Jodi Huisentruit mystery: The decades-long search for the missing TV news anchor

More than two decades after an Iowa TV anchor disappeared, "48 Hours" reports on new information and new efforts to find Jodi Huisentruit

FindJodi

Produced by Clare Friedland, Ruth Chenetz and Chris Young Ritzen

Jodi Huisentruit was an anchor at KIMT-TV, the CBS affiliate in Mason City, Iowa. Her star was on the rise when she disappeared on her way to work on June 27, 1995.

When she didn't arrive at the television station for her morning assignment, concerned co-workers alerted police. Outside her apartment building, police found signs of a struggle – particularly around her car, which was still in the parking lot. She was never seen again. Her body was never found, and what happened to her is a mystery.

"We have never closed the case," Mason City Police Chief Jeff Brinkley tells CBS News' Jim Axelrod. "It's never been a cold case for us. It's been an active investigation since it happened."

It has been 23 years since Huisentruit was last seen.

"I'm not ready to quit yet," Brinkley says.

Axelrod reveals new information about the case and explores multiple leads and theories about her abduction. Was it a crime of opportunity, was she targeted by an obsessed fan or was it someone she knew?

Caroline Lowe, a journalist and private investigator, says she won't give up the search for Huisentruit until the case is closed.

"I may be walking around with my cane and maybe in a wheelchair, but I am staying on this until we find Jodi," she says. "Somebody knows something. Is it you?"

WHERE'S JODI?

It's been 23 years since anchor Jodi Huisentruit vanished on her way to work in Mason City, Iowa.  Her old desk still occupies the same spot in the KIMT-TV newsroom.

Doug Merbach: I said earlier there's no way they still have those old desks, but…

Robin Wolfram: And here it is.

Doug Merbach: Here it is.

Robin Wolfram [Running her hands across Jodi's old desk]: I'm certain it is.

Doug Merbach was the news director back then.

Doug Merbach: I haven't been back in 15 years.

Robin Wolfram was also an anchor.

Robin Wolfram [standing at Jodi's desk]: Makes me sad to be right here for some reason. Sad, and then peaceful too.

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Jodi Huisentruit on the set of KIMT's morning news program, "DayBreak". She was described as "bubbly" and "effervescent" by her co-workers. KIMT

Jodi was more than a colleague – she was a friend.

Jim Axelrod: What words pop into mind when you think of Jodi?

Robin Wolfram: I think the first word that always comes to my mind is effervescent.

Robin Wolfram: And people would often describe her as bubbly.

Doug Merbach: Kind of a bright light in the morning to get people started for the day.

Robin Wolfram: She was your cup of joe in the morning [laughs].

Doug Merbach: Yeah, a lot of energy.

Jim Axelrod: This was not gonna be her last, stop, Mason City.

Robin Wolfram: She always talked about being on national television, we always would have these conversations, the two of us. …She was beautiful, she was engaging, she was smart. The only thing she had to overcome was that Minnesota accent [laughs].

Jim Axelrod: And she was working hard on that.

Robin Wolfram: She was working really hard on that one! [laughs]

But Jodi Huisentruit's dream of making it big ended the morning of Tuesday, June 27, 1995.  The anchor of KIMT's 6 a.m. newscast, she usually arrived at work by 3:30 a.m.

Producer Amy Kuns noticed nothing unusual when she called and woke Jodi up about 4:10 a.m.

AMY KUNS [1995]: If she's not there between 3:30 and 4:00, I give her a call and say, "Hey, are you awake?"

AMY KUNS [1995]: She was asking about the show, she was concerned about the show and she said, "I'll be right there."

But at 5:30 a.m., still no Jodi.  And, this being a time before cellphones, Kuns tried her at home again and got her answering machine.  At 6 a.m., Kuns had to step up and deliver the news in Jodi's place.

AMY KUNS [1995]: She loves her show. She calls it her show, you know. She wouldn't miss it for anything.

The police were called shortly after 7 a.m. When they arrived at Jodi's apartment she wasn't home.  But they found her shoes, hair dryer and keys scattered on the ground near her beloved red Mazda Miata.  Jack Schlieper was police chief then.

CHIEF JACK SCHLIEPER TO REPORTERS [1995]: We do have things that would make us believe that there could be foul play here.

There were also apparent drag marks near her car -- signs of a struggle.

CHIEF JACK SCHLIEPER TO REPORTERS [1995]: The vehicle was processed on the outside/ we did process it for fingerprints.

