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After nightmare, Dru Sjodin is not forgotten

GRAND FORKS -- Ten years ago this week, University of North Dakota senior Dru Sjodin volunteered to hang up T-shirts with messages against violence for the eighth annual Clothesline Project organized by the Women's Center on campus.

Kay Mendick, director of the center, told UND students Tuesday she remembers how "stunned" Sjodin was that week, reading the messages on the T-shirts of what victims of "intimate violence" had suffered, almost disbelieving the cruelty revealed.

Only six weeks later, on Nov. 22, 2003, Sjodin, 22, was abducted at knifepoint from a parking lot at Columbia Mall in Grand Forks by convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez, 50, of Crookston, Minn. Within hours, he had sexually assaulted and murdered her and left her body in a ravine only a mile west of Crookston, a jury found in September 2006.

Rodriguez is appealing the death sentence imposed on him in early 2007.

Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, recounted the agonizing days, then weeks, then months, of the search for her daughter to a rapt crowd of 600 or more in UND's Memorial Union.

"I'm a mother whose only daughter was ripped away from her by a sexual predator," she said.

Walker told of going to Sjodin's Grand Forks apartment and holding her "PJs" to her face just to catch a whiff of her perfume.

She thanked the thousands of people who searched for Sjodin through snowdrifts, recalling how farmers donated fuel, restaurants meals, motels rooms and people around the world thousands of dollars.

Walker told of the moment state investigators met privately in early December 2003 with Sjodin's family to tell them her blood had been found in Rodriguez's car.

"Our worst nightmare was coming true."

She has filled the decade since with advocacy at the state and federal levels to make sure what happened to her daughter won't happen to other young women and men, Walker said.

"I have seen too many T-shirts hanging on the clothesline," she said.

Danielle Chartier, 18, came to Tuesday's event with a classmate because the message of raising awareness of domestic violence was important, "especially on a college campus, especially for freshmen."

Only eight when Sjodin was murdered, Chartier, from the Twin Cities, was familiar with her story partly from news coverage.

"And from my parents, when they found out I was coming to UND," she said. Their advice: "Have a buddy system, always have someone with you."

Walker said she was encouraged that positive things have come from Sjodin's "otherwise senseless death."

"As time has passed, there is more and more evidence that Dru has not been forgotten," Walker said. "I am meant to be her voice. There is so much more to do, we have only begun."