It’s been two decades since the bitterly cold February night when Rachel Anthony disappeared from the Pine River liquor store where she worked, never to be seen alive again.
Saturday, Feb. 27, marks the 20th anniversary of the 50-year-old vanishing, only for her lifeless, strangled body to be found six weeks later at the bottom of a roadside embankment 10 miles away in Breezy Point. To this day, no suspects were ever identified and the murder remains unsolved.
The Anthony case is one of the cold cases former Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Dave Bjerga remembers in intricate detail. Grilling burgers on his deck during the current stretch of unseasonably warm winter weather Wednesday, Bjerga was immediately transported to the desperate, frozen search around Ultimate Liquors in 2001 during a phone interview.
“I keep envisioning that night and the cold and the snow, and how hard people were working to try and kind of capture that moment,” Bjerga said. “I think about it actually quite often, … the dark and the cold, and the fact that there wasn’t anybody around. And we still can’t figure out who did this.”
The night’s events are similarly burned into the memory of Cass County, Minn., Sheriff Tom Burch, who was chief deputy at the time of Anthony’s murder.
“I think it’s real strange that it’s been 20 years, but I can distinctly remember how cold it was. It’s odd that that sticks in your mind,” Burch said Friday. “You know, you just hope there’s some little thing that comes in or some new technology or something that just gives us a little bit of a break. But, you know, it’s just not happening. … It’s strange how you can remember that night, and it’s been so long. It just seems like it was yesterday.”
This time of year can be difficult for Anthony’s three children — Robert Mozden, Jessica Anthony and Tricia Lehr — as they recall the memory of that day and those that followed.
“Some years have been worse than others and some have been better,” wrote Lehr by email Thursday. “It is hard to believe it has been 20 years since Mom’s disappearance. I miss her every day. I am not doing anything in particular this year, just spending time with my family. I remain hopeful that one day her case will be solved.”
Mozden, whose birthday falls just days after the date of Anthony’s disappearance, told the Dispatch in 2019 he hasn’t celebrated since the year his mother died. He shared an essay he’d recently written about his anguish.
“Terrible, terrible pain. Terrible, terrible grief. I cannot let go of it, I can’t make it diminish. Every passing year that the anniversary comes and goes, that hole is open wide and salt is poured in,” he wrote. “Every year the sadness makes its presence known. Every year a reminder I was robbed, my children robbed, my siblings and their children robbed. ... All the rage I cannot express, all the hate I cannot let go. When does it end, when will there be peace, when will the culprit be revealed and justice served?”
Anthony, a tall woman with striking blue eyes who seemed well-liked and was described as a hard worker with a magnetic personality by her former employer, often closed down the store. For a year and a half, Anthony worked the night shift alone at Ultimate Liquors after spending the day with her young grandsons at the rural Pequot Lakes home she shared with daughter Jessica Anthony and her former son-in-law. That Tuesday night, she’d already started her Ford Escort in preparation for her drive home while winding things down for closing time.
Later, Jessica Anthony would tell police her mother usually followed a routine: exiting through the front door to start her car, returning through that same door and locking it behind her, taking the garbage out to the dumpster in the back, locking the back door behind her and leaving for the last time out the front.
This routine, it appeared to police, was interrupted that night. Sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. Feb. 28, 2001, a Pine River police officer began to wonder about the parked car puffing exhaust outside the still-lit liquor store as he drove along Barclay Avenue, the main street through the heart of the small Cass County city. He stopped to investigate, finding the front door locked. The back door in the alley, however, swung open when the officer pulled the handle. Nothing looked amiss and no one was inside, but Anthony’s coat, purse and cigarettes remained.
The officer called and woke up Steve Abraham, chief of the tiny Pine River Police Department at the time. It wasn’t long before investigators from Cass County and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension joined in the efforts to find Anthony. A Minnesota State Patrol helicopter used infrared technology to search from the air.
During a 2019 interview, Abraham set the scene for what those first hours of the investigation were like.
“We searched the surrounding area for, oh I don’t know, a half-mile around. The snow had been really deep at that time. There was no tracks in the snow, nothing. We beat on every door for several blocks around, getting people out of bed, seeing if they’d seen anything at all. No one had,” Abraham said. “ … You could literally get on your hands and knees and look across that ice, and you couldn’t see anything. It was just glare ice.”