Police found someone's palm print on the car. Special K-9 units quickly began a search of Jodi's apartment complex and the banks of the nearby Winnebago River.

ROBIN WOLFRAM | KIMT ANCHOR: Police are investigating the disappearance but aren't saying much else at this time.

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KIMT anchors Brian Mastre and Robin Wolfram report on Jodi Huisentruit's disappearance KIMT

That evening, KIMT's lead story was the devastating news about one of its own: 

ROBIN WOLFRAM | KIMT ANCHOR: Jodi Huisentruit was and still is a very dear friend of mine, as well as all of us here at KIMT, and we're inviting all of you to join us in keeping her and her family in your prayers this evening.

Jim Axelrod: Toughest thing you've ever done in your career, Robin?

Robin Wolfram: Probably, yeah. …I don't know what it looked like to the viewer, but I just know inside it was a mess.

Police descended on the newsroom – searching Jodi's desk for any evidence of an angry or obsessed viewer. Had Jodi's natural warmth made her a target?

Doug Merbach: You know, she went grocery shopping and it took her two hours because she talked to three people along the way. And she always had time for everybody.

JoAnn Nathe is Jodi's sister.

JoAnn Nathe: She definitely was too trusting.

Jim Axelrod: So, not thinking that maybe some of those people watching her had their own potentially troubling ideas.

JoAnn Nathe: Yeah.  … That's what I worry about, that she, you know, was too personable.

JoAnn Nathe: Revealing too much maybe, of what she did day-to-day.

JODI HUISENTRUIT | KIMT:  I live by a big swimming pool and I can hear the children swimming and splashing and yelling …

Staci Steinman:  Everyone she met loved her. Do you know how many people think she was her best friend?

Staci Steinman and Kim Feist actually were Jodi's best friends.

Kim Feist [to Steinman]: Do you remember when she nicknamed us all stupid things and her nickname was Focus? …She wanted us to call her Focus.

They grew up together in the small town of Long Prairie, Minnesota.  In high school, Jodi lived up to her nickname – when she helped the golf team win two state championships.

Staci Steinman: She just doesn't fail.

Jim Axelrod: What would she say about what she wanted to achieve in life?

Kim Feist: She wanted to be famous.

Staci Steinman: Yeah, she did.

Kim Feist: And she knew that in high school that she wanted to be a news anchor.

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Jodi Huisentruit

Jodi pursued her dream at St. Cloud State University, with a starring role on the school's TV station.

She was just 25 when she landed the 6 a.m. and noon anchor slots at KIMT.

Now she was gone. Jodi vanished just days before she was to be in Staci's wedding party -- leaving Staci to struggle with whether to go ahead with it. 

Staci Steinman [crying]: A good friend of ours was a priest … and we were just like, "what do we do?" …He said, "now's a good time to keep people together; this is when we need prayer … and pray for her and don't cancel the wedding."

KIMT-TV ANCHOR:  It's been 38 hours now since anyone has spoken to Jodi Huisentruit. Our NewsChannel 3 co-anchor disappeared yesterday morning…

On June 28, 1995 – the investigation was expanding:

CHIEF JACK SCHLIEPER TO REPORTERS [1995]: We have asked for the FBI to give us some assistance.

And Jodi's story was national news.   

Robin Wolfram: It just struck me as so, I don't know, so sad and I was just sick. And I thought, this is not what we meant about being on national news.

ANCHOR ABDUCTED?

DOUG MERBACH [driving in car, 1995]: Yellow ribbons there – yellow ribbons there.  Everywhere you go. ...all along the road.

News director Doug Merbach was overwhelmed by Mason City's show of support after Jodi disappeared 23 years ago.   

DOUG MERBACH [1995]: It really gives you a boost … to know that people care. They really love Jodi.

KIMT VIEWER [1995]: She was not just a person on TV every morning … she was our friend … somebody's gotta know something to bring her home.


AMY KUNS | KIMT ANCHOR: It's now been nearly two-and-a-half days since the person who usually sits in this chair disappeared."


KIMT REPORTER | June 29, 1995: Investigators say they've now narrowed their focus to around a dozen people they'd like to continue questioning…

The police also revealed Jodi had reported a possible stalker nine months before she disappeared.

CHIEF JACK SCHLIEPER TO REPORTERS [1995]: We did find out that Jodi did make a report of an incident that occurred when she was out jogging.

REPORTER: How long ago was that report made?

