Community Still Haunted by Missing News Anchor

In an age when television can confer instant celebrity, there is no more certain route to recognition than anchoring the local news. In smaller television markets, like Mason City, Iowa, news anchors are the most visible people in the entire community.

In Mason City and northern Iowa, one of the big hometown stars was Jodi Huisentruit, the anchor of the morning news on KIMT.

Popularity and recognition can be a great benefit for a young ambitious local news anchor. But fame can also be dangerous. Ten years ago, Huisentruit disappeared in a case that set off one of the largest manhunts in Iowa history. Police suspect she was abducted, and they say the roots of that abduction may lie in her overwhelming ambition, her dream to be on television.

"20/20" reported on the case in 2000, and is revisiting it on the 10th anniversary of her disappearance.

Huisentruit pursued her media dreams at Minnesota's St. Cloud University where she studied mass communications. Professors say she stood out at a time when more and more college students were drawn to the television spotlight.

"It's sometimes frustrating when you have students who have aspirations that are way beyond their capabilities. Jodi was one who had aspirations that were very realistic," Gretchen Tiberghien, one of Huisentruit's professors at St. Cloud, told "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas.

After college, Huisentruit's aspirations to break into commercial television led to a job as an intern at KGAN in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her colleagues remember her as a hardworking, energetic and friendly young woman.

Colleagues at KGAN say Jodi was a fast learner. After only a year, she left Cedar Rapids for a bigger job in a smaller television market: Mason City, Iowa, a farm and family-oriented community of 30,000.

"We thought Mason City was a real safe place for Jodi to go and work. It seemed like a nice-sized town. We weren't nervous about it at all, and she seemed that -- to feel that it was a step up in her career," Huisentruit's sister Joann Nathe said.

Within months after arriving in Mason City, Huisentruit was a celebrity. And a growing audience for her morning news show reflected her popularity. Former KIMT news director Doug Merbach said she was a natural fit for the station.

"People could relate to her as the girl next door and just had a Midwestern kind of personality that people around here really loved," Merbach said.

The Dark Side of Fame

But 18 months after she got to Mason City, she discovered a chilling dark side to the media celebrity she so desired. In autumn of 1994, Huisentruit feared one viewer was taking that sense of intimacy too far. She was convinced a suspicious van was following her.

"She got very, very nervous and was even crying when she called my mom on the phone. So, after that, she was taking even more precautions," Nathe told "20/20."

She was nervous enough to report her fears to the police.

"She thought she was being followed one morning on her way to work. And she made us aware of that right away. And we gave her escorts a few times after that. And no problems. No further problems," said Frank Stearns, of the Mason City Police Department.

Huisentruit even took a self-defense course as her concerns grew.

Underlying Huisentruit's worries, was the fact that she left for work each day before dawn. She and her behind-the-scenes producer Amy Kuns arrived at the station around 3 a.m. Occasionally, one of them would oversleep, and that's what Kuns thought had happened on the morning of June 27, 1995.

Kuns said she called Huisentruit around 4 a.m. that morning and spoke with her. She said she overslept and would be heading into the studio shortly.

Huisentruit lived only five minutes from the studio. So, when she didn't arrive at work by 4:30, Kuns left a phone message and then another. "I called about 5:00, left her another, kind of, frantic message ... Honestly, at first I was really mad, because I had to edit and write and put everything together," Kuns told Vargas.

But at the newscast's 6 a.m. air time, Huisentruit's anchor chair was still empty and Kuns filled in. When there was still no sign of Huisentruit by the show's end at 7 a.m., Kuns called the police.

"I don't know why I didn't call the police, and so many people have asked me that before, but I just didn't think anything could be that wrong. I really didn't," Kuns said.

When police arrived at Huisentruit's residence, it was clear that things were very wrong. Inside her second floor apartment everything appeared to be in order, but in the apartment parking lot, evidence around Huisentruit's car immediately suggested she had not disappeared voluntarily.

"There was obviously a struggle outside of her car door. In fact, we believe she actually had the key in her door lock and unlocking it at the time that she was grabbed from behind. We found the key bent and out of the door lock," Stearns said.

Huisentruit's apartment bordered a small park -- a convenient hiding place, police say, for either someone close to her or someone who'd been stalking her long enough to know her routine.

