Cold Case: News Anchor Abducted

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The abduction shook the TV news industry to the core. In 1995, Iowa morning news anchor Jodi Huisentruit disappeared on her way to work. There was a struggle in her parking lot. She hasn't been heard from since. Many family and friends and investigators continue to hold out hope that there will be an arrest one day.

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Huisentruit, 27, anchored the mornings at KIMT in Mason City, Iowa -- a nearly four hours drive from Omaha. Brian Mastre, now with WOWT-TV in Omaha, anchored the evenings at KIMT 20-years-ago. He broke into coverage that afternoon to relay the tragic circumstances.

"She had so much enthusiasm - and everyday was a gift and treated as something to explore,” said Robin Woflram, her best friend at the station.

Wolfram co-anchored the evening newscasts. "Sometimes occasionally she would call - I mean this girl got up at 3am - and she said 'What are you doing after work?' It's like 10:30pm and I’d tell her that I’m going home and going to bed. She's say, 'Oh Robin, there's plenty of time to sleep. Life is for the living.' And she embraced every single moment."

On June 27th, 1995, Jodi Huisentruit never made it to work.

"A lot of times with police departments, if someone is missing or they don't come home on time, they'll tell them to wait 12-hours and they'll take a missing persons report,” said Mike Kitsmiller, Assistant to the Special Agent in Charge with the FBI, Omaha division. “But this one - as soon as the officers got there and found what was at the scene - they knew something bad had happened."

When Jodi Huisentruit didn't show up on time for her shift that Tuesday morning, associate producer Amy Kuns called her apartment.

Jodi answered and said she had overslept and would be right in. After all, the 27-year-old lived five minutes from work.

The call came a little after four in the morning - less than two hours before airtime.

Amy Kuns is the only news person in the station - and putting together the morning show herself.

It gets to be 5:00. 5:30. Still no sign of Jodi. No one's answering at her apartment now.

The show must go on, Kuns figures. She anchors the hour-long morning show instead of Jodi – assuming her co-worker must have dozed off.

When the show finished at 7am - and there was still no sign of Jodi - a call was made to Mason City Police for a welfare check. No one was thinking foul play.

Mason City police quickly sealed the parking lot that morning.

There was a struggle near Jodi’s red Mazda Miata. Her blow dryer - jewelry - and red high heels scattered in the parking lot.

It appeared she had been grabbed while putting the key in the door and dropped her bag full of her items to get ready for the newscast.

"Basically, all my free time is following up on this case,” said Officer Terrance Prochaska with the Mason City Police department, who took over the case five years ago. "What caused her to sleep in that day? What caused her to answer the phone and rush into work? What was she doing the night before? We all want to know the fine details. We know where she was at. She was golfing [at a Chamber of Commerce function.] She had driven home and made a phone call to her friend. Those are facts. But it's that gray area in between that we don't understand.”

******

The disappearance Huisentruit gained national attention. Not only were the Mason City Police and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations on the case - but, in short order, the FBI became a partner in solving it.

Every day - sometimes twice a day - Mason City's police chief took questions from a flurry of reporters in the Summer of 1995.

Jodi's family from Minnesota spent weeks in Iowa in order to be close to the investigation.

In 1996, Jodi's older sister Joanne Nathe said: "I couldn't have had a better kid sister. She tried to motivate me. What are your goals? That makes me stronger. It's a nightmare...not knowing where she is. We were hoping to find her in the first few months."

The community rallied. Volunteers flooded the area near the Key Apartments where Jodi Huisentruit lived.

They made t-shirts - bumper stickers – buttons. Anything to get the word out.

Many people who watched her on the news placed ribbons in their yards.

Because of the attention - leads came in from everywhere. But none of the information ever led to a named suspect or an arrest...not in 1995 or at any time in the last 20-years.

"If it was anybody but her because she was local news anchor, you could say it was a chance encounter,” said Mike Kitsmiller with the FBI. “You can't rule out the fact that someone was stalking her - just because of who she was."

