MINNEAPOLIS - On this day 18 years ago, Jodi Huisentruit vanished. The morning news anchor at KIMT-TV in Mason City, Iowa, disappeared before her morning shift. Her belongings were scattered across her apartment parking lot. Police never found her abductor and nearly two decades later, there are still few clues. Huisentruit was declared legally dead in 2001. She disappeared at age 27, and would have turned 45 years old this month.
That's why a group of professionals from across the country have launched their own search, bringing their expertise and efforts through the website, FindJodi.com. Every month, law enforcement and journalists behind Find Jodi.com meet over Skype. Together they compare theories, possible suspects and tips that come into the website.
"The mystery is there, it's waiting for somebody to solve it, and we've got to do that for the family. We have been all over the state of Iowa following up leads and I think that we are very close," said Gary Peterson, a journalist and state certified death scene investigator who lives in Spring Valley, Minnesota.
Peterson founded FindJodi.com along with the CBS Miami morning TV anchor Josh Benson. Both Peterson and Benson reported extensively on Huisentruit when they worked together at KAAL-TV, an Austin, Minnesota TV station. After airing a 14 part television series on her disappearance, and decided to continue their coverage off air.
"We get anywhere from five to ten leads a week and now it is into the dozens," said Benson, who says he hopes the group will bring new eyes and ideas to the investigation.
"We are just trying to get Mason City Police to open up a little bit. Eighteen years is a cold case and if there is any information that is withheld from the public, I think it's key to get it out there," said Jay Alberio, a retired Woodbury Police Commander, who joined the group just after retirement in 2013.
The FindJodi.com group also includes former WCCO reporter Caroline Lowe, who covered the case for years and now works in television in California. Tara Manis is another team member who is a television producer in Miami, Florida. Beth Bednar came aboard as a former broadcaster who knew Huisentruit professionally, and wrote a book about Jodi's disappearance, titled "Dead Air."
"I do feel a nudge, and feel it's something I have to do," said Bednar. "We are team of people from across the country committed to finding Jodi and we all came to it in a different way for our own personal reasons and I think we are making a very credible effort."
Mason City Police say they still receive several phone calls about the case every month, but after 18 years have made little headway. The lead investigator, Lt. Frank Sterns, is the only officer that remains at the department since the time Huisentruit disappeared. He says he welcomes the help from FindJodi.com as long as the team doesn't pursue leads on their own.
"It's been good and bad, we've been frustrated with them, and they've been frustrated with us. We feel like we are always going to work with them. We can't take the law into our own hands, nor do we want to," said Benson.
Benson says he hopes the team can help agencies with manpower in an age when funding to launch large investigations is lacking. He says even more problematic is time, many key witnesses who have contacted FindJodi.com have already passed away.
"There was one specific person, a neighbor of Jodi's, that came forward and claimed he actually saw two people outside putting a garbage bag with a big object - if not a person - into the back of the car, that's never been reported, never been brought up," said Benson. "The person who reported it has since died."
Alberio has some of his own theories. He says he became interested in the case back in the late 1990s, when he arrested Tony Jackson, a convicted serial rapist who was in Mason City at the time of Jodi's disappearance. Jackson is serving a life sentence for rapes in Minnesota and Iowa but has never been publicly named as a person of interest in Jodi's abduction. Jackson has always maintained his innocence's in Huisentruit's case.
"I've always wondered. He was from Mason City. He was there at the time she disappeared. There were things he said in interviews that may you think, wow, did this guy possibly do it?" said Alberio.
New clues and the work of strangers are most welcome by Huisentruit's family. Her oldest sister Joann Nathe says the need now is urgent with their mother is in failing health in a nursing home.
"She just can't understand why Jodi hasn't come to visit. She's had periods like that. It's a heartbreaker to have to hear her say that," said Nathe. "I hope this will bring the answers. 18 years is a long time. It just makes you shudder."
Nathe and the FindJodi.com team brought the search to the heart of Huisentruit's hometown in Long Prairie, Minnesota this month. Every June, friends and family host the Jodi's Network of Hope golf tournament in her memory at the Long Prairie Country Club, where Huisentruit once honed her swing as a state championship golfer.
"It took us ten years of being in shock, not knowing what to do, until we could figure out what to do," said Amy Ahrens, Huisentruit's best friend since kindergarten.
Huisentruit has never had a funeral. Instead, Ahrens created a marble bench sits near Huisentruit's favorite fairway. It's engraved with a tribute in memory of a treasured friendship, and Ahrens is hopeful the new team will finally help put Huisentruit to rest.
"I think the hope has always been there, they are just fanning the flame," said Ahrens.
Whether it is police, journalists or loved ones, heartache is the force behind a case that's seemingly stood still. This new cross country search is more than finding Jodi, in the end; they'd like to bring her home.
"I am not a parent yet but I think that would be the worst, most horrific experience to deal with. Knowing your child has disappeared and you don't have an answer," said Benson.
"It's amazing people would dedicate their time and give up their free time to do this, I mean, I can't get over it. They are giving up their precious time - I am just overwhelmed," said Nathe.
FindJodi.com relies solely on volunteer work and donations. Learn more about the team's efforts at www.findjodi.com , where the team outlines their latest leads and possible people of interest in the case. Follow the group @FindJodi on Twitter, as they live tweet the events surrounding the 48 hours of her disappearance.
Jodi's Network of Hope raises money for scholarships for students in Long Prairie and will also be featuring a women's personal safety class Monday, August 5th in St. Cloud at the St. Cloud Library. Jodi's family and friends hope many young women will attend.
(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)