Nineteen-year-old Susan Swedell loved singing in the choir and playing hand bells at Christ Lutheran Church in Lake Elmo. She liked acting, listening to Simon & Garfunkel and chatting with boys. Her favorite movies were “The Sound of Music” and “Chariots of Fire.” She thought Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” was the greatest song in the world. She spoke Spanish, studied psychology and worked two jobs.
And then she was gone.
During a blizzard on Jan. 19, 1988, Swedell finished her shift at Kmart in Oak Park Heights at 9 p.m. and headed home to Lake Elmo to watch a movie and eat popcorn with her mother and her sister.
A half-hour later, a gas-station attendant gave her permission to leave her overheated car at the K Station, a mile from home. The clerk said she saw Swedell get into another car with a man. She hasn’t been seen since.
For months, Swedell’s family put up posters and distributed fliers. Law enforcement officers canvassed the area. A $25,000 reward was offered for information leading to her whereabouts. How could a 19-year-old girl disappear off the face of the Earth?
Thirty years later, the question remains.
“We don’t know what happened that night,” Sue’s mother, Kathy Swedell told the Pioneer Press . “She was telling us that she was going to come home because it was an all-out Minnesota blizzard. When I looked out our window, I could barely see across the street, and here she was driving home. We didn’t know if she had stopped someplace or tried to walk. It was terrible. No sign of Susan. No call. Nothing. Officers did go out and look for her, but by the time they found her car, there was no sign of Susan. … It is a nightmare not knowing who he was or what his intentions were.”
The case has gotten more attention since the sentencing of Danny Heinrich last year in connection with the Jacob Wetterling case, Minnesota’s most high-profile missing-child case.
The Washington County sheriff’s office has formed a cold-case unit to investigate the Swedell case, and a new podcast — called “Still Missing” — has been focusing on her disappearance.
“Someone does know something, and we’re searching for that person and those answers,” said Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry. “Certainly a 19-year-old female just does not disappear for 30 years without someone knowing something.”
The sheriff’s office has partnered with the Washington County attorney’s office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to form the cold-case unit.
Led by Washington County Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Andy Ellickson, the unit is “relooking at everything from day one,” Starry said. That includes reviewing all evidence and re-interviewing Susan Swedell’s acquaintances.
Investigators have traveled to Arizona, California and Michigan in the past few months to conduct interviews. “People have moved, and we want to make sure we look at everything,” Starry said. “We’re relooking at acquaintances — anyone with a connection to this case — making sure we understand their story and seeing if they have anything new.”
The $25,000 reward still stands, and a two-week billboard campaign is planned. Clear Channel Outdoor has offered free space on digital billboards statewide, Washington County Chief Deputy Brian Mueller said.
The hope is that anyone with any information, no matter how small it might seem, would come forward, Mueller said.
A photo of Swedell is posted on the bulletin board in the back of the sheriff’s investigations division, Ellickson said.
“You walk by it every time you go and get a pop or something like that,” he said. “We all have touched (the case) in some way. It’s haunting. … Everyone who looks at it thinks they can be the one to find that one thing that is missing; that’s why we wanted as many people as we could to look at it and get the story out.”
When Susan Swedell had not arrived home by 11 p.m. on that Tuesday night, her mother and sister called the sheriff’s office to request that deputies search for her car — a 1975 maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass — in ditches between Kmart and the house they rented in downtown Lake Elmo.
Deputies found the car at the K Station.
Thinking she might have tried to walk home — during a blizzard that dumped more than 7 inches of snow on the area — they searched for Susan between the gas station and the Swedells’ house on Lake Elmo Avenue.
“As the hours passed by, all I could think was that she was frozen in a ditch somewhere,” said Christine Swedell, who was 16 at the time. “So when whoever came to the house said they found the car but didn’t find her, that just completely threw me into a whirl. I just wanted to get out there and search for her.”
Christine Swedell said her sister would not have wanted to be out in bad weather.
“She was so scared of storms,” she said. “She was petrified of them. When she talked to Mom, she wanted to know the safest route home. . If she had a plan (to meet someone), that would have been not the night to go. She would have wanted to get home. That’s what really throws me.”
Investigators didn’t learn until the next day that she had left the gas station with a man.
The gas-station attendant said Susan Swedell pulled up to the station around 9:30 p.m., followed by a “light-colored older model car with sport wheels that was in good shape, but dirty,” said Troy Ackerknecht, a detective with the sheriff’s office.
The man was described as slim, 6 feet to 6 feet 2 inches tall, with long sandy-brown hair and a three- to four-day beard growth. He was wearing a leather jacket.
Susan Swedell and the man talked for a few minutes, and then Swedell came into the station and said she was having car problems, Ellickson said. “She asked if she could leave her car at the station. The attendant said, ‘Well, they’re going to plow here. You’ll need to move it.’ She moved it, and they left westbound on Highway 5.”
