ADAMS COUNTY, CO — It’s been just over a month since the body of 19-year-old Natalie Bollinger was found, and, as her friends and family search for her killer, the case has played out on social media on an unprecedented scale.
Natalie was first reported missing at around 3:30 P.M. on December 28, 2017, according to the Adams County Sheriff’s Office. The next day, police got a tip that a body had been found in the 11600 Block of Riverdale Road on land belonging to the McIntosh Dairy farm.
Even at this early stage, Facebook played a crucial role in Natalie’s murder investigation. Adams County Sheriff Mike McIntosh said that deputies who arrived at the crime scene liased with officers from the Broomfield Police — and that the Facebook photos of Natalie’s distinctive tattoos helped to identify her body.
Before police officially confirmed the identity of the deceased female, Natalie’s father Ted Bollinger posted in a comment on a TV news station’s Facebook page that he “just left the sheriff, my daughter was murdered.”
Citing an ongoing investigation, only a few facts have been confirmed by law enforcement. No suspects have been arrested or identified in connection with the murder. Even the cause of death is unconfirmed: McIntosh said that investigators were “pretty convinced” that they knew the COD, but were not at liberty to release it.
The last hours of Natalie’s life remain a mystery. Police say that the last time that anyone spoke to Natalie was just a few hours before she went missing, at around 1 P.M.
“There is about a 26-hour time period [later corrected to 23] that is missing where we don’t have anybody who was either talking with her through social media or through text or in person or on the telephone,” McIntosh said at a press conference on January 3. But he also said, “I feel comfortable saying that there’s not a threat to the community,” which, from an investigative point of view, would appear to indicate that police believe Natalie’s death was personal, and not, for example, the deed of a random stranger.
So who killed the kind-hearted young woman and talented artist, who loved animals and nature? According to her obituary, Natalie had recently enrolled into college with the goal of becoming a registered nurse. But in her posts, she wrote of her past struggles with issues including drug addiction.
No one in Natalie’s family has been named as a person of interest or suspect in connection with her death — but she often referred to a turbulent home life. Her father has a criminal record that includes arrests for burglary, car theft, drug charges, felony assault, domestic violence, and violating protection orders, according to Colorado Bureau of Investigation court records. Her uncle has a criminal past as well, that includes multiple drug charges.
One person who was mentioned early in the investigation was 37-year-old Shawn Schwartz. Two weeks before she disappeared, Natalie posted a statement on Facebook describing alleged harassment and stalking by Schwartz. Natalie claimed Schwartz drove across the county to see her, and “slept behind her work for weeks.”
On December 14 she filed a restraining order against Schwartz.
Since Natalie’s death, Schwarz has posted Facebook messages and videos maintaining his innocence. He says that he struggles with medical conditions including Aspergers and Tourette’s Syndrome, which sometimes causes miscommunications, and that he has been unfairly “convicted in the court of public opinion.”
He has said that he wants to help bring the real killer to justice and, in the weeks following Natalie’s death, has posted over 100 screenshots of text messages allegedly sent between himself and Natalie that he claims are evidence of their friendship.
In the messages, which are mostly dated between 2015 and 2016, the two swap stories of their personal struggles. Schwartz was also acquainted with Natalie’s twin sister during this time. But at some point in 2016, the former friends had a falling out. Schwartz claimed in one of his Facebook videos that this happened after he posted personal information from an email that Natalie sent him on her father’s social media.
On January 5, Schwartz posted on Facebook asking the police to come find him and “put me in the ground.” He was later arrested on charges of second-degree assault on a peace officer, obstructing a peace officer, and resisting arrest.
Schwartz was released on bail, and has since posted a video stating that the police officers assaulted him, and that the wellness check was actually an attempt to “incite” him.
Sheriff McIntosh specifically addressed the double-edged role social media had played in the investigation, saying that police’s priority was making sure that they conducted the investigation “by the numbers.”
“Facebook gets to put out that information before we can go through our official steps to make sure that we get it right,” McIntosh said. “In today’s day and age it’s kind of fascinating how much information we can gain from that. On the other hand there is a lot of information that is absolutely untrue, false accusations. Our goal is is to make sure that we’re not headed down a rabbit trail that we don’t need to go down.”
At least three Facebook groups — some with thousands of members — have formed to discuss the case. As members stay up late at night — making coffee, browsing public records, and swapping theories about the case — it appears that public opinion is divided.
Some commenters appear to believe that Schwartz is being unfairly targeted for Natalie’s murder due to his mental illness, while others are annoyed that the focus on Schwartz seemed to have diverted media attention away from the hunt for Natalie’s real killer.
Schwartz claimed that when he spoke to the police on December 29, “my pocket was full of receipts” that would prove his whereabouts during the time period of Natalie’s disappearance — but stated that he was “too busy having a panic attack” to remember to hand them over to law enforcement. Schwartz also claims that he was staying with a friend from December 26 through the period when Natalie disappeared.
It’s unclear what information law enforcement has verified with Schwarz. Like so many other things in this case, the whereabouts of the key people in Natalie’s life remain a mystery. It remains unclear where Natalie’s boyfriend, who she was reportedly been living with for a few weeks at the time of her disappearance, was during this time.
A few days ago, the case took another strange, and dark, turn when Schwartz posted a (now-deleted) Facebook Live video of himself taking pills in a pudding cup and expressing a desire to end his life. Several people who saw the video managed to contact emergency personnel who reportedly came to the scene of the motel where he was staying and treated him.
As the investigation into her death continues, the animosity among Natalie’s family members has continued.
On January 8, Ted announced that funeral services for Natalie would be held the following day, but later announced that services had been canceled due to “issues with funding.”
“In the state of Colorado you must have both parents agree to all funeral plans and cemetery arrangements. They must also agree on funds coming from the district attorney’s office,” Heath Carroll, managing partner of the funeral home, wrote in a Facebook post. He wrote that Natalie’s parents had been “unable to reach an amicable agreement,” so the services were canceled.
On January 11, Natalie’s mother Rose Kelly and her side of the family announced that memorial services would be held in Virginia. On January 13, a funeral was held for Natalie at The Church of Saint Therese in Chesapeake.
As the social-media debates continue, it’s important to keep the focus on Natalie’s life — and to get justice for a teen who, according to her obituary, “treated everyone & everything with respect and dignity no matter their station or circumstances.”
A comment on the Broomfield Police Department page reads: “Because this is still an active investigation, we can’t comment right now. So as not to jeopardize the investigation, we need to be cautious in releasing information. As soon as possible, information will be updated. Thanks for understanding.”
CrimeFeed has contacted the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Ted Bollinger, and Shawn Schwartz for comment.
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Main photo: Natalie Bollinger [Ted Bollinger/GoFundMe]