Tragedy stirs memoriesAs the details trickled in last week, all they could think of was Jessica.
By: Mike Longaecker, The Republican Eagle
As the details trickled in last week, all they could think of was Jessica.
"All those memories came flooding back," said Goodhue County Sheriff Dean Albers.
The circumstances in the recent death of a Goodhue County toddler and the high-profile case of Jessica Swanson presented uncanny similarities, he said.
Cannon Falls. A dead girl, approximately 3 years old. Head trauma an apparent factor in the death. The suspect, the mother's boyfriend left alone with the child. Attending officers with the immediate feeling that something wasn't right.
"We said, 'Boy, does that sound familiar," Albers said.
Albers was the department's chief deputy in 1995, when toddler Jessica Swanson disappeared. Community members rallied around the case, staging multiple searches for the girl.
Swanson's body would be found four years later in rural Goodhue County after her mother's boyfriend, Dale Jenson, admitted to shoving her into an entertainment center, where she supposedly hit her head.
Last week, Cannon Falls police were called to the house of Justin Lake, where his girlfriend's daughter was inside, unconscious and unresponsive. Lake said the 2-year-old had fallen off a bed.
She would die four days later at St. Marys in Rochester just days before her third birthday. Doctors there said her injuries appeared to stem from abuse -- not a fall.
Lake faces first-degree assault and malicious child-punishment charges.
"We definitely had the feeling that, oh boy, another Jessica case," said Capt. Pat Thompson, who is supervising the Lake investigation.
Similarities in the cases are not likely to be lost on the community, said Cannon Falls police Chief Jeff McCormick.
Though he wasn't with the force while the Jessica Swanson case was active, he's aware of the effect it had on the Cannon Falls community.
"It's very possible that something like this can open up old wounds," McCormick said. "You have people who invested time and effort into what they hoped would be a happy outcome."
If there's been a positive outcome for law enforcement, Thompson said it has been the ability to manage a death investigation where abuse is suspected.
Thompson said he's been better able to organize facets of the case and anticipate what loopholes a defense attorney would seek. All those skills, he said, were enhanced after wrestling with the saga that was what he and Albers still refer to as "The Jessica Case."
"The experience that everyone in this office gained by working that case is immeasurable," Thompson said.
Yet for all the similarities Albers and Thompson see, they're not framing the Lake case as a carbon copy. Lake has been cooperative with investigators, Thompson said -- a sharp contrast to Jenson, who lied to police for years about Jessica's whereabouts.
"(Lake) doesn't have the baggage," Thompson said.
The captain also said the mother in the current case, Tabitha Hanson, is not a focus of the investigation; Jessica's mother, Michelle Swanson, pleaded guilty in 1999 to child endangerment after becoming a prime suspect in the case.
Thompson said Hanson "is not a person of interest right now."
He expected investigators to continue working on the case for up to a year.