadian border sits Williston, North Dakota. In the 1980’s Williston had a population of just under 14,000. However, numbers fluctuate often, more specifically when there is an “oil boom”. The first major discovery of petroleum in North Dakota was in 1951, in a wheat field on the Clarence Iverson farm near Tioga, in Williams County. This discovery set the tone for what North Dakota is known for. It significantly impacted the economy, culture, and landscape in small towns. In April 1981, 127,000 oil barrels were produced and the influx in population skyrocketed from 14,000 to 25,000. While the “boom” was ideal for some opportunities, attempting to pinpoint just who was working these fields decades later is next to impossible. This inflow just might be the key to unlock a mystery in small town USA so many years ago.


Barbara Cotton, forever 15

First, I want to thank Diane, Barbara’s sister, for speaking with me. Diane only remembers so much from the time she last saw her sister, which in itself is truly heartbreaking. A sister, a distant memory because someone took her from Diane’s life. Additionally, I would like to thank Kathy, Barbara's youngest sister for her insight. I also want to thank Lisa Jo, she married into the Cotton family. She is also a family advocate for sharing what she knows about her lost aunt, one she never met. Lisa Jo is a genetic genealogist and researcher of missing and unidentified cold cases. A special shout-out goes to James Wolner of Dakota Spotlight. "Without James, Barb’s case would not be where it is today." -Lisa Jo


Barbara Louise Cotton was born November 10th, 1965, in Tioga, North Dakota to Louise and John Cotton. Barbara was the seventh of eight children. In order there was John, Frank, Dorothy, Joe, Bernard (passed away at age 2), Diane, Kent, Barbara, Kathy. The Cotton family lived on a rural piece of property, in a one-bedroom trailer. There were what could only be described as three sheds that attached to the trailer home. Still not spacious but they had what they needed. Although John Cotton had decent employment at MDU (Montana/Dakota Utilities) money was tight to feed and take care of eight children as during this time Louise was a homemaker.



Barbara Cotton was affectionately known as Barb to her friends and family. Barb was described as timid but a social butterfly at the same time. “She was quiet until you got to know her”. Barb’s aunt nicknamed her “bubbles” for her bubbly personality. She cared deeply and was always there when you needed her. Barb was an animal lover of all kinds. When Barb was young her parents Louise and John divorced, in the early 70’s. After the divorce Louise took her 3 youngest children, Kent, Barb, and Kathy and moved an hour away to Williston. Barb’s brother Kent was a year older, and sister Kathy was 2 years younger.  The five older children were adults at this point and were already living on their own. Now as a single mother, Louise had to work many hours to make ends meet. When the family moved to Williston, the children had a babysitter for a couple of years but, eventually, the children were expected to take care of themselves and each other while Louise was working. They had to grow up fast. Faster than Louise would have preferred in some cases.  However, she did what she had to do to keep them fed and maintain a roof over their heads. John Cotton passed away in 1978, still owning the property where all his children grew up. After his passing the property was inherited by the older children which was later sold. The younger bunch received social security benefits. Barb had savings for her benefits. Diane, although an adult and having a family of her own, remembers seeing her siblings often during the summer months. Barb would visit and stay weekends at her sister’s home, and they just had fun. Barb blossomed into a teenager, she always wanted to be with friends. Barb had two really close friendships during this time, Sandee Evanson and Diane. Sandee was one year older than Barb, but the interests still aligned. Sandee’s mother and Louise also became good friends. Barb and Sandee grew apart in some ways within the year 1980, because Sandee was now a high school student. They started their own friend circles, but they never lost touch, still hearing from each other at least once a week. Barb and Diane were nearly inseparable. They enjoyed going to coffee shops and watching their favorite horror flick. Barb was set to be Diane’s maid of honor, in July 1981. A role Barb never got to fulfill. Both girls worked at local diners and were saving money to get their own apartments when they turned 16. Diane worked at the Thunderbird Cafe and Barbara worked at Country Kitchen. Today Diane recalls the week leading up to April 11, 1981, she and Barb were not attached to the hip like usual. In reflection Diane believes something during this week changed but no one knows what that could have been. Barb never met a stranger and trusted people more than she should have.