CHIEF JACK SCHLIEPER: I believe that was in October of 1994.

JoAnn Nathe: She got shook up one day when she was out hiking or jogging on a trail and a black truck had followed her.

But the police never got to the bottom of that incident and Jodi never reported another one. And now JoAnn Nathe was pleading on TV for her baby sister's return:

JOANN NATHE to KIMT [1995]: I just pray that whoever has her out there, if they'll just, you know, she's so sweet and good. She'd never hurt anyone. Just let her go.


KIMT NEWS REPORT: It's been 84 hours now. Jodi Huisentruit the 27-year-old colleague of ours disappeared three-and-a-half days ago …

On June 30, the fire department intensified its search in the Winnebago River – in case a body had floated to the surface. It's a scenario no one wants to think about:

MASON CITY FIRE CAPTAIN TO REPORTERS [1995]: I've never personally talked with Jodi. But myself and everyone … doesn't wanna find Jodi this way.

On July 1, came an announcement:

CHIEF JACK SCHLIEPER TO REPORTERS: We are now officially classifying this as an abduction.

Several neighbors have told police they heard a scream around the time Jodi disappeared – but no one had called for help.  A white van was also seen in the parking lot that morning.

Robin Wolfram: I couldn't even walk outside in the dark because I was so afraid of … how it happened in Jodi's parking lot.

Jim Axelrod: You had a police escort home.

Robin Wolfram [affirms]: Mmm, hmm.

Whoever took Jodi seemed to be familiar with her schedule. Could it have been someone she knew? To find out, investigators were piecing together the last days of Jodi's life. And one man popped up on their radar by declaring he'd been the last person to see her alive. 

JOHN VANSICE TO KIMT [1995]: They've interviewed me twice. But they haven't made any indication I'm a suspect.

Jodi's friend, John Vansice, told Wolfram in an interview that Jodi had visited his home the night before she was abducted.  

JOHN VANSICE TO KIMT [1995]: She's laughing the whole time she was there; and she laughed by the time she left.

Jim Axelrod: How did he strike you?

Robin Wolfram: Way too happy and gleeful and --

Doug Merbach: -- he wanted to be interviewed.

John Vansice
Two days after Jodi's disappearance, KIMT anchor Robin Wolfram interviewed Jodi's friend, John Vansice. He told Wolfram that Jodi has visited his home the night before she was abducted. KIMT

JOHN VANSICE TO KIMT [1995]: She was like a daughter to me. She was just like my own child; I treated her like my own child.

So, who exactly is John Vansice? Drilling down into that question is complicated by the passage of time. Twenty-three years ago, days after Jodi disappeared, "48 Hours" was in Mason City and spent time with the man who had put himself at the center of the case.

JOHN VANSICE TO "48 HOURS" [On his boat | 1995]: I just believe she's alive somewhere. I just hope she's not hurt. I hope she's OK and I hope she can come back soon.

Back in 1995 "48 Hours" caught up with John Vansice and Jodi's close friend, Ani Kruse, dockside, where we learned the three often waterskied off his boat. Vansice certainly wasn't hiding or acting like someone under a cloud of suspicion:

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"48 Hours" also interviewed John Vansice in July 1995, less than a week after Jodi Huisentruit disappeared. Despite being more than two decades older than Jodi and friend Ani Kruse [pictured], Vansice said he and Jodi had similar interests like boating and waterskiing.  "I hope she's OK and I hope she can come back soon." CBS News

JOHN VANSICE [48 HOURS 1995]: She wouldn't want us to sit around home and cry and sob; she'd want us to be out having fun 'cause that was her.

ANI KRUSE: Is her.

JOHN VANSICE: It is her.

ANI KRUSE: Everything is.

JOHN VANSICE: It is her.

ANI KRUSE: She's coming back. We'll be ready for her.

Jim Axelrod: In the days directly after Jodi disappears, you're speaking in present tense.

Ani Kruse: She was one of my closest friends [wipes away a tear]. You know, she was coming home. …I really thought that.

Vansice, who was a seed salesman, was recently divorced. He had once lived in Jodi's apartment complex. But Jodi and Ani had met him at a bar.

ANI KRUSE TO "48 HOURS" [1995]: He offered to buy us both a drink. …and just started talking to him and didn't know how we felt about him and then we met him again and again.

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According to Vansice, Jodi had visited his home the night before she vanished. He said they watched a video of a surprise birthday party he had helped arrange for Jodi with another friend, Ani Kruse.

