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N.D. Woman’s Disappearance Scares Campus

December 14, 2003

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) _ Reminders of Dru Sjodin are all around the University of North Dakota campus: pink and white ribbons, buttons bearing pictures of the missing student, fliers calling for harsh punishment of the man suspected of kidnapping her.

Other signs that students are aware of the disappearance _ and worried _ are less obvious. Some students have started carrying pepper spray. Others are seeking counseling.

``I know me and my roommates are kind of on edge,″ said Becca Perry, 18, who moved into a new apartment with some friends about a month ago in an unfamiliar neighborhood. She said the mother of one of her roommates has taken to following her daughter home on some nights.

``I don’t think I’ll ever be as secure,″ Perry said.

Amanda Ortmeier, who works at the mall where Sjodin was last seen, said she used to think of North Dakota as safe. Now, her roommates have bought pepper spray.

``You feel defenseless. Honestly, if I was walking out, anyone could nab me. There’s not much I could do about it,″ Ortmeier said.

Authorities believe Sjodin was abducted after she left work at a Victoria’s Secret store in the Columbia Mall on Nov. 22. The 22-year-old from Pequot Lakes, Minn., was last heard from when she spoke to her boyfriend by cell phone after leaving her job.

Thousands of volunteers have searched for Sjodin, and hundreds of National Guardsmen covered 800 square miles of the snow-covered ground of North Dakota and Minnesota again Saturday. They scoured fields and rural roads again and drilled through newly formed ice on one river, but found nothing. The search would resume Sunday only in Minnesota.

After this weekend, there probably won’t be any more wide-scale searches, said Maj. Mike Fonder of the Grand Forks County sheriff’s department.

``We have covered so much ground and with the weather getting worse, I’m not sure if any more searches would be effective,″ he said.

While Sjodin’s family is holding out hope she’ll be found alive, Grand Forks County Sheriff Dan Hill has said the young woman is probably dead. Police said her blood was found in the car of convicted rapist Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who is charged with kidnapping her, and a knife in the car’s trunk matched a sheath found near Sjodin’s car, left at the mall parking lot.

Rodriguez had returned to his mother’s home in Crookston, Minn., this spring after serving 23 years in prison for attempted abduction.

Four months before his release, a Minnesota Department of Corrections psychologist warned that the severity of Rodriguez’s assaults on women appeared to be increasing and that Rodriguez’s ``victim pool″ of women apparently chosen at random ``suggests a need for broader notification of the public″ than permitted by state guidelines.

Based on that review, Rodriguez, 50, was designated a Level 3 offender, a category reserved for those who show the highest likelihood to commit more sex crimes. But authorities decided against holding him indefinitely for treatment.

Rodriguez is now jailed on $5 million bail on the kidnapping charge. His attorney, David Dusek, has said Rodriguez is not talking to authorities.

A search warrant unsealed earlier this week showed about a three-hour gap between the time Sjodin disappeared and the time Rodriguez appeared at his mother’s home. Authorities said they do not believe his story that he went to a movie near the mall about the time Sjodin disappeared; they say the movie wasn’t showing anywhere near the mall that day.

Rodriguez has said he is innocent.

Still, some students ``either want him dead or locked away,″ Ortmeier said.

On campus, more students are seeking counseling since Sjodin disappeared, said Erik Mansager, director of UND’s counseling center. The center is offering ``reflection rooms″ in the student union for people to sit, talk and share, and counselors have been out with the searchers looking for Sjodin.

``Those searches were extremely stressful,″ he said. ``You go out wanting to help and yet afraid you’re going to find something. These are a group, by and large, of competent can-do kind of kids. When they can’t do, it’s especially frustrating.″

Chad Iwen said he met Sjodin as a freshman, when they lived in neighboring buildings. With her smiling image pinned to his lapel, Iwen said he wanted to focus on finding her rather than on anger toward the suspect.

``Everybody’s hope is still trying to find her,″ said Iwen, 21. ``We’ll worry about him later.″

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