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Law enforcement searches again

Sgt. Walt Keller is on special assignment this week for the Polk County Sheriff's Office in Crookston. He's planning a big search for Dru Sjodin on April 17.

Sgt. Walt Keller is on special assignment this week for the Polk County Sheriff's Office in Crookston. He's planning a big search for Dru Sjodin on April 17.

The search will focus on the Red Lake River west of Crookston, mainly because of the shoe found Nov. 25 under the U.S. Highway 75 bridge over the river that was determined by investigators to have been one Sjodin was wearing the day she disappeared.

A 22-year-old UND student, Sjodin disappeared Nov. 22 from a Grand Forks mall while talking to her boyfriend on a cell phone. A Crookston man, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., 51, a convicted sex offender, is in jail awaiting trial in state district court in Grand Forks on a charge of kidnapping her.

Most of the law enforcement search effort ended in early December, although family and friends of Sjodin continued to hunt until early March. Beginning last weekend, law enforcement again began searching, Keller said.

"The conditions for searching are good, and it appears they are going to be optimum searching conditions for April 17," Keller said. "According to the hydrological reports we have received, the river will probably be at a very low point, which will give us optimal visibility. It will be difficult to navigate the river but will give us optimal conditions to see."


So, this week he's been excused from regular duties and has his hands full coordinating several law enforcement agencies and lots of people expected for the search, "to get the logistics put together," Keller said.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Border Patrol, as well as volunteer mounted posses from Polk and Marshall counties will be aiding the sheriff's department, Keller said, as well as search dog units from the Minnesota Search and Rescue Association.

Keller expects up to 30 law enforcement officers to be involved.

Some volunteers may be needed, but it's too early to sign up yet.

Meanwhile, the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department is planning a search for Monday, with help from the border patrol's search dog units, said Maj. Mike Fonder. He's not looking for volunteers for that search, Fonder said.


The searches all remain linked to the investigation, run by the Grand Forks Police Department, and could lead to more charges.

Local prosecutors believe they have enough evidence against Rodriguez to prove at trial that he kidnapped Sjodin.


Rodriguez has denied any involvement in Sjodin's disappearance, his attorney, David Dusek, said in early December. At his March 5 preliminary hearing and arraignment in Grand Forks, Rodriguez pleaded innocent to the kidnapping charge.

Sjodin has never been declared dead. Her family and friends have stalwartly continued to say they are hoping against hope, while acknowledging that realistically, grimmer evidence is more likely to be what is found.

Homicide case? If the stepped-up searches this month find evidence of Sjodin's death, of course, the kidnapping charge could become a homicide case, said Grand Forks Police Lt. Dennis Eggebraaten.

"There's still a missing person who we don't know where she's at," Eggebraaten said. "We are still trying to uncover things. Maybe there is another crime here."

Moreover, his investigators also are interested in finding anything more on the kidnapping case, too, Eggebraaten said. "Even if it turns out we have other charges, such as homicide, we still have our kidnapping charge that will be taken care of, as far as I know."

Federal charges? It could also affect whether federal prosecutors bring a case.

Drew Wrigley, U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, has met twice with Dusek, local prosecutors and Rodriguez himself.

Wrigley won't say much about whether he's planning to bring a case against Rodriguez but has said he's remained in close touch with Grand Forks County State's Attorney Peter Welte since the week Sjodin disappeared.


Since early January, both Dusek and Welte have been prohibited by Grand Forks District Judge Lawrence Jahnke from speaking publicly about the case.

This week, Jahnke granted Dusek's request for more time, until the end of April, to answer a motion filed last month by Forum Communications to lift the gag order.

No trial date on the kidnapping charge against Rodriguez has been set, but Jahnke ordered attorneys from both sides to have pre-trial motions in by June 18.

Dusek said in December he would seek a change of venue in the case, saying that the widespread publicity the case attracted would make it difficult for Rodriguez to get a fair trial in Grand Forks.

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