MISSING DAVID: PART 5
Missing artist proved complicated, charming, creative
Before David Riemens disappeared three years ago this month, there likely were no two people that knew him much better than his bosom friends Donny and Laura Nuessle.
Riemens, the subject of the only open missing person case in Wilson County, broke bread with the husband and wife twice a day and slept in a tree house on their farm for 12 years. The artist and gifted rock mason also spent long hours here creating an amazing stone structure, known as the "hobbit house."
"He was a very complicated person. He was very charming. He was very childlike. He was very adult. He was very playful," recalls Laura, who knew Riemens 40 years, longer than anyone in Middle Tennessee.
"He was that rare combination of mathematical and artistic genius. Some of the best genes you could ever have, I think, as far as creativity goes. He was extremely creative. He saw things in ways that most people didn't. He was a very loyal friend. He was always there when I needed him. He was, indeed, my brother," she said with a tear in her voice.
When Riemens vanished on August 8, 2012, he left behind all personal possessions. For starters, his 1997 Ford Ranger truck was found abandoned in the parking lot of the Dollar General in Watertown. The vehicle yielded no clues to his whereabouts.
He also left a beloved dog, a packed traveling bag, an array of dazzling and colorful yet enigmatic oil paintings, and, most precious, he left behind four siblings and a community of caring friends.
Could bribe him with dessert
"He looked like a street person for the most part," says Laura, describing Riemens as she pulls out a worn leather hat, his favorite, just one more item abandoned by its owner. "He normally wore jeans and a T-shirt, and he usually had sunglasses on when he went outside as the sun gave him really bad headaches."
She recalls that the day he dropped from sight, he was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, work boots, blue argyle socks and a Geezer ball cap.
"He was not materialistic. The only thing that he would covet would be cookies. He would care about his cookies. He liked my cookies. He was really big into desserts. You could bribe him to do anything if you made him a pie or cookies," she recollects with a smile.
"He was always in my kitchen. He's been in my kitchen since I met him. David and I were like brother and sister. We fought like brother and sister. He was a really nice older brother."
As for what the congenial soul did for enjoyment, much of his time was spent exploring nature, especially rivers, trees, canyons and caves, or socializing with friends in Watertown.
"Every chance he had he would go kayaking," said Donny. "When he was out West, he and friends led trips down the Colorado. He was an influence getting us to go down the Caney Fork. He liked to go caving. He led many trips into Indian Grave Point Cave."
"He liked to listen to music at Lulu's but always stayed in the background," said Laura. "He did not like to go to Nashville or any big city or on a plane or to Wal-Mart, unless he had to get his pictures developed. He did not like to be in the hubbub."
Among other favorite places he chose to chill out in Watertown were Lulu's Cafe, Mary Craig's coffee parlor and the public library on the square. In Lebanon he frequented Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity's ReStore and salvage places.
Migrated from Michigan
Laura met her "soul brother" after she graduated from high school in Allegan, Michigan. He lived in Plainview, the next town over. The connection was arts and crafts. She was an artisan whose medium was leather. He was an artist and stone mason and married to his high school sweetheart.
Riemens, his wife, Laura and five others migrated from Michigan to Middle Tennessee in the mid-1970s, attracted by the relatively inexpensive price of land.
"At the time Short Mountain was a really active place for passive-solar, back-to-the-lander kind of thing, and that was kind of the center of where people were attracted to. All the people who lived in that whole area were nice, hardworking artisans for the most part, and we fit in pretty nicely," said Laura.
Riemens and his wife moved into a community of kindred spirits outside of Dowelltown in DeKalb County. They divorced in 1978, and he struck out on his own at a variety of tasks, working at his own pace. Laying rock proved to be his bread and butter, but money had little appeal.
"He didn't really work a whole lot because he was a very utilitarian person. He didn't need much. He bought all his clothes at Goodwill. He was a very charming man so women would always cook for him. So he was never hungry. All he really needed was pocket money. He worked at an airport as a guard for a while when he was going to drafting school," said Laura, who over the years managed the Pizza Hut in Smithville, worked in the Cracker Barrel test kitchen, ran a landscaping business and trained horses.
Making his home in tree house
In the early 1990s Laura met Dr. Donny Nuessle in Florida, and he followed her to Tennessee. They married, and he worked the next 18 years in Lebanon's University Medical Center (UMC) emergency room. In the late 1990s the couple moved to a farm in the Watertown area and hired Riemens, Laura's longtime friend, to add a deck on to their house.
The first structure he helped build on their Quietude Farm was a tree house, which became Riemens' sleeping quarters.
"A lot of the inspiration for the building was David's. He was more of the architect," said Donny about the structure, which sits on a sloped base 18 to 25 feet off the ground, supported by two oak and two hackberry trees with additional bracing from cedar posts.
"He would watch TV with us until about 9 o'clock, then say, 'I'm out of here, going to the tree house.' The footprint is 8 by 10," said Donny of the shack. "It's just got a big, heavy sleeping bag, and it didn't matter if it'd be 10 degrees or it'd be thunderstorming, he'd say, 'Going to the tree house.' In the years that he lived on the farm there were less than 10 times that he took a bed in the barn or in the hobbit house."
The tree house can be reached by climbing 15 steps up a slim, metal spiral staircase. It boasts small decks on two sides. Forest critters have wreaked havoc here, thus the lofty nook is no longer the cute, pristine place it once was. Among one of the targets of squirrels, raccoons and other nocturnal invaders is Riemens' sleeping bag, now lying shredded and tattered in the small loft where he slumbered.
