Questions remain, tips surge 30 years after Minn. teen goes missing in blizzard
LAKE ELMO, Minn. — New tips concerning Susan Swedell, who went missing during a blizzard in Lake Elmo on Jan. 19, 1988, have been coming in to the Washington County sheriff's office after a St. Paul Pioneer Press report on the case was published Sunday, Jan. 7.
Sheriff Dan Starry said his office has received eight tips this week about Swedell; her case has been getting renewed attention as the 30th anniversary of her disappearance nears.
The tips range from people calling with information "that they feel could help the investigation" to a person who came to the office and asked to be interviewed about the case, Starry said. He would not give additional details.
"For us, it's still an active case," he said. "We're leaving no stone unturned. We want to make sure that we look at everything."
During a blizzard on Jan. 19, 1988, Swedell, 19, finished her shift at Kmart in Oak Park Heights at 9 p.m. and headed home to Lake Elmo to watch a movie and eat popcorn with her mother and her sister.
A half-hour later, a gas-station attendant gave her permission to leave her overheated car at the K Station, a mile from home. The clerk said she saw Swedell get into another car with a man. She hasn't been seen since.
Cold-case unit formed
Swedell's case has gotten more attention since the sentencing of Danny Heinrich last year in connection with the Jacob Wetterling case, Minnesota's most high-profile missing-child case.
The Washington County sheriff's office has formed a cold-case unit to investigate, and a new podcast — called "Still Missing" — has focused on her disappearance.
"The support and interest in Susan's case by the public is fantastic, and perhaps exactly the thing it needs," said Kara Thannert, who is bringing attention to the disappearance through her Still Missing podcast. Downloads and streams of the podcasts have jumped 33 percent the past few days, she said.
The sheriff's office has partnered with the Washington County attorney's office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to form the cold-case unit, led by Washington County sheriff's office Cmdr. Andy Ellickson.
A $25,000 reward is being offered for information leading to her whereabouts.
Anybody with information about Swedell's disappearance can call the sheriff's tip line at 651-430-7850.
The information "might be super innocuous to them, but it might be the piece we need to get to the next step," Ellickson said. "Anything that we get, we're documenting and following up with. Some of (the tips) are a little bit more out there than others, but some people knew her or knew about her. Just getting any information about the people she hung around with, anything, would be good."
The night it happened
When Swedell had not arrived home by 11 p.m. on that Tuesday night, her mother and sister called the sheriff's office to request that deputies search for her car — a 1975 maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass — in ditches between Kmart and the house they rented in downtown Lake Elmo.
Deputies found the car at the K Station, at the corner of Manning Avenue and Minnesota 5.
Thinking she might have tried to walk home — during a blizzard that dumped more than 7 inches of snow on the area — they searched for Susan between the gas station and the Swedells' house on Lake Elmo Avenue.
"As the hours passed by, all I could think was that she was frozen in a ditch somewhere," said Christine Swedell, who was 16 at the time. "So when whoever came to the house said they found the car but didn't find her, that just completely threw me into a whirl. I just wanted to get out there and search for her."
Christine Swedell said her sister would not have wanted to be out in bad weather.
"She was so scared of storms," she said. "She was petrified of them. When she talked to Mom, she wanted to know the safest route home. ... If she had a plan (to meet someone), that would have been not the night to go. She would have wanted to get home. That's what really throws me."
Investigators didn't learn until the next day that she had left the gas station with a man.
The gas-station attendant said Swedell pulled up to the station around 9:30 p.m., followed by a "light-colored older model car with sport wheels that was in good shape, but dirty," said Troy Ackerknecht, a detective with the sheriff's office.
The man was described as slim, 6 feet to 6 feet 2 inches tall, with long sandy-brown hair and a three- to four-day beard growth. He was wearing a leather jacket.
Swedell and the man talked for a few minutes, and then Swedell came into the station and said she was having car problems, Ellickson said. "She asked if she could leave her car at the station. The attendant said, 'Well, they're going to plow here. You'll need to move it.' She moved it, and they left westbound on Highway 5."
Swedell was wearing a short skirt and sweater and no coat or boots, according to police reports. Her manager at Kmart told police that at the end of her shift Swedell changed out of the red pants outfit she had worn to work. "He made a comment that she wasn't dressed appropriately for the blizzard," Ackerknecht said.
When police searched her car the next day, they found her glasses, driver's license and purse.
Those are items her daughter would have needed, Kathy Swedell said. "I mean, really, that doesn't make sense. She was very near-sighted. Maybe she thought she was going to meet someone for a short time, and he would bring her back."
After the car was found, Kathy Swedell had it brought to the house.
It sat on the street until five days later, when she drove it to Cub Foods in Stillwater to buy groceries. As she was driving, the car started smoking and steaming, so she arranged to have it towed to Lake Elmo Repair.
A mechanic discovered that the car's petcock — a small valve at the bottom of the radiator — had been loosened, and the water had leaked out.
Did someone deliberately tamper with her car and then follow her, waiting for the car to break down?
"It's a missing-person case. That's all we have," Ellickson said. "We don't have any sort of forced abduction or kidnapping or false imprisonment or more than that. It appears from the gas-station attendant statement that she got into the car voluntarily. We just don't have anything else to say, other than it's a missing-person case."
A week later, eerie signs
In the weeks before she disappeared, Susan Swedell had been using telephone chat lines to talk to boys, racking up a bill of more than $300, Kathy Swedell said.