Jessica Anthony worried earlier that night when her mother didn’t come home, she told the Dispatch in 2019, but the liquor store was in the process of moving to a new building, and Rachel Anthony worked atypical hours to help. A phone call from police woke her up.
Also informed were Kim Terhaar and her ex-husband, who owned Ultimate Liquors at the time. The owners confirmed for police another puzzling piece — no robbery of money or liquor appeared to have occurred at the store. Although the store was equipped with security cameras, they were not recording that night.
Investigators looked at who traveled on Highway 371 along with receipts from the liquor store and what type of alcohol was purchased. All those who made purchases during her shift were cooperative and eliminated as suspects. The last purchase rung up by Anthony that night was at 9:56 p.m., but the transaction was never completed.
Jessica Anthony always believed this unidentified customer might have had something to do with her mother’s disappearance.
“They never did find out who the last customer was that night,” she said in 2019. “That was the only sale that they could not find out who it was. So there’s always that question if that was the person. I personally think that that last customer had something to do with it, being that that person never came forward. Because everybody else did.”
Tips poured into police in the beginning, though none yielded information on Anthony’s whereabouts. There was no sign of her anywhere until April, when four teenagers on horseback made a gruesome discovery on a road between Breezy Point and Pequot Lakes.
Spanning 1 mile, Nelson Road runs north-south and connects Buschmann and Wild Acre roads. Wooded and hilly, the street is sparsely dotted with homes along with a large gravel pit, known locally as the Swenson pit. Across the street, southeast of the pit’s entrance, Anthony’s body lay about 15 feet down an embankment giving way to a wetland.
“When that happened, you kind of were — we were very hopeful that she’d be located OK, but then you turn to the crime and you really gear up. Now we have to find the person responsible,” Sheriff Burch said. “That’s when you hope to get some good evidence to get somebody convicted.”
After the discovery of Anthony’s body, an autopsy of which revealed she died of asphyxia due to homicidal violence, investigators tried to determine who was responsible. Theories vary on who killed Anthony and why, and with no major suspects ever identified, the debate continues.
RELATED: Murderers among us?
Generally speaking, however, law enforcement officials leaned toward the likelihood the murderer is, or was at the time, a local — if they’re still alive. Bjerga said the location of Anthony’s body played a major role in the suspect profile. While used by locals as a shortcut, avoiding county highways, Nelson Road is not one most people from out of town seem to know.
This doesn’t exclude the possibility it was someone passing through, however, nor does it offer insight into the motive for the crime. Bjerga said he can convince himself of a number of possibilities, depending on the day.
“I think about this quite often, and at times I can believe that it was a random act and that it was a crime of opportunity,” Bjerga said. “But then when I think it through and think of other aspects of what we knew at the time, she was targeted. And someone knew she was going to be alone there that night in that store. So it depends on when you ask me the question what my answer would be, because I can go both ways on it.”
Burch said tips are few and far between these days on Anthony’s case, but he said someone coming forward with information is the most likely way the murder will be solved.
“Maybe just the smallest thing could be a big lead for us. So if somebody knows something, please, even if they feel it’s minimal, let us know,” Burch said.
Bjerga noted genetic research using websites such as Family Tree DNA or GEDmatch might also play a role in revealing Anthony’s killer. There are numerous examples across the United States of charges brought against suspects in decades-old cases with the help of this technology, which cross-references DNA collected at crime scenes with DNA voluntarily provided by people seeking to learn more about their family trees.
RELATED: A decade with few answers
Just Thursday, the Cherry Hills Police Department in Colorado announced they’d arrested a suspect in the brutal 1981 slaying of Sylvia Quale — 62-year-old David Dwayne Anderson, identified through familial ties in one such DNA database. CBS Denver reported they narrowed the suspect list down from 3,300 people related, however distantly, to Anderson.
“If they’re alive, I think that that’s the best opportunity short of somebody coming forward with firsthand information,” Bjerga said. “So I still think that’s the best chance.”
Help solve Rachel’s case
The case remains an open investigation with the BCA and the Cass County Sheriff's Office. Spotlight on Crime is offering up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for Rachel Anthony’s murder.
If anyone knows anything about the case — even if it seems to be a small, inconsequential detail — they are asked to contact the BCA at firstname.lastname@example.org or 877-996-6222, or Cass County at 218-547-1424 or 800-450-2677.