In 10 years a lot has changed for the family of Rachel Anthony.
Grandchildren have grown, kids have moved across the country and loved ones have passed on.
The one constant for the family this past decade has been the lack of answers to two burning questions: Why was Rachel murdered and who is responsible.
The dates Feb. 27 and April 13 have a lot of meaning for Rachel’s family. Feb. 27, 2001, was the day she disappeared from Pine River. April 13, 2001, was the day her body was found in Breezy Point.
Rachel’s daughters, Jessica Winch and Tricia Lehr, said they dread those dates every year. In advance of the 10th anniversary of their mother’s disappearance and murder, they wrote down their thoughts to share with others.
“When this time of year rolls around, do you ever wonder much about past events or how frustrating the weather can be? Looking forward to spring? (We) think about it a lot. Particularly Feb. 27, the day my mom went missing in Pine River,” they wrote. “Being woke up in the middle of the night by a phone call from the police. The next two months being a blur filled with what ifs and why is this happening. Then on April 13th having officers come to tell me her body was found.
“Ten years ago this happened and to this day it remains on (our) family’s mind. Once in a while my sister or I will pull out one of the news articles and it still brings us great sadness. To have our mother taken away from us, to not see our children grow up, to not be there for us when we needed our mom. Not a day goes by that we don’t think of her and wish that she could be with us. We still hold hope that justice will be found and want to remind everyone that if you know anything to please contact (law enforcement).”
On Feb. 27, 2001, Rachel was working alone at Ultimate Liquors in downtown Pine River, preparing to close the store. It was a frigid night, down to 19 degrees below zero. Anthony started her Ford Escort parked in front of the building to warm it up and locked the front door.
Then Rachel vanished.
About 1 a.m. on Feb. 28, 2001, Pine River Police Officer Shawn Bennett found Rachel’s’ car still running in front of the business, but she was not inside. Her coat, purse and keys were found in the store. No merchandise appeared 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.
With the evidence at hand, investigators suspected Rachel had been taken from the store against her will and launched extensive searches of Pine River and the surrounding area by air and land.
For weeks, the investigation and searches proved fruitless. Until April 13, that is, when Rachel’s body was found by horseback riders in a ditch off Nelson Road in Breezy Point. The cause of death was determined to be asphyxia due to homicidal violence.
In the proceeding 10 years, law enforcement officers from numerous agencies have conducted hundreds of interviews, poured over evidence collected in Pine River and Breezy Point.
To this day the person or people who murdered Rachel remain at large.
“This has been really difficult,” said Dave Bjerga, acting superintendent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. At the time of Rachel’s disappearance, Bjerga was a BCA special agent based in Brainerd and assigned to the Rachel Anthony case.
“This is not one I thought would take 10 years. It’s been frustrating for everybody. It’s been looked at by multiple people and we continue to look at it, we continue to press for leads. It’s always on our minds.”
Rachel, 50, was living at Winch’s rural Pequot Lakes home when she disappeared. Winch described the days following her mother’s disappearance as a whirlwind — calling family out of state, getting updates from police and dealing with the media. Winch said she still harbors resentment at media members for shoving cameras in her face.
Lehr, who lived in Pennsylvania at the time of her mother’s murder and now lives in Alabama, said she and her sister have leaned on each other for support during the past 10 years.
“For me, it’s kind of hit or miss. I can have days where the memory is really bad and other days where I’m fine,” Lehr said. “Christmas is tough for me, with the memories we had with our mom. I find birthdays also are difficult because she used to call me on my birthday and say, “I remember the day you were born.”
Winch and Lehr appreciate law enforcement efforts and their attention to Rachel’s family. Winch said she also appreciates the support she received from the community.
Though their mother’s killer has not been brought to justice, Lehr and Winch said they won’t lose hope.
“That’s one of the good things you can hold onto — hope,” Winch said.
Rachel’s sister, Connie Clark, in an e-mail said she thinks about her sister every day and misses her terribly.
“Especially since I have also lost my mom this past year,” Clark wrote. “I had only hoped we would have had an answer or reason why she was murdered before (our) mom passed away. How sad to leave this world losing a child and not know why.”
Bjerga said investigators have a couple theories of what happened to Rachel, but declined to go into specific details because the case is still under investigation.
“We still believe it was someone who has connections to the (Pine River) area. It wasn’t someone just passing through,” Bjerga said. “There’s been no information that takes away from that theory at all. When we do get different information we’ll change direction.”
Bjerga said he still gets four to six tips a year on the case from people in the Pequot Lakes and Pine River area. As recently as September investigators received a lead that they’re still working on, he said.
Also providing optimism, Bjerga said, has been a change in technology during the past 10 years that has allowed investigators different ways to look at evidence collected in Rachel’s murder.
“This is one that’s solvable, I still believe that,” Bjerga said. “We’re not going away on this case.”
Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch, whose department also is investigating Rachel’s murder, said new leads have been far and few between during the past few years but he remains hopeful information will come in that gets the case again moving forward.
“But without any new leads, every day it becomes more difficult to solve,” Burch said.
Authorities have tried numerous avenues to keep the case in the public’s eye and generate clues. Within weeks of Rachel’s disappearance a $10,000 reward was offered for information in the case. In 2008 Spotlight on Crime offered a reward of up to $50,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for Rachel’s abduction and murder.
Though he didn’t start with the department until 2003, Pine River Police Chief Josh Ebert said is well aware of the impact Rachel’s murder had on the city. He said he’s asked about the case frequently.
“This is a small community and that type of crime is unsettling, not knowing what happened,” Ebert said. “We’re still hopeful that somebody out there knows something and will come forward with information.”
Ebert said security cameras have been installed in the city and residents are now more wary of people in town they don’t recognize. He said people have been vigilant in reporting suspicious behavior.
“It absolutely isn’t gone from people’s minds,” Ebert said.
That memory has been extremely painful for everyone involved, Burch said. But never giving up on the case means remaining positive Rachel’s killer will be found, he said.
“Positive for the family’s sake and the community’s sake,” Burch said. “In general, good hard work is rewarded. We’ll continue to work hard until we have a successful outcome, whether it happens tomorrow or several years from now.”
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.