Although he was 22 years older than Jodi, he became part of her inner circle.

JOHN VANSICE TO "48 HOURS" [1995]: …just a bunch of people who really get along fine and have a good time.

Two weeks before Jodi disappeared, Vansice helped Ani throw a surprise birthday party for her.

Ani Kruse [showing pictures]: That's the waterskiing cake. … yeah you look at the pictures and she's smiling. She's so beautiful and happy and … she's in her prime.

Then, the weekend before Jodi's abduction, she and Kruse were out on Vansice's boat.

On Monday, Jodi was back at work for the last time.

That afternoon she played in a charity golf tournament, where she complained she'd been getting some prank phone calls.

JoAnn Nathe: She told some people at this golf tournament that she was gonna have to change her phone number or do something or go to the police.

It was later that Monday evening that Vansice claims Jodi came over to his home to watch a video of that surprise birthday party.

JOHN VANSICE TO KIMT [1995]: And we watched the tape and we chuckled, we laughed, we giggled; we hee-hawed; we did everything we said we're going cut this portion out of the tape, we're gonna cut this portion out of the tape, and then we'd laugh about it.

The next morning, Jodi was gone. Would John Vansice have a reason to harm her? Kruse couldn't think of any.

ANI KRUSE TO "48 HOURS" [1995]: Without a doubt; I have no-no question that there's no possibility in my mind that he could ever.

The police were also asking Kruse what she knew.  

Jim Axelrod: The investigators are asking you about John Vansice.

Ani Kruse: Yes.

Jim Axelrod: And you're saying, it couldn't be John.

Ani Kruse: No, he's our friend …For me, I'm thinking, why would you hurt somebody that, that brought so much joy to your life?

But Wolfram had long suspected that Vansice had feelings for Jodi that weren't mutual.

Robin Wolfram: I truly believe that he had very strong and deep feelings for Jodi.

And something he told her back then sent chills down her spine.

JOHN VANSICE TO KIMT [1995]: I have named my boat after her, because just -- just because she's Jodi … you can't help but love that woman; you can't help but love her.

Robin Wolfram: When he said I named my boat after her, that's when I said, "Ugh, that's an obsession." … I remember holding on to the microphone and just feeling so ill at ease and thinking to myself, "I think he might've done it."

WHO IS JOHN VANSICE?

In the fall of 1995, some three months after Jodi Huisentruit disappeared, her family allowed a local TV reporter inside her apartment.

MALE REPORTER [narrating]: Well it's… definitely a little strange being in here.

There were no obvious signs of a struggle. Dishes were still piled up in the sink.

MALE REPORTER: I mean clearly this was a woman that was just headed out to work.

A peek inside missing TV Jodi Huisentruit’s apartment

Had Jodi taken the time to neatly make the bed before rushing to work? Other people had been in the apartment – so we don't know for sure.

MALE REPORTER: There's apparently a message for her on the answering machine.

 It's a message she never had a chance to retrieve.

JOHN VANSICE TO "48 HOURS" [1995]: She'll be back. Just have to have patience. You can't be down because Jodi wouldn't want it.

John Vansice remained under suspicion. "48 Hours" has learned Jodi befriended him during what seems to have been a turbulent time in his life. There was his recent divorce, and he'd been ordered to install a Breathalyzer device in his van. He had a series of arrests related to drunken driving.

Jim Axelrod: Did John's life improve just through his connection to Jodi?

Ani Kruse: Absolutely. …She brought so much joy into his life. And he … didn't have a lotta friends. And you know, all of a sudden, now he's kind of accepted. …you know, he's hangin' out with us, we're having fun.

Ani Kruse says Jodi thought Vansice understood the boundaries in their relationship. 

Ani Kruse: She knew. She knew he had an interest. …but just blew it off. You know, "he's like a father to me." …she made that mention quite a few times.

Jim Axelrod: In front of him?

Ani Kruse: Yeah, yeah.

But some of Jodi's friends doubted he got the message.

Robin Wolfram: I cautioned her…  I said, "Jodi, there's gonna come a point in time when he's gonna want more."

Staci Steinman: When she told us he named his boat after her, we go, "OK, Jodi. This is a little much."

Kim Feist: That was our like -- Stop. I don't know, something's weird.

Jim Axelrod: But she didn't see it as odd?

Staci Steinman: No, she laughed.

Kim Feist: I think she was like, honored, like hey, it's kinda cool.

