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Finding Minnesota's Missing Children
By Brent Wolfe
August 19, 1998
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In Northern Minnesota's Kittson County, the Sheriff has called an end to organized searches for 16-year-old Julie Holmquist, who's been missing for three weeks. Her case is now one of four major unsolved missing-persons cases in Minnesota involving a child. Such cases are rare, but they're traumatic, with law enforcement called on to mount a massive search, and the family living on hope.

THREE-YEAR-OLD JESSICA SWANSON DISAPPEARED in Cannon Falls three years ago. Almost overnight, the Goodhue County Sheriff's office launched a massive search for the little girl. Her picture was suddenly all over newspapers and television and reporters were all searching for a story. Chief Deputy Dean Albers says he was mostly unprepared.

Albers: Within about five days there was about 30 - 35 investigators - would meet in the morning. And here you are in charge of this whole thing, and you've never really taken on anything of this magnitude before, and they're looking to your agency for, "Where do you want us to go, what do you want us to do?" And resources, you got that many people, and you got to feed them, lodging for them if they're from out of the area, and you have to provide a local officer to go with them, because they don't know your county or your area, and it's just a lot a lot of planning.
Albers says he would have been lost without the planning advice of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and neighboring law enforcement agencies. They set up a command post in Cannon Falls complete with computers, fax machines, and multiple phone lines. Albers had to coordinate throngs of volunteers who showed up to help in the search and assign someone to provide information to the media.

The family of a missing child is key to the search because they can tell officers what happened just before the child disappeared. But during a crisis, a recall of details can be impossible. Patty Wetterling started the Jacob Wetterling Foundation after her son disappeared in 1989. Executive Director Bob Lee says they try to help families, and one of the first things they recommend is designating a family spokesperson.

Lee: It's a filter. Someone who can talk to the police and then relay that information to the family in a way that will be well received by the family and understood, and also you don't have the traumatic relationship going on between the family and law enforcement that often happens in those early hours. The family is indeed in chaos.
A lot of people respond to the pain of losing a child and want to help. In Jessica Swanson's case, there were questions about whether Jessica's mother and her boyfriend were involved in the disappearance. The Goodhue County Sheriff's office never proved a connection. But Deputy Dean Albers says the community did everything it could to help law enforcement officials.
Albers: They all rallied around the case. The outpouring of volunteers and of food. I remember we almost had too much food that was donated by individuals or restaurants that it was kind of hard to get rid of some of it, so we said, "Hold back, maybe you want to bring something tomorrow." They felt compelled to do something because one of their children was missing, and that tugs at the heart of every parent out there, every grandparent.
Albers says a lot of the law enforcement officials involved in the search for Jessica were parents themselves, and that kept them pushing on.
Albers: We had to start telling officers to take days off because they were just wearing thin. It was important to keep their nutrition up, their physical activity up. I know I gained a number of pounds during this, and I think part of it was you did a lot of sitting, a lot of thinking, and you didn't get any physical exercise plus I think the stress of it just added to it cause there's a whole psychological thing that you don't even realize what's going on inside yourself. I know I could see it in other officers - until they pointed it out to me I didn't see it in myself even.
Goodhue County sheriff's deputies have talked about having a debrief session to deal with the stress of the three-year search for Jessica, but Albers says they want to wait until they find her.
Albers: I think the hardest thing for everyone was to pack up the command post in Cannon Falls and walk away from it, so to speak, without solving it. It was a sense of defeat, I guess. We didn't lose, but we haven't solved it, we haven't found her. Case like this you never really ever get to close out. Unless you solve it. You don't stop looking for a 3-year old child.
Albers doesn't expect to find Jessica Swanson alive, but he says it's important to keep looking so they can close the case. He pauses and says in a low voice that the saddest thing is that her family doesn't ask about her anymore. He wants to find her so she can be buried in a cemetery and says all the guys at the sheriff's office want to contribute money for a headstone.