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20 years after man's disappearance, sister still seeking answers

Tiffany, left, and Michele Elsenpeter walk along the Main Avenue bridge between Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., on Wednesday. They carried signs offering a reward for information on Kevin Mahoney -- Michele's brother and Tiffany's uncle -- who disappeared 20 years ago.

FARGO -- It's been 20 years since Kevin Mahoney disappeared, and Michele Elsenpeter still sees, feels and hears reminders of her missing brother.

She sees his bushy, shoulder-length hair on strangers, and has to double-take passers-by with faces like the one she's only seen in photos for the last two decades. A gust of wind pushing her front door open could be her brother, just in time for dinner.

"Kevin is my ghost," Elsenpeter said.

In her annual tradition on the anniversary of his disappearance, Elsenpeter put up signs around town and marched Wednesday afternoon across the Red River on Main Avenue, begging the public to help answer a 20-year-old question she can't let go of: What happened to Kevin Mahoney?

Mahoney was last seen early in the morning of Oct. 2, 1993, when he left a friend's house in Fargo and headed on foot to his brother's apartment in Moorhead, Minn. He was 25 at the time.

Police believe foul play was a possibility in his disappearance. Elsenpeter said she's sure someone out there knows something that could help her find answers.

"We seriously don't think he just walked off," she said.

Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel said investigators have followed up on a number of potential leads to no avail.

Most recently, police got a warrant in 2011 to excavate the basement of a home in Fargo that Vettel would only describe as "a location (Mahoney) was reported to be at" prior to his disappearance. Police were looking for physical evidence -- possibly a body -- but found nothing.

Barring any new leads or promising information, Vettel said Mahoney's case will remain open but inactive.

"They keep looking, mainly for us. We won't let it go," Elsenpeter said after walking with signs across the Red River, side by side with her daughter, Tiffany.

Tiffany Elsenpeter said she has no recollection of her uncle and godfather -- she was just months old when he vanished. But there are photos and stories, tears and laughter.

Twenty years later, Michele Elsenpeter said the only thing that has gotten easier is making her annual plea to the public for help. Her yearly sign-posting routine generates plenty of tips to the police about possible Mahoney sightings, but none has panned out, she said.

Her hopes that her brother is still alive somewhere are slim, but they're there -- maybe he just bumped his head, she tells herself. In the end, Elsenpeter said she'd just like closure for her family and a grave to honor their brother and son.

Elsenpeter said her brother's disappearance has "taken a toll" on his mother, Judy Simonson, who is in a local nursing home. But Simonson refuses to sell her house, the last place where she saw her son, Elsenpeter said.

"In case he ever comes back, that house is going to be there for him to come home to," she said.