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.
"It's very difficult to be up there, knowing what you're looking for," Heales said. "It gets to the point where finding a body would be a good day. But we know we have to find her, regardless of where she's at. Everybody holds out that glimmer of hope that we'll get this phone call from some truck stop in Florida, Texas or somewhere and it'll say, 'It's Dru. Come get me.' "
Heales and Allan Sjodin said they have been satisfied with law enforcement's work in the case, despite the suspension of formal searches in December. Grand Forks police have done everything they could, they said, from attaining the services of the National Guard in both North Dakota and nearby Minnesota to attracting thousands of volunteers in the search for Sjodin. But there can be only limited progress when snow and icy conditions either hide or wash away a trail or potential clues and evidence.
"The police have been tremendously supportive of us," Allan Sjodin said. "They've done everything they could do with the evidence they've been able to pick up."
Desperately Seeking Closure
Grand Forks Police Sgt. Michael Hedlund said at this point, investigators do not expect to receive much help from Rodriguez.
Through his attorney, Rodriguez has declined to meet with police, Hedlund said, and wants to go to trial. Investigators have interviewed Rodriguez's relatives, friends and acquaintances and have not received any information useful in finding Sjodin.
Grand Forks police plan to meet with various law enforcement agencies such as the National Guard and embark on a renewed full-force search for Sjodin within the next few weeks, as the ice and snow thaw. The weather conditions will decide when they restart their formal search.
Police still hope, for the Sjodin family's sake, to find the young woman alive, even though they realize those chances are slim.
"We've never officially come out on that position [that Sjodin is dead]," Hedlund said. "But we know that the more time that passes, the more likely that she's not alive. … We just want to be able to provide some kind of closure for the family."
‘Dru Keeps Us Going’
And closure is what Sjodin's family and friends — and those who have voluntarily searched for her for months — desperately need. Friends still plead with Rodriguez to tell police what he knows — if anything — about Sjodin's fate and whereabouts.
"If there's any humanity or a shred of compassion in Rodriguez, he'd tell police, 'I did this and this, but here is where she is,' " said Heales. "I don't understand how he can sit there and not understand the suffering this family is going through."
Relatives and friends encourage residents in Grand Forks and nearby Polk County, Minn., to search their property and contact them with any clues that may lead to Sjodin. If some residents are physically unable to search their property, Heales said, volunteers will gladly help.
Sjodin's relatives remained determined, despite the likelihood that she will not be found alive. They say their search will not end until they have found Dru.
"Dru keeps us going," said Allan Sjodin. "She's our beautiful daughter and sister, and we will not abandon her. The search will continue."
Authorities urge anyone with information about Sjodin's whereabouts to contact the Grand Forks Police Department's tip line at (701) 780-8213. More information on the search also can be found at http://finddru.com.