Rachel Anthony Unsolved: Community hopes for answers in cold case killing
PINE RIVER—Who killed Rachel Anthony?
That question has lingered in many minds over the past 16 years.
Anthony, 50, disappeared the night of Feb. 27, 2001, at the end of her shift at Ultimate Liquors in Pine River. It was bitterly cold and Anthony started her car to warm it up before her drive home. A police officer discovered the car idling about midnight and upon checking the liquor store, he found the back door unlocked with Anthony's purse and coat still inside, but no signs of her. Her body was found six weeks later in a ravine near Breezy Point, about 15 miles away off an infrequently traveled road.
Many leads were followed, possible suspects were ruled out and still today, there are no answers on who abducted and murdered an innocent woman.
The case remains an open investigation with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Cass County Sheriff's Office. Spotlight on Crime is offering up to $50,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for Anthony's death. If anyone knows anything about the case—whether it be something they don't think is relevant to the case or not—they are asked to let the BCA know about it by emailing email@example.com or calling the BCA tip line at 877-996-6222 or the Cass County Sheriff's Office 218-547-1424 or 1-800-450-2677.
"While we can't share specific information about the ongoing investigation, we can say that we believe this case can be solved," the BCA stated. "We know someone has information that could help us solve this case. We investigate every tip we receive and urge anyone with information about what happened to Rachel Anthony to contact us."
"I still miss her," Anthony's daughter Jessica Anthony, said in a telephone interview. Rachel Anthony was living with Jessica Anthony in rural Pequot Lakes before she was killed. Jessica Anthony now lives in Alabama.
"It sucks that nothing has come out of this as it has been 16 years," Anthony said of the case. "Every time we have a family function or are doing something we wish Mom was here with us. It's like when you are sick you want to call your mom ... You just want your mom here with you."
Anthony said when her mother first disappeared and they found her body, she never thought it would take so long to find the person or persons who did it. She said then once it got to be 10 years after the incident, she wondered and still does if anything will come up.
Anthony said she put a poster on her mother's homicide on Facebook on Feb. 22 and asked people to share it to "try to stir something up." She said it got almost 1,000 shares. Jessica Anthony said she has mixed feelings about her mother's homicide when it comes to the public.
"I want people to know it is still unsolved, but it reminds me of everything," Anthony said. "It's like a double-edged sword. People started sending me messages and it brought back a lot of bad memories, but I still want people to know that this case is still unsolved.
"(People I know) are afraid to talk to me about my mom because they don't want me to cry. Well, it's 16 years later and I am not afraid to talk about it. The more people who know the case, the better it will be and hopefully will help solve this case."
Today, the mystery of what happened to Rachel Anthony still haunts investigators who worked the case. It's still on the minds of David Bjerga, who was a BCA agent in Brainerd, and Mike Diekmann, a former Cass County Sheriff's Office investigator. Both retired more than five years ago.
"I will never forget that night," Diekmann said. "It was a Monday night and it was so cold out."
The town of less than 1,000 people was a ghost town and not many people were out and about as it was 19 degrees below zero. On the night of Feb. 27, 2001, Anthony was working alone at Ultimate Liquors in downtown Pine River, preparing to close the store. She went out and started her Ford Escort parked in front of the building to warm it up and locked the front door.
Pine River Police Officer Shawn Bennett was on patrol that night. Diekmann said Bennett saw the Escort running around 10 p.m., which was closing time and continued on patrol. Hours later, around midnight, the officer saw Anthony's car was still running in front of the business.
"He stopped to do a welfare check, but she wasn't there," Bjerga said. "Her purse, glasses and coat were in the store.
"The back door was unlocked and it looked like she took the garbage out and encountered someone, but we don't know that. The parking lot was glare ice, so there were no tire tracks. That hurt us as there was not much evidence forensically there."
No merchandise appeared to be taken and no cash was missing from the register. There was no sign of a struggle inside or outside of the store. The store was equipped with security cameras, but they were not recording that night.
--- --- --- --- ---
If you have any information that could help -
- email the BCA at firstname.lastname@example.org
- call the BCA tip line at 877-996-6222
- call the Cass County Sheriff's Office 218-547-1424 or 1-800-450-2677
--- --- --- --- ---
With the evidence at hand, investigators suspected Anthony had been taken from the store against her will. The BCA was called and the command center was set up.
"The liquor store became a crime scene," Diekmann said. "The wind was blowing all over the place and I remember not even a car on the street that night."