"Whoever took Jodi knew her schedule, knew where she lived and knew what time she went to work and was patient enough to wait even after she overslept. Knew her car. And even knew what door she'd come out," Stearns said.

Stearns believes that Huisentruit struggled with someone. Scattered across the entire parking lot, police found not only her car keys but a pair of her shoes, jewelry, a can of hairspray and a blow dryer -- items she usually carried to work. "It was very apparent that she was fighting for her life," Stearns said.

Kuns said she and Huisentruit had talked about their nervousness in leaving for work in the pre-dawn hours. "We thought, you know, this is a small town. Everybody else in the world is asleep at that point. Something could happen and nobody would ever know. I mean, we had that conversation. That's why it scares me so much," Kuns said.

As police searched Huisentruit's desk at work for any clues to her disappearance, the staff struggled to deal with its concern for Huisentruit and the difficulty of covering the story.

Former KIMT anchor Robin Wolfram had to report the story. "It was tough. And because I knew her so well. I just visualized a lot of things that possibly could have happened to her. And it was really difficult to think about that kind of stuff. And then, on top of all of that, carrying through on a professional level," she said.

"She had to go on the air at 6 and 10 and read stories about her friend missing. I don't know how she got through that, but she did," Merbach said.

"I was sitting in the newsroom and still, you know, absorbing everything that had happened. And one of the networks was doing a story on Jodi. And there I sat. And it was one of those just incredible moments, where I thought, 'This is not what Jodi meant when she said she wanted to be on national television,' " Wolfram said.

As the hours turned into days, Kuns remained in the early morning anchor seat, reporting on her friend's disappearance. "I still see the video over and over in my head of the dogs in the fields and the volunteers on boats on the Winnebago River. And those just are very vivid," Kuns said, recalling the massive manhunt for Huisentruit.

Massive Search Yields Few Clues

The searches turned up nothing. Friends and family were hopeful, but police were worried.

"In our profession, you realize more time that goes by, the less the chances are of ever finding her. Within days, the FBI was brought in. Within hours, the division of criminal investigation, our state police were brought in. Within the first day or two, the numbers grew into over 100 law enforcement people that were either searching or doing interviews, looking for Jodi," Stearns said.

The search was one of the largest manhunts in Iowa history, with police officers interviewing more than 400 people and tracking down at least 1,300 leads.

The investigation got so big so fast that people who knew Huisentruit years ago were questioned within days.

Among those who drew the early focus of police attention was Mason City businessman John Vansice. He had hosted a surprise 27th birthday party for Jodi four days before she disappeared.

The evening before she vanished, Jodi had gone to Vansice's apartment to watch the video taken at her party.

"We learned that he was the last person to see Jodi alive that night. He told us that everything was fine when she left his apartment," Stearns said. But the investigation turned up nothing. "We didn't find anything that may have led to a quarrel. We found that John had strong feelings for Jodi. And I think that's obvious in the news clips, the hours and days right after Jodi's disappearance," Stearns said.

Police asked Vansice to take a lie-detector test. He passed it. He has since resettled in Arizona and turned down our repeated requests for an interview. For those who knew Huisentruit, and for police, the early days of the investigation left them feeling very far from any answers.

"It eats away at you a little bit at a time. You know, the first 24 hours. Then the next 48 hours. And then you're into the fourth day and, yeah, you're pretty low," Stearns said.

Her family was devastated. "My mom just couldn't handle it. She couldn't cope. She was 45 when she had Jodi and that's probably why they had that close bond. You know, she was her late-in-life baby. And then my dad. He died of colon cancer when she was 13. It wasn't always easy for Jodi in -- in that respect. But she was just our pride and joy. I couldn't have had a better kid sister. She was perfect in my eyes, and to have had this happen, you know, it's really devastated us," Nathe said.

The grief and fear triggered by her disappearance spread through Mason City. Around the studios of KIMT, that feeling of vulnerability became especially heightened when Wolfram was told of an Internet posting describing a plot to kidnap her.

Case Stirs Fears Among Midwestern Journalists

The kidnap threat remained just that, but it fueled fears about who may be watching, on and off camera. Now police and the press were haunted by two questions. What happened to Huisentruit, and was it going to happen again?

For former Cedar Rapids anchorwoman Amy Johnson, and many other Midwest television news personalities, Huisentruit's apparent abduction stirred frightening memories of their own encounters with potential stalkers.

