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Cold case unit renews 30-year search for missing Lake Elmo woman

Christine Swedell described her family's grief as decades passed without answers to what happened to her sister, Susan, who disappeared 30 years ago. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry said the cold case unit he launched last year will take a second look at the disappearance of Susan Swedell, a 19-year-old Lake Elmo woman who was last seen 30 years ago. Maureen McMullen / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

Christine Swedell held a birthday card she received as a 16-year-old from her sister, Susan.

She does this every year on Jan. 19, the date she last saw her sister 30 years ago.

Susan Swedell vanished during a 1988 blizzard after finishing a shift at the Oak Park Heights Kmart.

Susan SwedellShe had stopped at a Lake Elmo gas station, where she told an attendant she was having car troubles and asked to leave her car there.

A gas station attendant said Susan Swedell got into another vehicle with a man who had an unshaven face and shoulder-length hair.

Susan Swedell, who was 19 at the time, has not been heard from since.

"Imagine 30 years without knowing what happened to your loved one," Christine Swedell said.  "It is beyond heartbreaking. It carries a crushing pain that only evolves as time goes on."

Few answers about her whereabouts have surfaced since her disappearance.

A new investigative initiative, however, aims to offer closure to families like the Swedells.

Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry announced the county's new cold case unit has been investigating Susan Swedell's disappearance during a Jan. 19 news conference.

The collaborative effort will partner members of Starry's office with the county attorney's office and Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators to investigate missing persons cases.

Starry said he launched the initiative when he took office last year.

The team, he said, has been meeting on a weekly basis to re-evaluate existing information and seek new tips related to Swedell's case.  

"Someone out there knows the whereabouts of Susan," Starry said. “We are determined to find Susan. We are determined to find a resolution for the family."

The team has so far conducted more than 25 interviews in hopes of uncovering new information.

The team also hopes to raise public awareness of the case.

Starry said his department fielded more than 10 new tips related to the case in the weeks leading up to the 30th anniversary of Swedell's disappearance.

County Attorney Pete Orput pointed to the county's sex trafficking investigation task force, formed in early 2016, as an example of previous cooperative partnerships.

"When we collaborate ... and combine those resources together, we think we can bring enough energy to pursue justice in an effective way," Orput said.

Investigators believe technological advancements could help improve the likelihood of solving Swedell's case.

A living hell'

Christine Swedell described her older sister as a "protector and constant companion."

The sisters offered one another comfort through their parents' divorce and shared each other's joy when their mother gained custody of them.

But more than three decades of unanswered questions about what happened to Susan subjected the family to "a living hell," Swedell said.

Christine Swedell's heartache over her sister's disappearance, she said, nearly cost her own life.

Grandparents and other relatives passed away without know what happened to Susan, Swedell said. But someone knows something.

"We cannot allow Sue's case and her life to remain in the world of no closure," she said. "She deserves all the attention, and most important of all, hope in bringing her home."

Anyone with information about Susan Swedell's whereabouts are asked to call the Washington County Sheriff's Office tip line at 651-430-7850.

The Sheriff's Office will host a walk Saturday, Jan. 20 to raise awareness and support the Swedell family at the Maplewood Mall.