Community Still Haunted by Missing News Anchor

ByABC News
June 29, 2005, 4:08 PM

July 1, 2005 — -- 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.

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.