On February 6, 1997, 18-year old Bryan Nisenfeld sat in his afternoon literature class at Roger Williams University in Providence, Rhode Island. His professor would later recall that Bryan was acting differently during class that day, almost despondent. The professor tried to catch Bryan’s attention as he walked out the door, but Bryan didn’t stop. Where he went next, what the final moments of his life entailed, is still a mystery. He was simply never seen or heard from again. He never returned to the campus or even to his dorm room. His bank account showed no activity. He didn’t call home.
And Roger Williams University did not notify Bryan’s family of their son’s disappearance for almost a week.
Months later, as summer was coming to an end, a family walking along the shore of Hog Island came upon a lone hiking boot. Inside was a wool sock and a severed foot. DNA tests eventually confirmed the remains to be those of Bryan Nisenfeld.
What happened to Bryan Nisenfeld? Whether an accident, a self-made choice, or foul play, Bryan’s parents hold steadfast to their belief that more could have been done if only Bryan’s disappearance had been reported to police, or to them, and acted upon much sooner. At the very least, maybe they would have some answers.
If you have information that could help bring a conclusion to Bryan Nisenfeld’s case, please call 877-RI-SOLVE.
About Bryan Nisenfeld
Rhode Island was once known as the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, one of the original thirteen colonies. It was founded by a man who had been religiously persecuted and ultimately exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That man was Roger Williams, who later became the namesake for Roger Williams University.
In the mid-1950s, Roger Williams College was established in Rhode Island’s capital city of Providence. Over time, the name was changed and the main campus was relocated. Today, the main campus of Roger Williams University sits on over 140 acres in Bristol, Rhode Island, a quaint, quintessential harbor town located on the east side of Narragansett Bay.
That quaintness and small-town atmosphere is what Bryan Nisenfeld and his family appreciated as they toured campuses in preparation for Bryan’s big college decision. Bryan grew up in Audubon, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Although his mom and dad divorced in 1989, Bryan remained close with both of his parents and his younger brother and half-sister. He was known as a homebody. In 2017, Bryan’s mother, Marianne, told Angela Couloumbis of The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I wouldn’t call him a loner, but Bryan is the type of person who prefers a close circle of friends to many acquaintances.”
At Audubon High School, Bryan was an honor student, a member of the tennis team, and a writer for the school magazine. His academics earned him scholarship offers from two schools – Syracuse University in New York, and Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Marianne told CBS News in 2001 that she and Bryan’s father, Steven, encouraged Bryan to choose Roger Williams University because, “We just felt that small atmosphere was more conducive to Bryan’s personality.” They believed that Bryan would be safe in Bristol.
The Day He Disappeared
Bryan entered Roger Williams University as an architecture major. He shared a townhouse-style dormitory with a number of housemates, one of whom fondly remembered him and his preference for listening to Beck and Nirvana while he studied in his room. Bryan could often be found drawing cartoon characters and murals. Allyson Hawkins told Shaine Murphy of the campus newspaper, Hawk’s Eye, “The things he wrote and drew were brilliant. His attention to detail was amazing.”
Although a gifted student in high school, college coursework proved to be more challenging than Bryan expected and he struggled to keep his grades up. He’d stay awake all night in the studio to work on assignments. His mother told Angela Couloumbis of the Philadelphia Inquirer that Bryan was feeling stressed because, “he was also on scholarship, and he was under pressure to keep his grades up.”
During the semester break at home in New Jersey, Bryan told his parents that he was having a hard time, not only academically, but socially, too. His former roommate had dropped out after the previous semester, leaving Bryan all alone in his dorm room. And then Bryan started getting harassing phone calls, sometimes threatening, from that former roommate. Marianne told Mike Franolich for the Courier-Post, “They had a falling out. There was some kind of argument, but Bryan would never tell us what it was about.”
Bryan missed home, but his parents encouraged him to stick it out one more semester and Bryan agreed. When Bryan returned to Roger Williams University in January of 1997, he changed his major to English and, after discussing it with his parents, considered the possibility of transferring to another school for his sophomore year that fall.
Clint Riley reported for the Courier-Post that Bryan sent a letter home to his mother just a few days before he disappeared. In it, Bryan included a poem he had written about how badly he wished to return to Audubon. The poem was entitled “Home.”
On Thursday, February 6, 1997, Bryan left his dorm room, a window still open, with his backpack, a notebook, and some homemade chocolate chip cookies sent by his mom, to attend his literature class.
Jason Tourcotte reported in Hawk’s Eye that Bryan was behaving strangely during class. Tourcotte wrote that the last faculty member to see Bryan was the professor of that literature class, Dr. Deborah Robinson. He hadn’t participated in class and ignored Dr. Robinson when she asked to speak with him. Bryan breezed by and walked out the door, never acknowledging his professor.
