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Published May 08 2013

Police on local missing-persons cases: ‘Always room to hope’ after Ohio rescue

FARGO – The youngest of Fargo’s three unsolved missing-person cases turns 20 years old in October.

But police say this week’s astonishing news that three women who disappeared a decade ago were found captive at a house in Cleveland shows there’s always potential for such cases to be solved.

“Certainly a lot of families hold out hope, and until we can show that we resolved the case … there is always room to hope that it’ll turn out like this one,” Fargo Deputy Chief Pat Claus said.

Police periodically review cold cases, whether because of new tips or just to take a fresh look at the investigative file, he said.

In the case of missing Fargo man Kevin Mahoney, police quietly conducted follow-up investigations in 2011 and 2012, but they yielded no new clues to his whereabouts, Claus said.

Mahoney was last seen Oct. 2, 1993, after walking out of a friend’s north Fargo home and heading toward his brother’s south Moorhead apartment. His brother wasn’t home, and it’s unclear if Mahoney ever made it there.

Police believe foul play is a possibility in Mahoney’s disappearance. He was 25 years old at the time.

The metro’s two other missing person cases are more than 30 years old.

Mildred Louise Butterworth Roche, of Fargo, was last seen by her parents on May 31, 1976, when she left their farm home near Mankato, Minn., and headed home to Fargo with her husband, Ronald, according to Forum archives.

Claus said police in 1996 excavated the backyard of the house where Roche was living at the time she disappeared and also re-questioned her husband, who had told police she left him after he told her he planned to file for a divorce. The case is now inactive again.

Kenneth Tank, of Fargo, was reported missing Dec. 2, 1970. He was last seen at about 11 that night in the vicinity of Ralph’s Corner Bar in downtown Moorhead, which has since been demolished.

The Cass County Sheriff’s Office hoped it had caught a break in Tank’s case when human bones were found in late 2004 and early 2005 in a field near Ayr, about 40 miles northwest of Fargo. But DNA samples taken from one of Tank’s relatives didn’t match the bones when tested at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va.

“Nothing more has panned out on it. That information just kind of led us to a dead end,” Chief Deputy Rick Majerus said.

Claus said it’s “really rare” to have a missing person report that involves suspected foul play. Most reports are for runaways, and they’re usually found or return home within 24 hours.

The vast majority of adults reported as missing adults also return home on their own or are quickly located by police, he said.

“Most of those are blissfully unaware that anybody’s looking for them,” he said.

A smaller percentage of missing persons are people who intentionally leave without telling anyone to get away from their circumstances.

Police usually don’t notify the public or media of missing person reports unless foul play is suspected or if police feel the person is in danger, Claus said.

“An adult has the right to drop off the grid if they so choose,” he said.

Moorhead, West Fargo and Clay County authorities said they currently have no unsolved missing person cases.

Neighbors of the Cleveland home where the three women were held captive have been critical of police, claiming they didn’t thoroughly investigate reports of suspicious activity.

Lt. Brad Penas, who oversees the Moorhead Police Department’s investigations division, said he didn’t know all the details of the Cleveland case and couldn’t comment on it, but he said police “do everything we can” to bring missing-person reports to a resolution.

“But sometimes, unfortunately, you exhaust all resources and there’s nothing else you can do,” he said.

Police need probable cause to obtain a search warrant for a residence, and every situation is different, Penas said.

“Unfortunately, we can’t go to a home and just bust the door in because we get a call,” he said.

While missing person cases might sit for years with no activity, they’re considered inactive instead of closed because police are always ready to investigate new leads, Claus said.

“We never know when we’ll get that one piece of information that’ll change the whole complexity of the investigation,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-552