Jodi's sister JoAnn -- and other family members – met with John Vansice a few days after Jodi's disappearance.  

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JoAnn Nathe with John Vansice CBS News

JOANN NATHE ["48 HOURS" 1995]: You were a fun-loving group.

JOHN VANSICE ["48 HOURS" 1995]: We were. We had a blast together. We'd just laughed and laughed.

"48 Hours" was there as Vansice told them about his friendship with Jodi. 

JOHN VANSICE TO NATHE AND FAMILY ["48 HOURS" 1995]: I just loved watching her have fun.

Nathe found his demeanor odd.

JOHN VANSICE TO NATHE AND FAMILY ["48 HOURS" 1995]: I tried to watch over her. I tried to check on her once in a while. Not all the time. Just once in a while. See how she's getting along.

JoAnn Nathe: In my mind, there's a good chance that he is linked to Jodi's case, some way or other.

Jim Axelrod: What makes you say that?

JoAnn Nathe: It's just that he was so obsessed with her.

JOHN VANSICE TO NATHE AND FAMILY ["48 HOURS" 1995]: If you ever go in her apartment and you see men's clothes, they're mine. If I had a shirt she liked, you know, I'd wear it for a while and then I'd give it to her.

Jim Axelrod: But Vansice has never been arrested; he's never been named a suspect.

JoAnn Nathe: I know. He hasn't.

Jim Axelrod: It's been 23 years.

JoAnn Nathe: I know. …If he is the one, let's get the evidence … But, we have to be objective, we have to have an open mind. It could be somebody we least expect.

Looking back 23 years later, Ani Kruse now believes Vansice could have harmed Jodi.  

Jim Axelrod: When you think maybe it was John, what would his motive have been?

Ani Kruse: Maybe being rebuffed.

Jim Axelrod: Maybe finally saying to her, I'm not your father. I wanna be your boyfriend.

Ani Kruse: That's the only thing I could think of. …But the thing that has always puzzled me, like, why in the morning in the parking lot?

Could what was in that parking lot have had something to do with it? "48 Hours" obtained a copy of a search warrant for Jodi's 1991 Miata and learned it was not in her name when she vanished. It reads: "this license is listed to John Lessard, the previous owner, pending title transfer."  John Lessard is a prominent businessman. He told "48 Hours" the sale to Jodi was arranged by a friend who was a car salesman. The friend has since died, but his son remembers the sale. 

Ani Kruse: She worked hard for that. She was proud of getting that car. She was excited about it.

And that car seemed to be on John Vansice's mind. His close friend LaDonna Woodford claims he told her the car was a birthday gift to Jodi from a boyfriend.

LaDonna Woodford: He said, "but she doesn't like – want the car. …She's gonna give it back to him."

Ani Kruse: She never said anything about a gentleman buying it or paying for it or anything like that. …So I think that's hogwash.

Jim Axelrod: Inconceivable to you.

Ani Kruse: Yeah.

Lessard told "48 Hours" the only time he met Jodi was to hand her the car keys. Kruse says Vansice had a history of jealousy when it came to Jodi.

Ani Kruse: If we were out somewhere … if she was visiting with somebody he would come join the conversation.

Jim Axelrod: Just swoop in?

Ani Kruse: Pretty much, yeah. …He wanted to make sure that everybody knew Jodi was his.

But Woodford insists Vansice had no romantic interest in Jodi – and no reason to hurt her.

LaDonna Woodford: When he'd talk about Jodi … it was like, "I'm protecting her. She's … like my daughter."

Jim Axelrod: What if – on June 26th and then into the morning of June 27th, what if John Vansice had picked then to share with Jodi that he wanted to take it to the next level?

LaDonna Woodford: And people always ask me that question. And this is what I say. He would not do it … where they think he did it, [Why?] where she was abducted. He used to live in those apartments. Everybody knows him.

Woodford feels Vansice has been unfairly singled out by police – and the community.

LaDonna Woodford [crying]: It's just so horrible, what they've done to him … he lost his best friend. … And it's sad, it's really sad.

And Woodford says she knows where Vansice was the morning Jodi was abducted: he was out taking a walk with her. It was their routine.

Jim Axelrod: As you walked through this neighborhood … Did he seem anxious?

LaDonna Woodford:  Didn't seem anxious. He seemed himself.

And nothing seemed unusual when she called earlier to confirm their plans.

LaDonna Woodford: I called John at 6:00 in the morning. I say, "Hey, John, are we gonna work out today?"

