Commentary: A story for the ages: Minn. teen's escape from abductors a lesson in hope, awe
ALEXANDRIA—It was Tuesday, Sept. 5, when something on the law enforcement scanner caught my attention.
"She says her name is Jasmine and she matches the description," said a voice.
The name Jasmine had become one heard often in our community, as 15-year-old Jasmine Block had been missing for nearly one month. Flyers were hung in storefronts and on bulletin boards, advertising the search for her. They adorned many vehicles in the area as well.
"This can't be real," I remember thinking as the scanner went off. "This has to be someone playing a sick joke."
I waited for officers to say it had been a misunderstanding. But the scanner chatter continued. I'd gotten what I'd wished for. A story was breaking wide open.
• • •
As a reporter at a small newspaper in west-central Minnesota, I never anticipated finding myself in the midst of a national news story. I've never had the desire to cover that level of news, honestly. For me, it's always been about covering what affects our community.
But this past summer, news that affected our community snowballed into a national story when Jasmine escaped after police say she was held against her will by three men for nearly one month.
The news release about a missing teenager came to reporter's email accounts on Wednesday, Aug. 9. A photo of a young girl — Jasmine — was attached. We didn't know then just how prominent that photo was about to become. I quickly put a story together and got it posted on our website. The situation wasn't abnormal at this point. We get these alerts sometimes, typically followed by another email a few hours or days later saying the person has been located. I think we expected that to be the case with Jasmine.
But days began to pass. Jasmine didn't come home. Her family and friends organized a search party, which my editor asked me to attend. It was there that I met Jasmine's mother, Sarah, for the first time. That's when it became real. This was someone's daughter, someone's sister, gone without a trace. My heart broke for the Block family that day and in many days following.
Jasmine's family and law enforcement officials organized numerous search parties. The Alexandria Police Department followed limited leads. A prayer service was held. Days turned to weeks. There was still no sign of Jasmine.
If I'm being honest, I didn't think this situation would have a happy ending. As reporters, the case was coming to a standstill. Our editor, Jeff Beach, was helping us come up with ideas to keep the information fresh. But there were only so many stories we could write before running out of new information to relay to the public.
Then came Sept. 5.
• • •
A call to Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen made it was obvious that something was really happening that afternoon. He told me what he could, which was limited. I verified the location in Grant County where Jasmine had supposedly been located.
I grabbed the portable scanner and began the 40-minute drive to the scene in Grant County. Bits and pieces came across the scanner, implying that law enforcement officials were still searching for people potentially involved in the case.
At the intersection near where Jasmine had been found, a deputy stopped me. Because they were still searching for potential suspects, I wasn't able to pass the point where he was stationed. I asked him if it would be OK if I drove around another way, just to try to take a photo of the law enforcement presence since a hill was blocking it from my direction. He said I was welcome to try.
That's how I found myself driving down gravel roads, surrounded by corn fields, with no cell service, while potential suspects were still on the loose. It was exhilarating, the thought of this story having a potentially happy ending and Jasmine being reunited with her family.
At the scene, I ended up snapping a photo of a car being towed away on a gravel road, which we later were told belonged to one of the men arrested in the case.
I then headed back to the office, where Echo Press staffers Karen Tolkkinen and Jeff Beach had been pulling together background information as police and Sarah Block confirmed the astonishing news that the missing girl had been found.
Reporter Celeste Edenloff headed to the emergency room, where we guessed Jasmine would be taken. There she met Kevin Taylor, the pastor at the Block's church, who relayed information from the family.
The next day, Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels filled in the story of how Jasmine had been held against her will by three men and had escaped, swimming across a lake and asking a man for help. That man, Earl Melchert, was deemed a hero by Jasmine's family and was later given a $7,000 reward, which he returned to the Block family.
• • •
The story of Jasmine Block is one that will stay close to our hearts as reporters because it impacted us on various levels.
It taught us the importance of teamwork. Not one of us could have covered this story on our own. It took all of us, together, taking on different angles, talking to different sources.
It taught us that forging genuine relationships with people, such as Sarah Block, matters. I consider Sarah a friend, as do the other reporters here. She knows we care about this story and her family on more than a professional level.
It taught us that a community will always pull together in a time of need. It's stunning, the number of people who act selflessly and volunteer their time and energy when it's needed.
But perhaps the biggest lesson was this: Never give up on a story. Sure, some will fizzle out or end badly. But some will surprise you. Some will touch your heart deeply. Some will light you up and re-energize you and remind you why you do what you do.
Some stories, like Jasmine's, will leave you in absolute awe.