Volunteer team still searches for Iowa news anchor who vanished 20 years ago
It was the last anyone heard from Huisentruit.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of her disappearance, her family, police and a dedicated team of journalists and retired cops continue the quest to solve the cold-case mystery.
“I thought for sure it would be solved within five years. But it just kept going on and on and on, and now it’s been 20 years,” said JoAnn Nathe, who said the memories of her younger sister haunt her every day.
“We just want to find her. We want to know what happened.”
For months, the case dominated the headlines in the Upper Midwest. How could a TV news anchor disappear from a small town in Iowa without a clue?
Mason City police have received thousands of tips on Huisentruit’s disappearance over the years, and they continue to trickle in. Police Lt. Rich Jensen said the department still gets one to three a month.
“We expect that with the 20th anniversary, we will get more,” Jensen said. “It’s like any anniversary — it stirs people’s emotions.”
Huisentruit arrived at CBS affiliate KIMT-TV in Mason City after stints at stations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Alexandria, Minn. She hoped to someday land a TV job in the Twin Cities.
Nathe suspects her sister overslept that morning because she was worn out from playing in a golf tournament the previous day. “Maybe she was just exhausted,” said Nathe, who lives in Sauk Centre.
It was Huisentruit’s assistant producer, Amy Kuns, who called her when she didn’t arrive at the station. Kuns said she called two or three times but never got an answer after the first phone call. She ended up producing the show and going on air herself.
“My first gut reaction was just to be mad,” said Kuns, who now lives in Clear Lake, Iowa. “I’m like, ‘Where the hell is she?’ … I thought she had just gone back to sleep and wasn’t answering her phone. Never in a million years did I envision abduction.”
Authorities believe someone grabbed Huisentruit shortly after 4 a.m. 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.
A team of journalists and retired police officers — called FindJodi.com — is hoping renewed attention on the 20th anniversary of her disappearance will help crack the case.
The team includes former WCCO-TV reporter Caroline Lowe and retired Woodbury police Cmdr. Jay Alberio. The two met last month at Alberio’s house in Woodbury to compare notes on convicted serial rapist Tony Dejuan Jackson, someone they believe should be a “person of interest” in the case.
Jackson was 21 at the time of Huisentruit’s disappearance and living just two blocks from KIMT-TV — a fact Lowe and Alberio say can’t be overlooked.
“We don’t know if he is involved,” said Lowe, who worked on the WCCO-TV I-Team investigation on Jackson. “We, to this day, don’t know, but if you think of a person living that close who is capable of very violent stuff, he had to be investigated.”
Sitting at a computer in Alberio’s home office, the two scrolled through a Minneapolis police transcript of an interview with a woman Jackson was convicted of sexually assaulting in 1997. They were searching for a clue that could connect Huisentruit to Jackson, who is serving a life sentence at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Rush City for raping three women that year in Cottage Grove, Inver Grove Heights and St. Paul.
“One of the questions that the detective asked the victim was: ‘When you woke up, did he say anything to you?’ ” said Alberio, who investigated Jackson in connection with a sexual assault in Woodbury. “He said, ‘Damn, I thought I killed you,’ like he meant to, and he was disappointed that he hadn’t.”
When Alberio learned Jackson had lived in Mason City, he alerted Mason City police.
“We sent them a file down and said, ‘You’ve got to look at this guy,’” he said. “Based on his m.o., his pattern, we felt that he needed to be looked at.”
“You don’t wake up one morning and become a serial rapist,” Lowe said. “What had gone on before? And one of the cities that popped up was Mason City.”
She said that after stories about Jackson’s assaults appeared in the media, other possible victims stepped forward.
“We heard from two women in Iowa, including one (in Worth County) that police were skeptical was even a rape,” Lowe said. “They went back into their property room and took out a towel that she said had been used during the rape, and Tony’s DNA was on there.”
While living in Mason City, Lowe said, Jackson attended North Iowa Area Community College and put on a talk show at the Multi-Cultural Student Union.
“One of the things we hoped to find, but never did, was whether we could actually put him at KIMT. Did he ever visit there?” she said. “You look for those connectors. I haven’t found it yet, but you never know when one person might have seen something.”
In 1996, Jackson was charged with domestic violence in Muscatine, Iowa, but the charges were later dismissed.
“After the charges were dropped, he got his gun back,” Lowe said. “Police say he used that same gun in several sexual assaults in the Twin Cities, so you can see why we say he needs to be looked at.”
Despite Lowe’s and Alberio’s suspicions, Mason City police say no link between the convicted rapist and Huisentruit has ever been found and that Jackson is not a suspect in her disappearance. Jackson, who has denied any involvement in the case and said he never met Huisentruit, could not be reached for comment.
“Maybe there is something that eliminates him; we just don’t know what it is,” Lowe said. “We’re not locked into any one person. We’re there to keep digging. We’re going to continue her journey until we have answers.”
Lowe, who now works for KSBY-TV in San Luis Obispo, Calif., recently moved to a part-time investigative reporting job to have more time for her volunteer work on unsolved crimes. She keeps a photo of Huisentruit on her desk next to a photo of Jacob Wetterling, the 11-year-old Minnesota boy abducted at gunpoint in 1989 in St. Joseph.
“I’ll be working on this until it’s solved,” Lowe said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service