This is the first in a series of articles accompanying Season 3 of Frozen Truth, which is a podcast investigating the 1995 disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit from Mason City, Iowa.
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Jodi Huisentruit was 27 years old when she woke up before dawn on June 27th, 1995.
Almost every morning was an early one for Jodi. Her job was to be on television before most people had even woken up for the day. Jodi hosted the morning news program on Channel 3, KIMT-TV in Mason City, Iowa.
She’d worked hard to achieve a job she loved. She also had many more aspirations for her career in the industry. By all accounts, she was looking forward to the challenges that lay in front of her in the rest of her life.
While Jodi was used to waking in the early morning hours to report to work, on this morning – a Tuesday – it was Jodi’s ringing phone on her nightstand that got her out of bed.
On the phone was her producer at the TV station. She was checking on Jodi.
At that point, Jodi was about an hour late for work.
“Her co-worker, Amy Kuns, called her shortly after 4 AM to wake her up and check if she was coming in.” Christine Penhale is the author of TheTrueCrimeFiles.com, which focuses on unsolved murders and missing persons cases. “Amy reports that her call woke up Jodi and that Jodi realized that she was late and said she’d be at work soon. It seems as though she quickly grabbed her things and ran out to her car, and at that point she vanished.”
Jodi typically reported to her job at KIMT closer to 3 AM than 4 AM, and rarely arrived after 4 AM. When Amy called Jodi at 4:10 AM, Jodi had to be on the air to anchor the morning news in less than 90 minutes.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes”, Jodi said into the phone, and then hung up.
She never arrived, and that was the last time anyone ever spoke to Jodi Huisentruit.
Not long after Jodi failed to arrive at work, police were called. Two officers of the Mason City Police Department responded to a welfare check at Jodi’s apartment.
Once they determined the area was a possible crime scene, the investigation began.
Police had almost nothing to go on, no solid clues to speak of.
“I think it was clear pretty quickly to the authorities that Jodi had been abducted,” Penhale told me this month from her home in Canada. “Strewn around her car they found her high-heeled shoes, her hair drier, various items from inside her purse, and what I find pretty disturbing was they found her car keys (and) the door key was bent as if she had been attacked while trying to enter her vehicle. They also found drag marks on the ground which indicated maybe Jodi had been forcibly dragged away from the scene, and, I’m assuming, placed in another vehicle.”
Jodi’s car, a red Mazda Miata, which had been parked very close to her apartment door, was impounded by police.
James Wilcox is a TV anchor and reporter who shared a mutual professor with Jodi Huisentruit at St. Cloud State University. When James attended the same journalism school as Jodi had years earlier, he spoke to his professor about Jodi.
“She told me that Jodi was one of those people that just stood out,” says Wilcox, adding that his professor knew right away that Jodi was going to be successful in television. “She just kind of had that personality.”
Today James works for ABC affiliate KETV in Omaha, Nebraska, but he’s a Minnesota native who, at one point, even worked in the same media market as Jodi had (for a different station). He says the case has followed him since he was 12 years old.
“I still remember the day I was watching the news and learned that she had disappeared,” he says. “Now, all these years later, we still don’t know what happened to her.”
Former classmates and professors at St. Cloud State spent that morning in June, 1995 that Jodi vanished calling each other, in disbelief and reassurance.
Jodi’s mother back in Long Prairie learned that something was wrong that morning when she got a phone call. She spent the rest of that day waiting by the phone for news.
As morning became afternoon, and the news of the missing TV anchor spread like wildfire throughout Mason City – it spread just as quickly in Jodi’s native Minnesota – many were initially hopeful. They’d find the missing TV anchor, maybe by the end of the day.
Her family was sure she’d turn up.
However, those who worked with Jodi in Mason City were far less sure.
KIMT’s General Manager Doug Shine was extremely worried about Jodi from the beginning. He knew she’d never missed a day of work there.
Also very concerned was News Director Doug Merbach, the man who hired Jodi.
The two instructed their staff not to discuss the case until further notice. Everyone went back to work and hoped for the best.
James Wilcox has talked with Doug Merbach several times about Jodi’s disappearance.
“They had a memorial walk for Jodi on one of the anniversaries, I think it was 20 years. I went down there, not as a journalist, I went down there because it meant something to me and I wanted to be a part of it,” James says. “Doug was there as well – who was my co-worker at the time, and Jodi’s former News Director – and I actually walked the path from Jodi’s apartment to the TV station with her former boss. That was one of those things that was really just surreal to me. I remember seeing him being interviewed, and I just thought, ‘wow’. When I was 12 years old, I never would have thought that I was walking this path with Jodi’s boss. And we still don’t know what happened to her.”
The parking lot in Mason City where Jodi disappeared is practically the same as it was that early morning 23 years ago.
The complex was – and is still – three residential buildings. Two are longer and narrow on the north end. Jodi lived in a smaller, third building containing just a few units on the south end of the property.
The main parking area is in the center of the three buildings.
Immediately behind that south building where Jodi lived is the Winnebego River.
A summer campground area neighbors the apartment complex along the banks of the river.