Where did Bryan go that day after walking out of class, without a word to anyone? He didn’t go back to his dorm, not that afternoon or that night. His absence was peculiar enough for one of Bryan’s housemates to report him missing to university officials, not to police.
It wasn’t until nearly a week later that Roger Williams University administrators called up Bryan Nisenfeld’s parents to tell them their son hadn’t been seen or heard from in six days.
Steven Nisenfeld, Bryan’s father, formally reported his son missing on Wednesday, February 12, after hearing from university officials. The investigation began with piecing together Bryan’s last movements and attempting to track where he may have gone.
Bryan did not have a car, and his bicycle was still back in his dorm. His dorm room window was left open. The walkman he used to listen to music was left on the floor of his room. His glasses and his guitar were left behind, too. There was no goodbye note. Steven told Clint Riley of the Courier-Post, “His room looks like he stepped out to go to the bathroom and he never came back.” His financial records did not tell the story of someone planning to take off for a new life. Days before Bryan disappeared, he withdrew just $10 from his bank account, leaving a $220 balance. That was the last activity on his accounts.
Bryan’s parents knew Bryan was homesick during his time at Roger Williams University. In the beginning of Bryan’s first semester, Steven sent a letter to the university explaining that Bryan might benefit from a little extra attention. Steven shared with Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press, “I told them Bryan was a quiet individual and kept to himself, and they should engage him to see how he was doing.”
The threatening phone calls Bryan had been receiving from his former roommate left him feeling unsettled and a little scared. Steven reported those calls to university officials who, he believed, did nothing. However, according to reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer, local police located and interviewed Bryan’s former roommate who had supposedly been making those threatening phone calls and he told investigators that he hadn’t seen or heard from Bryan in over a week. Rhode Island State Police later stated that the threats could not be substantiated.
Bryan’s father Steven had spent time on the RWU campus and slept in Bryan’s dorm during the earliest weeks of the investigation. He consciously chose Alumni Weekend to visit the campus again, this time with a number of Bryan’s friends and other family members, holding signs pleading for information. Steven claimed that nobody from the university, not even students or alumni, ever said anything to him, but campus police occasionally drove past.
Karla Morgan, a resident of nearby Little Compton, did stop to talk to Bryan’s family and friends. She told Clint Riley of the Courier-Post, “I feel this whole thing has been handled poorly. These people have just been brushed aside.” However, Jason Tourcotte reported for the Hawk’s Eye paper that RWU President Anthony Santoro maintained that university officials had behaved responsibly and with integrity throughout the entire investigation.
Captain Joseph DaSilva of the Bristol Police Department was the lead investigator on the case. He told Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press that investigators did not suspect foul play and that they believed Bryan was still alive. They didn’t have any reason to believe otherwise, he said. All of that changed, however, in August of 1997.
A family from Warren, Rhode Island was walking along the shore of Hog Island with their two young children when the mother came across a size 10 ½ Thornton Bay hiking boot. A gray, wool sock was still inside the boot and inside the sock were the remains of a foot. The family alerted authorities who collected the remains, as well as additional human remains that had been discovered by one of the children nearby. Those were later determined to be a shin bone.
When police notified Steven and Marianne, they arranged to return to Rhode Island to provide blood samples for DNA testing. As reported by the Associated Press in the Berkshire Eagle, Captain DaSilva shared that Marianne was broken up after confirming that Bryan owned a pair of those exact same hiking boots. 7- Captain DaSilva, once so hopeful that Bryan could be found alive, said, “I’m kind of sad on my part. Then again, maybe it will turn out not to be Bryan Nisenfeld.”
It would take several months for the test results to come back.
In the meantime, Marianne was beginning to understand that Bryan might not ever come home alive. Days after the remains were discovered on Hog Island, Marianne told Clint Riley of the Courier-Post, “I’d like to believe that he is still alive, but I don’t believe he is.”
Police continued to investigate Bryan’s disappearance; however, they still had found no evidence of foul play. Portsmouth Police Chief Paul Rogers explained to Paul Tolme of the Associated Press that had Bryan jumped off the bridge, for example, there were two areas where they’d expect a body to wash up, and authorities anticipated what was still to be discovered in those waters beneath the Mount Hope Bridge.
Police brought in divers to search the shores of Hog Island where the earlier remains had been discovered. They focused their efforts on the northern and southern edges of the island where remains typically wash up when someone has fallen or jumped from the nearby Mount Hope Bridge, a span that connects Bristol to Portsmouth and overlooks Narragansett Bay from 125 feet above the water.
