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Patrick Springer, Published June 22 2013

Summer’s lark began sad saga: 20 years ago, Fargo girl vanished, launching long hunt for killer

FARGO – The last time her family and friends saw Jeanna North, she was relishing a glorious summer day long past twilight.

The evening began with a swim at Fargo’s Island Park pool. Her father picked her up when the pool closed, at 9 p.m., and drove Jeanna and her friends home.

It was still light out, and the 11-year-old girl pleaded with her father to extend her curfew half an hour so she could go Rollerblading longer with her two friends.

OK, her father said. But make sure you’re home by 10:30 p.m. Off they went, new friends still getting acquainted, bound first for the nearby home of one of the other girls.

The lark on a long, luxuriant early summer night ended in a tragedy that would drag on for years, leaving a still-resonating legacy. But there was no way to know it 20 years ago in the fading evening light on June 28, 1993.

Soon after skating off, the girls paused across the street to visit a neighbor who was installing lights on his pickup truck.

Later, as their outing was coming to an end, following a tour of their neighborhood on the near north side, the girls went to the They stopped briefly at one friend’s house, where they said goodnight. The friend asked Jeanna if she’d like her mother to escort her home, less than a block away.

No, Jeanna replied. It’s just down the street. I’ll be fine.

It was 10:45 p.m. The friend watched as Jeanna skated off. She never made it home, less than a block away. She’d forgotten her shoes in the friend’s yard, the only tangible item she left behind that night.

Neighbor’s hidden side

John North fell asleep on the couch watching a documentary on TV.

When he woke up the next morning, he checked his daughters’ bedrooms. Jessica, 15, was in her room. So was Jennifer, 13. But Jeanna wasn’t in hers.

North assumed she was staying with one of the two friends she’d gone rollerblading with.

He told his wife, Sue, that Jeanna hadn’t come home, and the parents started calling their daughter’s friends and checking around the neighborhood.

“We went and we made calls and checked with every possible person and friend that we knew of, you know, within that area,” John later testified. “And when it came up no results, then we called the police.”

The neighbor who lived kitty-corner across the street, the man who had been installing lights on his pickup the night before, said he hadn’t seen Jeanna.

John had met him once before, a month earlier, when he walked across the street to borrow a wrench as the Norths were having a backyard barbecue on Memorial Day weekend.

The man, Kyle Bell, struck John North as quiet and hardworking. But there was a hidden side to Bell, a side the Norths would soon learn all about.

Police frustrated

Several days after Jeanna went missing, the family offered a $2,000 reward for information leading to her safe return.

Police weren’t ruling out the possibility she had run away, but the family rejected that explanation for her disappearance.

“My theory is that she’s been abducted,” John said at a news conference.

“She’s a momma’s baby,” Sue added, prone to climbing into bed with her parents or older sisters.

Within days, 600 volunteers gathered in the basement of St. Mary’s Cathedral to stuff envelopes with fliers including her photograph and description.

Before long, 25,000 fliers had been posted or mailed, but police were stymied by a lack of clues, frustrated by the fruitless search.

It didn’t take long, however, for suspicion to fall on Bell. Three years earlier, he had served just 10 weeks of a two-year prison sentence in South Dakota for child molestation in Aberdeen, released from parole in 1991.

In interviews with the police, Bell denied any knowledge of Jeanna’s disappearance, though he said he’d seen her around the neighborhood a few times. Investigators had nothing to connect Bell to the apparent crime.

But then something happened that struck a rural Cass County resident as odd.

A strange encounter

Thunderstorms dumped 10 inches of rain in mid-July, filling many basements in the area with water.

Mary Hoglund, who lived north of West Fargo, finished cleaning up her basement, then went to help with water in the basement of the Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church.

On her way home, while driving along County Road 20, she saw a black pickup parked in the middle of the bridge over the Sheyenne River, with a man standing next to it, looking at the river.

Twenty minutes later, the man appeared by her nearby home, stopping at her father-in-law’s adjacent property.

