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By Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published November 16 2013

10 years after UND student Dru Sjodin’s murder, her mother and others remember

Pequot Lakes, Minn. - Linda Walker lives alone now in her house on the shore of Clamshell Lake, with Izzy, a Black Lab-Golden Retriever mix.

It’s been 10 years since her daughter, Dru Sjodin, was abducted from the parking lot of Grand Forks’ Columbia Mall by convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez, assaulted and killed.

Walker’s life has changed, of course, in ways she couldn’t control but perhaps more important, in ways she is directing.

The grief and loss still are here, but Walker has a steely resolve evident in her eyes when she talks about promises she made to her daughter and about keeping them.

It began here by the lake the day of Dru’s funeral in April 2004, after her body was finally found in a ravine near Crookston as the snow was melting. Linda had the Cadillac carrying Dru’s body detour on the way to the cemetery to come down this driveway one last time to her home, to the lake she loved.

“I promised to bring her home,” Walker said.

She is still keeping promises, dedicating her time to doing what she doesn’t really enjoy: public speaking, lobbying politicians, attending court hearings and talking to reporters.

“I just wanted to ensure that what happened to Dru wasn’t going to happen to other people,” Walker said last week.

Dru’s father, Allan Sjodin, also consistently has said for 10 years that his daughter’s memory and spirit keep pushing him to make sure she gets justice and that she is not forgotten. He lives near Park Rapids with his wife, Linda.

What was lost

The memories at the lake home near Pequot Lakes, where Dru graduated from high school in 2000, are thick for Walker; she and her late husband, Sid Walker, built this home more than two decades ago. A hail storm this fall hurt the cedar shingles enough so they need replacing.

There’s the weeping willow tree they planted when Dru was little, its branches leaning over the little pond Dru’s stepfather turned into a skating rink each winter.

“Dorky Hamel, that’s what Dru called me,” Walker said last week. “Sid was Zamboni.”

She talks often to her son Sven, Dru’s brother and only a year older, and wishes he and his big family could get back to Minnesota more often.

She proudly lays out proofs of new photos of the six blond children Sven and his wife, Melinda, are raising in Simi Valley, Calif.

“I’m Nanna North,” she said, smiling.

Sid died of cancer two years ago. It was diagnosed about the time Dru was killed, but he kept pretty quiet about it, still taking part in searches when he could.

Also in 2011, Linda’s mother, Betty Jo Sutfin, Spearfish, S.D., died. Her father, Maj. Drew Sutfin, a hero and pilot in World War II, the Korean War and still flying combat missions in Vietnam in the 1960s, died in 2007, his heart clearly broken, Linda says, by the loss of his namesake granddaughter.

Allan and Linda had separated when Dru was about 3, but the family remained close in the Twin Cities. Sid and Linda moved up to their lake home in the early 1990s with Dru and Sven.

Last month, Walker spoke to hundreds at the University of North Dakota, again keeping her promise to Dru, who took part in the same “Take Back the Night” rally 10 years ago, only weeks before she was slain.

“I just felt that I needed to carry on with what Dru felt was important, what we all should feel is important.”

The way Dru Sjodin’s family has responded to her death has changed others, too.

A painful verdict

Bertha Pickell openly cried when her verdict, unanimous with the other 11 jurors, was read in open court in September 2006: that Alfonso Rodiguez should be put to death for his violent abduction and murder of Dru Sjodin.

Tears came again last week to the retired teacher from Oakes, N.D., as she explained how she came to a verdict she hadn’t expected she could reach and how it changed her.

Pickell is a quiet woman but willing to do what she sees as her duty.

She got some attention during the trial as the only “minority” – she is an Inuit who grew up in a tiny Alaskan village – because Rodriguez’s attorneys argued that he wouldn’t get a fair trial because the jury lacked diversity.

Pickell and her fellow jurors spent months together in 2006, from three weeks of jury selection to weeks during the first trial in which they found Rodriguez guilty, then a second trial of sorts in which they decided if his sentence should be life in prison or death.

It was the first death penalty case in a century in North Dakota.

About a year after Rodriguez was sentenced to death, Pickell moved to Fargo, partly to be close to her daughter.

Pickell said she grew up a Quaker, sharing their strong convictions that killing of any kind, including the death penalty, is wrong.

“I didn’t want to be in the jury because of my convictions,” she said. “Where I came from, I just couldn’t see putting anyone on death row.”

She talked with her sister in Alaska, a pastor or two and others whose counsel she sought, and studied scriptures.