The story presented back in 1981 went something like this.

“Barb was last seen on April 11th, 1981, after having dinner with her boyfriend and another friend (this was not Sandee or Diane) in downtown Williston.  After dinner, her boyfriend offered to walk her home, but Barb declined.  From the corner that The Plainsman Hotel, her boyfriend watched her walk into Recreation Park.  She has never been seen or heard from again”. Vague indeed and confusing in more ways than one. Decades have passed and more information has surfaced. However, Barb’s family are no closer to finding her. What has been uncovered has left more questions than answers. Barb’s mother Louise is deceased (2004) leaving any questions for her, out of the question.


PART 2: Truth in the Details

According to Louise and little records documented at the time, Barb was seen by Louise having dinner with her boyfriend and a friend. No record of who the boyfriend or the friend was that accompanied her. No record of the name of the restaurant she was last seen at. Two days later on April 13, 1981, Louise called the police department stating Barb went to a party the night she vanished and that a girl there knew where Barb was but was not giving Louise that information. Louise called Williston police again that day and relayed she thought Barb could be with Stacey Werder in Scobey, Montana at the Pioneer Hotel in room 205. Stacey Werder is a walking mystery. However, James Wolner uncovered Stacey Werder was in fact “the boyfriend” Louise first spoke of. According to records police did search Pioneer Hotel but “did not make contact with the girl”. What’s even more puzzling is documents don’t state if police made contact with Stacey. Was Stacey there? We don’t know.


FindBarbCotton.com

Stacey Werder was born on October 5th, 1959, in Yreka, California. Stacey was not someone who stood out of a crowd but those who did know him say he was a “nice guy”. However, Stacey’s sisters argue that. Memories they have of their brother included episodes where Stacey would become extremely violent, attacking members of his family, and even possibly burning down the family home in one recollection. The final straw was when he attempted to strangle their father with an extension cord. He was asked to leave, Stacey did just that and never looked back.  Stacey was in the Navy sometime during 1980. He was discharged after they diagnosed him with Paranoid Schizophrenia. After the short time in the military Stacey seemed to drift all over. It is unknown where he could have been. He had no known address or even transportation. He must have worked odd jobs, possibly under the table. What we do know is that Louise Cotton knew of Stacey Werder in some capacity as she did have some information on him. Lousie told police Stacey used to work at Cakes N’ Cones in Williston, she also knew he was in Montana two days after she last laid eyes on her daughter. The big question is how she knew these details, because no one other than Louise could put Stacey Werder in Williston before, during or after Barb was last seen. There is no record of him until June of 1981. On June 12th, 1981, Stacey served 10 days in Glasgow, Montana for disorderly conduct. On July 15th, 1981, Stacey was arrested in Malta, Montana for disorderly conduct regarding an incident at the Villa Theater.  He was in the company of an acquaintance named “Red”. Red was not arrested but the pair met just a week or so prior to the movie theater incident. Red was tracked down by Lisa Jo in 2022. Red vividly recalls how they met and kind of took a liking to each other. Stacey was transient and Red was in the area to handle a settlement due to an injury he sustained. Both men had little money if anything. They camped and even hunted to survive, using Stacey’s .22. Getting to know one another Red did learn many things about Stacey but none of them had anything to do with Barb Cotton. Stacey never mentioned Barb’s name to Red but is there a reason for this. Was Stacey hiding something? Or was Barb not Stacey’s girlfriend? Was Barb not with him in Montana when Louise called the police to make that report of Barb and Stacey at the motel? Every time an answer is uncovered, more questions arise in the case of Barbara Cotton.