The tree house never had running water or electricity. Its only concession was a small, wood-burning stove that the artist used only on cold winter nights. He had trained his dog to walk down the spiral staircase, retrieve a piece of firewood and then close the door.
"He'd come to the house for coffee in the morning and talk frustratingly about what kept him awake, what noises he'd heard," reflected Donny. "He was very low maintenance, kind of a mountain man. David was a bit of a hippie and never really changed."
"But he would help anybody that had a need. He was a person with a good heart," Laura added.
"He was kind of a laborer out here for us. He lived in our tree house... And in payment for board and room, he'd help around the farm. He was an artist. His work with the rocks was always done artistically. In the winter time he'd often paint in the tree house," Donny said.
Creating the hobbit house
About 2002 Laura decided she wanted a root cellar carved out of a dirt bluff next to their horse barn. She suggested that Riemens simply craft a stone doorway leading into a dugout hole. He asked what the budget would be on the project.
"We told him, 'Well, there's not really any budget.' He picked up most of the stones on the farm. We paid for a friend's chimney that was standing," recalled Donny. "We called it the hobbit house because of the round door. He was actually using it as kind of an office the last six or eight months. It was a spare bedroom. We had guests and had some musicians play and record in the hobbit house. And this was David's project. It kind of had captivated him for the last eight years."
The hobbit house proves a whimsical and yet amazing creation as the field rock fits snuggly in walls here and there in the hillside, thus it's a combination hand-mixed mortar and limestone house with a rock chimney. A small tribe of sculpted dragons decorate the exterior. A veggie garden flourishes on the backside of the roof, and a butterfly garden in front attracts a bevy of fluttering monarchs.
Once entering via the round door, visitors will find an 800-square-foot underground dwelling with two rooms that Donny refers to as "the dragon's lair."
For all his labors around the farm handyman David, a picky eater, received healthy meals.
"He wouldn't cook. He'd take meals with us although he had real odd eating habits," shared Donny. "He kept vegetarian for the longest time and distrusted what she cooked. He'd get angry at people inviting him over for a dinner party. They realized that he ate sort of weird, and he didn't want to be impolite, but he'd often look at something and say, 'Oh, no, I don't want to eat that.' For the most time when he was eating here, she'd cook vegetarian."
"Left unto his own he would eat pretty much all white - potatoes, rice, eggs, popcorn - white food," Laura noted.
"He'd have meals with us. He'd walk up from the tree house with his dog for breakfast. I would generally feed his dog with ours at the same time, and he'd have breakfast with us. Then he might be going out to do a project somewhere. Sometimes he'd go to the coffee shop in Watertown," recalled Donny of the pal with whom he played nine-ball on his pool table practically every day, the man he claimed as his best friend over their last five or six years together.
David goes missing
The doctor, who serves as a deputy medical examiner for Wilson County, meaning he has been called to numerous fatal accident and crime scenes to scrutinize the dead, was the first to realize late Wednesday afternoon of August 8, 2012, that something was not right in David Riemens' world.
"For him not to come home, his dogs left unattended - that was just not like David. David was very responsible. He'd have notified us if he had planned to be away," Donny said, recounting the mystery.
"Let's go back maybe a week before. He met someone described as an old man that had access to some old bricks. Part of the structure up above the tree house, there's some bricked walkways that David was kind of working on, and he wanted to maintain it with more antique bricks.
"He went out to a place that we never have been able to determine its location. He'd leave here and come back with a load of about 50 bricks. It was about an hour's drive back and forth for him to return with the load."
At the site, which included an aging barn and an old rock wall, Riemens found that the elderly gent had hired two men to build a foundation for a house for his daughter or son. The man wanted Riemens to give him an estimate to face the foundation with stones.
"He had worked out some figures in his sketchpad to be able to compare the price of a side of brick to stone and his work and his time, and he was wanting to meet with the contractor of whatever was being built there. He was having trouble trying to figure out who the contractor was, how to contact him. The people he saw up there laying the block rock were not communicative," recalled Donny.
"He was frustrated because they wouldn't say what their name was. There was the older man and he had two other men working on the blocks, and he never could get their names. And they didn't want to give him the name of the contractor or anything, and it was really puzzling David and kind of irritating him," Laura chimed in.
Riemens was hoping to nail down the potential job before leaving as soon as possible for Michigan to visit his siblings.
"On Monday (August 6) he went out to try and find the contractor and came back. I remember him saying, 'Well, maybe he'll call.' He must have given somebody our home number," Donny said.
"Tuesday he did the same thing. Went out to the property, tried to meet somebody there. Finally, Wednesday was the last day that anybody had seen him. I was home bush hogging, but I was watching the time because I had a 12 o'clock appointment to meet somebody in Franklin.
"I saw his white truck come in the driveway, and it was about time for me to quit," said Donny, who, from the garage several minutes later, spotted David coming out of the house with his sketchpad.
"The last thing I heard him say was something along the lines of, 'And don't forget your paperwork,' or something like that, like he had forgotten his sketchpad and ran back to get it. He jumped into his car and drove off, and I didn't know where he was heading. He seemed excited and was smiling when he said it, laughing about it."
He believes the time was 10:45 a.m.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.
Up next: The sixth and final portion of MISSING DAVID runs in Friday's Wilson Post.