The man said he ran out of gas, and Hoglund gave him a five-gallon can. She noticed that when he filled his tank, gas soon spilled to the ground, suggesting to her that the tank already was almost full. The truck started right away.

Before driving off, the man gave Hoglund his phone number and his name: Kyle Bell.

Tipped off about the strange encounter, authorities quietly searched the river. They found nothing.

Bell gave police consent to search his pickup for Jeanna’s hairs. He had earlier told police that she had never been in his truck.

But as they were preparing to vacuum his cab, looking for hair or fibers, he volunteered that they probably would find hair strands, that he’d once given Jeanna and a friend a ride from the Dairy Queen.

Police asked Bell why he hadn’t told them about the ride earlier, and Bell replied that he didn’t think it was important at the time.

In a follow-up interview later that day, Detective Jim LeDoux tried to coax Bell into saying something by laying out different scenarios and cited previous cases, including accidental deaths.

But Bell didn’t take the bait.

He looked at LeDoux and said, “You had the bodies in those cases, isn’t that right?”

Family outraged

By fall, three months after Jeanna vanished, police announced they were drastically scaling back the search.

“It means we’ve run out of leads,” said Lt. Pete Mariner. “We’ve run out of places to turn.”

The Norths observed a subdued Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dec. 12 – Jeanna’s 12th birthday – was somber.

The occasional lead surfaced and quickly evaporated, including a six-hour search of the town of Devils Lake prompted by a psychic’s tip.

Then, in April 1994, Bell was charged with molesting two young girls, ages 8 and 3, as well as criminal trespass. Bell posted cash bail of $20,000, and then fled, failing to make a court appearance.

In the publicity surrounding Bell’s jumping bail, the North family learned for the first time their former neighbor was a convicted child molester.

“How would you feel if this individual was in your neighborhood and you weren’t notified,” John North asked. “It seems like the children are the ones getting the short end of the stick.”

He added: “The release of Kyle Bell on bail – I think this is outrageous.”

Four months later, in a suburb of Denver, a police officer noticed North Dakota plates on a pickup truck stopped at a gas station. The officer ran a routine check, and discovered the truck was registered to a wanted fugitive.

Kyle Bell had run out of gas and run out of luck. He refused to waive extradition but soon was back in North Dakota to face the molestation charges involving the 8-year-old and 3-year-old girls.

30-year sentence

In a jailhouse interview, Bell said he knew Jeanna only vaguely and had no idea where she is. “I wish I did,” he said, “but I don’t.”

Police had strong evidence against Bell in the molestation case, including lewd photographs he’d taken of the girls that also showed his ring and wristwatch – the same ring and watch he was wearing when arrested.

Bell pleaded guilty, hoping for another lenient sentence. At his sentencing hearing, on Jan. 24, 1995, Sue North couldn’t contain herself.

Moments after the prosecution’s opening remarks, the anguished mother yelled at Bell, “Bastard!” and was restrained by deputies when she tried to climb over the 3-foot barrier separating the defendant from the gallery.

For each of three molestation charges, Bell received a 10-year sentence, to run consecutively for 30 years, followed by 10 years of supervised probation.

Bell was stone-faced as the sentence was pronounced and during Sue North’s outburst.

But instead of being taken back to his jail cell, authorities whisked Bell to a jailhouse interview room.

Coaxing a confession

In exchange for a voluntary statement about Jeanna’s disappearance, an investigator told Bell he would recommend an unspecified sentence to run concurrently with his molestation sentence.

Interrogators reminded Bell that the statute of limitations never expires in a murder case, and someday he possibly could face charges.

Bell jumped at the offer to effectively serve the same sentence for two criminal cases.

Dean Wawers, a veteran deputy and investigator for the state’s attorney’s office, asked Bell if he would mind going to the prosecutor’s office, where he could be videotaped.

Bell agreed, but wanted a smoke first. Wawers had to cajole the jailers to allow it, since the jail was smoke free. A smile crept across Bell’s face as he inhaled his first cigarette in months.