During the early morning hours of July 16, 1981, Stacey Werder hung himself in a jail cell at the Malta police department. Before doing this Stacey contacted his family back in California. One of his sister’s answered the phone, Stacey told her “He was coming home”. She warned her brother she received a new dog the Christmas prior and if he came home, she might bite him. He replied, “the way I’m coming home it won’t matter, tell Mom I’m sorry for what I did.” Although we now understand the first part of Stacey’s statement the second part can be dissected. Could it mean the act he was about to commit he was sorry for? Or something else? Stacey’s sisters believe their brother hurt Barbara the night she disappeared or shortly afterwards. Maybe she did leave with Stacey for Montana with the promise of a better life, and something happened. Stacey Warder took any answers he held with him that night but there may be more viable persons of interest in Barb’s disappearance.



From the first day Barb vanished seemingly into thin air; Louise was dead set on finding her daughter. Louise called Sandee early the next morning, just after midnight inquiring where Barb was. Of course, Sandee was not with her but definitely knew in that phone call something was wrong. The panic in her mother’s voice was something she never heard. Louise phoned Barb’s friend Diane as well asking the same questions. Again, Diane was not with Barb either nor had she seen her much in the week leading up to April 11th. Louise was doing everything she could to find her daughter, calling friends and reporting anything she deemed important to the police. This may be how Louise made contact with Stacey’s family. Louise also seemed to figure out Stacey was in Montana two days after her daughter vanished. Barb’s sisters Diane and Kathy recall Louise being frantic, especially in the early days. However, years passed, and Louise was still tracking down leads and hanging up missing posters that pictured the face of a forever 15-year-old Barb Cotton. Kathy added after Barb's disappearance her mother seemed more overprotective. More specifically Louise did not allow Kathy home after school due to the fact she would not be present. Kathy walked from school a few blocks to her cousin Betty's home and only when Louise returned Kathy could walk home. It wasn’t until 1998 something shifted and the search for Barb seemed to fall by the waist side. Barb’s older brother Frank Cotton was diagnosed with colon cancer. He moved into Louise’s home where she took care of him the best she could until his death in 1999. In 1998 Louise petitioned to have Barb declared dead and when Frank succumbed to his cancer battle Louise included Barb’s name on the headstone with Frank’s. An odd change of pace for Louise. Perhaps she just couldn’t fight anymore or was there new information that surfaced, new details Louise could not bring herself to tell the rest of the world. The rest of the family later started to put the pieces of this together. Frank was accused of inappropriately touching one of his nieces, after Barb vanished. After this the girls’ mother tried to file charges against Frank Cotton. The lawyer of the family convinced the girls' mother the case against Frank was unlikely to go anywhere. When her mother agreed to let it go the case was dismissed without prejudice. However, this part of the family cut Frank out of their lives. Louise was understandably upset with this but not because Frank may have done something to a child but because she did not believe Frank was capable of doing such a thing. (Episode 17 of Dakota Spotlight, A better search for Barb) Throughout Frank’s life he was Louise’s golden child. Frank could never do wrong. Which brings up the question, is it possible Frank had something to do with Barb’s disappearance and may have given Louise a death bed confession in 1998? Again, the questions are endless.