Both locations would play a part into the investigation of what happened to Jodi.
Jodi Huisentruit, State Champ
Jodi Huisentrui’s father, Maurice Huisentruit, was born in 1920. Jodi’s dad was 19 years old on the day World War II began in 1939.
Maurice served his country honorably. He was wounded, but he made it home.
After the war, Maurice took a job with Kraft foods.
When he was 30, Maurice married Jodi’s mother, Imogene Anderson, in Hudson, Wisconsin.
The couple had several children. Maurice was 48 years old when his daughter Jodi Sue Huisentruit was born.
Maurice passed away in 1982. He’s buried in Ft. Snelling National Cemetery, one of the most hallowed pieces of military ground in Minnesota, with a history dating back to well before the Civil War.
Maurice was 62, and Jodi was 14.
Jodi had always been very athletic. She played basketball throughout high school. More often than not, she was her team’s leading scorer.
But where Jodi really excelled was golf.
Jodi was an accomplished high school golfer. She played in the state tournament five straight seasons. As a senior in 1986, she posted the third lowest score at the West Coast Conference tournament in Benson, which her Long Prairie team won. That sent them off to the state tournament, which her team also won.
Partly because of Jodi, the Long Prairie girls golf team was a bit of a dynasty in central Minnesota girls sports. Every season when Jodi played, Long Prairie was among the favorites to take home a state championship.
When Jodi graduated high school, she chose to attend nearby Saint Cloud State.
In 1987, she and a few of her fellow classmates at St. Cloud State traveled to England and participated in a study abroad program there.
After graduating college, Jodi accepted her first TV job Cedar Rapids, Iowa before moving closer to home to work in in Alexandria, Minnesota for about a year.
Then she took the job at KIMT in Mason City.
Her friends described Jodi as upbeat and outgoing.
She was supposed to be a bridesmaid for one of her friends that next weekend back home in Long Prairie. When they heard about the news coming out of Mason City, some in the wedding party traveled to Iowa to take Jodi home.
They arrived in optimism, but deep down they knew there wasn’t much reason for hope.
Nothing To Go On
The official search for Jodi Huisentruit began at her apartment complex at 7 AM, about two-and-a-half hours after she’d been abducted.
Slowly from its epicenter of her car in the parking lot, the search radiated outward to the river behind Jodi’s apartment complex, which was running higher than usual. It had rained in Mason City almost every day that month.
The initial search party consisted of about 20 officers from the Mason City Police Department, as well as from the state investigative agency and the FBI, along with dogs and boats. Soon, the search party consisted of dozens of additional local volunteers as well.
At a news conference the afternoon she disappeared, Mason City Police Chief Jack Schlieper told the assembled media that police had no solid information, no concrete leads as to what may have happened to her.
“I want to stress that what we’re doing at this point in time is we’re working from the apartment, and then we’re working our way out. We’re at about a quarter-of-a-mile right now. We’ll be extending that search probably to about a half-a-mile or so, and I don’t think I want to comment any further about that. We’re doing a neighborhood canvas. Those houses that would front streets that would have access to the apartment complex. We’ll be getting a hold of those residents and asking if they saw or heard anything. The area from about one quarter of a mile from the apartment complex was searched along the river bank and out extending from the river bank. There were a number of hits along the river bank, however we have not confirmed whether those would be something that we would follow up on or not. We are back at the river bank with the canines, and we are going to check to see if there is additional hits along the river. If so, we will then load the canines into a boat and see if we can do a grid search along the river itself.Jack Schlieper, Mason City Police Chief – June 27, 1995
Police initially declined to disclose what items they’d found at the scene, but KIMT was told by a neighbor in the apartment complex that scattered around Jodi’s vehicle were: a pair of red women’s shoes, a blowdryer, a bottle of hairspray, Jodi’s car keys, and a pair of earrings.
The search of the Winnebago River eventually expanded to a two-mile stretch.
Maybe something had happened to Jodi in the immediate area, and her body had been disposed of somewhere along the river… or in it…
Searchers found some clothing along one part of the river, however police didn’t believe it belonged to Jodi, or that it was related to what happened to her.
Based on the evidence at the scene, police theorized that Jodi was abducted. They also admitted that they didn’t have much else to go on.
The chief investigator at the time, Mike Halverson, said simply, “we don’t like what we found at the scene.”
Jodi’s car was found just a short distance from the door of her apartment, approximately 10 steps.
There was very short window of opportunity for something bad to happen to Jodi on her way to her car that morning.
Jodi was a slight woman. 5-foot-3, 120 pounds.
Police began to interview Jodi’s neighbors at the apartment complex. Some of them reported hearing animal-like noises around the time Jodi was believed to have been abducted.
As the days ticked by, Jodi’s coworkers at KIMT did their best to cope with one of their own becoming the state’s top news story. Station management and staff made on air pleas to the killer, or killers. They tried to maintain professionalism and keep focused, but it was a challenge. Her colleagues continued to pile the phone messages Jodi received on top of her empty desk.
The residents of Mason City were uneasy. Do we have a killer on the loose?
The answer was yes.
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