The deaths of Janelle Hornickel & Michael Wamsley

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Janelle & Michael

The weather in Omaha, Nebraska was treacherous on Tuesday, January 4, 2005; there was a snowstorm & the temperature with the windchill was negative ten degrees. Janelle Hornickle & her boyfriend, Michael Wamsley,  were heading home from Kearney, Nebraska back to their apartment in Omaha about 186 miles away; they were both twenty-years-old when they got stuck in the storm. Michael was born in Denver, Colorado on October 7, 1984 to parents Steven & Gabby & he had two brothers. The family moved to rural Ord, Nebraska when he was six years old. He dropped out of high school & worked in landscaping during the summer months & enjoyed working on old cars. The couple had been dating for about a year & were both working for the Timberline Total Solutions telemarketing company. 

Throughout the course of the evening, the couple made five extremely strange, frantic phone calls to 911, asking for help in finding their way home. Despite their truck having more than a half-tank of gas as well as Janelle’s cell phone & additional warm clothes & jackets, they left it behind, setting off on foot. When the 911 dispatchers began receiving the calls, it was very clear that something wasn’t right; Michael, at one point, told them that they came across hundreds of by-standers that didn’t speak English. Janelle reported that others were taking cars apart & putting them in trees.

Janelle was born on March 23, 1984 in Grand Island, Nebraska to parents Kent & Twilla & had two older sisters & an older brother; she had another sister who died as an infant in 1979, five years before Janelle was born. She grew up in Ord, Nebraska & at this point, she had everything going for her; she was a junior at Creighton University in Omaha, 185 miles from where she grew up. She was a member of a sorority as well as a business fraternity & she also had a job. Her family described her as a star athlete, she was also involved in drama club, she sang in the choir & she was also a cheerleader. She had known Michael since they were in 7th grade & they were devoted to each other.  Michael relocated to Omaha with Janelle when she began studying at Creighton. Janelle’s former college roommate & friend, Danielle said that the two were always together; Janelle would wake up at 5 am just so she could call Michael to talk before he left for work.

At 7:30 pm, they were pulled over in the small town of Geneva, 100 miles west of Omaha for failing to signal as well as a tail light that was out; Michael was the driver. They told the officer that they were lost & he told them that they were going south but Omaha was east of their location. Michael asked the officer where Pacific Street was; the officer was confused, asking him if he meant in Geneva where they were but Michael told him that the street was in Omaha. They were given a warning ticket with directions to the highway.  At this point, they were 120 miles from their apartment in Omaha.

Five hours later & only 23 miles from home, their truck spun off the road in the early morning hours of January 5th at 12:30 am. Janelle made the first call & the bizarre stories began. She told the dispatcher that she was at the Mandalay apartments in Omaha & “There’s a lot of Mexicans & African-Americans & they’re all dressed up in, like, these cult outfits, and they’re moving all the vehicles” & she said they wouldn’t let them out & they had “locked us all in here.” This was when she told the dispatcher that the people were taking the cars apart & putting them in the trees. To describe her location, she said “Trees above the Mandalay” – referencing her apartment complex, Mandalay on Pacific. Michael could be heard in the background yelling, “Get an officer here now!” When asked how many people were out there, Michael told them 100 or 200. The dispatcher said that police would come out to the Mandalay apartments but it would take some time because of the terrible weather conditions. Janelle asked the woman if they could send a helicopter to go over the trees. The dispatcher was confused by what people they were referring to & Janelle responded, “Well, they’re hiding it in the trees & breaking them down & stuff!” The dispatcher was clearly baffled when Janelle said it was cars that were being hidden in the trees. She told the dispatcher that she was going to have to start running & get out of the vehicle & ended the call. The fear of the people that Janelle & Michael believed were out in the snow storm, drove them out of the safety & warmth of their truck & into the frigid blizzard.

Authorities were confused by the couple’s reports of being in Omaha since Janelle’s cell phone signal was coming from Sarpy County, Nebraska. Despite the question of location, police were sent to the Mandalay apartments but found no sign of them. Nebraska is only one of nine states that doesn’t have an up-to-date GPS tracking system for cell phones, so operators weren’t able to pinpoint their location. The calls bounced off different towers in different counties, making it impossible to accurately find them. Sarpy county covers 248 square miles, making it basically impossible to find them in a snowstorm.

