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Jacobson disappearance, Part 3: Missing diary could shed light on vanished North Dakota mother and son

The police file in this case, recently obtained by Forum News Service, reveals an initial investigation that failed to obtain information that could have shed light on Sandra Jacobson's relationship -- and life in general -- in the days and weeks before she vanished from Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1996.

A picture of Sandra Jacobson's state identification card
35-year-old Sandra Jacobson and her 5-year-old son, John, went missing from Bismarck in 1996. Their case remains unsolved.
Photo courtesy of Bismarck Police Department — photo illustration by Michael Smith/Forum News Service
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Sandra Jacobson, Episode 3: Missing diary could shed light on North Dakota missing mother and son
Tue Jul 19 11:19:29 EDT 2022
In this episode, reporter Trisha Taurinskas dives into Sgt. William Connor's quest to find Sandra's journal, which he believed could have shed light on what happened to her and John. Also in this episode, learn why an address in rural North Carolina kept popping up in this case. 

 

This is the third and final story in a series on the missing persons case of Sandra and John Jacobson. To read part one, click here . To read part two, click here .

BISMARCK — As Bismarck Police Sgt. William Connor attempted to piece together the final known days of Sandra and John Jacobson, he kept circling back to the same question: What happened to her journal?

Family members say that Sandra Jacobson kept a daily, detailed journal — one that could hold the answers related to the nature of her relationship with her husband, Alan Jacobson. If true, it could also resolve questions regarding her emotional and mental state at the time she went missing.

The police file on this case, recently obtained by Forum News Service, reveals an initial investigation that failed to obtain information that could have shed light on Sandra Jacobson’s relationship — and life in general — in the days and weeks before she vanished.

When Sandra Jacobson’s vehicle was found in Centennial Park along the shores of the Missouri River on Nov. 17, 1996, the morning after she was reported missing, the lead investigator thought the case was as good as closed. With an open front driver’s side door and her purse on the passenger’s seat, he believed she and John had been swept away in the river.

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As a result, Sandra Jacobson’s home — a trailer in Center, North Dakota — was never searched. Despite pleas by her close friends and family members to secure the trailer, her belongings went unexamined.

Just days after Sandra and John Jacobson disappeared, Alan Jacobson entered her trailer, and walked out with an unknown set of items. Those familiar with the situation told investigators he took nearly everything, including clothes, food and random belongings.

Alan Jacobson said he didn’t know his wife kept a journal. In fact, he claimed he never came across it — not even during the process of putting the trailer up for sale.

Forum News Service has made multiple attempts to contact Alan Jacobson to request an interview, without success.

A divorce on the table?

Those close to Sandra Jacobson said she believed she was days away from a divorce when she and her son went missing. She believed — however naively — that her husband was handling the paperwork.

While she was looking forward to moving on, she had anxiety regarding a potential custody battle. In 2004, Sandra Jacobson’s mother, Bernice Grensteiner, told Connor that her daughter had been visibly upset and concerned about that possibility on the night she disappeared. A close friend backed up that claim.

Alan Jacobson, however, told a different story. He said he and his wife were trying to work things out when she went missing.

So, what was really happening?

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That’s what Connor was trying to figure out. He attempted to track down any potential records of the initiation of a divorce procedure — a search that led him to multiple county courthouses. In the end, he found no evidence of an impending divorce.

Alan Jacobson’s claim that he and his wife sought couples counseling through her state employment benefits package didn’t check out, either. Despite obtaining a subpoena for the information, Connor wasn’t able to confirm Alan Jacobson’s claims.

“That’s where I would like to have had that… that journal, because that would have been things she wrote down, you know,” Connor said in a recent interview with Forum News Service. “And if Alan and her were talking about the divorce, she would have wrote it down. So, I would have had some fuel at least, or some things to work off of.”

The potential initiation of a divorce mattered for a number of reasons. According to Connor, Alan Jacobson’s family estate had been put in both of their names. Dividing assets — including land — would have likely been included in any divorce procedures.

Had a divorce occurred prior to the disappearance, Sandra Jacobson’s 16-year-old son would have been included in conversations regarding her assets. Without the divorce, the spouse is entitled to everything.

A background check on both Alan and Sandra Jacobson also revealed an address in rural North Carolina. Attempts by Forum News Service to obtain information related to that property revealed it is owned by TC&I Timber Company, LLC.

A photo of a map of 983 Lenards Drive, Lumberton, North Carolina
Background checks revealed Alan and Sandra Jacobson shared an address at 983 Lenards Drive in Lumberton, North Carolina. Pictured is the land associated with this address, which is now owned by TC&I Timber Company. Sandra Jacobson went missing, along with her 5-year-old son, John, in 1996 from Bismarck.
Photo courtesy of Robeson County

What about the rings?

In an initial interview with Turnbull in 1996, Sandra Jacobson’s 16-year-old son claimed he saw his mother’s wedding rings — days after she went missing — in a change container on a counter in Alan Jacobson’s home.