In a series of interviews over a period of hours, with breaks for a Coke and a ham sandwich, Bell said Jeanna performed a sexual act on him in his garage, just minutes after she was last seen. He claimed she initiated the encounter.

Then, when the girl threatened to tell her parents, Bell “backhanded” the girl, who, still wearing her Rollerblades, fell backward and struck her head, according to the account he gave police.

He then placed her limp body in his pickup, drove to a bridge over the Sheyenne River. He found a concrete block in his pickup and a length of rope, folded Jeanna “like a jackknife,” then dropped her into the river.

During a break from a polygraph exam the following day, Bell told Detective LeDoux, “It was an accident, Jim. (Expletive) happens.”

‘She’s happy now’

Because of extensive pretrial publicity, Bell’s trial for the murder of Jeanna North in August 1999 was moved to Mandan.

Although his confession came more than four years earlier, prosecutors faced daunting obstacles.

Most significantly, they never found her body. Divers conducted 14 river searches and never found a trace.

Investigators even dropped a pig of Jeanna’s approximate weight – 55 pounds – as well as several pairs of Rollerblades to see where the river would carry them.

They never found them. Divers did find sinkholes, some 10 feet deep. “It’s a black hole,” prosecutor Mark Boening told jurors.

Although divers found a concrete block and length of rope the FBI lab said was consistent with blocks at Bell’s home, Boening chose not to introduce them as evidence. He was worried any dubious evidence would weaken his case, and didn’t want to hand the defense ammunition for an appeal.

Another obstacle: The judge had excluded Bell’s confession, finding that it had been obtained illegally. The judge did allow subsequent statements Bell made voluntarily, including his claim to LeDoux that the death was accidental.

One of Jeanna’s friends testified that, earlier that summer, the two visited Bell more than a dozen times over two or three days. Jeanna said her nickname for Bell was “C-man,” a moniker she never explained. Investigators believe the serial molester had been “grooming” Jeanna for a long time.

In the end, Bell’s own incriminating words, and a web of suspicious circumstantial evidence, were enough to convict him of murder and earned him a life sentence, to start in 2019, after his molestation sentences.

“Hopefully God is looking after our daughter up in heaven and justice will be done to Kyle Bell,” John North said at the time.

“She’s happy now,” sister Jessica added.

But the saga wasn’t over. Three weeks later, while being moved to a maximum security prison in Oregon, Bell escaped from a transport bus during a stop in New Mexico.

He was captured 88 days later in Dallas, Texas, after he was featured on the national television program, “America’s Most Wanted.”

He was living in an apartment with a woman who had four young children. Although the mother said the children hadn’t been abused, she was chilled to recall that Bell had held her 5-year-old daughter’s leg in a way she didn’t like.

In the years after the crime, the murder was an impetus for strengthening sex offender registration laws. Just three years ago, Jeanna's memory was referenced by opponents of a defeated proposal to house sex offenders in the northside Fargo neighborhood where she had lived.

‘Would have gone far’

Jennifer North believes her younger sister Jeanna would have distinguished herself in some creative way if she had lived.

She might have become a singer, an actress or a model. And, her sister believes, she would have become a mother.

“She was extremely talented,” she said. “She would have gone far. She would have done something special.”

The North family suffered greatly from the years of uncertainty before they learned Jeanna had been murdered.

Sue North spoke openly of her struggles with depression and abusing alcohol, and worried that she had neglected her other two daughters. John and Sue North divorced.

Sue, who remarried on the 10th anniversary of Jeanna’s disappearance, died in 2009 at age 58. John remains in Fargo but declines news interviews about Jeanna. He keeps a framed piece of his daughter’s artwork, a clown.

Jennifer’s home in Arthur is filled with memorabilia of her sister, including a curio cabinet of photos and a framed spelling quiz – remnants of a girl with nervous energy and a ready smile who was just beginning to blossom into adolescence.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522