Anthony's daughter Jessica was the first person called as she lived with her. Investigators found out what happened during the day leading to Anthony's disappearance and if the daughter knew if there was anyone who wanted to harm her mother. Background checks were made and authorities checked out the daughter's alibi, as well as others close to Rachel Anthony, including her ex-husband, who was living in Princeton.
"We needed to see who was in town and had to check alibis," Diekmann said. "Like all investigations, we look at the people closest to the victim, but nothing panned out and possible suspects were eliminated."
Investigators looked at who was traveling along Highway 371 that night; looked at receipts made at the liquor store and what type of alcohol was purchased. All the people who made purchases from the liquor store during her shift were cooperative and were eliminated as suspects.
The last purchase rung up by Anthony that night was at 9:56 p.m. and the transaction was never completed—a purchase investigators believe was the killer.
"We checked to see if she had any issues that day with people at the liquor store with customers," Bjerga said. "There were a couple of people known to law enforcement who she had words with, but nothing to the point where someone would want to bring harm to her."
While investigators and agents looked for clues, extensive searches were ongoing in Pine River and the surrounding area by air and land to find Anthony. Neighborhoods were canvassed, but still no signs of Anthony.
"This person or persons who took Rachel had the right time and the right conditions to take her," Diekmann said, as there was no one around and it was dark and cold outside.
Tips were pouring in and even if authorities didn't think the tips made sense, they still followed up, Bjerga said. Callers informed authorities of "good spots to hide a body" or named a person who she may have had a "run-in with." People thought they saw her at a casino or provided a tip stating there was a "weird guy at work" who may have done it.
"Things just didn't make sense," Bjerga said on some of the tips. "It didn't make sense that she would go outside without her coat and purse. It came down to her relationships. The folks she knew, who she was intimate with. We found these folks, but they were eliminated because it wasn't them."
The tips called in to authorities never panned out.
"We still didn't have Rachel," Bjerga said.
Until six weeks later—April 13, 2001. Anthony's body was found in a ditch off Nelson Road in Breezy Point by four horseback riders, who were in their teens. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxia due to homicidal violence.
One of the horseback riders was age 14. Today, this woman, who did not want to be identified, said seeing the body still haunts her, even after all these years. The friends were trail riding that April day and were riding up the side of a narrow paved road—Nelson Road in Breezy Point—when one of the riders looked down and thought they saw something deep down in the ditch.
"We glanced down there and she was facing the other way and it looked like it had been down there for some time," she said. "It definitely startled us. And I was like if it is a body I was going to get the hell out of there. One of the friends got off his horse and leaned over the ditch for a closer look and realized it was not someone who was passed out. I was like 'Oh my gosh, this is not happening.' I hightailed it back to the barn and called 911. The others stayed there and called 911 too."
The woman said she went back to the scene to talk to investigators and learned the body was Rachel Anthony.
"I knew her story but it didn't cross my mind that it was her," the woman said. "The way her hair was woven into the ground, I thought it was a man at first."
The woman said it's frustrating to have a cold case so close to home, wondering if the same thing could happen to her or someone she knows.
"Having this happen in such a small town is unnerving," she said. "It's one of those things you wonder, why did someone abduct her in Pine River? Then why would they dump her body there (Breezy Point?) Did this person know the area?
"It's such an awful situation and it would be nice for the family to have closure. This isn't talked about much anymore. I've kept it on the back burner and haven't thought about it much. But I sure hope something comes out of it."
Bjerga said it appeared the killer threw her body over the high packed snowbank off the road and into the ditch, which was about 30-40 feet down. He said with the snow melting and the elevation of the horseback riders, it helped in sighting the body, as well as them traveling at a much slower speed.
"Whoever did this was extremely lucky," Bjerga said. "This is just another indication that the person who did this was from this area. No one from out of this area would even know about this road. This is a back road between Pequot Lakes and Breezy Point and only someone from this area would be able to find this road."
Bjerga said once the body was found, investigators dug more deeply into the investigation to find the person(s) responsible.
"This opened up a whole new group of possible suspects," Bjerga said. "They could be from Breezy Point, Jenkins, Pequot Lakes ... We already believed that whoever did it was from around here and after finding the body here, it reconfirmed it.
"Why this particular road? There is no reason for out-of-towners to be here. How would they find this particular road? If it was someone from out of town, you have the main highway (Highway 371) to leave town."
Bjerga said, in his opinion, someone saw an opportunity where a woman was working alone and abducted her. Bjerga said this suspect had to either have a weapon to lure the woman out of the liquor store or had another person with them to abduct her. He said it would be tough for someone to abduct someone without help.
