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Sheriff asks for public's help in 1988 disappearance of Minn. teen

This photo of Susan Swedell was taken about a month before she went missing on January 19, 1988. Swedell left work at a Kmart in Oak Park Heights that night, bound for an evening of popcorn and movies with her mother and sister at home in Lake Elmo. Later, a gas station clerk let her leave her overheated car at the station, a mile from home. That clerk, peering through a snow-splattered store window, saw her get into another car with a man. That was last time she was seen. Courtesy of the Swedell family

LAKE ELMO, Minn.—Clutching the last card that her sister ever gave her, Christine Swedell implored the public Friday, Jan. 19, to help solve the case of Susan Swedell's disappearance.

"On Jan. 19, 1988, my sister vanished and has not been seen or heard from since," Christine Swedell said during a news conference at the Washington County Law Enforcement Center in Stillwater, Minn., to mark the 30th anniversary of the event. "Our lives were tragically pulled apart by evil that night. Every single day feels like a living hell without her. All the while, someone out there knows what happened to my dear Sue — it is unbearable and sickening."

It was snowing hard at 9 p.m. when Susan Swedell, 19, finished her shift at Kmart in Oak Park Height and headed home to Lake Elmo to watch a movie and eat popcorn with her mother and 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.

"Imagine 30 years without knowing what happened to your loved one," said Christine Swedell, who was 16 at the time. "It is beyond heartbreaking (and) carries a crushing pain that only evolves as years go by. Life for many of our family members became difficult to understand without her. Grandparents and aunts and uncles all passed away with only one wish — to know what happened to Sue."

The Washington County sheriff's office last year formed a cold case unit to investigate Swedell's disappearance, and a new podcast — "Still Missing" — has focused on the case.

Sheriff Dan Starry said Friday that his office has received 10 to 20 tips this month about Swedell, including one as recent as Thursday. The tips have ranged from people wanting to share their stories about Swedell to people having specific information about the case, he said.

"We look at everything," Starry said. "Someone out there knows the whereabouts of Sue. We are hopeful and encouraged that someone will do the right thing and share information so we can bring Susan home."

The sheriff's office partnered with the Washington County attorney's office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to form the cold case unit. A billboard campaign is underway, and a $25,000 reward is being offered for information leading to closure of the case.

Anybody with information about Swedell's disappearance can call the sheriff's tip line at 651-430-7850.

DNA advances may help

"Somebody can provide us the answers to know where Susan went that night," said BCA Superintendent Drew Evans. "We are very committed to finding those answers. This team will not give up until we determine where Susan went and, hopefully, can bring her home to her family."

Evans said advances in technology over the past 30 years, especially in DNA testing, could help.

"We're looking at all the forensic evidence that we have," he said. "We don't only look at it five years after, 10 years after, but we're constantly evaluating advances in DNA technology. There are a number of different tools — in terms of connecting dots — that the team would not have had back then."

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said he is grateful that law officers "continue to seek justice for people, regardless of time, regardless of difficulty or how perplexing it might look."

"We are not letting go of any of these cases that we have," Orput said. "We are going to seek justice our entire careers, and then it will go to the next generation. We're not ever going to let go of this until we can hold someone accountable."

Christine Swedell said she and her mother, Kathy, appreciate the efforts of the team; Kathy Swedell was unable to attend the news conference because of illness. The Swedells, the sheriff's office and the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center will hold a walk at 10 a.m. Saturday at Maplewood Mall; the public is invited to attend to show support.

Christine Swedell, holding the "Sweet 16″ birthday card her sister gave her in May 1997, said she has struggled since her sister's disappearance.

"For me, life became completely lost and the pain unbearable to a point I nearly lost my own life," she said. "Here we are, 30 years later and still no answers, still no peace of mind, only an accumulation of unanswered questions and pain and grief that goes beyond words."

Her sister's case, Christine Swedell said, "deserves all of our attention and — the most important of all — hope."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service