15 years later, memory of Dru Sjodin lives on
GRAND FORKS — Dru Sjodin was a woman who could easily represent someone in anyone’s life — a daughter, a sister, a best friend, the girl next door.
It’s one of the reasons her abduction on Nov. 22, 2003, from a mall parking lot in Grand Forks has resonated so strongly with those who heard her story, said East Grand Forks Police Chief Michael Hedlund.
“You can picture her as someone in your life,” he said.
The University of North Dakota student from Pequot Lakes, Minn., a small town of 2,100 about 200 miles southeast of Grand Forks, was taken in a public setting while leaving at Columbia Mall. During a phone call with her boyfriend, Chris Lang, the line suddenly disconnected, but not before she uttered, “Oh my God.”
By all accounts, the young woman loved life, cared for others and would do anything within her power to help anyone feel special, said Britni Schmalz, a Minot teacher who was in Sjodin’s sorority, Gamma Phi Beta, when her friend was taken.
“Dru saw everyone for their unique qualities,” Schmalz said. “She was a person who made this world a better place.”
Sjodin’s disappearance sparked an outpouring of concern and sympathy from across the nation for multiple reasons, whether it was because of her kind personality or because people could relate to her. Hundreds volunteered to search for her in the wake of the disappearance, and agencies from Minnesota, North Dakota and Canada along with the FBI offered their assistance.
Sjodin’s body was found April 17, 2004, in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., half-clothed and with her wrists tied behind her back. There was evidence the student had been raped and murdered, according to court documents.
In September 2006, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. was sentenced to death for kidnapping, raping and murdering Sjodin. He now is the only person who committed a crime in North Dakota on death row, though he is trying to appeal the conviction.
Though the search ended in tragedy, her story continues to live past the murder, former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said. Colleagues, friends and even strangers on the street who followed the case still bring it up when they see him.
“It’s not just that they remember this defendant, what he did and that he is on death row,” Wrigley said. “I think people did very much feel touched by this young woman. … She was just on the doorstep of so much promise.”
As horrific as the crime was, the search and condolences that flowed in from everywhere showed there was good in the world, that people truly cared about Sjodin, her mother, Linda Walker, said.
“In the midst of being in such despair, I can’t even describe the feelings of knowing I’m never going to have my daughter back,” Walker said. “But the uplifting from the people who reached out carried us and still does until this today, more than I can put into words.”
In the first hours, some thought Sjodin was another missing person who would eventually show up, said Hedlund, who was the public information officer for the Grand Forks Police Department when she was abducted.
But there were red flags that quickly made investigators, family members, friends and reporters realize this was not an ordinary missing persons case. Sjodin did not skip commitments, and she always answered text messages, said Schmalz, who was 20 years old at the time.
Sjodin was a responsible woman who made and kept commitments, whether it was volunteering to help with underprivileged dancers or the UND Clothesline Project, which is dedicated to victims and survivors of violence.
“She loved her sorority,” Walker said. “She loved doing volunteer work and her jobs.
“She was just everybody’s friend.”
“We all knew deep within our guts that something desperately was wrong,” Schmalz said.
Sjodin was doing something people did every day in Grand Forks — she got done with work and walked to the car to drive home, Walker said.
“For a call to get interupted the way that hers did … that’s just not normal,” Hedlund said.
Walker said Lang called her about Sjodin shortly after the dropped call, and in turn, she called Sjodin’s father, Allan, who lived in the Twin Cities.
“He jumped into his pickup truck and drove literally into Grand Forks on fumes,” Walker said. “Allan found her car in the parking lot at the Columbia Mall in a spot where she normally didn’t park. So he sat there with the car all night. That was the start of it all.”
Sjodin’s story spread beyond the borders of North Dakota and Minnesota. Media outlets from across the country traveled to Grand Forks to cover the abduction almost immediately, including Chuck Haga, a former Grand Forks Herald reporter who at the time of Sjodin’s disappearance worked for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. News articles called her “the girl next door” and “everyone’s daughter.”
People often can dissociate themselves from news stories, Wrigley said. But Sjodin was different.
“No matter how people looked at it, it was impossible to dissociate themselves and their loved ones from her and a community (like Grand Forks),” he said.
Schmalz agreed her sorority sister was relatable, but she attributed the widespread interest in the story to Sjodin’s parents, saying they wouldn’t stop searching, and the fact that the sorority contacted as many entities as possible. Sjodin would have done the same if any of her sorority sisters disappeared, Schmalz said.
Walker said people in North Dakota and Minnesota look out for each other, and Sjodin had a large circle of friends.
Thinking about how complete strangers came to look for one person they never met gives Schmalz goosebumps when she talks about it, she said.
“Even though this was a horrible, horrible circumstance, it also shows you the power of how good humans are,” she said.
The organization of the search and the way local, state and federal law enforcement worked with each other was impressive, Haga said.
“I think the community should feel proud about how it responded,” he said.
Walker’s late husband, Sid, who died from cancer in 2011, handed out socks and other clothing items to searchers, she said. She waited at home, hoping someone would call with news that her daughter had been found.
She said in her recent phone interview she felt guilty, wondering if she should be in Grand Forks searching.
But a friend told her she was right to stay and wait for those phone calls.
“You don’t know what the right thing or wrong thing is,” she said. “You are not scripted for it.”
‘She was ours’
Walker remembers the day Sjodin’s body was found in northwest Minnesota.
