As the search for Dru Sjodin intensified in early December 2003 and satellite TV news trucks jostled for space outside the Grand Forks police building, a grieving father unrelated to the missing woman raised a plaintive appeal.
Bill Turcotte wasn’t disparaging the Sjodin family’s relentless effort to keep Dru’s face and story front and center, the subject of daily news reports on national media. He said he admired how police had dedicated resources and personnel to search for the missing UND student, taken two weeks earlier from a mall parking lot. He applauded the overwhelming community response that was sending hundreds of volunteers out in organized searches.
But “Why her?” he asked. “Why not my son?”
The disappearance of Gabby Petito earlier this month, the discovery of her remains and the search for the man she had been traveling with – and the daily national media coverage of the case – have raised Bill Turcotte’s question anew.
The disappearances of many, many women of color have rarely received such national attention, a disparity in news coverage that has been well documented.
Dru Sjodin, 22, was reported missing just before Thanksgiving in November 2003. People and Newsweek magazines soon had reporters in Grand Forks. ABC’s “Good Morning America” sent a second news crew here after the arrest of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who eventually was convicted in federal court of abducting and killing her.
As I wrote at the time, Mike Hedlund, then a Grand Forks Police sergeant, now chief in East Grand Forks, “became a network news show regular, appearing with Sjodin family members to assure the nation that the search would be relentless.”
Part of the answer may have been the dramatic circumstances of her abduction, taken from a public place in daylight while on the phone with her boyfriend, making Thanksgiving plans.
Her mother and father, heartbroken but holding onto faith that she was alive, did all they could to sustain public interest.
And part of the answer to “Why her?’ may have been her youthful promise and homecoming queen smile. A website, finddru.com, featured a dozen pictures of her, and within days it had registered more than 5 million hits.
“She is good-looking, a nice smile, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that’s part of the general interest,” Ted Elbert, a field producer for NBC News, told me.
Russell Turcotte was 19 when he disappeared on July 13, 2002, after talking with his mother by phone from a Grand Forks truck stop.
“There were no mass searches,” I wrote in 2003, “no daily police news briefings, no statements of outrage by governors, no appearances on ‘Today’ or ‘Good Morning America.’”
Russell’s remains were found in October 2002 just off U.S. Hwy. 2 near Devils Lake, N.D. He was murdered, his father said.
“My son was also young,” Bill Turcotte said. “He also was damn attractive.”
And he was American Indian. Was that part of the answer why his case didn’t make national news? The police who investigated said no, but the father wondered.
Stephen Lee, then a reporter for the Herald, worked the Sjodin story. He also had covered Russell Turcotte’s disappearance the year before.
“Russell was sort of a vagabond, on the road,” Lee said. “How do you know that he didn’t just go down the road? And he had no local ties.
“I sympathize with his family. It’s hard not to agree with his family that being American Indian didn’t help, that there wasn’t that personal connection with the public,” which made it easy for his story to fade quickly.
Again, Bill Turcotte said he didn’t resent the Sjodin family’s ability to build and sustain concern for their daughter. “At first, it was ‘Why her?’ But almost instantaneously, it was, ‘This is exactly what should happen for all missing people.’
“I’m grateful this family is getting all this attention. But it’s a real tough pill to swallow that this didn’t happen for my son.”
At one of the daily news briefings held at the police station, Chief John Packett praised the multi-agency task force that had been assembled to find Dru and whoever took her. It was “a model effort,” he said. With more resignation than bitterness, Bill Turcotte said, “Maybe they learned from us.”
But have we learned?
True, the continuing crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women has received more attention lately, including a recent Dateline NBC special report on the case of Carla Yellowbird, who was murdered on the Spirit Lake Reservation near Devils Lake.
But that attention is nowhere near the interest and concern the nation showed for Dru Sjodin – or is showing now for young, pretty and white Gabby Petito.
Those two young women deserved all the attention, concern and effort expended on their behalf. I still keep a photo of Dru, printed on a large button with the plea “Come home, Dru Sjodin,” in my kitchen. My admiration of her mother and father has not waned.
But the disparity in how we respond to the missing remains a problem.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.