MASON CITY, Iowa -- There is a small, plastic card stuck behind a piece of electrical conduit that runs the length of wall near Lt. Frank Stearns desk.
“It’s Jodi’s driver’s license,” says Stearns, who is commander of investigations at the Mason City Police Department.
He glances at the card, showing a smiling Jodi Huisentruit, the KIMT-TV anchorwoman who disappeared 15 years ago today.
“I put it there to make sure I’d never forget. Now, I don’t really need it to remember,” Stearns said.
Stearns -- and scores of others -- have spent thousands of hours trying to unlock the mystery of Huisentruit’s disappearance.
Today’s anniversary brings with it frustration.
“We don’t know anymore today than we did on June 27, 1995,” Stearns said.
Tantalizingly little is known about what happened on that Tuesday morning.
It had been hot in Mason City the previous few days; over the weekend, Civil War re-enactors had been fighting the Battle of Pleasant Hill in East Park in 95-degree heat, according to the Globe Gazette.
Huisentruit had just returned from “a road trip to Iowa City ... oh, we had fun! It was wild, partying and water skiing,” she wrote in her journal two nights before her disappearance.
Early Tuesday, then-KIMT producer Amy Kuns said she had called Huisentruit about 4 a.m. when Huisentruit did not show up for work. Huisentruit answered the telephone, saying she had overslept.
When Huisentruit failed to arrive at work by 7 a.m., KIMT management called authorities.
Not that kind of place
When police arrived at the Key Apartments, at 600 N. Kentucky, Ave., where Huisentruit lived, it was clear something bad had happened.
Items were scattered on the ground near Huisentruit’s Mazda Miata, indicating a struggle.
Then-Globe Gazette reporter, Julie Birkedal wrote later, “Beyond the police officer keeping curious reporters and passers-by at bay were a pair of red pumps sitting on the ground near her car. When I went back later, a chalk line marked the place in the parking lot where the shoes had been.
“It seemed so out of kilter. This was Mason City, the home of Meredith Willson, the Band Festival parade and ‘76 Trombones.’ It wasn't the kind of place where people disappear.”
KIMT President and General Manager Steve Martinson, then a sales manager at the station, recalled, “when I came in that morning, we knew immediately it was serious; she was always someone who showed up for work.”
Leads of any substance were few.
Neighbors at the apartments might have heard her scream; there was a report of a white van seen in the parking lot that morning.
At first, the search was conducted in an area around the Key Apartments. Soon, the perimeter widened over and over again, spiraling out as more hands became involved.
“Those first weeks, we had FBI, DCI — not just investigators; we had teams of investigators,” Stearns said.
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In just two days, 30 people had been interviewed by 15 investigators. A man she was seeing socially at the time, John Vansice, remains “a person of interest,” said Stearns.
Vansice, 64, who saw Huisentruit the evening before she disappeared, today lives in Arizona. He passed a lie detector test after her disappearance.
Years go by
The anniversaries have clicked by: one year, then five years, then 10.
Martinson is only one of about three employees who worked with Huisentruit who remain at the station. Three police chiefs have been in office since then. Lead investigators have come and gone.
Rewards offered early went unclaimed. They were eventually transferred to scholarships in Huisentruit’s hometown of Long Prairie, Minn. A reward through local Crimestoppers remains in place.
“You think about it everyday,” Martinson said earlier this week. “It’s amazing that after 15 years, no has been able to find out what’s happened.
“I am not being critical (of law enforcement). I just can’t believe it. It blows my mind. How can someone not tell anybody about it? After all this time?”
There has been no scarcity of odd happenings in connection with the case.
In 1998, investigators looked closely at Tony D. Jackson, a convicted Minnesota rapist who lived in Mason City at the time Huisentruit disappeared.
Allegedly Jackson made a reference -- imbedded into a rap song -- about a body buried in a silo in rural Johnson County, near Tiffin. No link was ever found.
The case took an even stranger turn in 2006, when an Anoka, Minn., woman reported that she saw the murder of Huisentruit — an account she later admitted she had fictionalized.
In 2008, Huisentruit’s journal ended up in the hands of a Globe Gazette reporter. The item had been sent anonymously, as it turned out, by the wife of former police chief Dave Ellingson. No explanation was ever given. The journal yielded little information concerning the case.
Huisentruit’s story was carried on national TV — “20/20,” “America’s Most Wanted” and “Unsolved Mysteries” among them, plus newspapers, magazines and hundreds of websites.
“We see a spike in tips” when the shows are re-run on cable channels, Stearns said. Still, “not one” viable clue has emerged from the publicity, Stearns said.
“When you get down to basics, it’s like any other crime. Hard work is a big part of it -- and luck is, too. And we haven’t caught a break on this case since Day One.”
Fifteen years later
“Today, I can be in Minneapolis; New York City, and I still have people ask: ‘Did you ever find her?’ ” Martinson says. “People do remember.”
The case has a new lead investigator for the MCPD. Jeremy Cole “will put new eyes” on the case, said Stearns.
Leads come to the MCPD, “weekly,” said Cole.
There is still hope.
Stearns said he still believes there is one person who saw a bit of something, heard that odd piece of conversation, who will give police the clue they need to break the case. “It could be something that you think is not important -- but it could make the case,” Stearns said.
Stearns has watched a host of investigators come and go -- and then retire.
“I don’t want to be that guy,” Stearns said. “I want to get this done.”
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