Carly Kinnas and Chris Gifford wrote for Hawk’s Eye that Rhode Island State Police had deployed boats and search dogs, and helicopters were being used around Hog Island in an attempt to locate more human remains. Despite those extensive search efforts, additional remains were never found.
In May of 1998, the Rhode Island Medical Examiner’s office confirmed that the remains found on Hog Island eight months earlier were, without a doubt, those of Bryan Nisenfeld.
Episode Source Material
- Audubon graduate missing from Rhode Island school by Mike Franolich, Courier-Post, 15 February 1997
- Father seeks clues about missing son by Angela Couloumbis, Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 Feb 1997
- N.J. teen disappears from college by Rachel Zoll, Daily Record, 18 Feb 1997
- Beacon of hope pierces dark (pg. 1) by Clint Riley, Courier-Post, 06 June 1997
- Beacon of hope pierces dark (pg. 2) by Clint Riley, Courier-Post, 06 June 1997
- Family, friends relentless in search for missing teen (pg. 1) by Clint Riley, Courier-Post, 16 June 1997
- Family, friends relentless in search for missing teen (pg. 2) by Clint Riley, Courier-Post, 16 June 1997
- Mystery bones are apparently the remains of missing student by Associated Press, Berkshire Eagle, 04 Sep 1997
- Hiking boots provide clue to solving disappearance by Clint Riley, Courier-Post, 05 Sep 1997 –
- Hunt for N.J. man focusing on bay by Paul Tolme of the Associated Press,The Record,05 Sep 1997
- Remains found near RWU believed to be Nisenfeld’s by Carly Kinnas & Chris Gifford, The Hawk’s Eye, 17 Oct 1997
- Willow Hall Residents Remember Bryan Nisenfeld by Shaine Murphy, The Hawk’s Eye, 17 Oct 1997
- Cops still hunt for missing N.J. man by Clint Riley, Courier-Post, 26 Jan 1998
- Remains are identified as man from Audubon by Carol Comegno, Courier-Post, 02 May 1998
- Body ID’d as man from Audubon by Eric Dyer, Philadelphia Inquirer, 05 May 1998
- Memorial garden is in the works by Shannon O’Boye, Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 Jul 1998 –
- Audubon creating memorial for residents who died young by Jeff Beach, Courier-Post, 30 Oct 1998
- Cal Poly has unhappy distinction (pg. 1) by Carol Roberts, The Tribune, 24 Nov 1998
- Cal Poly has unhappy distinction (pg. 2) by Carol Roberts, The Tribune, 24 Nov 1998
- Audubon man lobbies for parental notification law by Gene Vernacchio, Courier-Post, 11 Jan 1999
- Missing student’s father seeking new legislation by The Associated Press, Courier-News, 11 Jan 1999
- Student’s vanishing prompts federal bill by Martin Z. Braun, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Jun 1999
- Audubon memorial garden memorialized, Courier-Post, 22 Jun 1999
- Dead student’s parents sue R.I. university (pg. 1) by Renee Winkler, Courier-Post, 11 Jan 2000
- Dead student’s parents sue R.I. university (pg. 2) by Renee Winkler, Courier-Post, 11 Jan 2000
- Parents praise proposed law on missing students by Carl A. Winter, Courier-Post, 25 Feb 2000
- A sense of doubt: Was anti-gay bias a factor in the death of Bryan Nisenfeld? by Ian Donnis, The Providence Phoenix, 16 Mar 2000
- House passes “Bryan’s Law” notification by Courier-Post Staff, Courier-Post, 14 Jun 2000
- Missing Bryan by CBS News, 2 April 2001
- Judge tosses parents’ claims in Audubon student’s death by The Associated Press, Courier-Post, 30 Nov 2001
- Judge sides with RWU in negligence case by Jason Tourcotte, Hawk’s Eye, 17 Dec 2001
- Judge dismisses suit in N.J. teen’s death, Press of Atlantic City, 01 Aug 2002
- John M. Barry on Roger Williams and the Indians by Lyn Garrity, Smithsonian Magazine, 1 Jan 2012
- Beyond a Parent’s Reach: When a Child Legally Becomes an Adult by Alina Tugend, The New York Times, 31 Oct 2014
- National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS): Bryan Nisenfeld Case #MP39649 created on August 25, 2017
- Detectives determined to conquer decades-old quest for answers in college student’s death by by Sarah Doiron and Kim Kalunian, WPRI, 30 July 2021
- Higher Education Technical Amendments of 2000, Speech of Hon. Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey in the House of Representatives
- New York University – Missing Student Notification Policy
- Rhode Island Cold Case website
- Steven S. Nisenfeld’s obituary
- Suzanne’s Law & the Suzanne Lyall Campus Safety Act