IT WASN’T like 27-year-old Jodi Huisentruit not to show up for work on time.
A popular TV news anchor, Huisentruit was due at work at 4am on the morning of June 27, 1995, in order to get her hair and makeup done, before preparing the morning news at 6.
KIMT producer Amy Kuns called her house shortly after 4, and was relieved to hear Huisentruit answer: she had simply overslept and was about to leave.
By 6am she still hadn’t arrived, and a replacement was rushed into the fray. When Huisentruit still hadn’t shown up by 7, the worried producer called the police.
“When I came in that morning we knew immediately it was serious; she was always someone who showed up for work,” the station manager Steve Martinson recalled.
Police headed to her house, and soon discovered just how serious.
Her car was still parked in her driveway, surrounded by items strewn nearby: a blow dryer, hair spray, earrings, a pair of shoes and a bent car key. It was clear there was a struggle.
“It seemed so out of kilter,” Globe Gazette reporter Julie Birkedal wrote at the time.
“This was Mason City … It wasn’t the kind of place where people disappear.”
Mason City is a small city in the midwestern US state of Iowa, with a population of roughly 28,000 residents. It is perhaps best known for inspiring Meredith Willson’s famous musical The Music Man and for housing the Kraft factory that produces America’s entire supply of Jell-O. It was not known for violent abductions.
The police fielded more than 300 public tip-offs within five days of Huisentruit’s disappearance, with eight different teams of investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Division of Criminal Investigation and local branches conducting 200 interviews within that same time.
“At least one witness saw a van in the parking lot shortly before 4am,” police chief Jack Schlieper told the press the weekend after her disappearance, noting that “at least one scream was heard” between 4 and 5 that morning.
“I want to emphasise that the person or persons associated with the van are not necessarily suspects,” Schlieper stressed. “They simply may have information that would help us in our investigation.”
Police soon zeroed in on one suspect, John Vansice.
He was new to the city, and had lived in the same apartment block as Huisentruit when he first arrived in Mason City. He had recently been spending a lot of time with her despite the 22-year age gap. He described it to police as a “father-daughter type relationship”.
The night before she disappeared, Huisentruit was at Vansice’s home, watching a home video he had shot of a surprise birthday party he had thrown for her weeks earlier. This was the last time she was seen alive.
Vansice was called in for a polygraph test, which he claimed to the press he “passed with flying colours”.
Vansice was not happy with the intrusion.
“I was offended at first, but now I understand. I’m glad I did this because it proves I had nothing to do with it,” he said.
Police weren’t impressed by his willingness to talk to the press.
“Anyone who truly cares about Jodi’s safety would not want to jeopardise that safety or our investigation by talking to the media about their involvement in our investigation,” Schlieper said.
With no case against Vansice, and despite thousands of tips from the public, the case remained unsolved.
Desperate for answers, her family hired a team of high-profile private investigators who appeared on episodes of America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries in late 1995 to highlight the case. There was more than an element of show business to their operations though. They brought the family to Los Angeles to meet with three TV psychics for the first episode of a new show, Psychic Detectives. Many leads were received based on the three TV appearances, but nothing came of any of them. The psychics, despite their Hollywood renown, were also unhelpful.
THE CASE GETS COLDER AND WEIRDER
In 2004, the police again focused on John Vansice, searching his former house, after receiving a tip-off from the new owners that an area in the basement contained cement of a different age than the rest. This was another dead end.
Police thought they had a solid lead in 2006 when a Minnesota woman claimed she actually witnessed Huisentruit’s murder and had been too scared to confess until then. Upon further interrogation, she admitted the story was fabricated and was sentenced to a month in prison for her efforts.
Two years later, the Globe Gazette, which had been tenacious in its reporting of the crime, was sent an envelope with no return address, postmarked Waterloo, Iowa — a town 100km from Mason City. Inside were 84 photocopied pages from Huisentruit’s personal diary. The newspaper parsed these pages, as did police, but there was little of substance. More curious was how these pages ended up in the hands of whoever sent them, given her diary had remained in the Mason City Police Department’s evidence locker. Eventually the culprit came forward: the wife of former police chief Dave Ellingson. She refused to explain how she got the pages or why she sent them to the press.
An explanation for Ellingson’s actions may be found in a blistering 2016 opinion article written by retiring Iowa state politician John Kooiker. In the article, Kooiker accuses Mason City Police of mishandling the case, ignoring then concealing possible leads, and having a “dubious lack of interest in following up on leads that could shed the light of day on Jodi Huisentruit’s disappearance”.
He is more blunt in his summary. “Generally, I would not describe myself as a person who is untrusting, but I have this gut feeling that something is being covered up in Mason City,” Kooiker wrote.
“As in so many cold cases, eventually the case fades into oblivion for the public, which is what the Mason City Police Department seems to be hoping for again.”
Police claim to be still actively pursuing leads, although the pace of these has not-surprisingly slowed since the days when thousands of tips were presented by the public. Last year they served John Vansice with another search warrant, this time for his two vehicles, including access to his GPS. He remains the chief suspect and the last person to have seen Huisentruit alive.
Despite many witnesses claiming to have seen the white Ford Econovan parked outside Huisentruit’s apartment, the police have never been able to locate the vehicle, nor its owner.
“A lot of people think it’s a cold case, but it’s not. It is still an active investigation. We follow up on every tip we get and we always will,” current Mason City police chief Jeff Brinkley told the Globe Gazette in 2016.
“Someone out there knows what happened. You can’t do something like this without telling someone. Someone knows.”
- Nathan Jolly is a Sydney-based writer who specialises in pop culture, music history, true crime and true romance. Follow him on Twitter @nathanjolly