Jim Axelrod: You felt when you called him that morning that he was up there sleeping?

LaDonna Woodford: Yeah, absolutely. …We didn't have cell phones so I know he was home.

And that is why Woodford believes she is his alibi. Remember, Jodi's producer spoke to her at around 4:10 a.m. LaDonna believes that Vansice – even though he lived only 5 minutes away -- would not have had enough time to abduct Jodi, possibly dispose of her body and be home by 6:00 a.m.

LaDonna Woodford: I know the timeframe of … when I called him; when I met with him, when we walked. …it's almost impossible for him to have done this.

Police finally confirmed in the fall of 1995 that Vansice had passed a polygraph test – something he'd been telling friends all along. But he remained on their radar -- and soon another man would join him.

Jay Alberio: Tony Jackson is a predator … You gotta look at this guy.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

On May 4, 1996, nearly a year after Jodi disappeared, Ani Kruse was holding onto a sliver of hope that her friend could still be found. 

Ani Kruse: We hope to find any type of evidence, any type of clues. You know, earrings, purse, anything we can find.

She led a search party through woods two miles from Jodi's apartment. Despite Kruse's efforts, nothing was found.

In late January 1998, two-and-a-half years after Jodi vanished, someone else -- someone 140 miles away -- started her own search for answers.

Caroline Lowe was an investigative reporter at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. She started reporting on Jodi while covering a terrifying crime spree in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Caroline Lowe: I covered a serial rapist … who was accused of raping four women in 18 days.

The rapist was Tony Jackson. He was arrested in 1997. After a routine traffic stop, police found in his car the tools of his trade.

Jay Alberio: He's got rope, he's got handcuffs, he's got his gun, he's got duct tape. … Basically, it's a rape kit. 

Jay Alberio, formerly a detective with the Woodbury, Minnesota, Police Department, worked the Jackson case.

Jay Alberio: All the victims that we know, there is an element of stalking.

Alberio explored Tony Jackson's past. He learned Jackson was living in Iowa when Jodi disappeared -- and not just anywhere.

Jay Alberio: The background investigation puts him in Mason City, two blocks from the TV station that Jodi worked at.

Jackson lived two blocks from where Jodi worked.

Caroline Lowe: Two blocks.

Jim Axelrod: That's chilling.

Caroline Lowe: It was like a bolt. When you see that you go, "Wow."

Jay Alberio: This guy may be involved in Jodi's case. We need to get this information down to the Mason City authorities.

Lowe visited the Mason City police three months after Alberio had sent them the Jackson information. She noticed the file didn't seem to hold much interest. When the lieutenant she was interviewing pulled out the file -- he had to dust the cover before opening it.

Lowe was trying to get answers to questions about Jackson's past. She learned he was once a promising college basketball player at Iowa's Waldorf College.

Caroline Lowe: He was a star basketball player. …Problem is, he would do well and then he would snap. And he would get into violent episodes with people, and he was kicked out of the college.

Then, a year-and-a-half before Jodi disappeared, he enrolled at North Iowa Community College in Mason City, where he showed an interest in broadcasting.

Jay Alberio: He does a couple talk shows.

Jim Axelrod: And so, is it your thought that … to start watching' the people in town who are on TV, doing the news?

Jay Alberio: Sure, he's gonna watch them, see how they go about doing their job.

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"Tony Jackson is a predator … You gotta look at this guy,": said Jay Alberio, a former detective with the  Woodbury, Minnesota, police department.

Alberio's theory is Jackson might have watched Jodi on TV, known her schedule and even stalked her.

Lowe also learned something that troubled her.

JACKSON'S EX-GIRLFRIEND TO WCCO [1998]: When he snapped, he snapped.

She spoke with an ex-girlfriend of Jackson's who said they broke up five days before Jodi vanished.

JACKSON'S EX-GIRLFRIEND TO WCCO [1998]: And it was, it was violent, very violent. I mean, it was a totally different person. It was like the devil stepped inside of him and just took over.

Caroline Lowe: I sat in the living room with this gal and she looks a lot like Jodi. It was chilling. 

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Tony Jackson's ex-girlfriend, left, and Jodi Huisentruit WCCO

The woman did get back together briefly with Jackson, until, she says, his anger took another scary turn.

Caroline Lowe: And she described how … he had tried to choke her, and they took him into custody. 