“They pointed out some stuff to me and I felt better about it, and I did want to do the right thing,” she said.

She has a grandson now and sees him often in Fargo, and she reflects on the big decision she made.

“I was glad I did that,” she said. “And I know Linda (Walker) has done a lot to help that cause that she has. And I hope that has a big impact on what happens after that. At the time I was (on the jury) my daughter was still pretty young, and I always thought of her when I did that.”

Pickell has kept in touch with other jurors.

“It was many weeks we spent together. We have a very special bond,” she said.

Giving his all

Mike Hedlund, then a sergeant in the Grand Forks Police Department, became the face of the department during the unprecedented media scramble after Sjodin was abducted.

He served as the main spokesman at the daily – sometimes twice a day – news conferences that would attract dozens of regional and national reporters and cameras.

For the first few weeks, he was working 15-hour days doing interviews.

“I’ve got three daughters, so I thought, as a father, if I was there in these people’s place, what would I want these investigators to do?” he said. “I would want them to be on every show that goes out, so maybe that one person might see who might help my daughter out.”

The way that Sjodin’s family handled the media crush made him want to do whatever he could to help, Hedlund said.

“There were a lot of very short nights with little sleep. And then when I would finally lay down, I would find myself looking at the ceiling, wondering ‘What can we do different?’ ” he said.

Four years ago, Hedlund was named chief of police in East Grand Forks.

Last summer, he oversaw the search for an East Grand Forks boy with autism who went missing, later found in the Red River, a victim of accidental drowning. It involved dozens of agencies who offered help.

“That was the biggest search we’ve had since the Dru Sjodin case,” he said.

Empowerment

Linda Walker’s commitment has inspired young women to get involved, says Kay Mendick, director of the Women’s Center at the University of North Dakota.

A good example is Angela Champagne-From, who was 20 and living in the Twin Cities when Dru was killed. “It really affected me,” she said last week.

Even more now.

Last year, Champagne-From fought off an attack by a knife-wielding convicted sex offender. Her testimony helped send him to prison for 20 years, and she’s recovering from her near-fatal stab wound.

She started her own nonprofit foundation, Fight Like a Girl, to encourage women to “be empowered,” taking self-defense classes and other ways.

Champagne-From contacted Linda Walker as part of a study paper she wrote on the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.

“We have been in touch ever since,” Champagne-From said.

The Minneapolis woman is coming to UND this week to take the weekend self-defense class offered by the Women’s Center that begins Friday. Her participation will be filmed for a documentary.

That kind of response is part of keeping her promises to Dru, Walker said.

Despite all the difficult changes recently in her life, Walker recently joined the public debate over Minnesota’s program of civil commitment for sex offenders, urging officials not to weaken ways of keeping such criminals in custody.

A new focus for her is the education of young children to empower them so they don’t become victims of violence.

She’s working to win federal funding for the nonprofit program radKIDS, which teaches children as young as 5 about sexual predators.

Walker says she and her family were overwhelmed with all the help made available in the Red River Valley after Dru went missing.

“I firmly believe that every child, every missing person, deserves the same attention and the same effort by people to try and find them,” she said.


Timeline of the Dru Sjodin case

-Nov, 22, 2003: Sjodin disappears after talking with her boyfriend on her cellphone while leaving her job in a Grand Forks mall. Police find her car in the mall parking lot.

-Nov. 26, 2003: Officers interview convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. after getting a tip he was in Grand Forks on the day Sjodin disappeared.

-Dec. 1, 2003: Rodriguez is arrested in Crookston, Minn., where he lived with his mother.

-Dec. 9, 2003: Grand Forks County Sheriff Dan Hill confirms preliminary DNA match of blood in Rodriguez’s car to Sjodin and says she’s likely dead.

-Dec. 12, 2003: National Guard troops from Minnesota and North Dakota join search for Sjodin for three days without success.

-April 17, 2004: Authorities announce Sjodin’s body is found in a ravine near Crookston, Minn.

-Aug. 30, 2006: Federal jury of seven women and five men finds Rodriguez guilty of kidnapping resulting in Sjodin’s death.

-Sept. 22, 2006: Jurors sentence Rodriguez to death.

-Feb. 8, 2007: Defense attorneys appeal after Rodriguez is formally sentenced to death.

-Feb. 12, 2009: Defense attorneys and prosecutors give oral arguments before three judges of 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

-Sept. 22, 2009: A panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules 2-1 to affirm the verdict and death sentence.

Forum News Service