Britney Ujlaky picked flowers for friends if they’d had a bad day. She loved listening to any music she could dance to, and dreamed of becoming a makeup artist. In her rural Nevada community, the 16-year-old volunteered at the 2U Ranch, riding and grooming horses, and helping with cattle drives.
“She had the personality you can’t really forget—she was so goofy and fun,” said one close friend, Cheyenne Fry, 18. “You would be having the worst day of your life, but her laugh would put you in a good mood.” Britney often talked about wanting to someday win the title of local Rodeo Queen, Fry said.
“She was always helping people out,” Fry told The Daily Beast. “If it was house-sitting, babysitting, grooming their horses. Everyone knew her and loved her so much.”
But on the afternoon of Sunday, March 8, Britney disappeared and the nightmare began. That evening, her mother shared a desperate plea on Facebook: “My daughter is missing!!!!!!! Police have been notified. Please please share!!!!!!!!”
Britney was last seen hopping into a green Ford F-150 pickup truck in front of Spring Creek High School. According to one Facebook group sanctioned by Britney’s family, that truck was driven by a young man in a cowboy hat whose identity is unknown.
Three days after Britney vanished, she was discovered dead near the Burner Basin area of Spring Creek, about 6.5 miles north of the high school.
On Monday, police announced the identification of Britney’s body and provided the number for a tip line for their investigation.
“At this time, Britney's death is being investigated as a homicide,” the Elko County Sheriff’s Office stated. “While investigators have been working around the clock following up on leads and tips, a suspect has not been identified.”
“Currently there has been no information to indicate danger to the public,” the agency added, before requesting that “citizens refrain from posting rumors and tips on social media sites.” (The sheriff did not return messages left on Tuesday.)
The loss has devastated Britney’s family, who are seeking answers on what might have happened to the high-schooler. They say they’re certain of one thing, however: Britney was not trying to run away from home.
“She adored her family and friends and blended so well with others,” said Leslie Tolhurst-Grayson, a cousin who was very close to Britney and her mom, Alisha. “When she went missing, it was looked at as a runaway but we all knew she would never run away from her family.”
On Tuesday, in the hours before a candlelight vigil, Britney’s family shared her obituary.
“She loved to ride and did so as often as possible,” the memorial read. “Britney was most happy when participating in some sort of cowgirl work.” At the 2U Ranch, “she was always the first one saddled and ready to go.”
Britney was born Gabrielle Lynn Ujlaky, but when her parents took her home, they felt she was more of a Britney. Tolhurst-Grayson said everyone had a nickname for her: Brit, Brit Brit, Goose, or Woman Bear.
Police have released little information on Britney’s last movements. In her mother’s social media post seeking help, she indicated Britney’s phone last pinged at 5:30 p.m. on Boyd-Kennedy Road near the high school.
A missing person flyer shared online by relatives and supporters said the F-150 truck Britney got into was an older model from the early 2000s. The driver was described as a “white male wearing a cowboy hat in his late teens [or] early twenties.”
Another flyer said, “He went by JT,” and added, “She was found deceased and alone. We need to find this JT. He could be anywhere.”
It’s unclear who this man was, or how Britney knew him.
“One never thinks something so tragic could happen to your family,” Tolhurst-Grayson told The Daily Beast. “It’s something you only see in movies.”
Fry said she last spoke to Britney hours before she went missing. The friends spoke to each other every day on the Facetime app, and they’d go to the gym together on Sundays. “She called me and asked if I wanted to go to the gym,” Fry recalled. “I told her to give me an hour.” That call, Fry says, came around 1 p.m. after she’d gotten out of church.
At the time of the call, Fry says, Britney was hanging out with a mutual friend. Within a few hours, that mutual friend dropped Britney off at the high school. “She said her dad was picking her up,” Fry told The Daily Beast.
“I wish she would have said something to me about this guy,” Fry said of the mystery driver. “She said this was one of her new friends. I wish I had more answers but I don’t.”
Another friend, Brin Wilson, said she texted Britney around 4:37 p.m. on the day she vanished, asking if she wanted to come over for pizza. Brin never heard back and knew something was amiss later when the phone went straight to voicemail. “She would never let her phone die or be without it,” Wilson said.
Wilson often went horseback riding with Britney. They’d cover miles with no destination and “joke about all the crazy stuff we did.” Wilson said, “She was the kindest soul I knew. She looked up to me. Every day she would always check up on me.”
Fry said Britney often put others before herself. “She wasn’t afraid to go do things, to talk to someone. She had no fear,” Fry added. “She was the most fearless girl I ever met.” Despite her loving demeanor, Britney was also dealing with online bullies, whom she eventually had to block on Snapchat, Fry said.
“She got bullied. Every teenager goes through that. That's what made our friendship so strong. We were always there standing up for each other,” Fry said.
Mourners planned a candlelight vigil to honor Britney on Tuesday evening. RL Dakin, an administrator for the “JUSTICE FOR BRITNEY UJLAKY” Facebook group, said the event would be livestreamed because of COVID-19 fears.
Dakin, who is based in Canada, has set up more than 50 Facebook groups for families with missing persons. “Typically, in any group, we are looking for the missing person along with any vehicles associated with their disappearance but in Britney’s heartbreaking circumstance, she had been found—we didn't need to look for Britney anymore,” she said. “So, we focused on the vehicle that she was believed to have gotten into.”
Dakin’s group has pushed for people in the area to review security footage, dashcam video, or trail and wildlife cameras for clues.
“My heart aches for Britney and her family,” Dakin added. “Her group will transition over to her family and friends when they are ready to take that on. Hopefully, it will remain in place to support this family through the criminal investigation, possibly a trial—all the nightmares that still await them.”
Fry said she hopes justice is served sooner than later.
“You just want to ask yourself why. Why did it have to be her?” Fry told The Daily Beast. “Why now? Why so young? And you won’t get those answers because no one really knows. For me, it’s been hard. I still haven’t fully accepted it—that my best friend is gone.”