MASON CITY, Iowa (KARE) Nearly 22 years after she was abducted outside her Mason City apartment, investigators have new hope they’ll find missing television news anchor Jodi Huisentruit.
And that hope stems from the closure in another high profile missing person case in the region.
“Maybe there will be something similar to the [Jacob] Wetterling case, you know, where it was a matter of a new opportunity to find DNA and to match up some of those things that broke that,” said Mason City Police Chief Jeff Brinkley, referring to the discovery of remains and answers in the 1989 abduction of the 11-year-old St. Joseph boy last fall.
Brinkley told KARE 11 he thinks it’s possible evidence in Huisentruit’s case also still holds answers, if examined with modern science.
“Do you think it’s possible that there’s similar evidence in Jodi’s case – that if it’s checked just one more time – it could reveal an answer?” asked KARE 11’s Karla Hult.
“Yes. Yes is the short answer,” responded Brinkley, adding, “I think in 22 years, in my career, I cannot believe where we’ve come with science and how we’ve adapted science to policing.”
“Somebody may develop the process that we’re going to be able to glean some new piece of information that we didn’t have – off some old cigarette butt, you know, piece of clothing. You just don’t know,” Brinkley said.
And that’s a comforting perspective to Huisentruit’s friends and family, who’ve wondered about the Long Prairie, Minn. native for decades.
“I just miss her. We all do,” said Kelly Boyle, who last saw her beloved college friend weeks before she disappeared.
On June 27, 1995, a morning producer called Huisentruit at her Mason City apartment when the 27-year-old anchor failed to show up for work. Huisentruit – who had spent the day before playing in a local golf tournament -- answered the phone and said she’d be at the station soon. Hours later, workers at KIMT-TV notified police when Huisentruit still hadn’t been seen.
Video from that day reveals what police quickly concluded. Shortly after 4 a.m., Huisentruit had been grabbed outside her apartment building. Her hairspray, blow dryer and earrings were strewn across the parking lot. Her bent car key was found near her red convertible car. A partial palm print was also found on the car.
Other key details from early in the investigation: neighbors heard a scream shortly after 4 a.m. and someone also spotted a white van.
“At first you don’t think it’s anything crime-related or an abduction or anything like what it turned out to be,” former KIMT-TV News Director Doug Merbach told KARE 11, adding, “And throughout the day, the nightmare just kept getting worse and worse and worse.”
Merbach recalled the following frantic days, as his newsroom balanced reporting a story that had rocked their community with grieving over the unknown fate of a dear friend and colleague.
“There’s no guidebook. There’s no course in journalism class that teaches you how to cover something like that,” Merbach said.
Standing in front of Huisentruit’s apartment complex on a frigid February afternoon, Merbach acknowledged he still agrees to interviews about the missing journalist to “keep the story alive and out there.”
But giving the same details for decades has undoubtedly taken a toll on the 30-year news veteran who finally left the business a couple years ago.
“Decades of pain. It still hurts,” he said.
“I think to her mother, she lost a daughter. Her sister lost a sibling. Her friends lost somebody that was very close to them that they grew up with. And Mason City you know, lost a lot of innocence,” Merbach said.
A committed crusader, who happens to be a KARE 11 colleague, is among those trying to find answers for Huisentruit’s friends and family.
Long-time crime reporter Caroline Lowe joined the KARE 11 team 15 months ago to help work on the Wetterling investigation. The veteran journalist – who’s also a licensed private investigator and now lives in California – also brought her commitment to Jodi.
“My mission is to work on unsolved cold cases, unsolved homicides. And Jacob and Jodi have always been at the top of my list,” Lowe said in a recent interview back in Minnesota.
Lowe’s commitment to cold cases goes back decades and also resulted in her involvement in the FindJodi.com non-profit organization. The FindJodi.com team includes other journalists and a retired investigator who coordinate their efforts to further investigate and bring attention to the high profile case. The group’s website of the same name features interviews, evidence and even, a letter to Huisentruit’s attacker.
“We’re not the police. We don’t pretend to be. But we know the Internet – somebody might come there,” Lowe said.
She continued, “We didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have DNA. Those are powerful tools, and maybe if we use our ability to communicate, we can help get some answers.”
And while the FindJodi.com team continues digging, they also believe answers will come with cooperation.
“I’ve seen over the years, that relationships have changed where cases have been solved. Sometimes the motive is reward money. Sometimes it’s revenge. There are a lot of different motives,” Lowe said.
“Let’s give Jodi’s family the answers that Jacob’s family finally got. Let’s not wait 27 years to give them answers,” Lowe said.
Cooperation is key
Chief Brinkley agrees. Beyond a break in science and advancements in DNA extraction, they’re still looking to the community to help solve the Huisentruit mystery.
“There are people who are not playing ball with us, and I think that would be the direction I would push this,” he said.
Brinkley declined to talk about the department’s list of potential suspects, but the public knows well a couple of the key names that have been made public in multiple media reports and through police interviews early in the investigation. They include a man who admitted to having feelings for Jodi and claimed to be the last to see her, and another man who’s now a convicted serial rapist who lived near Huisentruit at the time she was abducted.
Brinkley urges anyone with any information, however small or obscure, to come forward to the police.
“I think bring it home and help out. I really think it’s solvable. And I really hope, and I sincerely think that it will get done, someday,” he said.
Friends and family still waiting
“Someday” will sadly not be soon enough for Huisentruit’s mother, who passed away in December 2014 not knowing her daughter’s fate. Huisentruit’s father died when she was a teenager. One of her surviving sisters says they continue to have “hope” their sister will be found, but they still worry they will never "find Jodi." For them, it’s about answers. The family had Huisentruit declared “legally dead” in May 2001.
Huisentruit’s close circle of friends also watches and waits hoping they’ll one day find out how Jodi’s story will end. They realize, so far, her story has followed a familiar script: Jodi herself interviewed Patty Wetterling after Jacob’s abduction. And Jodi’s friends remember they called the Wetterlings for advice after Jodi disappeared.
“We all had that memory of her walking out and just turning back and waving,” said Kelly Boyle about the last time their group of friends saw Huisentruit in May 1995.
Boyle described Huisentruit as “kind,” “loving and thoughtful,” someone who “cared so much about her friends and family. She was just such a good person. Good person to have in my life.”
How can you help?
Anyone with information is urged to contact the Mason City Police Department. You can also reach out with tips and review the team’s latest findings at FindJodi.com.
Huisentruit also continues to have a legacy in the field she always hoped to conquer. Broadcast TV Journalism students at Huisentruit’s alma mater St. Cloud State University can apply for a scholarship in her name.