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When he saw the rings, it sent a chill up his spine. He couldn’t clarify for Connor that his mother had been wearing the rings when she disappeared, but he did wonder why they were inside his step father’s home.

While Alan Jacobson was never questioned about the rings the first time around, he told Connor he wasn’t entirely sure why he had the rings.

“I asked Alan how he got the rings originally,” Connor wrote in the report. “He stated he didn’t remember. He thought about it for a while and thought Sandy took the ring off and left it on the dresser when they separated but he couldn’t remember for sure. He stated he knew for sure he didn’t take it from the trailer.”

The rings represented another detail of the case that proved difficult for Connor to clarify. In the eight years following the disappearance, memories had faded — particularly for details related to whether or not Sandra Jacobson continued to wear her rings.

In the absence of the journal, Connor turned to another option that could point him in the right direction.

He asked Alan Jacobson to take a polygraph test for questions related to the case.

Connor received a phone call a couple of days later from Alan Jacobson’s attorney, informing him that he was declining the test.

Concerns for mental health

There was one running theme present throughout the investigations into Sandra and John Jacobson’s disappearance, and it had to do with the state of her mental health at the time she went missing.

While close family members said Sandra Jacobson was experiencing a mental health crisis, they struggled to believe she would have taken her own life — and the life of her 5-year-old boy, whom she loved deeply. Not known to even raise her voice, her loved ones couldn’t fathom she would cause him harm.

In an effort to make sense of it all, investigators turned to those who knew her
best. Among those interviewed was Vernon Nastrom, Sandra Jacobson’s ex-husband, who was also the father of her first child.

In 1996, Nastrom told Detective Tim Turnbull, the initial lead investigator on the case, that Sandra Jacobson had been fascinated with end-of-world scenarios. While still together, she made a pact with Nastrom: If signs of the end of the world appeared, they would meet up and jump off the Memorial Bridge.

A picture of Sandra Jacobson sitting on a chair, smiling for the camera
Sandra Jacobson and her 5-year-old son, John, went missing in 1996 from Bismarck. Their case remains unsolved.
Photo courtesy of Bismarck Police Department

The Memorial Bridge crosses the Missouri River, just down the street from Centennial Park.

The pact didn’t last forever. Sandra Jacobson’s beliefs regarding end-of-world scenarios came and went, according to Nastrom. Throughout the course of their relationship, she also came to believe that taking one’s own life wasn’t the answer as it meant one’s soul would walk the earth forever — heaven would be out of reach.

Call logs show Sandra Jacobson attempted to call Nastrom in the hours before she went missing. Ultimately, Nastrom admitted he had been on “crank” the day Sandra Jacobson reached out to him, causing him to miss the call.

Nastrom took a polygraph test to clear any suspicion that he was somehow involved in their disappearance. Connor noted that he passed that test.

Roughly one year later, Nastrom was found dead along a rural road in North Dakota’s Kidder County. An autopsy revealed he died from blunt force trauma to the head. His death remains an unsolved case.

Nastrom’s story that Sandra Jacobson had an on-and-off again obsession with the end of the world fell in line with what Alan Jacobson had told both Turnbull and Connor.

The theory also, somewhat, matched the story Sandra Jacobson’s family member told investigators in both 1996 and 2004: they believed a third party was in the car when a distraught Sandra Jacobson called hours before vanishing. In that call, she told the family member to kill themself. She hung up without saying, “I love you,” which she had never done before.

Nastrom’s story was also consistent with the transcript of her phone call to the Bismarck Police Department in the hours before her disappearance.

The transcript, included in the police report, displays a distraught woman who believed a loved one was in danger of sexual abuse at the hands of a demonic cult. Because the alleged ritual abuse was taking place outside the jurisdiction of the Bismarck Police Department, she was told there was nothing that could be done.

A report written by the officer who took the call stated that Sandra Jacobson was worried that a loved one was going to be killed by a cult — there was no mention of allegations of sexual abuse.

The audio recording of that phone call was not placed in evidence. By the time Connor attempted to locate it, the tape had been deleted altogether.

“I can’t believe they destroyed that audio,” Connor said. “I tried to find that audio, and it was gone. And, you know, there’s a lot of things that are different about those cases now. I mean, I don’t think nowadays we would have destroyed that audio, you know. Because we never did have a body. We had no clear cut evidence that she went in the river.”

In the decades since Sandra and John Jacobson went missing, their remains have not been discovered. Sandra Jacobson’s mother and father passed away without any closure related to their daughter and grandson’s disappearance.

As for those who knew and loved Sandra and John Jacobson, they’re still waiting for answers to questions they wish had been asked decades ago.

If you know anything about the missing persons case of Sandra and John Jacobson, please contact Trisha Taurinskas at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.

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Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons and unsolved crime. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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