Susan Swedell was wearing a short skirt and sweater and no coat or boots, according to police reports. Her manager at Kmart told police that at the end of her shift Swedell changed out of the red pants outfit she had worn to work. “He made a comment that she wasn’t dressed appropriately for the blizzard,” Ackerknecht said.
When police searched her car the next day, they found her glasses, driver’s license and purse.
Those are items her daughter would have needed, Kathy Swedell said. “I mean, really, that doesn’t make sense. She was very near-sighted. Maybe she thought she was going to meet someone for a short time, and he would bring her back.”
After the car was found, Kathy Swedell had it brought to the house.
It sat on the street until five days later, when she drove it to Cub Foods in Stillwater to buy groceries. As she was driving, the car started smoking and steaming, so she arranged to have it towed to Lake Elmo Repair.
A mechanic discovered that the car’s petcock — a small valve at the bottom of the radiator — had been loosened, and the water had leaked out.
Did someone deliberately tamper with her car and then follow her, waiting for the car to break down?
“It’s a missing-person case. That’s all we have,” Ellickson said. “We don’t have any sort of forced abduction or kidnapping or false imprisonment or more than that. It appears from the gas-station attendant statement that she got into the car voluntarily. We just don’t have anything else to say, other than it’s a missing-person case.”
In the weeks before she disappeared, Susan Swedell had been using telephone chat lines to talk to boys, racking up a bill of more than $300, Kathy Swedell said.
Co-workers at Kmart reported that Swedell, a graduate of Stillwater Area High School, had been receiving numerous calls at work from a man. She also continued to talk to an ex-boyfriend and had reportedly made plans to see him the night she disappeared, but he called to cancel because of the weather.
“We looked at everybody and talked to everybody,” Ellickson said. “There is so little to go on. This was before cellphones, and there are no surveillance cameras. This could not happen in this day and age.”
A week after Susan disappeared, Kathy Swedell returned to her job as principal secretary for the University of Minnesota math department, and Christine Swedell went back to school.
When Christine Swedell got home from school that afternoon, she couldn’t find the key to get in the house.
“We normally kept it on a shelf, right next to the door, underneath something — that’s just the way it was in Lake Elmo,” Christine Swedell said. “I was looking all over for it. I couldn’t get into the house. It was locked. That was the key. I didn’t have an extra.”
She eventually located it under a box in a back corner of the shelf. When she entered the house, she said, she “felt like someone had been there.”
There were dirty dishes in the sink that hadn’t been there in the morning, and there was a “peculiar” smell of smoke, she said.
“It smelled of something sweet,” she said. “I’ve never done drugs or had a drink, but . it was very strong. People say it might have been marijuana, but I didn’t know. I didn’t touch anything. I didn’t go upstairs. I just called Mom. Of course, it felt like forever until she got home. I was freaking out.”
Later that night, Christine Swedell found the red outfit that Susan had worn to work on the day she disappeared; it had been balled up and jammed under Susan’s bed.
None of her daughter’s personal items, including clothing, makeup or grooming products, were taken, but “somebody had been there,” Kathy Swedell said.
She wishes investigators had done more at the time, she said, but a missing 19-year-old “was considered a runaway and not taken very seriously.”
“We were really surprised no one came to check out dishes or get fingerprints,” she said. “They came out after we had already washed the dishes. They said she could have just gone off with a boyfriend for a couple of days and that sooner or later we’d hear from her, and she’d come home. We got very little coverage. I made posters; I put the posters up. I don’t even know if she was on TV.
“It was just the era we were in,” she said. “I felt like we fell through the cracks. I felt that more should have been able to be done. We did as much as we could.”
Christine Swedell said her sister, who was 5 foot 4 and weighed 100 pounds, was bubbly and outgoing and extremely naïve.
“She was very much a country girl,” she said. “She would have been completely over her head, which makes her extremely vulnerable.”
Added Kathy Swedell: “She was a very pretty girl. She liked boys. She had a lot of friends. She liked talking to guys and going out and dancing and stuff. She was a typical 19-year-old. But in a way, I don’t know if she had any street smarts to say, ‘Hey, I can’t get in this car.’ That just blows my mind that she got into a car and that nobody knows who that guy was.”
Susan Swedell graduated from Stillwater Area High School, went to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for two semesters, and then moved back home. She was working two part-time jobs at the St. Croix Mall — at Kmart and at a shop called Body and Soul.
The sisters were close, supporting each other after their parents divorced when they were 6 and 3, she said.
“‘She’ll just come back home,’ that’s what we were told,” Christine Swedell said. “‘She’ll just come back home.’ Well, she hasn’t. It’s not her character. She’s extremely sentimental. Anytime she thought of us, she was always in tears. She was always happy when we were together. It doesn’t equate.”
