• Kym Pasqualini

Cryptic Message on Billboard of Missing News Anchor Jodi Huisentruit

Vandals deface a billboard of missing anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit in Mason City, Iowa.

On New Year’s Eve 2019, vandals defaced a billboard of KIMT anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit in Mason City, Iowa. The billboard is among three in Mason City which shows a picture of the missing news anchor, asking the question “Someone knows something, is it you?”

Cryptic words were sprayed in bright yellow paint, reading “Frank Stearns Machine Shed” across the bottom half of the billboard. Frank Stearns was a longtime detective with Mason City Police Department who diligently worked Jodi’s case. Now retired, Stearns is a city death scene investigator.

Jodi Huisentruit vanished June 27, 1995 on her way to work at news station KIMT-TV in Mason City, Iowa.

Billboard Connection

In a bizarre twist of events, during 2011, the Globe Gazette reported that former Mason City police officer Maria Ohl accused two Mason City police officers and a retired Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) agent of being involved in the abduction and murder of Jodi.

Ohl, a ten-year veteran, said she received credible information from an informant in 2007, and again in 2009, who implicated Lt. Frank Stearns, Lt. Ron Vande Weerd, and Bill Basler in the abduction. Ohl said she told her superiors, but heard only crickets.

Ohl said she was terminated due to her handling of Jodi’s case information. “It’s horrifically disturbing. They’re still working on the taxpayers’ dollar — the whistleblower was put on administrative leave and terminated.”

Joshua Benson, an evening anchor at an Orlando ABC affiliate who founded FindJodi.com, said Ohl had also confided in him, but he could not find any information that would corroborate her claims. In fact, at the time the complaint was filed, an official investigation found no validity in Ohl’s claims.

The Vandalism Incident

Cold Case investigator Steve Ridge told KIMT that he knows how and when the billboard was vandalized. He says two individuals dressed in black parked in the rear alley behind a tattoo parlor and erected an aluminum ladder against the wall at 11:30 p.m. on December 31, 2019.

While one held the ladder, the other spray-painted “Frank Stearns” in large letters and “Machine Shed” in smaller print below. Ridge said the parking lot of the nearby bar was full and dozens of cars passed right below the billboard while the individuals were vandalizing it.

Ridge spoke to Frank Steans at his residence on January 3, 2020. His rural residence does have a detached building on the premises, however, Stearns lived elsewhere in 1995. While the billboard vandals surely meant to dredge up old wounds and accusations, Stearns remains a respected member of the community and says he hopes they are found and punished.

A loved news celebrity, Jodi Huisentruit’s disappearance has haunted Mason City, Iowa, for over two decades.

The Disappearance

Jodi, 27, vanished from the outside of her downtown apartment in Mason City on Tuesday, June 27, 1995. The day before, Jodi had played in the local Chamber of Commerce golf tournament. According to friend John Vansice, afterward, Jodi went to his house to view a videotape of a birthday celebration that he had set up for her earlier in the month.

Jodi went home and called a friend before going to bed. She usually left for work at 3:00 a.m. to anchor the morning show at KIMT. However, at approximately 4:00 a.m. KIMT producer Amy Kuns noticed that Jodi had not shown up to work. “I called her twice. I talked to her and woke her up the first time,” Kuns told WFLA news anchor Josh Benson. “The second time it just rang and rang. I don’t remember the times. I had obviously woken her up. She asked what time it was. I told her. She said she would be right in.”

Jodi was usually prompt and never missed work, so when Jodi had not shown up by 7:00 a.m., KIMT staff had called the Mason City Police Department to conduct a welfare check.

Police Investigation

When police arrived at Jodi’s apartment, shortly after 7:00 a.m., her red Mazda Miata was in the parking lot unmoved from the night before. Officers found a pair of red women’s pumps, a bottle of hairspray, blower dryer and earrings, along with a bent car key, strewn around the car reflecting a struggle had taken place at the vehicle.

Investigators examine the parking lot where Jodi Huisentruit vanished in Mason City, Iowa in 1995.

A search was conducted of Jodi’s apartment, the parking lot, and the nearby Winnebago River. Early on, then Mason City Police Chief Jack Schlieper said he suspected foul play. Investigators from the Iowa DCI and the Federal Bureau of Investigation would eventually join the search.

Mason City Police searching for missing anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit along the Winnebago River.

By that Wednesday, as Jodi’s desk sat empty, police continued their extensive search for the young news anchor. At the press conference, Schlieper told reporters that police and K-9 units were continuing to search along a two-mile area of the Winnebago River that runs through a park near Jodi’s apartment on North Kentucky Avenue.

Police did discover items of clothing along the riverbanks but at the time could not determine if they were Jodi’s.

Police impound Jodi’s red Mazda Miata from her apartment complex to further test for evidence.

It was later reported that investigators had impounded Jodi’s Miata and had successfully lifted an unidentified palm print off the car.

Police also confirmed that some residents heard noises that sounded like an animal or animal noises the morning Jodi vanished. We now know she screamed as she was dragged back down the center of the parking bumpers by her car, as her heel marks were left in the dirt on the pavement.

Neighbors also reported seeing a white van in the parking lot with its parking lights on that evening.

Eventually, there would be questions about whether the crime scene was correctly processed. In hindsight, the answer would be no. For instance, a friend of Jodi’s said police didn’t immediately tape off the crime scene, which could have resulted in contamination or evidence being overlooked. In addition, Jodi’s car was released to her parents shortly after the disappearance instead of being kept as evidence.

