40 years of nothing, few answers for family, friends of missing teen Barbara Cotton of Williston

One of North Dakota’s longest running cold cases is the newest subject of regional true crime podcast Dakota Spotlight. “A Better Search for Barbara” is an investigative podcast series exploring the perplexing mystery of the 15 year old Williston, N.D. girl who simply vanished one Saturday night in 1981. With never-before-heard interviews, the enlistment of a private investigator and a fresh approach to this unsolved mystery, the five-part series begins Monday March 1 and will reveal new information about the case.

barbara-louise-cotton-williston-nd-cold-case-investigation-dakota-spotlight.png Photo courtesy of the Cotton family
"A Better Search for Barbara" is a five-part investigative podcast about the 1981 disappearance of a Williston, N.D. teen.

Barbara Louise Cotton was last seen April 11, 1981, leaving a restaurant in her hometown of Williston, N.D. She had dinner with a friend and her boyfriend before walking the five blocks to her home. The teenager never arrived at her destination and was never heard from again.

“A Better Search for Barbara'' explores the who, what, where and why of her case, including never-before-heard interviews with Barbara's friends and family. Enlisting the assistance of a private investigator , Dakota Spotlight takes a fresh look at the perplexing cold case, uncovering new leads and new persons of interest.


Assumed a runaway?

Much confusion surrounds the story of Barbara's disappearance and new questions continue to surface. Some of the most curious aspects of the mystery pertain to Barbara's last known whereabouts in downtown Williston on the evening of April 11, 1981. Versions of the events are both fuzzy and sometimes contradicting. "A Better Search for Barbara" attempts to untangle this peculiar evening and map out what might have actually occurred.

Adding to the mystique of North Dakota's long-running cold case, is the very palpable frustration felt by many. While law enforcement made statements over the years that they had followed "all leads," Barbara Cotton's friends and family can barely recall any investigation at all. While working on "A Better Search for Barbara" Dakota Spotlight spoke with multiple key individuals who were never interviewed by police.


15 year old Barbara Cotton was reportedly last seen walking into Recreation Park in Williston, N.D. on April 11, 1981

Barbara was reportedly first assumed to be a runaway, but there is also significant confusion and disagreement about exactly who made this assumption. Barbara's childhood friend and neighbor Sandee Evanson has been attempting to find answers for decades. Says Evanson, "I don't remember the police asking any questions, and that's just the part where they assumed she was a runaway. "

Barbara's case is considered open and ongoing by both the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Williston Police Department . She is officially listed as a "missing person." North Dakota law enforcement remain consistently tight-lipped about cold cases in the state. The North Dakota Attorney General's cold case page states the following: "These cold cases are active investigations, and therefore we are not able to release records or provide additional information."

Gentle and Kind

Barbara Cotton's friends and family remember her as gentle and kind. Barbara was a thrifty and frugal 15-year-old girl. She was a good student and at the time of her disappearance she had plans to go to college and become an accountant. Family members recall that Barbara worked several part-time jobs and put all of her money into her savings account for her future. Barbara Cotton vanished without taking anything with her, including her eyeglasses and approximately $3,000 in her savings account.

Walked to the Park

The most accepted version of Barbara's last known movements seems to be the story that her boyfriend watched her walk from the corner of 4th Street West and Main Street in downtown Williston. Barbara walked west on 4th Street to Recreation Park . From there she had just five blocks to her home near the corner of 5th Street W and 6th Avenue W.

Sandee Evanson recalls that teenagers from her neighborhood often walked through Recreation Park on their way home.


Recreation Park, Williston N.D. 40 years after Barbara Cotton vanished without a trace

New Information in podcast

The podcast contains never-before-heard interviews with key individuals and other new information. Some individuals, despite being close to the case, have never been spoken to by law enforcement over the 40 years the case has been active and ongoing. Said one such interviewee, "Now I kind of just wish someone would have talked to me when I was 14."

Listen to the podcast: "A Better Search for Barbara"

The podcast will be released over five days starting March 1, 2021. Listen here or anywhere podcasts are found ( Spotify , Apple , Google Podcasts , Stitcher etc.

Listen to Episode One:

Next Episode:

  • Episode 2, In "Tributaries of the Truth" we attempt to untangle the confusion surrounding Barbara's last known whereabouts. We also look closer at the question: Could Barbara Cotton have simply run away? Tributaries of the Truth: Listen to episode 2 of A Better Search for Barbara Cotton Barbara Louise Cotton vanished from the streets of Williston, N.D. on April 11, 1981 after eating dinner with a boyfriend and another friend. She has never been heard from since that night. "A Better Search for Barbara" is a five-part podcast series investigating this 40 year old mystery. Episode 2, "Tributaries of the truth" attempts to untangle two questions: What was that last dinner all about? Could Barbara have simply run away?


True Crime podcasts BY JAMES WOLNER

  • How did Victor Die? The Full audio podcast about a mysterious death in Glen Ullin, N.D.
  • True crime podcast: The untold story of a Zeeland, N.D., couple and their tragic murders in 1976
  • The house on Sweet & 7th: the Erickstad homicides. Listen to Dakota Spotlight, a true crime podcast hosted by James Wolner of Forum Communications Co.
  • In "Chasing Billy: A Pursuit for Justice," Dakota Spotlight debuts episode 1 of a new season focused on unsolved 1978 murder Listen to Dakota Spotlight, a true crime podcast hosted by James Wolner of Forum Communications Co.

RELATED Podcast homepage | Newsletter | Season 3 videos | Season 2: 1976 Zick murders |


James Wolner is a Digital Content Producer at Forum Communications Company, Fargo North Dakota and the creator, producer and host of Dakota Spotlight, a true crime podcast. He has lived the Upper Midwest since 2013 and studied photojournalism at California State University at Fresno. He is fluent in English and Swedish.
What To Read Next
Get Local