Searching for Dru

updated 12/15/2003 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/2003 01:00AM

They had only been dating for five months, still in that sweet period when every little thing deserves a call. So it was that Dru Sjodin, a 22-year-old senior at the University of North Dakota, called her boyfriend Chris Lang on her cell phone at 5 p.m. on Nov. 22. She'd just gotten off from her part-time job at a Victoria's Secret store in her college town of Grand Forks and was chatting from the parking lot of the mall. "She was telling me about a purse she got a deal on," says Lang, 32, a graphic designer in Minneapolis. "She has a crazy purse habit." Then suddenly Dru was cut off. "Her tone of voice never changed," Lang told PEOPLE. "There was no sense of urgency. I thought her phone just went dead."

And with that, Dru Sjodin (pronounced Shu-deen), a strikingly pretty former homecoming queen with an uncommonly warm personality, vanished. In the days that followed, authorities organized a massive search effort, employing as many as 75 law-enforcement officers, including 15 FBI agents. So deeply touched were Grand Forks residents that when officials issued a plea for volunteers to help, 1,300 people answered the call. They fanned out across the frigid countryside, combing fields inch by inch. "They were motivated by Dru. They wanted to be there for her," says Polk County Sheriff Mark LeTexier. "That just drives someone, when it's coming from the heart."

Although the mass mobilization initially found no trace of Sjodin, the police work did pay off. On the evening of Dec. 1, authorities announced they had arrested Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., 50, at his home in Crookston, Minn., just over the border from North Dakota, on charges of kidnapping in connection with Sjodin's disappearance. Police declined to say what had led them to charge Rodriguez, who has a history of abducting and sexually assaulting women. But Grand Forks County State's Attorney Peter Welte said that investigators have information that places him at the scene of Sjodin's disappearance. "We do have probable cause that he was in Grand Forks at that time and that he was in the parking lot," said Welte. A lawyer for Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.

Initially, it appeared that police in Grand Forks had very little to go on. After the call from the mall, Lang repeatedly tried to phone Sjodin but couldn't reach her. (Contrary to early news reports, Lang says that Sjodin never gave a startled cry of "Oh, no!" during the call from the mall.) Then at 7:42 that night his phone rang again. The caller ID indicated the signal was coming from Sjodin's cell phone. But all he heard was a lot of static and a few random touch-tone beeps. After 20 seconds or so the call cut off.

Growing concerned, Lang called Sjodin's roommate Meg Murphy, who checked with hospitals in the Grand Forks area to see if Sjodin had been injured. Shortly after 9 p.m., when somebody at the El Roco nightclub, where Sjodin also worked as a waitress, phoned her apartment to find out why she had not shown up for work, Murphy notified University of North Dakota campus security. "Watching the police go through her room with rubber gloves was very hard," says Murphy.

Investigators also went to work analyzing Sjodin's cell phone records. They were able to determine that the phone had been left on—but not used—until 8 p.m. on Nov. 23, when either someone turned it off or the battery went dead. They discovered that the signal from the phone had been pinging off a cell tower in Fisher's Landing, a highway rest stop in Minnesota, twelve miles southeast of Grand Forks. As it turned out, the Fisher's Landing tower is roughly midway between Grand Forks and Rodriguez's home in Crookston.

Rodriguez had been living in Crookston since May, when he completed a 23-year prison sentence for an attempted kidnapping in which he had forced a woman into a car and stabbed her. At the time of the incident, in 1980, he'd just finished six years behind bars for an earlier aggravated rape conviction. It was that record that first raised the curiosity of the police investigating Sjodin's disappearance. When they ran a check of men charged with abductions and sexual assaults in the past, they came up with nine names in the Crookston-Grand Forks area—but Rodriguez was the only one who had been classified as a level-3 offender, the second-most-dangerous category.

Those grim details contrast sharply with Sjodin's bright life. "She definitely stands out in any crowd," says Vickie Palmer, her former English teacher from Pequot Lakes High School. "Look for the most beautiful person—blonde hair, gorgeous porcelain skin." Apparently her vivacious personality was equally attractive. "She brightened up your life every time she walked into a room," says Tom Smith, her high school gym teacher.

Her parents—Allan Sjodin, 52, a construction manager, and Linda Walker, 50, a flight attendant for Sun Country Airlines—divorced when she was a toddler. From age 10, she and her brother Sven, 24 (who now works for a car dealership in California), were raised by Linda and her second husband, Sid Walker, 66, a travel agent, in a comfortable home on Whitefish Lake, renowned as one of Minnesota's most scenic vacation spots. Dru blossomed in high school, becoming an honor student, joining the golf team and getting elected homecoming queen in 1999. But her real passion was for art. Her room at home was filled with her sketches of rock stars, models and her friends. "She was always artistic," says her stepfather Sid. "I'd look and see a blank. She'd look and see depth, variety and beauty. It was just natural for her."

Even with Rodriguez in custody, the police were no closer to locating Sjodin at press time. And so, in a cruel irony, friends of the graphic-arts major are now producing their own designs on posters, fliers and buttons with her picture, hoping to get her back. Pink ribbons—pink is her favorite color—festoon the trees at home in Pequot Lakes. Her entire family, plus as many as 25 friends from high school, who drove nearly four hours, have descended on Grand Forks to take part in the continuing search. All voice optimism. Says her father, Allan: "We think she's alive, and we're going to find her."

Bill Hewitt. Kelly Williams in Grand Forks and Margaret Nelson in Pequot Lakes

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