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Ten years after Dru Sjodin’s abduction, ‘she reminds us every day how precious life is’

Her death led to major changes in how Minnesota, North Dakota and the nation deal with and monitor sexual predators.

Dru Sjodin was a 22-year-old UND student when she was abducted from a Grand Forks mall parking lot, raped and brutally murdered by a repeat sex offender.
Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In a sorority house on the campus of the University of North Dakota, a small room off the main chapter meeting area is dedicated to the memory of a young woman from Pequot Lakes, Minn., who once was a vibrant presence there.

A framed photograph of a radiant Dru Sjodin is surrounded by remembrances from other young women, members of the Gamma Phi Beta chapter who knew her, who searched for her after she went missing on Nov. 22, 2003, and who mourned when her body was found five months later in a snowy ravine outside Crookston, Minn.

Becca Roberts, 20, a UND student from Maine, was just 10 when Sjodin was taken. Now the chapter president, she and other members of the sorority joined a recent Take Back the Night march that ended at the Gamma Phi house and the memorial.

The women wore shirts that proclaimed, “We walk for Dru.”

“Every time I see her picture, I think how easy it can be to be taken,” Roberts said last week. “It can be in the blink of an eye, and everything changes.

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“She reminds us every day how precious life is.”

Sjodin was a 22-year-old UND student when she was abducted from a Grand Forks mall parking lot, raped and brutally murdered by a repeat sex offender who had been released from a Minnesota prison seven months earlier despite a pre-release evaluation that found him likely to reoffend.

Alfonso Rodriguez, now 60, had grown up in Crookston but spent most of his adult life in prison for assaulting young women. Tried in U.S. District Court in Fargo, he was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to die — the first death sentence handed down in North Dakota in a century.

He has spent the past seven years in a federal prison in Indiana, his appeals for a new trial or amended sentence so far rejected by courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. A final “death row” appeal is pending.

The crime on the eve of Thanksgiving shook people throughout the region and drew national media attention, in part because of the dramatic way Sjodin was taken. She was talking on a cell phone with her boyfriend in Minneapolis, making holiday plans, when the call ended abruptly.

Governors attended funeral

Thousands of volunteers joined police, sheriff’s deputies and National Guard troops from both sides of the Red River to search for her, and thousands more from around the world sent condolences when her body was found. The governors of North Dakota and Minnesota attended her funeral at a resort near Brainerd, a service broadcast live on regional television.

Her death led to major changes in how Minnesota, North Dakota and the nation deal with and monitor sexual predators, including a sharp rise in the civil commitment of the most dangerous offenders, increased registration requirements and development of user-friendly sex offender websites.

John Hoeven, then governor of North Dakota and now a U.S. senator, said at the time “the civil commitment process should have worked in this case,” given Rodriguez’s criminal history and the Minnesota psychologist’s assessment before his release from prison in May 2003 that he remained a danger.

“I asked Gov. (Tim) Pawlenty, ‘Why is Rodriguez out? What can be done so people like that don’t get out?'” Hoeven said in early December 2003.

Drew Wrigley, now lieutenant governor, was U.S. attorney for North Dakota at the time and prosecuted Rodriguez in U.S. District Court in Fargo.

“There has been a pretty unified public resolve since then to recognize the danger represented by sexual predators,” Wrigley said last week.

‘The public is fed up’

“How do you not contemplate the ongoing detention of these offenders, or at least severe restrictions on their activities?” he asked. “Are we to do nothing but react to the next victim? The public is fed up.”

Peter Welte, Grand Forks County state’s attorney, drafted the warrant for Rodriguez’s arrest on Dec. 1, 2003, after investigators found incriminating evidence at the crime scene and in his truck.

“There has been a hard focus here on sex offenders, registration and civil commitment since then, and there would not have been had that crime not happened,” Welte said.

In the past few years, more offenders are coming out of civil commitments, he said, due in part to a lack of resources. He said he would like to see a sex-offender wing added to the state psychiatric hospital in Jamestown.

“There needs to be adequate space when someone meets the objective criteria for civil commitment,” Welte said.

Nearly 700 confined indefinitely

Due in no small part to the Sjodin case, Minnesota now has nearly 700 sex offenders confined indefinitely at high-security state facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter — the highest number per capita among 20 states with civil commitment programs.

