ST. PAUL -- Television news anchor Jodi Huisentruit was smart and outgoing and not afraid to make fun of herself. She was fearless, willing to take on any new sport. She liked to play golf, bicycle, boat and in-line skate. She loved to travel and make people laugh. Friends described her as “effervescent.”
Huisentruit, who worked for KIMT-TV in Mason City, Iowa, was racing to work on June 27, 1995, to anchor the 6 a.m. news when she was abducted in the parking lot of her apartment complex.
She hasn’t been seen since.
Now, 25 years later, a team of family members, journalists and retired police officers is hoping renewed attention to the case will help solve the mystery of what happened to the 27-year-old native of Long Prairie, Minn.
“Somebody out there knows something,” said Caroline Lowe, a former WCCO-TV investigative reporter who now works as a private investigator in California and helps run FindJodi.com, a website and podcast devoted to solving the case.
On Saturday, June 27, to mark the 25th anniversary of her disappearance, FindJodi.com team members and friends and family plan to gather at a memorial in front of KIMT-TV. People also are asked to “Leave A Light On For Jodi” by leaving a porch light on or lighting a candle in her memory and posting photos on social media using the #LightsForJodi hashtag.
“We want to make sure that Jodi’s face is not forgotten in Mason City,” Lowe said. “We still wonder if the answer is in Mason City or in that area. We need someone who has information to come forward.”
Searching for hope
The Mason City Police Department still regularly receives tips on Huisentruit’s disappearance, especially around the anniversary, said Police Chief Jeff Brinkley. “I can assure you that we’re working it,” he said. “It is still an active case, and we have an investigator assigned to it.”
A number of cold cases in Iowa have been solved recently, Brinkley said, and he hopes Huisentruit’s will be next. “I do believe that there are people whom we haven’t talked to yet,” he said. “If there is somebody who hasn’t talked to us — for whatever reason — we would like for them to reach out to us, so we can get that information from them and get that into the case file.”
The arrest and conviction of Danny Heinrich in 2016 in connection with the abduction and killing of Jacob Wetterling 27 years earlier gave Lowe renewed hope that Huisentruit’s case can be solved, she said. Although Heinrich pleaded guilty to federal pornography charges, he admitted in court that he abducted, sexually assaulted and killed the 11-year-old boy in 1989.
“For years, they focused on that neighbor, and, in the end, it turned out to be somebody who was still in the community who had been looked at, but did not stay on the list of potential people of interest for many years,” Lowe said. “The answer was right there in Jacob’s case, and we are wondering if that same answer isn’t there in Mason City. … Maybe they think the case has been solved. It has not been solved.”
Authorities believe someone grabbed Huisentruit shortly after 4 a.m. on June 27, 1995, as she went to her red Mazda Miata in the parking lot of the Key Apartments. Neighbors said they heard a scream about that time and saw a white van in the parking lot.
Police found Huisentruit’s red high heels, blow dryer, hair spray and earrings strewn across the lot. Her bent car key lay on the ground near the Miata, and police believe the young woman was unlocking her car door when she was taken.
An unidentified partial palm print was found on her car, but there were no other substantial clues.
The crime rocked Mason City, population 28,000, where Huisentruit was a beloved media personality. She had arrived at CBS affiliate KIMT-TV in 1993 after stints at stations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Alexandria, Minn.
Many people in Mason City knew her and recognized her. Her name and phone number were listed in the Mason City phone book “along with her address and her apartment number,” said Scott Fuller, a FindJodi team member who works for KAUS-AM/FM in Austin, Minn.
Who would do this?
The person who abducted Huisentruit “could literally be anybody in that whole media market who felt like they had a connection to her,” Fuller said. “On television, you are paid to get that connection with people, and people can respond to that connection in all kinds of different ways.”
In 2017, a federal grand jury in Iowa subpoenaed DNA and fingerprints from a suspect in the case, but did not indict anyone. That same year, a judge in Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, approved a search warrant on two vehicles belonging to that same suspect, but police officials have said the search did not produce any evidence.
FindJodi team members in 2018 launched a billboard campaign in Mason City to commemorate Huisentruit’s 50th birthday. Four billboards featuring a photo of Huisentruit and the message “Somebody knows something …is it YOU?” were installed; two remain up in town.
Six months ago, on New Year’s Eve, vandals defaced the billboard located on North Federal Avenue. Two men climbed a ladder and spray painted the words “machine shed” and the name of a retired police investigator who worked on Huisentruit’s case.
“We don’t know what it means,” Fuller said. “Is it a message to somebody? Is it a tip? It is so specific.”
Brinkley, the police chief, doesn’t believe it was a tip. He said he thinks it was an act of vandalism done by “somebody with their own agenda.”
‘Everybody’s best friend’
Publicity surrounding the 25th anniversary might prompt someone who has information about the case to come forward, Lowe said.
“Maybe someone’s niece or someone’s grandson or someone’s cousin has found something in the attic,” said Lowe, whose home office is dotted with photos and clippings from the case. “We want to make sure that in the middle of a pandemic, with the protests going on, that people know that nothing has changed in Jodi’s case. She is still missing, and we want to keep that out there.”
Huisentruit was supposed to be in a friend’s wedding in Long Prairie the Saturday after she disappeared. “She was everybody’s bridesmaid, everybody’s best friend,” Lowe said.
JoAnn Nathe said her younger sister could light up a room when she walked in.
“She would take on anything,” said Nathe, 69, who lives in Sauk Centre, Minn. “If somebody said, ‘Oh, that sport would be too hard for you, Jodi,’ she’d say, ‘Oh no, I know I can do it.’ She’d pursue it. Nothing deterred her.”
Nathe said it breaks her heart that their mother, Imogene, died in 2014 at age 91 without knowing what happened to her youngest daughter. “She so wanted to find Jodi.”
Wetterling case offers hope
That the Jacob Wetterling case was solved after 27 years has given the family some hope, she said.
“You can’t let hope go away totally,” she said. “I have to admit it has dwindled in the 25 years because there have been cases that have never been solved, but, still, you’ve got to cling to that hope.”
The resolution of the Mindy Stavik case near Bellingham, Wash., after nearly 30 years, also has encouraged Nathe, she said.
Stavik, 18, went for a jog near her home east of Bellingham on Nov. 24, 1989, and never returned. Her body was found three days later in the Nooksack River. In 2017, authorities used DNA evidence to charge and convict a man of kidnapping, raping and murdering her.
“We’ve lost way too much,” she said. “We thought Jodi’s case would be solved right away, but it’s been 25 years now. Whoever thought it would be that long? It’s unreal — that somebody could just get away with it. There’s evil in the world; it just makes my skin crawl. We want to know what happened.”