At 1:05 am, Michael called 911 & told the dispatcher that they had left their truck, but continued to insist that they were near the Mandalay apartments, maybe three blocks away & that they were out in the cold, walking & at risk for freezing to death. A third call was placed at 1:30 am by Michael & he told the dispatcher that  they were out by the gravel pit & freezing to death. He told her that their car broke down & he was calling from a glass 4×4 toll-booth-like shack. He told her the closest street to what he believed was their location by the apartments & dispatcher Patty Viberg told him that they had sent an officer to that location but couldn’t find them. He told her that his pickup truck had been stolen & he had to go find it. 

Michael continued to beg for help, telling her that they were freezing to death. The dispatcher explained that if they were standing at 75th & Poppleton as they said they were, they wouldn’t have to walk far to find help. She told Michael, “I can’t help you if you’re not going to help yourself” & Michael ended  the call. 

During another call, Michael said that officers needed to come further south & open the gates; there are no gates in that area, but regardless, another officer was sent to the apartment complex & again, there was no sign of Michael or Janelle. Several area 911 dispatchers began to communicate, trying to find the couple’s location & suspected that drugs were contributing to the confusion. They also tossed around the idea that a head injury or hypothermia might be causing the confusion.

Forty minutes later, Michael placed a fourth call at 1:45 am & told the dispatcher that two people were flashing a light on the top of a shack. Patty told him to go talk to those people & Michael told her that they not only asked for help, but begged. She told them to hand the phone over to them & he told her that he didn’t think they spoke English & he couldn’t make it that far because they have all kinds of dogs. On one call dispatcher Patty urged him to go back to his truck because of the cold temperatures outside. He told her that it was “rolled over on its top” & Patty worried that the car could be leaking gasoline. In actuality, the car was in an upright position, just off the road. The dispatcher asked to speak with Janelle, hoping she might be able to guide them to their location. Janelle sounded very disoriented & said, “Can I talk to the apartment complex? They might know.” 

Fifteen minutes later, at about 2 am, Michael could be heard telling Janelle to get up; the dispatcher asked if she was starting to lay down & he said yes & again asked that somebody be sent to help them, crying in desperation. Patty encouraged them to stay in the shack, out of the cold & she also asked him if he had done drugs that night & he told her he hadn’t. He said that they were at an old abandoned lakefront area where they have cattle & an old gravel pump set up. 

The last call came through at 4:20 am when Janelle & Michael would have been out in the sub-zero temperatures for at least four hours. The call lasted less than two minutes, “Hey, this is Mike Wamsley, I have just escaped. Please come get me.” The dispatcher asked if he was out walking again & Micahel responded, “Yeah, it’s okay though because the whole thing will change tomorrow. Everything’s going to fit.” Officers combed the county, hoping the couple had found shelter to wait out the storm.

When their truck was eventually found, authorities came across a small amount of crystal meth, 90% pure; Michael’s body was found the next day on January 6th, covered in snow. There was an intensive search for Janelle & her body was found the day after Michael’s funeral, six days later, on January 12th, at the edge of a sand pit lake, a half mile away from Michael; they were both within two miles of their truck. Winter coats were found in their truck; both Michael and Janelle died of hypothermia. Michael was wearing jeans & a hooded sweatshirt, Janelle was wearing jeans, high-heeled boots & a hooded shirt. 

They both tested positive for meth & levels indicate that it was taken about two or three days before they called 911. Janelle was found to have a much higher amount in her system than Michael (495 nanograms per milliliter vs. 127 nanograms per milliliter), a sufficient amount to cause anxiety, hot flashes, confusions & hallucinations. It’s likely they were unable to stay still in the safety & warmth of their car to wait for help due to the nature of the drug. Marijuana & nicotine was also found on the toxicology screen.

Michael’s brother Chris had suspected that he was using drugs & even confronted him about using crystal meth. Chris was pretty confident that Michael had tried meth based on the comments he made about trying different drugs. Around Thanksgiving, Chris spoke with Michael, urging him to think about his future, “Whatever you’re on Michael, think about it in the long run.” 

Cattle were in the area Michael was calling from & it’s possible his confusion led him to believe that the cattle were people who refused to help him. He speculated that Michael may have been calling out to them & didn’t receive a response. Janelle’s mom, Twilla doesn’t blame Michael for her daughter’s death, she’s confused by it but she knows that he was always respectful & kind to Janelle. 

