Recordings of the lost couple’s calls to 911 emergency dispatchers weave a heartbreaking trail through fear, delusion, agony, frustration and desperation.
The trail that ultimately failed to bring help to the two as they struggled to survive in the snow and the dark began in the first call, when Janelle Hornickel asserted that the two were near their central Omaha apartment.
That was at 12:28 a.m. Jan. 5.
Over the next four hours, she and Michael Wamsley never gave up telling 911 dispatchers they were near the Mandalay Apartments, 75th Street and Poppleton Avenue , regardless of how illogical that was shown to be.
And dispatchers never could pin down the couple’s precise location, despite promising threads of conversation that suggested Platte River sites maddeningly close to where Wamsley and Hornickel actually were.
A deputy acting on those prompts actually found footprints in the quarry near where their bodies were eventually found. But the officer was called off when the search focused elsewhere.
The couple cried for help in the calls. Dispatchers worked them for any shred of information - mostly pushing calmly for details, occasionally barking for clarity and sometimes making emotional appeals to keep the couple going.
The tapes reveal moments of lucidity, sandwiched between tales so incredible that they must have been hallucinations.
Wamsley gave clues that proved true. He saw a gravel pit. A sand pile. A crane. A window-wrapped shack containing a blue book.
He also reported seeing 200 people on a pond. He called out to them for help but told a dispatcher they wouldn’t help because they didn’t speak English.
In the end, the conversations, like a person lost in a blizzard, wandered only in circles, and led nowhere.
"Hi, um, I’m here to report, um, I feel very threatened … hello, hello, can you hear me?" Hornickel said in her first call to 911. "I’m at the Mandalay apartment complexes."
"Are you in Omaha ?" the Sarpy County dispatcher asked.
"OK," the dispatcher said. "Let me transfer you. Stay on the line."
About a half-hour later, Wamsley called back, reaching Sarpy County 911 again.
"My girlfriend placed a call earlier, out by an old sandpit," he said. "Out by a sandpit, oh, probably around 75th and Poppleton."
He said somebody had taken his truck, and the couple went out to look for it and became lost. Another time, he told a dispatcher they were following people to a party along some winding trails.
The one constant was they were near their apartment. The couple told dispatchers that no fewer than 22 times. They continued to insist so despite all evidence to the contrary.
"Did you get off a highway to get into the sandpit?" a Sarpy dispatcher asked.
"No, it’s just off of 75th, far as I understand," Wamsley 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, the dispatcher 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 the dispatcher. "I have just escaped. Please come get me."