For the past year, a state task force has considered changes to the civil commitment process, including possible creation of a new state court or panel of experts that would consider each case individually.

The reassessment was sparked by the filing last year of a class action lawsuit on behalf of several offenders who claim their confinement amounts to life sentences. While civil commitment is meant to offer treatment and the chance of eventual freedom, only one convicted sex offender has completed a treatment program and been released in the 20 years the program has operated.

A judge has ordered the state to reform its civil commitment process or face a federal takeover. The 15-member task force, headed by a former state Supreme Court chief justice and a former federal judge, is expected to make its recommendations early next month.

But because the issue of when or whether convicted sexual  predators ever should be released remains a heated issue, Gov. Mark Dayton last week decreed that none would be released until he and the Legislature review the task force’s recommendations and work out a new system.

Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law and a member of the task force, said Dayton acted “so the administration is not going to be alone” in trying to fix the civil commitment process.

Recognition that ‘things need to happen’

“There is a growing recognition that things need to happen with our civil commitment system, and the Human Services Department has been taking steps to correct problems,” Janus said. The governor acted “because it’s too politically difficult to move” without broader buy-in.

In the 10 years since she lost her daughter, Linda Walker has worked to toughen criminal penalties and for better monitoring of sex offenders. She campaigned vigorously for legislation creating a national sex offender registry; it’s known as Dru’s Law.

“There is certainly more awareness today,” she said, “but we still have a long way to go.”

She worries about pressure Minnesota and other states face to give confined sex offenders a greater chance at freedom if they complete treatment programs.

“It’s either concern about perpetrators’ rights or budget constraints” that weaken efforts to protect society from predators, she said. “We keep taking the victims out of the equation.

“We need to have judges and prosecuting attorneys quit plea bargaining these cases down. I believe we should have tougher sentencing instead of relying on civil commitment. We’re playing Russian roulette with our citizens when we let these people out.”

‘Everyone’s daughter, everyone’s sister’

At no other time except during the calamitous Red River Valley flood of 1997 had Grand Forks received so much national attention. People magazine had a reporter in Grand Forks for a week. Broadcast and cable TV networks sent crews and satellite trucks, which beamed daily images of a suddenly missing young woman described as “everyone’s daughter, everyone’s sister.”

Some people asked why this case, of all the cases of abduction, warranted such attention, and they wondered whether it was her beauty, her blond, blue-eyed, Pequot Lakes homecoming-queen beauty, that drove the interest.

But authorities and others said it was a combination of factors — the setting, the holiday timing, the startling revelations about the alleged kidnapper, and, yes, the missing woman’s lovely smile — that raised the profile of this crime.

And there were the compelling images of a family, heartbroken but fiercely determined, including Dru’s father, Allan Sjodin of Minneapolis.

“I will not leave Grand Forks without my daughter,” he vowed as winter set in, hampering large-scale searches while he continued to drive the back roads of northwestern Minnesota, often alone in his pickup, scanning ditches and outbuildings and clumps of trees, talking to his daughter as he searched for her.

‘I felt so embraced’

“The community was amazing” when Dru was taken, Walker said. “I felt so embraced by the people there. They took Dru to their hearts.

“I know not all families are treated so well. But I talk about it in my speeches, how important it is for a community to embrace the family, no matter who the victim is.”

Walker returned to Grand Forks last month to speak at an anti-violence program at the university, the Clothesline Project, which her daughter had volunteered for a month before her death.

She walked along University Avenue to the sorority, where 10 new fall classes of young women have arrived and learned her daughter’s story, and where for 10 years the women have brought in police officers and other professionals to renew lessons on personal safety.

On a pretty spot on the campus mall, near broad flowerbeds and a stand of native prairie grasses, the sorority had a bench installed last month and dedicated it to Dru Sjodin’s memory with a plaque.

“People like to study there and enjoy the outdoors,” said Stephanie Johnson, 30, the Gamma Phi Beta chapter advisor. “The bench is something visible, something that will be used.”

She was in the house, a year behind Sjodin, and she shares her story with new sorority members.

“We aren’t ever going to forget her.”