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Dru Sjodin's legacy: Kidnapping-murder case generates changes in law

PEQUOT LAKES, Minn. — “I don’t try to dwell on the horror of how Dru was taken,” Linda Walker said last week from her home here. “I try to deal more in what I can do to help change even a small part of what’s happening.”

It will be 10 years on Friday since the kidnapping and murder of her daughter, University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, by Alfonso Rodriguez, a high-risk sex offender living in Crookston at the time.

Walker has since found a way through the unimaginable grief and loss to become a nationally recognized advocate to make sure, as she has said many times since, that “this doesn’t happen to someone else’s child.”

The crime not only profoundly affected people’s lives, it also changed the way the nation and the Grand Forks region deal with high-risk sex offenders.

Walker herself played a role. Her activism and lobbying were key to getting national legislation passed requiring more public information about high-risk sex offenders, including where they live. That information is now found on the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.

Among law enforcement officials, the murder was the biggest and most complex many here had seen in years, involving agencies from all three levels of government, reinforcing the tendency here to cooperate across jurisdictions.

Throughout the region, the murder raised awareness among women about violent crimes. At UND, the Women’s Center sees more participants in its self-defense course, and many say it was Sjodin’s murder case that made them sign up.

Rodriguez, now 60, is on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., still appealing his sentence, arguing he is mentally retarded, was insane at the time he killed Sjodin and had ineffective lawyers.

Weighing rights

His crime against Sjodin sparked a debate about whether state and local officials had erred by not committing him as a high-risk sex offender after his prison sentence was completed.

After sex-related attacks on three Crookston women, Rodriguez spent much of his adult life behind bars in Minnesota as a Level 3 sex offender, meaning he was at the highest risk of reoffending; he was a suspect in a fourth attack in southern Minnesota while briefly out of custody. But in May 2003, after serving his sentence, he was released, returning to Crookston to live in his mother’s home.

Six months later, he abducted and killed Sjodin.

North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, who, as the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, was lead prosecutor in the case, said the public outrage helped to change the way sex offenders are perceived. “It set in place a very broad-based and firm public consensus about the danger posed by sex offenders.”

Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger, who worked with Wrigley on the case as U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said he saw a rapid shift after Sjodin’s murder in public and official sentiment over how to deal with high-risk sex offenders.

“The focus really was on getting knowledge and information out to people and keeping sex offenders locked up through civil commitment,” he said. “Over here in Minnesota, more pressure was put on county attorneys to review these cases for civil commitment a lot more quickly and more aggressively.”

Before the case, most of the discussion was about the civil rights of sex offenders as they reached the end of their sentences.

Since 2003, the numbers of civil commitments of sex offenders have increased sharply, especially in Minnesota, and many experts agree it was largely because of Sjodin’s murder.

The sex offender registry, another legacy of the case, has become an important tool for the public, Heffelfinger said. “It takes it away from just being a law enforcement tracking of offenders and gives the public the right to track these people as well. And that’s a direct offshoot of her death.”

But Wrigley warned of a false sense of security. “I can look up where they live, but they are not all super-glued to a chair in their house. They are able to move in a wide swath.”

Fighting back

jodin’s death made a big impact on other young women at UND that is still being felt, according to Kay Mendick, director of the Women’s Center on campus.

In what she calls a kind of terrible irony, Sjodin took part in the center’s “Clothesline Project” in October 2003 and was appalled at reading the messages from victims of violence, shocked that humans would treat each other that way, Mendick said.

Only a few weeks later, Sjodin died from such violence.

Linda Walker agreed to come back and speak this October at the center’s “Take Back the Night” rally and Clothesline Project, giving a moving account of her horror of 10 years ago.

Victims’ cause

Walker says she’s met so many remarkable young women who inspire her to keep working.

Her main message, she says, is “Remember the victims.”

She’s been speaking to Minnesota officials looking to loosen restrictions on keeping sex offenders under civil commitment.

“I keep trying to address that and raise again to keep the focus on the victims,” she said. “Put the victims back in the equation when we are making these decisions allowing offenders their second and third and fourth chances. We need to change laws, have judges and prosecutors to quit plea bargaining and start locking them away.”