HALLOCK, Minn. -- Courtney was 16, weeks from starting her junior year at Kittson Central High School in Hallock.

So was Julie, a friend since kindergarten. They were locker neighbors and volleyball teammates at school. They sang together in the choir at Red River Lutheran Church.

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On July 28, 1998, Courtney was out driving north of town when she spotted Julie in-line skating along the lightly traveled straightaway that is Kittson County Road 1.

"I thought about asking her if she wanted a ride," she said. "It was getting dark."

But this was Julie's exercise routine, gliding through the country outside her hometown. It was quiet, peaceful, the summer air fresh and fragrant, fields lush with grain and groves of trees.

And this was Hallock. If a young person couldn't feel safe here ...

On July 28, Julie made it home, safe and sound.

On July 29, she didn't.

Even as the people of Hallock cheer the children who grow up and leave for college and jobs and life elsewhere, each departure stirs a lingering melancholy that can be traced to the sudden and violent loss of one child. Ten years ago Tuesday, Hallock lost Julie Holmquist, and all the small towns of the region lost part of a treasured way of life.

Four years later, suspect Curtiss Cedergren, 38, shot and killed himself as an investigator arrived at his Lancaster, Minn., home to arrange for a lie detector test. Authorities later detailed evidence they had collected and said with confidence that Cedergren was responsible for Holmquist's death.

Courtney Renstrom lives with her husband and 3-year-old daughter near Strandquist, Minn. She works as a nurse's aide at the hospital where Julie had worked as a dietary aide that last summer of her life.

"I once rode my bike all the way to Lancaster," Courtney said. It was a teenage endurance test, a 13-mile jaunt north along County Road 1 to what locals call Grasshopper Corner and east on County Road 4.

"There's no way I'd do that by myself now," she said, shaking her head. "I don't even like to walk alone in town now.

"You want to think you have a perfect Brady Bunch town, where you know everybody. But for the longest time after Julie was taken, nobody did anything. Nobody went anywhere. This town was on lockdown.

"Yes, I resented it. You're bitter that something has been taken away from you -- your freedom, basically."

Ominous finds

Julie had finished helping with supper at the Kittson Memorial Hospital and Nursing home at 8 p.m. She drove home and visited briefly with her mother, who was painting the front porch, then took off on her in-line skates. She had her Walkman and country tunes for company.

She said she'd be back to help with the dishes.

For three weeks, investigators followed tips that took them to California, Louisiana and other distant places. Yellow ribbons went up, and people from throughout the area came to search. Courtney scoured ditches and fields, riding on a fire truck with other volunteers.

One of those searchers, she remembers, was Cedergren, who would intrude on her life again before he killed himself.

The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension sent a swarm of agents to northwestern Minnesota. Other counties, federal agencies and even Canadian authorities offered help, tracking people whose license plates were recorded as they crossed the border.

Two weeks after Julie disappeared, searchers made ominous discoveries: They found her earphones by the side of the road. Nearby, they found two shell casings.

On Aug. 20, a hunter found Julie's badly decomposed body in a gravel pit near Lancaster. Courtney's father, Deputy Sheriff Kenny Hultgren, waded into the water-filled pit to identify his daughter's friend, a girl who had spent many days in his house.

"The only way I could identify her was that she still had her Rollerblades on," said Hultgren, now the Kittson County sheriff. "That burns into your mind. It will always be there.

"Everybody had a tough time understanding how such a heinous crime could occur here. 'This doesn't happen in Kittson County,' we said. But the community now knows we are not exempt from what we used to call big-city crime. And because of it, people today are a little more cautious -- when it comes to their kids, especially.

"I haven't seen anyone out Rollerblading on that road since," Hultgren said. "You see kids in-line skating in town, but not so much in the country anymore."

What happened

In January 2003, in a news conference broadcast live on regional television, authorities told what they believed happened the evening of July 29, 1998:

Training for the coming volleyball season, Julie skated north between 8:30 and 8:50 p.m. Cedergren, in his car and traveling the same road, was talking on a cell phone with his girlfriend in Cavalier, N.D. She was telling him the relationship was over.

As the call ended, Cedergren came upon Julie, who had skated to a bridge about five miles north of Hallock. He may have threatened her with a handgun, forcing her into his car. Her body was so badly decomposed that investigators said they couldn't determine how she died or whether Cedergren had shot her.

Julie's clothes had been "rearranged" in a way that made it obvious she had been sexually assaulted, authorities said, but it was impossible to obtain samples for DNA testing. Also, cattle had trampled the area, further complicating the search for evidence.

A potential break came when a girl told authorities that she had been in-line skating on County Road 1 days before Julie was abducted, and a man had followed her in his car. She described the man, which led investigators to potential suspects including Cedergren. When they interviewed him in September 1998, he said he had been visiting his girlfriend in Cavalier that night.

He was one of many leads that investigators were pursuing. But two years later, his name rose to the top of the suspect list when three girls complained to the sheriff's office that Cedergren had been following them.

One of the girls was Courtney Hultgren, now Courtney Renstrom.

"We were swimming, and he was there on the beach, just standing there and watching me," she said. Another time, he followed her home and parked outside her house. Her mother went out to chase him off.

"And he was riding in the fire truck right beside us," she said, "looking for her -- when he knew where she was and that she wasn't alive."