"It would be hard to convince Rachel to go with someone without her belongings with the winter conditions out there and leaving the back door unlocked," Bjerga said. "It doesn't appear she was killed in that area (the liquor store) so there has to be another crime scene out there."
Diekmann said the way the body was found, authorities don't have an exact time of death, but believe it was right after her abduction. He said it would be too tough for the killer or killers to keep Anthony somewhere without getting caught.
"I have great hopes today that somebody who reads this sees and remembers something else that will give the now investigators a link to follow up," Diekmann said. "Time has a way of healing itself. Somebody who may know something may say 'Enough is enough, I've been carrying this burden for so long and here's the information I have.' I believe there is someone out there who actually knows something and hopefully they will come forward."
Bjerga said the trouble with cold cases is they are draining on agencies, as it is hard to keep up the momentum when they go cold. Investigators and agents have lots of cases they work on and there are never enough resources, Bjerga said. However, whenever a tip comes it is followed up and the agents are always working on it one way or another.
"It's frustrating," Bjerga said on not being able to find out what happened to Anthony. "You could be interacting with someone who did this and you don't know when you work on a case like this in a small town and people talk and there is a lot of suspicion and not everyone knows their neighbor.
"I still have friends in this area and people still ask who killed Rachel Anthony. There is no closure to this ... It is frustrating to think this person is still living their life and all she was doing was her job."
Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch, who was the chief deputy at the time of Anthony's abduction/murder, said authorities gathered every piece of evidence they could on the case. Burch said every tip is followed up and with the new technology, he hopes it will help solve the homicide.
"This is really hard on the family, the community and the investigators who have had to deal with this for all these years," Burch said. "We hope that by people reading this story that it will bring some light on the case. The person, persons responsible for this need to be held accountable and we are committed on resolving this case.
"This was a terrible crime ... Every time my phone rings I hope it is something where we can pounce on someone. The reward is there and we need the person responsible to do the right thing. The family needs closure."
Diekmann said every piece of information supplied on the case is a piece of the puzzle. Authorities need the remaining pieces of the puzzle to solve the mystery. Someone has to know something about the case, Diekmann said, and he encourages them to come forward.
"Any death investigation is challenging," the BCA stated. "While the passage of time adds to those challenges it doesn't lesson investigators' interest in getting to the truth about what happened. And, new scientific and investigative techniques are being developed every year that can shed new light on older unsolved cases."
"It was horrible," Kim Johnson, owner of Ultimate Liquors, said Wednesday when she got the call 16-years-ago that Anthony was abducted from the business. "We were just in shock. It was surreal and so horribly sad."
Johnson said she never would have thought it would take so many years to solve this case and to still have no answers on who took Anthony and killed her.
"She was a fun lady," Johnson said. "We laughed a lot together. She was easy to work with."
Johnson said Anthony worked at the liquor store for 18 months, before she was abducted. Back in 2001, the store was not located on Main Street. Johnson said they had plans to move to their current location just days before Anthony was taken.
Johnson keeps a photo of Anthony at the store to remember her.
"She will not be forgotten," Johnson said. "Customers who come in will see the photo and sometimes ask about the story (who she was and what happened to her)."
Spike Wales of Pine River was a barber in town when Anthony went missing. Wales said he came to Terry and Kim's Cottage Cafe in Pine River every morning at 5 a.m. for breakfast and the morning after her disappearance was no different.
"I came here and saw all the commotion going on at the liquor store," Wales said. "I first assumed they were broken into.
"I knew Rachel as her grandkids were on my bus."
Wales said when he thinks how Anthony was abducted and killed, he thinks about how Anthony and his wife were about the same age and had the same body type, and wonders how anyone could do such a thing.
When asked if he is scared her killer has not yet been found, Wales said, "No, I'm not worried. We're right-wingers and we pack heat.
"Sooner or later people will talk and we will know what happened to her and why. Every so often people talk about it. It could be anybody."
Bonnie Eller, who owns the cafe along with Donald Richards Jr., is originally from Brainerd and moved to Pine River in 2009. Eller said the Anthony case not only is a mystery, but what happened is gut-wrenching. Eller said the case inspired her to install cameras in the cafe.
"It shocks the crap out of you," said Vivian Manson of Pine River of her reaction when she heard what happened to Anthony. "It was scary, especially since at that time I was living by myself and I was just blocks away ... You wonder if this person (who killed Anthony) will come back and do the same thing to someone else."
Floyd Smith, also of Pine River, said authorities have done everything they can to try to find the killer. He hopes technology in today's world will help solve the mystery.
This story was corrected - a dot was left out of the BCA email address for tips. The correct address is email@example.com