In Dru's defense
Dru Sjodin chatted on her cell phone with her boyfriend as she walked to her car in the parking lot of a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall. Suddenly, Sjodin's side of the conversation stopped. Her boyfriend heard her say, "OK, OK, OK," to someone ...
Dru Sjodin chatted on her cell phone with her boyfriend as she walked to her car in the parking lot of a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall.
Suddenly, Sjodin's side of the conversation stopped.
Her boyfriend heard her say, "OK, OK, OK," to someone and then ... nothing.
That moment five years ago today marked the last time friends or family had contact with the energetic 22-year-old.
For five months the young woman's whereabouts remained a mystery.
Then her body was found near Crookston, Minn., and the world learned her tragic fate, in part because of the trial that resulted in a death sentence for Alfonso Rodriquez, the man convicted of abducting and killing Sjodin.
But there is another reason many people know Dru Sjodin's name.
After Rodriguez's federal trial, Linda Walker vowed not to let the memory of her daughter fade, or become lost amid the ensuing public debates about capital punishment.
It is a promise she has kept.
"I live it on a day-to-day basis," Walker said from her home in Pequot Lakes, Minn., a base of operations of sorts for Walker, who travels the country raising awareness about and toughening laws dealing with those who commit violence against young people.
"I have taken this (case) to really press the issue that our children and young adults need to be the top priority in our nation. We're just a little bit lost at times in remembering," Walker said. She was instrumental in creating a national database on sex offenders.
She also helped establish legislation that supports special teams that track down those who make and distribute child pornography.
Passing laws is one thing. Getting funding for initiatives they create is another, she said.
"You just can't fathom anybody having to endure what my daughter endured," Walker said.
"Everybody would stand and cry with me hearing Dru's story," she said. "But when it comes to the funding, there aren't a lot of people that stand up and say, 'Yes, we need to fund this.' ''
Her latest efforts focus on proposals that would require people arrested on suspicion of a felony to provide a DNA sample, just as mug shots and fingerprints are now routine for such arrests.
"Obviously, DNA was a huge factor in our case. Without it, he (Rodriguez) could still be walking the streets and God only knows what more he could have done," Walker said.
'Never goes away'
Rodriguez remains on death row awaiting a hearing on his federal appeal, which is expected in early 2009.
Drew Wrigley, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota whose office convicted Rodriguez and secured his death sentence, said fighting the appeal keeps him engaged in the case.
But he added his connection to it will remain long after his professional obligations conclude.
"What never goes away is just the fact of what happened to Dru Sjodin and the horror of her final hours. It will never be lost on anybody who is aware of those facts," said Wrigley, whose office spent the summer writing a reply to Rodriguez's appeal.
Wrigley said the case sparked greater awareness of the threat posed by high-risk sex offenders who are released from prison.
"The public has been awakened to this issue and they remain very troubled that sex offenders who are judged to be a continuing and present danger to the public are allowed to go out and roam free," he said.
Wrigley said Rodriguez, who served 23 years in a Minnesota prison before his release six months before Sjodin's murder, was given every chance to succeed.
"He had a loving family. They got him a job. He had a car. He had all of that and he still lived up to the expectation of a Level 3 sex offender.
"This is the type of case that slaps people in the face,'' Wrigley said.
Rodriguez's attorney, Bob Hoy, declined to discuss his client's situation while the appeal is pending.
Attempts to contact Rodriguez's family for comment were unsuccessful.
Surrounded by love
Wrigley said he recently visited Sjodin's grave and met again with members of her family.
"Love, in the end, is still the thing I think of most when I think of them," he said. "I didn't know Dru in her life, but she was very fortunate to be surrounded by the love that she had."
Walker said her daughter's hometown of Pequot Lakes has gone out of its way to remember her by creating "Dru's Garden," a special place of flowers and serenity.
Walker said her own efforts to honor her daughter's memory are what anyone would do who has lost someone special.
"Most parents feel such passionate love for their children when something as tragic as this happens. You just cling to the hope that they're memory will live on in some way.
"My way would be positive," she said.
Nov. 22, 2003 - Dru Sjodin disappears after talking with her boyfriend on a cell phone while leaving her job in a Grand Forks, N.D., mall. Police find her car in the mall parking lot.
Nov. 26, 2003 - Police interview convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., after getting a tip that he was in Grand Forks on the day Sjodin disappeared. They also search his car.
Dec. 4, 2003 - Rodriguez appears in Grand Forks County Court and asks to remain in jail for his own safety.
April 17, 2004 - Sjodin's body is found northwest of Crookston, Minn.
July 2006 Rodriguez's trial begins in U.S. District Court in Fargo.
Aug. 30, 2006 - Jury finds Rodriguez guilty of killing Sjodin and leaving her body in a ravine two miles north of Crookston.
Sept. 7, 2006 - Jury determines Rodriguez is eligible for the death penalty.
Sept. 22, 2006 - Jury decides Rodriguez should be put to death. The defense brings a motion opposing the sentence, but the judge in the case upholds the jury's decision.