Search for Murky River’s Secrets Deepens Anguish for Family of Lost Girl
Pete Fendt gropes through the murky river water on his hands and knees, seeking anything that might bring some peace to Jeanna North’s family. He has been here before and knows the chances are slim.
Jeanna’s mother is on the river bank watching Fendt’s every move, nervously chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes. Her sweats are soaked from the morning dew clinging to the weeds. Her shoes are caked with mud.
She has been here many times too, and although she hates to admit it, Sue North knows she will leave the river disappointed again.
“You just can’t give up on hope, though,” she says through tears. “You would have to be a mother to understand what’s going on in my head right now.”
Three years ago, her 11-year-old daughter, a slight girl with a broad smile and devilish curiosity, disappeared while in-line skating through the family’s quiet neighborhood.
And for three years, more than a dozen times in all, searchers have returned to this stretch of muddy water. They believe a former neighbor strapped the little girl to a cinder-block and tossed her from a bridge.
They have found no trace of Jeanna. Not a hair or piece of clothing. Not even one of her heavy skates. It’s as if she simply dissolved.
Even the most optimistic of searchers are frustrated.
“It’s basically a needle-in-the-haystack affair,” admits Cass County Sheriff Don Rudnick as he sets out at 7 a.m. with about 30 other searchers. “The chances [of finding any clues] are slim, but we are willing to try.”
Authorities say Kyle Bell, a former neighbor, confessed to killing Jeanna and dumping her body in the river. He has since recanted the confession, saying it was coerced. He has not been charged in the case, due in part to the lack of physical evidence. He currently is serving a 40-year prison sentence in an unrelated child molestation case.
This search of the river on a recent Saturday, the sheriff insists, will be the last. It simply has become too much of an effort given the unlikelihood anything significant will be found.
On this day, the county agreed to close the floodgates on the Sheyenne River and build a temporary earthen dam above the search area to lower the water level. It is an expensive undertaking and one county officials don’t want to repeat.
But expressing monetary concerns to Jeanna’s family is a delicate matter. There’s a precarious balance between this family’s desperate need for closure and the knowledge that these searches are expensive and probably futile.
North and her husband, John, simply want something physical, any piece of their daughter, so they can say goodbye.
“You can’t begin to know what it’s like,” she says.
This was a girl who loved skating, gymnastics and dancing. Who always insisted on being the leader when playing with other kids in the neighborhood. “Didn’t matter what it was,” her mother remembers. “She always had to be in charge. She was always the leader of the group or the leader of the club.”
Her disappearance left a gaping hole in the family’s life. Sue North says she suffered a nervous breakdown that left her unable to care for her family, including two teenage daughters still living at home.
The couple’s marriage was, at one point, on the verge of falling apart as well. And the surviving daughters felt emotionally abandoned as their parents’ lives became devoted to finding Jeanna, Sue North says.
“There was a lot of pain there,” she says. “We didn’t understand what it was doing to them. My oldest daughter said to me once, ‘She wasn’t your only daughter.’ ”
Fendt, a bakery owner and volunteer rescue diver, understands why the Norths feel the need to press on.
“But there’s a point where [the searches] become almost cruel,” he says. “Closure is an important part of being able to face a situation like this. I realize it’s a very difficult thing, but somewhere the healing has to begin.”
Fendt has crawled through this water at least half a dozen times before and has taken part in nearly every ground search as well. On this day, he and other divers pull up seven buffalo skulls, dozens of animal bones, a folding chair, fishing poles, antique glass bottles and a small pile of rotting cowboy boots. They also recover at least half a dozen cinder-blocks, including one with rope attached. It is sent to an FBI laboratory for analysis.
“I’ve reached the point where I think the chances of finding something are not worth the pain we’re putting the family through every time we do this,” Fendt says.
After being submerged in the water for more than an hour, Fendt takes a break. He approaches North on the river bank and asks if she’s satisfied with the way he and his partner are conducting the search.
She is and thanks him, extending her arms for a hug. Fendt apologizes for not having found anything yet.
By the end of the day, she is huddled with friends on the bridge. She thanks each of the searchers as they pass, then discreetly leaves it to her husband to hold the impromptu briefing with reporters. He’s much more composed in front of cameras, she admits.
“I’m sad that things didn’t turn out better,” John North says. “It’s tough not having any closure. My daughter is still out there somewhere.”