Where is Nancy Renkas?
Few answers five years after woman’s disappearance
IRON MOUNTAIN — The two women were going to see a camper. On that, they all agree.
In early afternoon of July 18, 2016, Nancy Renkas met Louise Wender in the parking lot at Midtown Mall in Iron Mountain. Renkas, the common-law wife of Wender’s late brother, had recommended they both check out a camper she’d seen in the Norway area, Wender said.
Renkas’ two children say their mother left their Florence, Wis., home that day to buy the fixings for a filet mignon dinner, in celebration of the pending sale of their Tranquil-Vista campground in Pembine, Wis.
But the family also discussed purchasing a camper that would let them spend nights at their Christmas tree farm in Pembine, Wis., rather than having to drive home after long days of trimming trees, Kaylyn Renkas said. The trailer, too, could be used by their grandmother, who had slipped on ice outside her home and broken her hip, Joseph Renkas said.
Wender maintains that was the primary reason for considering the camper, so her mother could live next to her home while still keeping some independence.
A surveillance camera July 18, 2016, would show the 47-year-old Renkas getting into a white SUV that Wender acknowledges was her 2010 Lincoln Navigator, which then headed east on U.S. 2.
Wender said they never located the camper, so after driving around, she returned Nancy Renkas to the Midtown Mall parking lot.
Kaylyn Renkas said she texted her mother about 1 p.m., asking another item be added to the shopping list but never got a reply.
“She usually responded right away,” Kaylyn Renkas said.
“She would respond instantly,” Joseph Renkas added.
Still, they expected their mother to return home by 4 p.m. When she didn’t, Joseph Renkas said he left work at 4 p.m. to join his sibling, the former Marvin Renkas, in attempting to reach her.
They had hoped the battery in her cell phone was drained, or maybe she decided to visit a friend and was running late, they said.
The next morning, the Renkas siblings said, they contacted family members, friends, area hospitals and jails in their search before calling the Florence County Sheriff’s Office to report their mother as missing.
“Then we were driving all around, just trying to find her,” Kaylyn Renkas said.
But July 18, 2016, was the last day they saw their mother, they said.
Five years later, what happened to Nancy Renkas is still unknown, despite signboards set up along several prominent travel routes in the Iron Mountain area and her children’s repeated attempts to keep her disappearance in the public eye.
Five years later
Few further details in the Nancy Renkas case have been made public. Detective Lt. Derek Dixon of the Dickinson County Sheriff’s Office told The Daily News he was not permitted to speak to media about the investigation without authorization. Dickinson County Undersheriff Scott Metras later stated by email the sheriff’s office had no comment.
In July 2018, Dixon and Metras said they chose to be selective on what they made public to avoid compromising the investigation and possible future prosecution.
The two officers did say then Nancy Renkas last was seen about 12:30 p.m. July 18, 2016, in the parking lot outside Super One Foods. That she left perishable groceries in her vehicle indicated she believed it would be a brief trip, Metras said at the time.
The SUV driver was classified as a “person of interest” early in the investigation and was interviewed by both Florence and Dickinson County law enforcement, Metras said in 2018, adding authorities later determined that person provided “false and misleading” information regarding contact with Nancy Renkas on July 18, 2016.
That prompted law enforcement to search the person’s SUV and cell phone and raise the investigation level from a person of interest to a “suspect,” Metras said in 2018. That suspect then retained an attorney and did not cooperate further with law enforcement, he said.
In August 2020, Dixon testified during an online court hearing that suspect was Louise Wender, who had sought a protective order against another woman she claimed was harassing her on social media about the disappearance.
The Daily News previously had not published Wender’s name because she had not been charged with a crime.
But Wender — who is Kaylyn and Joseph Renkas’ aunt — and her attorney, Jeffrey Paupore, spoke to The Daily News earlier this month, saying her name now has been so widely circulated as the suspect that they wanted to tell her side of the story.
“The bell has been rung,” Paupore said on the name being made public. Wender and her family have been marked in the community, he said.
‘She’s just innocent’
They claim Louise Wender has been followed, targeted and intimidated, with authorities questioning family and staff at Super One Foods where she’s been a bookkeeper for more than 30 years.
Strangers have shown up at her workplace, shouted accusations at her, Wender said. She’s been decried on social media, had garbage thrown in her driveway.
“It’s ruined our life. It has ruined our life,” Wender said. “We put on a brave front, but there isn’t a day that I don’t hear a siren and my insides turn to Jell-O.”
Her Lincoln Navigator and iPhone were impounded for more than four years, until Dickinson County Circuit Judge Julie LaCost ordered they be released this past April on the grounds the original search warrant didn’t include seizing the items.
They dispute the portrayal of Wender as making “false and misleading” statements to investigators. “That’s their side of the story. That’s their spin on it. There was no untruthfulness at all,” Paupore said.
“So far, no charges,” Paupore said. Yet her name continues to be tied to the Nancy Renkas case.
“Florence County, Iron Mountain PD, Dickinson County Sheriff and the FBI have had this case for five years and they can’t even name a crime,” Paupore said. “But they name a suspect without proof. That is so wrong.”
They contend Wender was on good terms with Nancy Renkas, that she would regularly come into Super One to talk with her — enough that two Super One employees recognized and reported seeing Renkas at the store two days after her disappearance, when Wender was not working. Those employees have filed sworn affidavits on the sighting, Wender said.
“The police were provided with these affidavits — copies of them — by previous counsel,” but investigators dismissed those claims, Paupore said.
The surveillance footage that shows Nancy Renkas getting into Wender’s vehicle came from the Krist Food Mart across the street from the Super One parking lot, Paupore said. Neither Paupore or Wender know if any footage exists showing Nancy Renkas’ return.
Nancy Renkas was “fine — and I told investigators that –“ when Wender left her back in the Midtown Mall parking lot that day, Wender said.
She now prays that Nancy Renkas will reappear, to show Wender has been truthful these past five years, Paupore said.
“She’s just innocent of any wrongdoing,” Paupore said, adding “the only thing she’s guilty of is being with Nancy that day.”
Nancy Renkas’ children, who now live in Missouri, declined to comment on their aunt’s statements. But they, too, hope for a conclusion to their mother’s disappearance five years ago. It came less than a year after losing their father, Mark Barker, in October 2015 at only age 54.
“I know there’s got to be somebody out there that knows something,” Kaylyn Renkas said. “My brother and I struggle with this every day and July is especially painful for us because it reminds us of what could have been.”
“We’d like to get it resolved and find out what happened to our mom,” Joseph Renkas said. “Just so we have closure.”
“She was always the guiding light for us and for this to happen has just been catastrophic for the both of us,” Kaylyn Renkas said.
Anyone with information on Nancy Renkas’ disappearance can contact Dixon at 906-774-8008.