"If you're a kidnapper, there are a lot of possibilities that you should have gotten caught,” said Officer Prochaska. “In an apartment complex, there are a lot of windows facing out ..what a risky place to abduct someone? So you think maybe it was someone who knew her? There again - what if it was someone who was lurking around apartments looking for prey?"

Mason City Police have interviewed hundreds of people.

Early on - they looked hard at the man who is believed to be the last known person to see Jodi Huisentruit alive.

John Van Sice was Jodi's friend. He named his boat after her. He was 20-years her senior. The night before she disappeared, they watched some of her birthday video together and then Jodi went home to her apartment and made a phone call to a girlfriend.

Reporter: "Do you think you've interviewed who did it?"
FBI: "I don't know. I don't know. I makes you wonder."

Reporter: "Do you think this is a case where you know who did it, but just can't prove it?”
Mason City Police: "I don't think so. There are so many different stories and theories and possibilities that I don't think we could ever narrow it down to who did it. Right now, it's trying to find out what happened to Jodi - where is she and work backwards from there. We never close our eyes to anyone and narrow to one suspect because there just isn't evidence to support one person."

"I hired Jodi,” said Doug Merbach, former news director of KIMT. “I brought her to Mason City. Could there have been something we could have warned her about and talked to her about. I don't know. What do you think happened? I've been asked that so many times. I feel as ignorant as the next person. I just don't know. I don't want to point fingers at anybody without looking inside the investigation and opening up those books. I don't know. I think it had to be somebody who knew her. I think it had to be somebody who had an emotional response to something Jodi said or did that caused them to do that. I don't think it was random - I don't think it was planned. I think it was planned to a certain extent - but not days and weeks ahead of time."

******

"It's sometimes difficult to get close - especially women - in this industry because you're always looking over your shoulder and wondering if someone is coming up behind me,” said Robin Wolfram from her home in Rochester, Minnesota. “I'll never forget the first day she walked in and her laugh. She'll always be remembered for that. She's fun and spunky. I think I’ll like her. She's got zest for living."

The case of a 27-year-old news anchor vanishing on her way to work touched not just Mason City, Iowa, and viewers of KIMT - as seen in the huge crowds of people who turned out to volunteer in the search - but the story reached beyond the local broadcast signal for a variety of reasons.

"A lot of things struck me about the case,” said Omaha private investigator Doug Jasa, who started looking into the Jodi Huisentruit case early on. A Minnesota private eye hired by her family - needed help. “He did not have a private investigator's license to allow him to work in Iowa."

Jasa and his team spent weeks chasing leads. "I still remember all of the cards they found in Jodi's apartment. They were birthday cards. I think there were 50 of them and we're reading through them - reading through them. People had written very nice notes in the birthday cards."

"We went door to door in the apartment complex - talking with different residences about what they heard,” said Jasa. "One lady remembers specifically looking at her clock when she heard the scream."

But to the frustration of many -- no one called 911 after hearing the scream in the early hours of June 27th, 1995. "I can still see where the car was parked...and where the drag marks ended up. 100 feet to the van," said Jasa.

A white van became a key component to the investigation. Flyers went up -- urging the public to be on the lookout since one witness saw a white van in the parking lot with its parking lights on.

Reporter: "Do you think in our lifetimes, we'll find out what happened to her?"
Jasa: "No. I don't think so."
Reporter: "Why?"
Jasa: "I firmly believe Jodi's body was more than likely put in a deep hole - somewhere not too far from Mason City."

In 2001, the courts declared Jodi Huisentruit legally dead – six years after her disappearance.

"We were really close," said Wolfram. “That transition of still holding out hope and finally putting her to rest, in my mind, is what brought me a lot of peace and comfort. I think about this so much Brian - even 20-years later. Every once in a while they have a special on - every time that happens, I think back and wonder if there's something I could have seen as her friend...something I should have recognized - asked her more questions about what was really going on in her life."

Wolfram, who left KIMT a few months after Jodi disappeared -- took on several other anchoring jobs the last 20-years. She vividly remembers being called into a meeting with the station bosses along with state, federal and local investigators.

