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John Myers, Forum News Service, Published June 14 2013

A decade later, search for girl continues

CHISHOLM, Minn. – Ten years ago Friday, just after 4:30 in the afternoon, 5-year-old LeeAnna Warner walked away barefoot from her family’s home in Chisholm heading to a nearby friend’s house to play.

Her mom told her to be back in a half-hour. Neighbors saw the little brown-eyed, brown-haired girl everyone called “Beaner” knocking on the friend’s door. But no one was home at the friend’s house. So Beaner walked away.

And in a frighteningly real case of missing without a trace, no one has seen LeeAnna Warner since.

A decade has passed. Neighbors and the community have moved on, yet the family still lives with its grief. And LeeAnna Warner is still remembered by the people of Chisholm.

“She’s still in our hearts. It’s very much in our minds,” said Chisholm Police Chief Vern Manner. “Nobody here has forgotten.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently released a computer-enhanced photo of what LeeAnna might look like as a 15-year-old. And police are still asking anyone with information to come forward.

“It could be the most benign or seemingly innocent detail someone might remember that can crack a case like this,” said Dave Phillips, St. Louis County undersheriff. “You can never say never.”

Ten years ago the search started, about an hour after she was last seen, as a family affair to find out where Beaner had wandered off to on a pleasant Saturday evening.

By 9 p.m. the family had called 911 and the search became a frantic effort with police, fire departments, volunteers, helicopters, bloodhounds and tracking experts searching the entire city of Chisholm over the next 48 hours.

Over the next few days hundreds of volunteers showed up from across the Iron Range and across Minnesota to help. They checked Longyear Lake just blocks from LeeAnna’s house. They checked abandoned iron ore mines and pit lakes. They checked dumpsters and garages and sheds and rural barns hoping that maybe LeeAnna just walked away and got lost or stuck.

It was the largest prolonged search-and-rescue effort for Phillips, who oversees the county’s rescue squad.

“It was an absolutely massive search-and-rescue effort going on simultaneously that we had a criminal investigation going. Multiple agencies; state, local, federal. Hundreds of people,” Phillips recalled.

Then weeks passed with no clues and police said it was almost certain that LeeAnna had been abducted by a stranger. But the searching continued. Huge crowds arrived to search on the one-year anniversary. Psychics were brought in. Leads developed that even named some suspects who police were questioning. But none of them, even those that seemed promising at the time, panned out.

LeeAnna’s parents tried to keep her name and photo in the media. They went on nationally syndicated television shows and attended local fairs and events, distributing fliers. They kept their front porch light on every night as a sign of hope.

Authorities have chased some 2,000 leads over the years, many generated from posters distributed through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or through national mailings and magazine publications. All of them ended up as dead-ends. There are no clues that have been made public. There is no evidence.

“We still get calls, we still get tips, and even though they often turn out to be old information we still follow every one until we know it’s not going somewhere,” Manner said. “Someday someone is going to come forward with something that leads us to her.”

Manner and most of the Chisholm police force on the job now were there in 2003, too (although then- Chief Scott Erickson retired in 2009). Manner and two investigators are still assigned to the case.

“We want people to know this isn’t a cold case. It’s not a closed case. We are still treating this as an open case,” Manner said.

While most long-term missing person stories don’t end up with happy endings, Manner cited the recent escape and freedom of three Ohio women kidnapped as teens and held captive for a decade as an example for hope.

Even if the news isn’t good, finding LeeAnna and bringing her captor to justice would help bring closure, Phillips said, citing the recent Trina Langenbrunner case. Langenbrunner’s body was found in 2000 near her rural Cloquet home, but a suspect wasn’t identified and charged with her murder until 2012.

“That just shows that, if you keep at something, there’s always a chance you find the person responsible and at least give the criminal justice system a shot at making sure they can’t do it again,” Phillips said. “As screwed up as this world is, I still believe that eventually the truth floats up.”

The Minnesota-based Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, named after the St. Joseph, Minn., boy who was abducted in 1989 and hasn’t been seen since, lists a dozen Minnesota children and teens who are lost without a trace.

“We don’t give up,” Manner said. “We can’t give up until LeeAnna comes home.”

Anyone with information on the LeeAnna Warner case is asked to call the Chisholm police at (218) 254-7915.