Meth Makes Winter Deadly for Young Couple

On Jan. 4, 2005, Janelle Hornickel and her boyfriend, Michael Wamsley, both 20, were heading home to their apartment in Omaha, Neb., when they got caught in a snowstorm.

Over the course of the evening the couple made a series of bizarre, frantic phone calls to 911 asking for help in finding their way home.

At one point, Wamsley said they had come across hundreds of bystanders who didn't speak English. Hornickel said others were taking cars apart and putting them in the trees.

The couple also left their truck, which still had a half-tank of gas, warm clothes and Wamsley's cell phone. It was minus 10 degrees with the wind chill.

Wamsley's body was found the next day. Six days later, authorities found Hornickel's body. Both had frozen to death.

The 911 dispatchers receiving the couple's phone calls that night had no idea what was happening. But authorities now know the young couple was high on crystal meth -- a super-concentrated form of methamphetamine, a drug that has become a scourge of Middle America.

A small amount of crystal meth, 90 percent pure, was found in the couple's truck and both tested positive for meth at levels that indicate they had taken the drug some two to three days before they called 911.

The Star Student and the Boy of Her Dreams

Hornickel, a college junior at Creighton University in Omaha, seemed to have it all. She was a member of a sorority, she was in a business fraternity and she had a job.

Her family in rural Ord, Neb., said she was a star student and athlete. She was in the drama club, sang in the choir and was a cheerleader.

She also had a devoted boyfriend, Wamsley, whom she had known since the seventh grade.

"He was great. They were always together. Janelle would get up at 5 in the morning, every morning, to talk to him on the phone before he went to work," said Danielle Schuitz, one of Hornickel's former college roommates.

But Wamsley was different. He had dropped out of high school, and his older brother Chris says he suspected his brother was using drugs and even confronted him about using crystal meth.

"Honestly, I'm pretty sure he's tried it before," Chris Wamsley said. "He's made comments to me about trying different drugs."

Chris Wamsley says he gave his brother a warning around Thanksgiving. "I told him, 'Whatever you're on Michael, think about it in the long run,' " he said.

The Trees Above the Mandalay

When Wamsley and Hornickel first sought the help of authorities on the night they died, they were not immediately suspected to be drug users.

They were pulled over in the small town of Geneva at 7:30 in the evening for failing to signal. They told the officer they were lost, and received a warning ticket and directions to the highway.

They were 120 miles from their apartment in Omaha. Five hours later, at 12:30 a.m., and 23 miles from home, their truck spun off the road. Hornickel called 911 and painted a bizarre picture for the dispatcher.

"There's a lot of Mexicans and African-Americans and they're all dressed up in, like, these cult outfits, and they're moving all the vehicles," she said.

She said people were taking the cars apart and putting them in the trees. She gave their location as "Trees above the Mandalay" -- the Mandalay apartments in Omaha.

But authorities were confused. Her cell phone signal was coming from Sarpy County, Neb., not Omaha. Nevertheless, they sent police to the Mandalay and found nothing.

If they had been lost in almost any other state, Hornickel and Wamsley might have been found. But Nebraska is one of just nine states that does not have the most up-to-date 911 GPS tracking system for cell phones, so operators could not pinpoint their location.

At 1:05 a.m., Wamsley called 911. He said he and Hornickel had left the truck, but he still insisted they were near the Mandalay apartments. Dispatcher Patty Viberg told them a police unit had been sent and could not find them.

"They need to come further south. Further south, open the gates," Wamsley responded. There are no gates in the area, but still another police unit was sent to the area around the apartment complex.

By this time, several operators in three counties were talking to each other trying to figure out where the couple might actually be. They suspected drugs were involved.

Escaping a Shack in Winter

At 1:45 a.m., Wamsley called again. Knowing how cold it was outside, Viberg urged him to return to his vehicle. He said it was "rolled over on its top," and Viberg feared it could be leaking gasoline. But the truck was actually upright, just off the road.

Wamsley also said they had encountered people, but he didn't think they spoke English. "We've tried, we've asked for help, we've begged," he said.

Around 2 a.m., they called again to say they had stumbled on a small, unheated shack. Worried about their safety in the sub-zero temperatures, Viberg asked him to stay there. She also asked Wamsley if he had done any drugs that night. He said no.

At 3 a.m. Wamsley called back and said he was going to walk some more, and left the shelter of the shack.

The last call came at 4:20 a.m. The couple had been out in below-freezing temperatures now at least four hours. Wamsley's last call was short, less than two minutes.

"Hey, this is Mike Wamsley," he told Viberg. "I have just escaped. Please come get me."

Tragedy on the First Time?

Hornickel's mother, Twilla, said she had no idea about Wamsley's alleged drug use: "She always said that Mike didn't drink and Mike didn't use drugs," Twilla said.

Twilla Hornickel says she can't imagine what could have happened. She saw her daughter in the early part of the evening on New Year's Eve, and says she didn't notice anything strange.

"They had normal sleep patterns, they played games with the kids," she said.

But Capt. Rolly Yost of Sarpy County, who led the investigation into the couple's disappearance, suspects something went wrong later that night.

"We know where they were. We know parties they were at. We know there were drugs at those party locations," he told "Primetime." He said Hornickel might have tried meth for the very first time at one of those parties.

He also has a theory about the "people" that Wamsley mentioned in his phone call to 911.

"It's quite possible he sees the cattle, hears the breathing of the cattle, and thinks these are people. These 'people' aren't helping him. He's calling out for help and they are not responding," Yost said, adding that his theory was speculation.

Unfortunate Fates

Despite all that's happened, Twilla Hornickel doesn't blame Wamsley for her daughter's death. "He respected her. He was always kind to her. I don't know what happened," she said.

Gabby Ziebert, Wamsley's mother, has a faded picture of Janelle from her son's wallet and a box containing the clothes he left behind in the truck the night he walked into the storm.

"It's not supposed to happen this way. It's supposed to be the kids bury their parents and not the other way around," she said.

Hornickel said, "Meth and drugs wasn't Janelle's life."

This story originally aired on March 3, 2005.