In May 1989, investigators asked for Susan Swedell’s dental records after the BCA sent out a teletype regarding an unidentified body; the results were negative.
Investigators received three tips in 1990: Susan Swedell was allegedly spotted at the Waterworks Bar in Centerville, at a Burger King in Northeast Minneapolis and at a Hardee’s in Ashland, Tenn.
“Three tips. That’s it,” Ellickson said. “She found (Susan’s) name on the Internet and found a picture and thought that it was what she looked like when she was younger. … She had no connection with Susan. She just used Google to try to find someone she could use.”
Earlier this year, Washington County investigators took to the BCA the red pants that Swedell was wearing before she disappeared, to have them tested. Although the pants had been washed several times and Christine Swedell had worn them in the years since her sister’s disappearance, authorities wanted to make sure they checked that box, Ellickson said.
In 2002, Detective Sgt. Jesse Kurtz arranged for the Swedells to have their blood drawn at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Then they drove to the BCA headquarters in St. Paul and submitted their DNA samples — the first “Missing Person Relative” samples in state history.
“It’s been 30 years, but I still think about this case all the time,” said Kurtz, who is retired and lives in Florida. “I hope for closure — for her family and for her. Imagine what they must be going through after all these years. Every holiday. Every birthday.”
Kurtz said he thinks the case could be solved — if enough attention is paid to it.
“Someone knows something,” he said. “Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. I really believe that. We solve murders that happened 30 years ago because somebody has information that they didn’t want to divulge at the time, but now the person is gone, or the remorse has kicked in, or they have things that they really want to tell us, but they’re waiting for us to knock on their door.”
Podcaster Kara Thannert began researching the Swedell case in July. The first three episodes of her “Still Missing” podcast, which is devoted to Swedell, were released on Nov. 26; subsequent episodes are being released every other Tuesday.
The podcast has received about 2,000 downloads or streams per episode. In addition, it’s been listed three times in the Top 200 podcasts in iTunes’ “News and Politics” category, Thannert said.
Thannert, an office manager, has no law enforcement training, but has researched “hundreds, maybe thousands” of missing-persons cases online as a hobby for more than a decade, she said.
“It’s a topic that I find equally fascinating and tragic at the same time,” Thannert said. “I’ve always had an interest in what happened and how it could be possible that somebody would just disappear off the face of the Earth.”
Unlike other missing-person cases, there is little information available about Swedell, she said.
“Normally on Reddit, with a missing-persons case, if it’s a popular one with the media, there will be thousands and thousands of people commenting,” Thannert said. “Susan has received very little publicity over the past 30 years, and her Reddit threads reflect that. There is barely anything available on the Internet.
“I’m not sure why her case has been ignored for 30 years, but it’s just incredibly tragic and unfortunate for her and her family,” Thannert said.
Thannert, 30, records her podcast in the attic of her Minneapolis home. She has interviewed many of the people connected with the case, including the gas-station attendant and former co-workers at Kmart.
“My theory changes with every person I speak to,” Thannert said. “I do not have a theory that I am tied to at this point. It just seems there is so much that could have happened. My purpose really is to explore that.”
Kathy Swedell and Christine Swedell live together in Brooklyn Park, where Christine works as a classroom aide at an elementary school.
Christine Swedell said her life stopped when her sister disappeared. She never learned to drive, never had a romantic relationship, never got married, never had children.
“She was so much a part of me that, trying to live without her, I have felt only half the person I used to be — if that,” Christine Swedell said. “Like a bird with only one wing.”
She remembers being petrified the first time she left the house after her sister’s disappearance. “I was extremely leery around people,” she said. “I was scared that the man that took Sue would jump out of nowhere and take me.”
She said her grades suffered to the point that she almost didn’t graduate. She stopped going to dances, football games and other high school activities.
“How in the world could I have fun?” she said. “That did not equate. I got mad at people that would even mention it.”
She suffered from anorexia and depression when she turned 19, the age at which her sister went missing.
“I weighed 84 pounds,” she said. “I was just fine with that because maybe people could now visibly see the pain. I almost died, and I didn’t care.”
Now, three decades later, she just wants her sister to come home.
“Anybody looking in from the outside is probably thinking, ‘Come on. It’s been 30 years. Be realistic,'” she said. “But when you’re inside of it, you’re not thinking that way. There is this bubble of hope.”
The resolution of the Jacob Wetterling case and the details that were released during Heinrich’s court appearances hit the mother and daughter hard, Kathy Swedell said.
“I dread that we may hear the same, but not knowing is awful,” she said. We really want closure. Thirty years, yes, it’s a long time, but there has never been a day that I haven’t thought about my daughter, so you want to know what happened to her. There has to be somebody out there who knows something.”