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Anita Knutson

Minot college student's slaying in 2007 remains a mystery

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BUTTE, N.D. -- She died in her bed from knife wounds to her upper body. Her front door was locked. Her car was parked a few steps away. A dirty, bloody knife was found in the sink.

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Anita Knutson, full of life at age 18, now lies in a grave just inside the McLean County line near this tiny community. Her troubling murder is the latest addition to the cold case files of the North Dakota attorney general.

Soon, it will be five years since the lifeless body of Knutson was discovered in her Minot apartment. Her father, Gordon Knutson of Butte, was the first to see his adopted daughter's body in the afternoon on June 4, 2007, a Monday. He had gained entry to the locked apartment with the help of an apartment manager after receiving no response to repeated knocking on the door.

Neither Gordon Knutson nor his wife, Sharon, had heard from Anita for more than a day. They considered that quite unusual and a cause for anxiety. Anita Knutson also had missed a Saturday work shift at Minot's Fairfield Inn. Soon the reason for no contact was shockingly apparent. The Knutsons' worst fears were realized.

"I had talked to her Friday night while she was at a girlfriend's house," Sharon Knutson said. "She went home shortly after that and put her rent check in a deposit box."

That was the last time a family member talked to her.

A slashed window screen from Knutson's bedroom was found on the ground in an alcove adjacent to her apartment. A knife used in the slaying was recovered at the scene, but authorities say they had little other evidence that might lead them to the killer. A person told investigators she had seen a man running from the scene. Her description led to a hastily drawn picture that was released to the public. Within hours, a man contacted Minot police to say he believed he was the person in the drawing.

"We found the guy who it probably was, somebody who ran in that area from time to time," said Lt. Jason Sundbakken, with Minot Police Department investigations. "We're fairly certain we've ruled him out. This is one of those cases that hangs over your head. It is frustrating. It would be nice to get closure for the family."

The person who assisted in producing the artist's rendering stopped talking to authorities, but investigators continued to follow the smallest of leads and conducted numerous interviews. Nevertheless, within days the prospects of finding the killer or killers began to wane.

Crime scene analysis revealed that Knutson's time of death was early Sunday morning. Her body was discovered Monday afternoon. It was late Monday night before her body was transported to the State Crime Lab in Bismarck.

"We made sure Anita got to Bismarck, about 11:30 at night. We felt like we didn't want to desert her," said Karen Leier of Minot, an aunt of Knutson's who was called to the apartment shortly after the body was discovered. "That weekend was a strange one. She missed work on Saturday, died Sunday and was found Monday."

Although Knutson was found in her bed, authorities say she was not the victim of a sex crime. Nothing was believed to be missing from the apartment. The questions of why Knutson was killed and who did it haunt family members to this day.

"I finally had to tell myself to settle down and quit thinking so much before I drove myself nuts," Leier said.

"It's the same thing day after day, year after year. It's very tough. We go to the cemetery a lot and keep wishing it's not what it is," Sharon Knutson said. "We are still waiting. I feel absolutely helpless, but she is with me every day. It is never off my mind."

Authorities say they interviewed more than 40 people in conjunction with the case -- men and women. There was no shortage of possible suspects. A maintenance man who made early morning rounds at the apartment complex and later committed suicide was "never developed as a suspect," according to Bob Barnard with the Ward County Sheriff's Office. Barnard was a detective at the Minot Police Department at the time of the killing and still works on the case today.

Authorities checked out employees of an out-of-state roofing company that did work at Knutson's apartment complex. Knutson's female roommate, who was away from the apartment at the time of the killing, was thoroughly questioned and continues to cooperate fully with investigators.

Because Knutson was a student at Minot State University, many of her fellow students were interviewed. She had moved to Minot from Butte and was therefore exposed to a new circle of friends, any of whom could have knowledge related to the crime. Authorities even visited with residents of California, the state where Knutson was adopted at age 7. Checks of phone and computer records failed to produce any meaningful leads.

"We don't believe we've ever talked to the killer," Barnard acknowledged.

"Is the killer still out there? Yes. Either that or someone that has knowledge of the murder," Leier said. "I think it is somebody we do know."

Anita Knutson was one of three children adopted by Gordon and Sharon Knutson. The others are Daniel, 22, of Minot and Anna, 21, a student at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Anita and Daniel are of Mexican descent. Anna is African-American.

Daniel was very close to Anita and was greatly affected by the murder, according to Leier.

"It is not so much anger, but deep sadness," Daniel said in a written statement. "Even if we find the murderer, that won't go away."

Gordon Knutson, through Leier, also delivered a written statement. His words show the deep frustration he feels about the unsolved murder.

"At first I thought the (police) department was doing a good job, but I don't believe that any longer," he wrote. "They turned the case into an unsolved cold case, saying it would be sent out to a larger network. That was just a cop-out to make them look good."

Authorities counter that without any productive leads to follow, listing the Anita Knutson killing as a cold case places the facts in front of investigators throughout the country. The hope is that someone, somewhere, will recognize a similarity in the crime that might lead to an arrest.

"It's just a tough situation all the way around. We'd love to be able to pin that thing down," Sundbakken said. "Anything anybody knows about it, even if you don't think it is important, we'll be glad to take the information. It might be a little piece we are missing. Absolutely, give us a call. One phone call might help us."

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