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Innocent Plea In Dru Kidnapping

A convicted rapist was ordered Friday to stand trial on charges he kidnapped a University of North Dakota student who was last seen at a shopping mall in November.

A magistrate judge ruled that prosecutors presented enough evidence to try Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. At a separate hearing, Rodriguez pleaded not guilty to the charge. A trial date was not immediately set.

Dru Sjodin, 22, of Pequot Lakes, Minn., disappeared Nov. 22 and investigators believe Rodriguez abducted her from a Grand Forks mall parking lot. Sjodin was last heard from in a cell phone conversation with her boyfriend, Chris Lang.

Investigators have said they believe Sjodin is dead.

Rodriguez' attorney, David Dusek, has said that Rodriguez denies any involvement in her disappearance.

Rodriguez, 51, of Crookston, Minn., was arrested in December and jailed in Grand Forks on $5 million bail after investigators found traces of Sjodin's DNA in blood found in his car. They also found a knife in the car's trunk that matched a sheath found near Sjodin's car.

Police also found a shoe they said was Sjodin's three days after her disappearance near Red Lake River in Minnesota, near where Rodriguez is from.

"What this means, in a very real sense, is that we will hear from Dru Sjodin at trial, because she left a message for us," said Rick Brown, an assistant Grand Forks County state's attorney. "It doesn't tell us where she is now ... but it does tell us where she was. It says, 'I was in this car. This car belong to Alfonso Rodriguez."'

Friday's hearing was attended by family and friends of both Sjodin and Rodriguez. Asked if it was difficult to sit through the hearing, Sjodin's father, Allan, said: "No. It has to be done."

Brown called three investigators as witnesses. A Minnesota crime agent testified that authorities' suspicions about Rodriguez grew at every turn as their investigation continued.

"It was through inconsistencies and outright holes that we were able to put into his initial statement, from evidence that we gathered," Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Special Agent Daniel Ahlquist said.

For example, Rodriguez told investigators he was at a movie at the time Sjodin disappeared, but the movie, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," was not playing at the time, Ahlquist said.

Dusek, Rodriguez' attorney, questioned investigators' methods, including suggesting the shoe that was found was a size larger than the size Sjodin wore.

Rodriguez was released from a Minnesota prison in May after serving a 23-year sentence for a 1980 attempted kidnapping and assault of a woman in Crookston.

By Curt Woodward