Co-workers at Kmart reported that Swedell, a graduate of Stillwater Area High School, had been receiving numerous calls at work from a man. She also continued to talk to an ex-boyfriend and had reportedly made plans to see him the night she disappeared, but he called to cancel because of the weather.
"We looked at everybody and talked to everybody," Ellickson said. "There is so little to go on. This was before cellphones, and there are no surveillance cameras. This could not happen in this day and age."
A week after Susan disappeared, Kathy Swedell returned to her job as principal secretary for the University of Minnesota math department, and Christine Swedell went back to school.
When Christine got home from school that afternoon, she couldn't find the key to get in the house.
"We normally kept it on a shelf, right next to the door, underneath something — that's just the way it was in Lake Elmo," Christine Swedell said. "I was looking all over for it. I couldn't get into the house. It was locked. That was the key. I didn't have an extra."
She eventually located it under a box in a back corner of the shelf. When she entered the house, she said, she "felt like someone had been there."
There were dirty dishes in the sink that hadn't been there in the morning, and there was a "peculiar" smell of smoke, she said.
"It smelled of something sweet," she said. "I've never done drugs or had a drink, but ... it was very strong. People say it might have been marijuana, but I didn't know. I didn't touch anything. I didn't go upstairs. I just called Mom. Of course, it felt like forever until she got home. I was freaking out."
Later that night, Christine found the red outfit that Susan had worn to work on the day she disappeared; it had been balled up and jammed under Susan's bed.
None of her daughter's personal items, including clothing, makeup or grooming products, were taken, but "somebody had been there," Kathy Swedell said.
She wishes investigators had done more at the time, she said, but a missing 19-year-old "was considered a runaway and not taken very seriously."
"We were really surprised no one came to check out dishes or get fingerprints," she said. "They came out after we had already washed the dishes. They said she could have just gone off with a boyfriend for a couple of days and that sooner or later we'd hear from her, and she'd come home. We got very little coverage. I made posters; I put the posters up. I don't even know if she was on TV.
"It was just the era we were in," she said. "I felt like we fell through the cracks. I felt that more should have been able to be done. We did as much as we could."
Christine Swedell said her sister, who was 5 foot 4 and weighed 100 pounds, was bubbly and outgoing and extremely naïve.
"She was very much a country girl," she said. "She would have been completely over her head, which makes her extremely vulnerable."
Added Kathy Swedell: "She was a very pretty girl. She liked boys. She had a lot of friends. She liked talking to guys and going out and dancing and stuff. She was a typical 19-year-old. But in a way, I don't know if she had any street smarts to say, 'Hey, I can't get in this car.' That just blows my mind that she got into a car and that nobody knows who that guy was."
Susan Swedell graduated from Stillwater Area High School, went to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for two semesters, and then moved back home. She was working two part-time jobs at the St. Croix Mall — at Kmart and at a shop called Body and Soul.
The sisters were close, supporting each other after their parents divorced when they were 6 and 3, she said.
"'She'll just come back home,' that's what we were told," Christine Swedell said. "'She'll just come back home.' Well, she hasn't. It's not her character. She's extremely sentimental. Anytime she thought of us, she was always in tears. She was always happy when we were together. It doesn't equate."
Working the case
In May 1989, investigators asked for Susan Swedell's dental records after the BCA sent out a teletype regarding an unidentified body; the results were negative.
Investigators received three tips in 1990: Susan Swedell was allegedly spotted at the Waterworks Bar in Centerville, at a Burger King in Northeast Minneapolis and at a Hardee's in Ashland, Tenn.
"Three tips. That's it," Ellickson said.
Authorities detected activity on Swedell's Social Security number in 2006, but it turned out to be a case of identity theft. Ellickson flew to interview a woman in Del Rio, Calif., who used Swedell's Social Security number to try to get into the military, he said.
"She found (Susan's) name on the Internet and found a picture and thought that it was what she looked like when she was younger," he said. "She had no connection with Susan. She just used Google to try to find someone she could use."
Earlier this year, Washington County investigators took to the BCA the red pants that Swedell was wearing before she disappeared, to have them tested. Although the pants had been washed several times and Christine Swedell had worn them in the years since her sister's disappearance, authorities wanted to make sure they checked that box, Ellickson said.
In 2002, Detective Sgt. Jesse Kurtz arranged for the Swedells to have their blood drawn at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Then they drove to the BCA headquarters in St. Paul and submitted their DNA samples — the first "Missing Person Relative" samples in state history.
"It's been 30 years, but I still think about this case all the time," said Kurtz, who is retired and lives in Florida. "I hope for closure — for her family and for her. Imagine what they must be going through after all these years. Every holiday. Every birthday."
Kurtz said he thinks the case could be solved — if enough attention is paid to it.
"Someone knows something," he said. "Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. I really believe that. We solve murders that happened 30 years ago because somebody has information that they didn't want to divulge at the time, but now the person is gone, or the remorse has kicked in, or they have things that they really want to tell us, but they're waiting for us to knock on their door."
Officials are planning a billboard campaign to raise awareness of the case and have set a Jan. 19 news conference at the Washington County Law Enforcement Center.
In addition, the sheriff's office, Swedell's family and friends, and officials from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center will hold a walk "to show solidarity and support" at 10 a.m. Jan. 20 at Maplewood Mall.
"So many people have been following the podcast and family and friends of Sue wanted to gather, so this event will help bring everyone together," said Christine Swedell, Sue's sister. "We will be raising awareness of Sue's case and thanking supportive people."
"We want to make sure that this case is not forgotten," Starry adds. "We want to make sure we make such a big splash from here on out that if anyone has any information, that they bring it forward. It's all about getting this case resolved."