Current Chief of Police Jeff Brinkley was asked by 48 Hours if he thought the car was released in haste. He replied, “Maybe.”

“We don’t have it,” Brinkley said. “But we just have to live with what we got, and –and try to do as good as we can with that.” Brinkley is the fourth police chief to have Jodi’s case under his command.

“Basically, all my free time is following up on this case,” said Mason City Police Officer Terrance Prochaska, who took over the case in 2010.

“What caused her to sleep in that day? What caused her to answer the phone and rush to work? What was she doing the night before? We all want to know the fine details. We know where she was at. She was golfing. She had driven home and made a phone call to her friend. Those are facts. But it’s that gray area in between we don’t understand.”

John Vansice answering questions from a reporter at his residence in Arizona. Photo courtesy of CBS News.

Person of Interest

It is known that after work; Jodi attended the golf tournament. While at the tournament, she told some of her friends that she had been receiving prank phone calls and was thinking of going to the police and changing her number.

John Vansice, who was 22 years older than Jodi, was the last person to have seen her.

“She was like a daughter to me, she was like my own child,” Vansice said to KIMT in 1995. “I treated her like my own child.”

Friends of Jodi’s suspected Vansice may have been involved in her abduction. However, a friend of Vansice named LaDonna Woodford says there is no way because she had called him at 6:00 a.m. that morning wanting to go for a walk. When they walked later that morning, she said he didn’t seem anxious or out of sorts in any way.

Vansice also passed a polygraph in 1995 and was never named an official suspect. However, in March 2017, search warrants were issued for the GPS records of Vansice’s 1999 Honda Civic and 2013 GMC 1500. It was the most substantial break in the case in decades. However, to the disappointment of investigators, nothing of importance was ever recovered.

“We have never closed the case,” Chief Brinkley told 48 Hours. “It’s never been a closed case for us. It’s been an active investigation since it happened.”

“I’m not ready to quit yet,” Brinkley added.

JoAnn Nathe also told 48 Hours that she was once suspicious of John, but “we have to be objective; we have to have an open mind. It could be somebody we least expect.”

According to her coworkers, Iowa news anchorwoman Jodi Huisentruit was a “rising star” in her field.

Weekend Skiing

The weekend before Jodi vanished, she had gone water skiing with John Vansice and a couple of friends.

In Jodi’s June 25, 1995, journal entry she wrote, “Got home from a weekend trip to Iowa City — — oh we had fun! It was wild, partying and water skiing. We skied at the Coralville Reservoir. I’m improving on the skis — hips up, lean, etc. John’s son Trent gave me some great ski tip advice.”

Jodi Huisentruit went skiing the weekend before she vanished.

In November 2019, Cold Case Investigator Steve Ridge revealed that while skiing with Vansice, Jodi also boarded a Mastercraft ski boat of two younger men she had met the same weekend.

Ridge told KWWL News, that he spoke to witnesses who were at the lake that Saturday in 1995. Witnesses said Vansice was not enthused Jodi had left to spend time with younger men, but he did not overreact or cause a scene.

Ridge said that once Jodi and a female friend boarded the other men’s boat, they were seen drinking and dancing on the boat deck. Ridge also said the owner of the boat took a video of them which was given to Mason City Police investigators.

Ridge is still investigating whether one or both of the young men may have visited Jodi the following day, or Monday, the night she was abducted.

Ridge believes it is conceivable that a confrontation could have occurred that would shed light on a motive for Jodi’s abduction. “A lot of unfortunate things came together in a relatively short period of time just before Jodi went missing,” claims Ridge.

Although Ridge is an independent investigator, he still works with law enforcement and forwards all information to them regarding the case.

According to friends, Jodi Huisentruit was a friendly and vivacious young lady growing up.

Early Life

Jodi was born June 5, 1968, and raised in Long Prairie, Minnesota, a small town of less than 3,500 in 2010. She was the youngest daughter of Maurice Huisentruit and her mother Imogene “Jane” Anderson.

In high school, Jodi was a popular and well-liked student who excelled at golf and was considered to have amazing talent at the game. Her team won the Class A golf tournament in 1985 and 1986.

After high school, Jodi went to St. Cloud University, where she studied speech and mass communications, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1990.

Though she wanted to be a reporter, after graduating, Jodi’s first job was with Northwest Airlines. She began her broadcasting career with KGAN in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as the station’s bureau chief. She then returned to Minnesota for a job with KSAX in Alexandria before returning to Iowa for the position as a news anchor with KIMT.

“She wanted to be famous,” her childhood friend Kim Feist told 48 Hours.

Jodi Huisentruit’s mother Imogene, passed away in December 2014, without knowing where her daughter is.

Jodi was driven but she also was very close to her mom. In late January 1994, Jodi’s diary entry said “improve my career, make more money, communicate, have more impact on a larger audience. Get the Huisentruit name out. Make Mom proud.”

“I couldn’t have had a better kid sister,” said Jodi’s sister JoAnn Nathe told WOWT in Omaha. “She tried to motivate me. What are your goals? That makes me stronger. It’s a nightmare not knowing where she is. We thought we would find her in the first few months.”

Their mother, Imogene, passed away in December 2014 at age 91, not knowing where her daughter was. “She so wanted to find Jodi,” Nathe said.

As time passes, it doesn’t get easier for the families of missing persons. Memories fade and tips wane, but the hope to bring Jodi home for a proper burial still burns bright in the hearts of those that loved her.