Methamphetamine was first synthesized by a Japanese chemist in 1893 & early on it was used to treat narcolepsy & asthma & was used in WWII to keep the troops awake. After the war, its use dramatically increased, even after it was outlawed in the US in 1979. It is an upper, three & a half times more powerful than cocaine. It’s snorted, swallowed, smoked or injected & affects the central nervous system. A form of the drug, methamphetamine hydrochloride is an FDA controlled drug used to treat ADHD & obesity. The high from meth can start & fade quickly, which encourages users to binge, often giving up sleep & food, continuing to take the drug every few hours, staying up for several days. 

Meth increases the amount of dopamine in the brain which plays a role in how we feel pleasure & is highly addictive, some have gotten hooked after trying the drug  just once. Use can cause paranoia, hallucinations, confusion, violence, memory loss, anxiety, decline in appetite which leads to extreme weight loss. Prolonged use affects the dopamine system & meth addicts may only experience happiness when using.  Meth use also leads to a condition referred to as “meth mouth” that eventually leads to the teeth falling out completely. This happens because meth slows salivary glands & causes dry mouth, it also increases sugar cravings & those addicted tend not to focus on oral hygiene & dental care. It also causes hyperactivity that can increase teeth clenching & grinding. It also causes skin issues & sores, usually from hallucinations that cause scratching of imaginary bugs & is worsened from a poor diet & hygiene. Sleep deprivation exacerbates the hallucinations.

Janelle’s mom, Twilla said that she had no idea that Michael was using drugs & she couldn’t imagine what had happened. She saw Janelle in the early evening of New Year’s Eve, only a few days prior & didn’t notice anything concerning. She said that Janelle was in good spirits, they had normal sleep patterns & played games with the kids. She was excited for what the new year could potentially bring. It’s unclear what transpired during the days of Janelle’s school break from the new year until January 4th when they went missing. They attended several parties.

Captain Rolly Yost of Sarpy County led the investigation of the couple’s disappearance & suspected they had likely done drugs at one of the parties around New Year’s Day. He knew of their whereabouts & found they had gone to a party where drug use was confirmed. He felt it was possible that Janelle had tried meth for the first time that night. 

Investigators tracked down the source of the meth & arrested a mother & son who lived in Kearny, Nebraska, charging them with possession of methamphetamine.  On the night of New Year’s Eve, Janelle & Michael had gone to a party at the house of 56-year-old Judith Morel & 19-year-old Mica Morel though authorities haven’t indicated if they believe that the Morels supplied Janelle & Michael with the meth.

One of Janelle’s sisters spoke at her funeral & indicated that it would be her mission to change Nebraska’s 911 system to include the technology to pinpoint a caller’s location. A 2019 article indicated that Nebraska’s 911 system was being overhauled as part of a nationwide effort to bring call centers the ability to accurately pinpoint a cell phone user’s location. Nebraska received more than $2 million in federal funds & the goal was to have it up & running within three to five years.

Janelle’s mom Twilla said there’s always been a hole since her daughter’s death; Janelle planned to graduate & work in human resources, she loved kids & wanted a family. Janelle’s sister Jan wants to make something positive come from her sister’s tragic death; she speaks with kids in schools & church groups about Janelle’s story. The family spoke with National Geographic about Janelle’s story in May of 2005 when they covered a story titled, “World’s Most Dangerous Drug.”


  1. abc News: Meth Makes Winter Deadly for Young Couple
  2. 6 News WOWT: Next Generation 911 calling system to add location accuracy
  3. CBS News: Drugs In Nebraska Freezing Deaths 
  4. NTV abc: Whatever happened to Janelle Hornickel’s Family
  5. Find a Grave: Michael Wamsley
  6. Absolute Dental: Meth Mouth: Why Meth Destroys Your Mouth (and More)
  7. Orlando Recovery Center: Meth Sores
  8. Fox News: Young Couple on Meth Die in Nebraska Snowstorm
  9. YouTube: Wonderland of the Weird: Janelle Hornickel & Michael Wamsley – Cases That Have Stuck With Me #2
  10. Find a Grave: Janelle Marie Hornickel
  11. History: History of Meth
  12. YouTube: Joshua Miles: Lost in the Snow: Why Couldn’t 911 Find Them?

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