For her father, the deputy, it was a chilling revelation: The man he and other investigators were increasingly focusing on as Julie Holmquist's killer apparently was stalking his daughter and her friends.

"It scared the daylights out of me," he said.

Cedergren was warned to leave the girls alone. And when investigators took a new look at what they had on him, they realized they'd slipped in the initial review: Nobody had asked about the vehicle he drove in 1998.

Several witnesses had reported seeing a gray car in the area the night that Julie disappeared. Investigators interviewed Cedergren again and asked him about the car he drove in 1998. It was a gray car, he said.

Authorities located the vehicle in another county but found nothing linking it to the abduction and murder. But other clues were falling into place.

Cedergren's ex-wife told investigators that he had owned a handgun; tests would link it to one of the shells found at the abduction site.

The girlfriend who had broken off a relationship with him that night -- over the phone -- said that he had mentioned being on Kittson County Road 1. Phone records showed that the call lasted from 8:31 to 8:50 p.m.

Investigators asked Cedergren to take a lie detector test. He agreed but repeatedly avoided sitting for one.

Sometime after Julie's body was found, Cedergren and an acquaintance had driven past a billboard that featured her face and a vow to find her killer. "Do you think they will ever get the guy that did it?" the acquaintance asked, according to a statement he later gave to police.

"Naw, they will never get him," Cedergren responded. "He'll kill himself first."

On Aug. 9, 2002, Chief Deputy Craig Spilde went to Cedergren's house and knocked on the door. A boy answered, and Spilde asked for Cedergren.

"I'll see," the boy said.

Moments later, Spilde heard a gunshot from behind the house. Cedergren, dressed only in boxer shorts, had run out the back and shot himself in the head.

'Good evidence'

Investigators were unable to recover any DNA evidence linking the divorced father of four to the crime. He didn't leave a suicide note confessing to the crime.

But Hultgren said he has no doubts about Cedergren's guilt.

"You'd always like a smoking gun," the sheriff said. "But he was in the area when she went missing, and evidence we found at his house fits into evidence at the scene. Granted, it's all circumstantial evidence, but it's good evidence.

"I think his confession was when he took his own life."

Becky Johnson, a waitress at the Caribou Grill in Hallock, was 8 years old in 1998. She took skating lessons with Holmquist, who was a mentor to her.

"I can't go rollerblading or biking without having someone with me," Johnson said, beginning to recite a common litany that shows how the rhythms of life have been forever altered by Julie's death.

"We have self-defense classes in school," she said. "Everyone is more cautious now.

"I don't second-guess it. That would be like not respecting what happened. I mean, if her mom saw me out rollerblading by myself, it would be like I wasn't respecting Julie."

Many of Holmquist's classmates have left the area, but they remember her -- and miss her.

"We remember her every spring at our awards day," said Deb Gatheridge, who started work as Kittson Central's counselor the fall after Julie died. She knew Julie from when she taught in the district's middle school in Kennedy, nine miles south.

There is a scholarship in Julie's name, "and I try to personalize those scholarships by talking about the people in whose name they're given," she said. "I usually don't get through it without choking up.

"It was such a terrible loss, the loss of a child in such a horrible way. Unfortunately, our young people do not stay here, and that's part of the sadness of losing Julie. We feel a sadness when one of our young people moves away."

Bernice Anderson, of Robbin, Minn., agreed that Julie's death continues to define the lives of many people, including her daughter, Stacey, another member of the Class of 2000.

"It's not a pervasive sadness, but a lingering sadness," Bernice Anderson said. "The girls would like to stay in touch and be able to get together to catch up. That's not going to happen with Julie.

"I was worried about Stacey being out and about after it happened, and I think she was more cautious. I remember that she started wearing her seat belt. She realized that bad things can happen to good people, that you are vulnerable."

Stacey Anderson lives now in Minneapolis, where she applies the lessons in personal safety she learned when her friend was killed.

"I'll always be a little more careful about running alone or going somewhere without letting someone know," she said. "There's still anger and sadness. But the main thing is just missing Julie. It's not fair that she's not here."

Classmate Natalie Costin, now Natalie Halley, lives in Fargo. She was married last month.

"I find myself wondering what Julie would be doing now," she said. "She would have a family, I think.

"Losing a friend is always hard, but this was such a scary way, and there was definitely a loss of innocence. It changed how we felt about that forever."

'Done in love'

When she finishes work in Hallock, Courtney Renstrom sometimes drives into Greenwood Cemetery to spend a few minutes at Holmquist's grave, which carries an inscription from 1st Corinthians: "Let all that you do be done in love."

For her, "life dramatically changed" 10 years ago, she said. "You always look over your shoulder. You never feel safe."

The wound was reopened when UND student Dru Sjodin was abducted in Grand Forks in 2003, her body later found in a ravine near Crookston.

"We were seeing it again on TV -- people out searching for someone who couldn't be found," Renstrom said. "It brought it all back -- looking in ditches, looking in culverts, screaming her name.

"I work with Julie's mom at the hospital. Here I am -- same age, same class. I'm here, and Julie's not. I feel bad for her mom, who sees all us girls getting married, having babies."

Julie would have gone to college, maybe played collegiate sports.

"She would have been married, and happy," Renstrom said. "She always had good boyfriends in high school."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com.