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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published November 17 2013

Dru Sjodin case prompts changes in law, society

PEQUOT LAKES, Minn. – “I don’t try to dwell on the horror of how Dru was taken,” Linda Walker said last week from her home here. “I try to deal more in what I can do to help change even a small part of what’s happening.”

It will be 10 years on Friday since the kidnapping and murder of her daughter, University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, by Alfonso Rodriguez, a high-risk sex offender living in Crookston at the time.

Walker has since found a way through the unimaginable grief and loss to become a nationally recognized advocate to make sure, as she has said many times since, that “this doesn’t happen to someone else’s child.”

The crime not only profoundly affected people’s lives, it also changed the way the nation and the Grand Forks region deal with high-risk sex offenders.

Walker herself played a role. Her activism and lobbying were key to getting national legislation passed requiring more public information about high-risk sex offenders, including where they live. That information is now found on the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.

Among law enforcement officials, the murder was the biggest and most complex many here had seen in years, involving agencies from all three levels of government, reinforcing the tendency here to cooperate across jurisdictions.

Throughout the region, the murder raised awareness among women about violent crimes. At UND, the Women’s Center sees more participants in its self-defense course, and many say it was Sjodin’s murder case that made them sign up.

Rodriguez, now 60, is on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., still appealing his sentence, arguing he is mentally retarded, was insane at the time he killed Sjodin and had ineffective lawyers.

Weighing rights

His crime against Sjodin sparked a debate about whether state and local officials had erred by not committing him as a high-risk sex offender after his prison sentence was completed.

After sex-related attacks on three Crookston women, Rodriguez spent much of his adult life behind bars in Minnesota as a Level 3 sex offender, meaning he was at the highest risk of reoffending; he was a suspect in a fourth attack in southern Minnesota while briefly out of custody. But in May 2003, after serving his sentence, he was released, returning to Crookston to live in his mother’s home.

Six months later, he abducted and killed Sjodin.

North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, who, as the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, was lead prosecutor in the case, said the public outrage helped to change the way sex offenders are perceived. “It set in place a very broad-based and firm public consensus about the danger posed by sex offenders.”

Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger, who worked with Wrigley on the case as U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said he saw a rapid shift after Sjodin’s murder in public and official sentiment over how to deal with high-risk sex offenders.

“The focus really was on getting knowledge and information out to people and keeping sex offenders locked up through civil commitment,” he said. “Over here in Minnesota, more pressure was put on county attorneys to review these cases for civil commitment a lot more quickly and more aggressively.”

Before the case, most of the discussion was about the civil rights of sex offenders as they reached the end of their sentences.

Since 2003, the numbers of civil commitments of sex offenders have increased sharply, especially in Minnesota, and many experts agree it was largely because of Sjodin’s murder.

The sex offender registry, another legacy of the case, has become an important tool for the public, Heffelfinger said. “It takes it away from just being a law enforcement tracking of offenders and gives the public the right to track these people as well. And that’s a direct offshoot of her death.”

But Wrigley warned of a false sense of security. “I can look up where they live, but they are not all super-glued to a chair in their house. They are able to move in a wide swath.”

He said he’s in favor of taking more steps to keep such offenders from being released. “Some might say they have paid their debt to society and that civil commitment is another punishment,” Wrigley said. “But it’s not. It’s another way to protect people, from other victims being created.

“Studies show that 80 percent of Level 3 (highest risk) sex offenders re-offend within five years (of being released),” Wrigley said.

Minnesota this past week was embroiled in a public discussion over how to handle federal directives to start releasing sex offenders from the state’s civil commitment program. Several are in line to be released, despite their records of violent crimes, Heffelfinger said.

“I’m a little disappointed that 10 years after (Sjodin’s) death, the pendulum of public opinion seems to have swung back from giving us more information and a more aggressive approach to these guys to the other side, of emphasizing more due process and letting these guys out and saying there are acceptable risks we are willing to run if we put these guys back on the street,” he said.

Teamwork

After Sjodin’s abduction from the Grand Forks mall, Grand Forks police Lt. Jim Remer was key point man in the investigation. That meant he was in charge of a sprawling investigation that included more than 100 officers from 40 agencies, including the FBI, and crossed state lines.

“At the time, we had never had this type of investigation, so big and all encompassing,” he said last week, several times crediting “the teamwork” of his colleagues in the department, as well as the FBI and Minnesota and North Dakota state investigators.

On the first day of the investigation, Nov. 24, a new computer program from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was installed in the “war room” in the basement of the police station. Within days, more than 1,600 leads were being traced and a long table held 30 or more loose-leaf notebooks.

Remer was one of a handful of investigators tapped to keep on top of all the material so that someone could keep “the thread of the investigation,” moving as much as possible.

He credited the organized method combined with twice-daily – or more – briefings in the war room when everyone shared information.

That’s how an early key piece of evidence was put together: the knife sheath found by Grand Forks police near Sjodin’s car in the mall parking lot was quickly matched to the knife found by Minnesota investigators in Rodriguez’s car trunk 50 miles away.

Blood found in the backseat of Rodriguez’s car – actually owned by his mother – relatively quickly was matched to Sjodin’s DNA collected from her toothbrush in her Grand Forks apartment.

Such cooperation came with a lack of turf or personality battles between the multitude of people and agencies working the case, Remer said. “We talked about that from the first day, that everyone had to check their egos at the door.”

The Flood of 1997 was good training on the importance of working together that helped in the Sjodin case, which in turn made the department better at its job, Remer said.

Fighting back

Sjodin’s death made a big impact on other young women at UND that is still being felt, according to Kay Mendick, director of the Women’s Center on campus.

In what she calls a kind of terrible irony, Sjodin took part in the center’s “Clothesline Project” in October 2003 and was appalled at reading the messages from victims of violence, shocked that humans would treat each other that way, Mendick said.

Only a few weeks later, Sjodin died from such violence.

Every semester, the Women’s Center holds two or three weekend courses teaching women how to avoid and deal with violence, including some practical tips on physical defense.

“When we start the class every time, I ask what brought them, why they are taking it, and most time we will have at least half the class say, ‘Because I remember what happened to Dru Sjodin and I want to be safe,’ “ Mendick said. Attendance at the classes is up, she said.

Linda Walker was quick to agree to come back and speak this October at the center’s “Take Back the Night” rally and Clothesline Project, giving a moving account of her horror of 10 years ago.

Danielle Chartier, 18, came to hear Walker speak last month at UND because her parents had told her about Dru Sjodin and how important it was to learn how to avoid and counteract such violence, “especially on a college campus.”

Victims’ cause

Walker says she’s met so many remarkable young women who inspire her to keep working.

Her main message, she says, is “Remember the victims.”

She’s been speaking to Minnesota officials looking to loosen restrictions on keeping sex offenders under civil commitment.

“I keep trying to address that and raise again to keep the focus on the victims,” she said. “Put the victims back in the equation when we are making these decisions allowing offenders their second and third and fourth chances. We need to change laws, have judges and prosecutors to quit plea bargaining and start locking them away.”