"They called me into the office and I thought they had found Jodi. Otherwise, why would all these people be in the office than to share that information. But there was talk on the internet - chat rooms - he claimed he knew who had abducted Jodi. Gruesome details. Then the reason they had brought me in was the last communication was that Robin Wolfram would be next. From that point on - I had a police escort at night. From that point forward, I look at life differently." Reporter: "How so?" Wolfram: "I think I used to look at life in rose colored glasses and everyone had a pure heart like Jodi. I realized evil exists right next door to good. It's like a veil. You reach your hand across to experience it. And it's not that easy."

******

There's no one left in the KIMT newsroom who worked with Jodi in 1995.

"In 1995, I was in third grade,” said Tyler Michelson, who works the same Daybreak shift in the same studio Jodi used to. "Specifically when you hit the anniversary of when she disappeared - you cross the street in the dark and when you get to the door - you look outside and you just kind of think. No suspects, no body. Hardly any proof whatsoever. It seems almost surreal that so little has come forward about this."

Besides the personal belongings of Jodi Huisentruit's found scattered at the scene, investigators also have a palm print on her car.
So far, no matches. Investigators wouldn't get into specifics, but acknowledge new science techniques allow them to analyze evidence in way they couldn't 20-years ago.

"I feel that if it happened today, the results would be different because of technology and social media,” said Mickelson.

One thing is clear: if the abduction happened today - there's no guarantee she would have been found - but investigators would have had more "instant leads."

"In 1995, Facebook was not in existence. Twitter was not in existence,” said Omaha Special Agent in Charge Thomas Metz. “Those are avenues now where we could look at someone's associates - who they've recently been in contact - in addition to cellphone technology has advanced greatly. It's much easier now for us to track cellphone calls. And also there are a lot more video surveillance cameras in existence today than there were 20-years ago."

20-years later, leads still trickle in - a handful every month.

More than a decade ago - a team of journalists and retired police officers formed the website FindJodi.com - a information clearinghouse to accept and follow leads.

Lately - they've asked Iowa investigators to re-examine a man who was in Mason City 20-years ago - and now serving time for multiple rapes.

Psychics still contact Mason City Police. Investigator Prochaska says he checks on all leads: internet chatter - jailhouse talk - and lately he checks a database of Jane Does to compared to Huisentruit's profile.

"These are some recent ones where I got some follow-up done,” said Officer Prochaska. "Many cops don't know this - but there are a lot of female unclaimed Jane Does out there in the network - -whether they were body parts or simply DNA - so we try to compare what we have to all of those. Obviously we have Jodi Huisentruit's information. We have her DNA, her fingerprints and her dental records. We have the sources here to rule out these types of leads and we get a significant amount of them."

The public's collective reserve of hope in a case like this naturally dwindles after 20-years, but investigators see it differently.

"As disappointing it is to not have resolution 20 years later, we are still very committed to this investigation and will always be until Jodi is found and whoever is responsible is held accountable...please take a moment of your day this June 27th to pause and remember Jodi, her family, friends and co-workers," said Mason City Police Chief Michael Lashbrook.

"There's always something that can be done,” said Mike Kitsmiller with the FBI. “We've got people who look at it - with Jodi's case - have a new set of eyes look at it. You don't want to be the guy who misses something. It's human nature to have second doubts about your ability. What did I miss? What am I not seeing?"

Jodi's mother never saw a resolution.
She recently died at the age of 91.

Jodi's sister Joanne carries the torch now. "She had such a bright future and we were looking forward to her reaching her goals and I just sit and cry,” said Joanne Nathe in a past interview.

"They use that word closure a lot,” said Doug Merbach. “For Jodi's family, I don't think there's any such thing after having a wound fester for 20-years - how do you close that up immediately? Where I work in Mason City now - from my office - I can see the tree that we planted for Jodi. It's a reminder for me every day of what happened 20-years ago. It's still very close. It's still very fresh."

Next to the tree outside the TV station is a stone marker with engravings of two of Jodi Huisentruit's passions - a golf ball and a news camera.

Her voice silenced – her story is without an ending.