Long, frigid winters are typical in North Dakota and Minnesota, but the season was particularly brutal for the family of missing college student Dru Sjodin.
Sjodin, 22, has been missing for more than four months. Though authorities have had a suspect in her disappearance in custody since December, they have not found the University of North Dakota student.
A snow-covered North Dakota landscape and frozen-over lakes have stalled a search that once boasted hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officials daily. Grand Forks, N.D., police suspended their formal search in mid-December, hoping Alfonso Rodriguez, the convicted rapist arrested in Sjodin's disappearance, would provide information that would lead them to her. But, officials say, Rodriguez has refused to cooperate.
Until recently, Sjodin's relatives and volunteers conducted their own searches without law enforcement officials. With the spring season officially here, investigators and volunteers hope the trail will warm up as the ground and lakes begin to thaw. They plan to restart a full-fledged search around early to mid-April.
Sjodin's family still holds hope that she will be found alive, but have resigned themselves to the likelihood that she is dead.
"We have our moments, some good, some not-so-good moments," said Allan Sjodin. "I'm her father. I have to continue to have hope. But we know that the evidence doesn't look so good and we try to prepare ourselves for both outcomes."
A Phone Conversation, Blood, and a Knife
Dru Sjodin's disappearance generated national headlines largely because of its chilling eeriness.
Sjodin was last seen walking in the parking lot of the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks on Nov. 22. She had left the Victoria's Secret store where she worked and was talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone. The boyfriend, Chris Lang, told police he heard Sjodin say "Oh my God" — and then the line went dead.
Rodriguez, of Crookston, Minn., is charged with kidnapping. His lawyer says he has denied any involvement in Sjodin's disappearance. In preliminary hearings since his arrest, prosecutors have indicated they have evidence — including surveillance tapes — placing Rodriguez at the mall around the same time they believe Sjodin vanished. Investigators have said they matched spots of blood found in Rodriguez's car to Sjodin's DNA.
Authorities said they have also found trace amounts of blood on a knife taken from Rodriguez's car, but further DNA testing needs to be done to determine whether it belongs to Sjodin.
Harsh Weather Conditions Hide Trail
As details of the case have surfaced, small groups of volunteers have helped Sjodin's relatives conduct searches around various frozen lakes, rivers and snow-covered forest areas in North Dakota. Private investigator Bob Heales, a longtime friend of Sjodin's boyfriend, has led these searches and says the weather conditions have hindered their progress.
"Recently, it's gotten to the point where all we can do is let the dog [a bloodhound] do the work," Heales said. "There's nothing out there that we can really see [because of the snow]. … We haven't had large groups [of volunteer searchers] since about late January.