As state wants DNA from families of the missing, retired cop remembers the first to come forward
LAKE ELMO, Minn.—When former Washington County sheriff detective Jesse Kurtz read about a recent state effort to get family members of the missing to come forward, his mind drifted three decades back.
"This thing has haunted me," Kurtz says. "I think of her almost every day."
The 'thing' Kurtz is talking about is the 1988 disappearance of 19-year-old Susan Swedell from a Lake Elmo gas station, which remains unsolved to this day.
Thousands of other Minnesotans have gone missing, before and since. But the case was a first for state officials in a big way.
Back when Kurtz—who as a deputy responded to the initial missing person call at the Swedell family home—took a fresh look at the case in 2002, he remembers talking to Swedell's mother, again. They'd just had a news conference announcing a $25,000 reward for any information on the young woman.
"That same day I took her mom and sister over to Regions Hospital (and) did a blood draw," Kurtz remembers.
Then they drove to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension headquarters in St. Paul. Kurtz remembers telling a technician he had a DNA sample from the family of a long-time missing person.
But the BCA, at that point, wasn't used to accepting such evidence; there was no "DNA database" for family members of the missing.
"They didn't have anything. The technician had to get his boss. ... He said, 'not sure what you want to do with this. Is this a case we're working?' " Kurtz said.
Kurtz told the tech he'd like the state to keep that blood, in case it was needed in the future. You never knew what might happen to the family.
The boss evidently agreed: BCA officials confirmed that the Swedell family's DNA was the first "Missing Person Relative" sample in state history they ever took into their custody.
"They said 'we'll do it,' no arguments at all," Kurtz said.
Ever since, the state has been upping its efforts to get more "samples" from family. Earlier this month, they made a highly publicized push for more family to come forward, noting they'd just dug up five unidentified bodies from graveyards in the East Metro, to add to the 100 or so they already have in their care.
KURTZ: MAKE IT COMMON PRACTICE
But Kurtz wants more. For years, off and on, he's been pushing for a policy—perhaps a law—that would make it common practice for officers to get missing person DNA samples immediately, as they take their initial reports. Bag a tooth or hair brush, and keep it on hand, just in case.
"If they (families) don't wanna do it, they don't wanna do it, but I guarantee 99 percent of them will do it," Kurtz said. "Because what are family members doing? They're cleaning up the (missing person's) room." And what they remove could later be helpful to locate a loved one, he explains.
Kurtz admits he's not familiar with the lobbyist labyrinth he'd need to navigate to turn such an idea into a law. After retiring in 2003, he worked as a private investigator for awhile, and now does security work at Twins games.
But he's got a tentative advocate in current Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry, who he helped train years ago.
"I think the sooner that there's DNA, the better," Starry said. "But it has to be permission based."
Starry said he intends to bring the idea up at an August meeting of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association.
HOW CASES CURRENTLY HANDLED
The BCA noted that they already ask local agencies to request and submit such DNA if the missing persons case is still active at 30 days.
When asked about Starry's idea, BCA spokesman Jill Oliveira said, "Each case has unique characteristics that will inform a local agency decision about whether direct reference or family member DNA collection would be of value in the earliest stages of their investigation.
"The local agency is in the best position to make that determination," Oliveira added.
When it comes to the Swedell case, Kurtz said he wishes he would've gotten those samples earlier.
"It is still one of those cases that is in the forefront of the sheriff's office,' said Starry. "I, as sheriff, will not allow that case to sit idle."
SWEDELL'S LAST KNOWN MOMENTS
Susan Swedell went missing on Jan. 19, 1988, after leaving her overheated car at a Lake Elmo gas station, following her shift at a Kmart in Oak Park Heights. The gas station's attendant saw her get in another man's car, and a subsequent investigation of her car found that the radiator's "petcock" — the plug on the bottom — had been removed, draining the radiator of fluid.
The station where she was last seen was less than a mile from her home.
The BCA made a public plea last week for family members of missing persons to come forward and give their own DNA, to help identify some of the remains they were keeping in custody.
One public event remains this month, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 27, at the Blue Earth County Justice Center at 401 Carver Road.
In all, the BCA has roughly 100 sets of remains that have yet to be identified; there are approximately 225 Minnesotans who have been missing for more than a year.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the BCA's remaining public event is scheduled to be at the Mankato Public Safety Center.