She and others were handing out sandwiches to some of the dozens of volunteers who had donated months of their time looking for the missing 22-year-old UND student abducted five months earlier.
Then she got a call telling her to come to the “command station,” a trailer behind the Crookston High School.
“Nobody said a word in the car on the way back to the trailer,” Walker said.
The search may have ended in April 2004, but the story was far from over. What followed was a long legal battle that revealed graphic details into Sjodin’s death. Court documents laid out how Rodriguez “carried out a depraved ‘rape fantasy’ dating back to his previous offenses” before killing her.
“None of it made sense,” Walker said. “Why would anyone take someone who is so kind, so loving, so caring toward others?”
The region was not yet aware of exactly what Rodriguez had done to Sjodin, though they had a sense it was “a truly horrific crime,” Wrigley said. That feeling of dread grew stronger as more information came out and the trial approached, he said.
“It was the kind of thing that had people in so much pain,” he said, referring not only to Sjodin’s family but strangers watching or reading the story from afar.
Hedlund was not involved with the investigation, so he didn’t interact with Sjodin’s family as much as other officers. He spoke with family members on several occasions, and he, like others, wanted to do the best job possible to bring Sjodin home, he said.
“In law enforcement, they always tell you try not to let things get personal because you want to be able to stay focused and stay professional,” he said. “As you start to see this affecting them, especially for me as a father — I have three daughters — it almost became impossible for it not to become personal.
Haga said he was struck by the responses that came from across the world. People wrote condolence notes from countries in Asia, Belgium and other countries on Sjodin's tribute page when she was found.
Haga recalled the dedication of Sjodin’s parents, how Allan Sjodin said he would not leave Grand Forks without his daughter. Hundreds of people, including the governors of North Dakota and Minnesota, attended her funeral.
“There was that sense she was ours,” Haga said.
Walker said she could not thank the people who helped search for Sjodin enough. She was grateful for everyone’s work, especially the help from UND and the Women’s Center.
When asked why she didn’t give up, Walker said she believes her daughter would have done everything she could to find her friends or her mother if they went missing.
“I truly believe Dru would have been on a mission,” the mother said.
The shock that a kidnapping like Sjodin’s could happen in the open shook the community, especially since the details of the crime were so terrifying, said Kari Kerr, director of community innovations for Community Violence Intervention Center.
“It really changed our safe feeling of community to more like things that happen in a large city,” she said.
The Grand Forks area still is relatively safe compared to other parts of the country, Hedlund said, but the abduction taught residents to be more aware of safety.
Campus safety became more prominent in the wake of Sjodin’s disappearance, Schmalz said.
“Just at a female level, you were very aware of your surroundings, where you went,” she said.
It also made others more aware of sexual assault, Kerr said. Sexual assault crimes likely didn’t increase, but more victims were reporting them because of the awareness Sjodin's case drew, she said.
“I think a lot of women especially felt that sense of vulnerability and fear in a way that they hadn’t before,” Kerr said, which resulted in more women taking self-defense classes.
Sexual offender laws became more common. In 2006, President George W. Bush passed Dru’s Law, which set up the National Sex Offender Public Registry.
But the vast majority of sexual assault victims are attacked by people they know, said Laura Frisch, director of advocacy and empowerment at the CVIC.
“The focus needs to continue to be on how do we prevent perpetrators from continuing to perpetrate,” she said.
That starts with a cultural shift that women should not be objectified and raising children in a society that doesn’t support violence, Frisch said.
“We need to heal trauma at all levels,” Kerr said.
Wrigley said he is confident the evidence leaves no doubt that Rodriguez raped and killed Sjodin in a horrific manner. Attempts to contact Rodriguez’s attorney for this story did not get a response.
Schmalz said she has struggled with her thoughts on Rodriguez but said she believes he is mentally ill. The nation needs to talk about mental illness and its impacts on individuals and society, she said.
Sjodin was taken by evil, Walker said, adding “evil exists in this world, and we cannot ignore it.”
“It’s not to sensationalize, but I think it is to just ensure that people realize the true nature of evil and violence, what can and does happen,” she said.
Walker said society needs to educate children on their self-worth, how to treat others and how not to be treated, along with other issues that are not pleasant to speak about. That will help break the cycle of violence, she said.
“I think we need an open dialogue of it more, not to make it scary but to make it informational,” she said. “Most things we talk about in life, we can’t just ignore it.”
‘Hug your children’
Sjodin’s disappearance showed the Grand Forks area it was vulnerable, that a kidnapping, rape and murder can happen even here, Haga said. Still, it is important to remember Sjodin and what happened, Haga said.
“I think the main thing is we didn’t feel as safe as we did,” he said. “I think anyone who was here at the time will never forget.”
Schmalz said her sorority was afraid people would forget about Sjodin or not talk about her story since it was painful.
“Every time there’s a pink sunrise and a pink sunset, I think about Dru,” she said. “Every time when someone gives me a random, huge smile, I think about her.”
Sjodin’s family put on a clinic to show communities how to organize searches when people go missing, Haga said. Walker became an advocate for sexual assault victims, and she continues to use the Facebook page “Dru’s Voice” to spread awareness of her story.
Hedlund said people should make sure their families know they love them. In the wake of other tragedies, and Haga noted we are part of a world that sometimes can be ugly.
“Hug your children. Life is precious,” Haga said.