Family of the missing ask: Should there be more transparency into investigative files?
Brian Guimond is among a league of parents and family members who have sat in the dark for decades, questioning whether there should be more transparency into missing persons and cold case investigations.
Brian Guimond just wants to know what happened to his son.
That longing for truth led him to file a lawsuit against Stearns County Sheriff’s Office, with the ultimate goal of obtaining the investigative file into the disappearance of his son, Joshua Guimond, who vanished in November 2002 from St. John’s campus in central Minnesota.
Despite no known updates made by law enforcement on the case in twenty years, a judge formally denied Brian Guimond’s request in May for access to the investigative file.
The Stearns County Sheriff’s Office successfully argued that releasing the file could jeopardize the 20-year investigation — an argument routinely held by law enforcement agencies that keep a tight lid on missing persons cases.
With no movement on his son’s case, Brian Guimond and his lawyer, Mike Padden, were initially hopeful that the judge would release something for them to hand over to a private investigator. While they’re appealing the decision, Brian Guimond isn’t optimistic — he’s simply been through too much.
“We thought we’d at least get something, and they chose to give us nothing,” he said in a recent interview with Forum News Service. “So, I’m not holding my breath.”
Brian Guimond isn’t alone. He’s among a league of parents and family members who have sat in the dark for decades, questioning whether law enforcement should be more transparent with missing persons and cold case investigations.
Living in the dark
Susan Grensteiner, whose sister-in-law and nephew went missing in 1996, was only recently able to get a glimpse into the investigation related to her family members when Forum News Service obtained the police file.
Sandra and John Jacobson were last seen the evening of Nov. 16, 1996, leaving Sandra Jacobson’s parents’ home in Bismarck. Her vehicle was found the next morning parked in Centennial Park, alongside the Missouri River. The police file revealed that investigators assumed she had taken her life and her son’s life by entering the frigid river waters, and did not initially consider the possibility of foul play.
While she and her family members were incredibly frustrated with Bismarck Police Department’s initial investigation into the disappearance of Sandra and John Jacobson, it wasn’t until recently that they learned their frustration was warranted.
They suspected law enforcement wasn’t exploring other theories, including the possibility of an abduction. Now, they know they’re right.
"She would never have left her family," Grensteiner said. "She just wouldn't."
It’s validation, yet it doesn’t erase the more than 25 years they’ve spent in the dark, wondering not only what happened to their loved ones, but what also happened with the investigation.
“I don’t understand,” Grensteiner said, referring to new information she learned through recent reporting on the police file. “It confuses our brains still.”
Brian Guimond can relate.
When his son, Joshua Guimond, went missing, the investigation focused solely on the theory that he fell into a body of water on campus. Twenty years later, that theory has been put to bed — and Brian Guimond said he hasn’t been updated on the case, involving his only child, in years.
He used to get phone calls every few years, typically when a new detective took over the case. Now, his phone no longer rings. The silence from the people he once trusted to find his son has added another layer of pain to his nightmare.
“That’s how much they want to do with me, they can’t even inform me when somebody else takes over,” he said.
What’s the law?
While Minnesota law states law enforcement can keep information related to an ongoing investigation from the public, the law also allows room for members of the public to bring an action in the district court where the investigation is being handled, requesting disclosure of the investigative information.
That’s exactly what Brian Guimond and Padden did.
There are a few criteria in which a judge may cite in order to grant a request for investigative data. Padden argued one of them: that the benefit for Brian Guimond receiving the investigation file “outweighs any harm to the public,” according to the complaint.
Stearns County Sheriff's Office took some heat in 2018 following Danny Heinrich's confession that he murdered Jacob Wetterling, who went missing from the St. Joseph area in 1989. Interim Sheriff Don Gudmundson publicly criticized the investigation, claiming key errors let Heinrich off the hook for decades.
Padden pointed to that failure as reason enough to hand over Joshua Guimond's file.
Padden also stated in the complaint that any investigative information obtained would be used for the sole purpose of hiring a private investigator, and would not be made available to the public.
Stearns County Sheriff’s Office successfully argued that releasing any information related to the case could jeopardize their investigation. In a December 2021 interview with Forum News Service, detective Andrew Struffert said there were no suspects of persons of interest.
“We have interviewed a lot of people over the years, and I wouldn’t say at this point there are any suspects,” he said.
The legal argument made by Stearns County Sheriff's Office in the Guimond lawsuit sang a different tune. Court documents reveal they argued in February 2021 that they had several people of interest.
"The Sheriff’s Office has identified several people potentially playing a role in the disappearance of Joshua Guimond, and investigation into those individuals is ongoing today and anticipated into the future," court documents on behalf of Stearns County Sheriff's Office state. "Those individuals are obviously identified in the open, active, and confidential investigative file."
That was news to Brian Guimond, who learned of that through the court proceedings.
Access to ongoing investigation data in South Dakota is pretty difficult to obtain, as it's up to law enforcement to make that call.
Investigative records are closed to the public, regardless of whether the case is considered active or inactive, according to The Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press.
In North Dakota, in order to access the investigative file, a credible argument must be made that the case is inactive, with no expectation of it being re-opened.
For family members, including Grensteiner, who are wading through the deep waters of grief, fighting for information that could shed light on what happened to their loved ones can simply be just that: a fight.
After years of questioning, searching and putting faith in public servants to do right by their loved ones, they often no longer have that fight in them.