Although Jackson was arrested for that attack, the charges were ultimately dropped when the woman moved away and declined to proceed.  Four months later, he would go on to commit the Minnesota rapes.

WCCO NEWS ANCHOR: The verdict is guilty on all counts for a local man accused of being a serial rapist…

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Tony Jackson was sentenced to the equivalent of life in prison for a series of rapes in Minnesota

Jackson was sentenced to the equivalent of life in prison. Still, Caroline Lowe kept digging into any connection to Jodi's case. She learned about a former jail mate of Jackson's.

FORMER JAIL MATE TO LOWE [WCCO]: He says I abducted a anchorwoman and killed her.

The man said Jackson boasted about what he'd done in a rap song. Not wanting to forget the lyrics, the jail mate wrote them down.

FORMER JAIL MATE TO LOWE [WCCO]: He said she's a-stiffin' around Tiffin in pileage of silage in a bylow, low below…

Thinking that might mean Jodi was buried in a farm, near a silo, in the town of Tiffin, a few hours from Mason City, Lowe headed there. She brought law enforcement and cadaver dogs to search for human remains. 

Caroline Lowe: Two of the three dogs alerted, which is a sign that something had been there. And -- the boards that they found there were sent to the State Crime Lab.

But, like so often in Jodi's case, the lead led nowhere.

Jim Axelrod: Any forensics tying Tony Jackson to Jodi?

Caroline Lowe: None that we know of. None.

On May 5, 1999, the Mason City Police issued the following statement:

"After conducting a thorough investigation which included interviews, crime laboratory analysis, records review, and polygraph examination, Tony Jackson is not considered, at this time, a viable suspect in the investigation."

Jodi's sister JoAnn, though, can't close the book on Jackson.

JoAnn Nathe: Boy, I tell you, I've wondered about him too, he's on the list. He's a rapist and living in the area. …But the police say, " No," that he -- that there was no way. And I -- I don't know, though.

"48 Hours" wanted to ask Jackson about Jodi's case, but he declined to speak with us.  He would not answer specific questions, but in a rambling email wrote: "I Stand firm in my Integrity regarding the Jodie [sic] Huisentruit case."

And so the hunt for clues crawls on – with another look at John Vansice.

KEEPING JODI'S STORY ALIVE

John Vansice's friend, LaDonna Woodford, says roughly 2 years after Jodi's disappearance, she received a visit from an FBI agent. 

LaDonna Woodford: And he said, "I have a subpoena for you to appear at the grand jury to testify for John Vansice … They're trying to indict him." And I was like, "Really?" Like, "Are you kidding me?"

Woodford is going public with this information for the first time. 

LaDonna Woodford: I went in to the grand jury. And … I just told my story, what I knew.

Woodford says she was questioned about John Vansice for five hours. 

LaDonna Woodford: What do they have on John? … Why did I have to go to this grand jury? … Why were they tryin' to indict him?

Jim Axelrod: Because at the end of the day, you don't think it's gonna be him?

LaDonna Woodford: I'd be shocked.

Jim Axelrod: Did you ever have any contact with the FBI again after that?

LaDonna Woodford: [negates]: Uh-uh.

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There would be no indictment of John Vansice.  Police continued to work the case, and the mystery of who abducted Jodi remained.

JoAnn Nathe: [Sighs] Yeah, it's -- it was hard. …You know, they weren't solving it. We weren't finding her. 

On May 14, 2001, now six years after Jodi disappeared, she was declared legally dead. Jodi's family was forced to make the tough decision in order to settle her estate.

Ani Kruse [emotional]: That's like the end of the chapter. That's like the end of the book. …But you still had hope, even though you know, realistically, your mind is saying, you know [in tears] … She's probably not coming home.

And despite the hundreds of leads detectives generated early in the investigation, over time, tips slowed to a trickle and fewer detectives were assigned to the case. 

That's when, in 2003, journalists Gary Peterson and Josh Benson-- created the website FindJodi.com. They were later joined by a team of former reporters and retired detective Jay Alberio.

Caroline Lowe: Who's gonna consistently look for Jodi if we don't do it? …She's one of ours.

Their goal: to keep Jodi's story alive and to crack the case.

Jim Axelrod: Did you feel they were overmatched, the Mason City police investigators?

Ani Kruse: I think this was a very big case. I think this is something they were not accustomed to dealing with.

From the beginning, Ani Kruse says she was concerned with how detectives processed the crime scene.

Ani Kruse: You know I was very surprised it was not … sectioned off.