Then there is a third person of interest, Frank Delapena. Delapena was working in Williston at the time of Barb’s disappearance. On May 1, 1981, he was hospitalized for a metal health evaluation and released the following day. Delapena lost his job, working for Sefel on a local seismology crew. On May 5, Delapena headed for Rawlins Wyoming in his 1973 Ford van, pulling his travel trailer. On May 7th, Delapena started what seemed like a desperate mission to lure young girls into his van. His ruse was attempting to re-home a husky puppy, but the catch was, they had to come inside to help him find it. All of these attempts failed but later at 7pm, at a busy intersection he abducted two young girls, aged 9 and 12, one block away from the police station.  Their bodies were found the following morning off of an interstate exit 54 miles east of Rawlins. Delapena was quickly caught with all of the eyewitnesses from the attempted abductions. Delapena was arrested on May 12, 1981, in Limon, Colorado after applying for a job. While in the Lincoln County Jail in Hugo Colorado, awaiting extradition to Wyoming, he barely ate and told the jailers he didn’t serve to eat after what he had done. Soon after that statement though he started eating and when extradition time came Delapena refused to sign paperwork regarding his transfer. On May 22, 1981, he hung himself in his jail cell, leaving a suicide letter to the media about how he was being framed for the killings. Two interesting details aside from the abduction and murders of two innocent girls Delapena used the ruse “a puppy” he had to rehome. This is key because Diane, Barb’s friend, had spoken with Barb via phone the night before she vanished. Barb mentioned she was going with “a friend” the following day to bring a puppy to the vet and asked Diane if she wanted to tag along. Diane does not know who this friend was. Either way Diane declined the invite. Another weird needle in a haystack is in the final episode of Dakota Spotlight a woman, (a girl at the time in 1981) by the name of Jerri told the host, James she remembered seeing Barb after she was known to be missing. She can’t recall an exact date, but she was in a local hospital, not as a patient but for other reasons. Jerri was in the room where there is vending machines to purchase snacks and/or drinks. While standing there contemplating her choice a girl walked right past her. A girl she claims was Barb. She did not know Barb personally but did know of her and Jerri immediately recognized her as the “missing girl”. She recalls Barb not wearing any type of hospital clothing but street clothes. A connection is made, if this sighting was of Barb, then what was she doing at the hospital? Is it possible Barb knew Delapena at some point? Maybe even through Stacey Werder? Delapena was hospitalized in May, weeks after Barb was last seen by Louise. No one else has ever come forward with information pertaining to Barb being at the hospital but Jerri has stuck to her story for decades, never wavering in her truth.



What happened to Barb Cotton on April 11, 1981? Every detail or story involving Barb's disappearance is shrouded in mystery. Was Stacey Barb’s boyfriend? Who was the other friend? How did Barb and Stacey meet? Did Barb attend a party that night, with or without Stacey? How did Louise know that her daughter could be in Montana? Was Barb ever in Montana? If Barb made plans to “runaway” with Stacey, why did she not take anything with her? Barb had a good amount of money coming to her from her father's passing. Did Stacey ultimately take his life because he did something to Barb or maybe he never harmed her but someone else did and Stacey held secrets. Maybe the guilt was all too much. Perhaps he knew nothing at all. Maybe Stacey was just a friend, hanging out with a girl he recently met, and suicide stemmed from Stacey mental illness. Did Barb return home that night but her mother never laid eyes on her? Could Barb’s brother Frank be responsible for her disappearance? After his death Louise declared Barb deceased and no one ever remembers her having the same amount of energy as she once did, searching for Barb. Did Delapena come across Barb? Maybe he befriended her first and they hung out a few times and then something violent occurred. Could it be possible Barb was in Williston for weeks to come as eyewitness Jerri believes she saw her at the hospital? How would she have met Stacey or Delapena? All those oil field workers coming in and out of small-town Williston, strangers to a close-knit community. Perhaps the key to finding out what happened to Barb after all, is in the Roar of the Pumpjack.  

 

 

“There is no shortage of rabbit holes in this case and no way to know if the correct one has even been found yet.  At the very least, none have produced a rabbit.” -Lisa Jo @FindBarbCotton.com


Kathy wanted to express her gratitude for Detective Dery from the Williston Police Department stating, "He has been wonderful to us and been amazing in Barb's case". "He called me today just to check in, I can't thank him enough."


Please consider joining the Facebook page set up for Barb:


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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Fantastic job!

We all appreciate you covering Barb so much.

Thank you,

Lisa Jo Schiele

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you so much for writing this piece about my sister. I hope this will jog someone’s memory that might have seen or heard something about my sister’s disappearance. If so please contact the Williston police department or LisaJo on Find Barb Cotton FB page. What you may think is unimportant could be the clue to finding what happened to my sister.

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May this story have encouragement for others that have one loved missing. Sad situation to say the least. But encouraging for all the new ways people are stepping up to handle and offer hope in these missing cases.

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