"One was an e-mail I got from out of state telling me that a sexual predator of sorts was following me in his car. That frightened me terribly. And another time would be, there was a mentally disturbed man who felt like he had to get to me to tell me that Channel 2 was broadcasting negative images over the airwaves that were killing his parents. That those negative images were coming from the Son of Sam," Johnson said.

Leigh Geramanis, an evening anchor at KTTC in Rochester, Minn., received letters and phone calls from a man police eventually tracked down and arrested.

"He had called and said that he was going to kidnap me and rape me and kill me and cut my body up and leave it in bags all over the countryside, and mail my head to the front desk of KTTC," Geramanis said.

Geramanis lived in rural Minnesota at the time and says she never got over the fear of wondering who might be watching and waiting.

The television press attacked Huisentruit's story with a vengeance, an urgent drive to find out what happened to one of their own.

"We tried to do something every day. Even if it was the smallest tidbit. We were chasing leads that the police were chasing, even if they had a strange car that they were looking for, a make or model of a car, we made a whole story out of that," said Karen Hoskins, a reporter at KGAN.

Crime reporter Caroline Lowe at WCCO in Minneapolis did some of the most enterprising and aggressive reporting on Jodi's case.

WCCO focused on a man later convicted of rape in Minnesota, who lived just two blocks from KIMT when Jodi disappeared.

"One of his cellmates had been saying some things, and reciting a rap rhyme that indicated where Jodi might be," Lowe said.

The jailhouse rap lyric's said a woman was, quote, "stiffin around Tiffin." In 1999, WCCO spearheaded a search of a remote farm in Tiffin, Iowa, using police cadaver dogs. According to Lowe, two of the three cadaver dogs detected the odor of some kind of human remains.

The target of the WCCO report, convicted rapist Tony Jackson, called the station to strenuously deny any involvement with Huisentruit. The police, working with both state agents and the FBI, say that well-intentioned television detective work isn't likely to be telling them anything new.

Stearns, who interviewed Jackson, said, "Nothing in that interview led us to believe that he has anything to do with this."

A Decade Later, Suspect Pool Is As Broad As Viewing Audience

Stearns said the case has been particularly frustrating because the suspect pool is virtually anybody with a television set.

As the months of the investigation turned into years, hopes that Huisentruit would ever be found alive steadily dwindled.

"It was filled with hope, the first anniversary. The second anniversary, we still kept the hope alive, thinking that just maybe, you know, something would happen, that we would find her. That's when we planted the tree and stuff. By the third anniversary, the hope did start to dwindle, then the fourth. I know reality says no, that it's not in our favor that she's going to be found alive. But, oh my, so many times during the day, night, you think of her," Nathe said.

Last Monday marked 10 years since Huisentruit disappeared. Time has not healed her family's wounds nor eased the frustration of those trying to unravel the case.

Since "20/20's" report on Jodi's disappearance five years ago, Minneapolis crime reporter Caroline Lowe got a second job -- as a police officer.

"One thing I've learned in my training is anniversaries are really important. A 10th anniversary is very important. And somewhere this killer is knowing this. What if the killer's watching? What if his former girlfriend's watching? And I just hope if that's the case, that somebody'll do the right thing and come forward," Lowe said.

Police stress that someone out there somewhere knows something. "The investigation is still very active. We get rumors, tips, theories, things like that, and follow up leads as they come in," said investigator Al Haulbrich.

Just last year, human remains were found on the edge of town, but they turned out to be those of a man.

"Obviously as the years pass, as time passes, the chance of solving the case gets slimmer and slimmer," Stearns said.

Reward money in Huisentruit's case offered by KIMT and other contributors went unclaimed. It has now become the core of a scholarship fund at St. Cloud University. Each year a small scholarship in her name is awarded to a student entering the field this Minnesota graduate was so eager to conquer.

* If you have any information regarding the whereabouts or information regarding the disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit, please call Mason City Police at 641-421-3636, the FBI or your local law enforcement agency.

* The Jodi's Hope Fund has been established to help youngsters in Long Prairie, Minn. -- where Jodi Huisentruit grew up -- develop their writing and speaking skills. To learn more about the fund and how to contribute, go to www.jodishopefund.com.