Jim Axelrod: The whole area wasn't police taped off?

Ani Kruse: Not the first day or so.

Jim Axelrod: But there's all kinds of evidence that could've gotten compromised.

Ani Kruse: That's what I thought.

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Jodi's car, a key piece of evidence, was released to her family just a couple of months after she disappeared. KIMT

And what about Jodi's car -- a key piece of evidence?

Caroline Lowe: That car was the only crime scene they have. …This is a case with so little evidence. …Until they find her body they don't have another crime scene. That car is your crime scene.

But investigators didn't hold onto that car for very long… It was released to Jodi's family just a couple of months after she disappeared.

Jim Axelrod: So, if the car is your crime scene, why would they give it back to the family?

Caroline Lowe: I think that's a question for the police.

Jeff Brinkley is Mason City's fourth police chief since Jodi vanished.

Jim Axelrod: Was that car given back too quickly?

Chief Jeff Brinkley [nods his head]: Maybe.

Jim Axelrod: Because the evidence that could have been in that car, especially given the technological advances since then, could be important today.

Chief Jeff Brinkley: Right.

Jim Axelrod: But you don't have that evidence.

Chief Jeff Brinkley:  We don't have it. …But we just have to live with what we got, and -- and try to do as good as we can with that.

Chief Brinkley says they do have some DNA samples. And then, there is that palm print. But police won't tell "48 Hours" exactly what other evidence they have.

Jim Axelrod: Is Tony Jackson still a person of interest?

Chief Jeff Brinkley: I am not going to comment on that.

Jim Axelrod: Is John Vansice still a person of interest?

Chief Jeff Brinkley: I can't comment on that.

But, FindJodi.com broke the news that in 2017 John Vansice, who currently lives in Arizona, was still on police radar. The Mason City police obtained a search warrant for GPS information on two of Vansice's vehicles.

Jim Axelrod: What'd you make of that?

Caroline Lowe: Very intrigued, because it's the first thing we'd seen in years of any kind of official document.

The warrant is sealed, but Caroline thinks police were looking for information that could have led to Jodi's body.

Caroline Lowe: We surmise that they must have been trying to see if he was leaving -- going to visit some site that he might have buried Jodi.

Chief Jeff Brinkley: That piece didn't pan out like we'd hoped.

Jim Axelrod: No one was coming back from out-of-state to check out a potential body site.

Chief Jeff Brinkley: We didn't get any information that was useful.

Whatever information the police may have on anyone, they're not sharing.

Jim Axelrod: Why won't you talk about any specifics in this case?

Chief Jeff Brinkley: I don't wanna let the cat outta the bag.

Jim Axelrod: But is there a cat in the bag? Do you have something?

Chief Jeff Brinkley: Not completely. No. I don't think we do yet. But I think that were very close. 

Jim Axelrod: So, does that mean we're talkin' about weeks, months?

Chief Jeff Brinkley: I don't think it's fast.

Jim Axelrod: It's not fast.

Chief Jeff Brinkley: I don't think it's fast

"48 Hours" traveled to Phoenix to ask John Vansice what he knows about Jodi's disappearance.

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Correspondent Jim Axelrod traveled to Phoenix to ask John Vansice what he knows about Jodi's disappearance. CBS News

Jim Axelrod [Outside Vansice's front door]:  Hi John, my name is Jim Axelrod, I'm with the CBS News broadcast "48 Hours." How are you?

John Vansice: Fine.

Jim Axelrod: We're conducting an investigation into the disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit and --

John Vansice [shaking his head]: I don't want to talk to you.

Jim Axelrod: -- I want to ask you a couple of questions.

John Vansice: No. [closes the door]

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On June 5, on what would have been Jodi's 50th birthday, the findjodi.com team officially unveiled four billboards around Mason City.

On June 5, on what would have been Jodi's 50th birthday, the findjodi.com team officially unveiled four billboards around Mason City.

Caroline Lowe [at billboard presentation]: It's time to bring Jodi home.

Until then, these are the last images of Jodi friends and family hold onto.

Staci Steinman:  When I think about her, I think about all the fun that we had.

Ani Kruse: She added a lot of sunshine to many people's world.

Caroline Lowe: We're not giving up. FindJodi's not gonna go away … I am staying on this until we find Jodi.

Caroline Lowe: Somebody knows something. Is it you?

FINDJODI  

Are you the someone who can crack the case?

Please call the Mason City Police Department at 641-421-3636

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.