05/03/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
The winter's snow was finally gone, so her loved ones set out to find Dru Sjodin. Her boyfriend Chris Lang, the last person to speak with her before she vanished from a mall parking lot in Grand Forks, N. Dak., on Nov. 22, joined her parents, Allen and Linda—and more than 200 other searchers, including local, state and federal officers—to comb the desolate fields just across the border with Minnesota on April 17. Only an hour into the hunt, Linda's cell phone rang. "We went numb," says Lang, 33. "In our hearts, we knew. You could feel it in the air. We knew this day would come."
At about 10 a.m. a retired sheriff's deputy found Dru's body near a wooded ravine outside Crookston, Minn., ending five months of torment about the 22-year-old coed's fate. Searchers focused on the Crookston area because Dru's cell phone emitted a signal from there in November and because the town was home to Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., 51, a twice-convicted sex offender who was charged last fall with abducting her (police say they found blood matching her DNA in his car). A preliminary autopsy report indicated Dru was the victim of a homicide.
Just a few weeks ago Dru's father and other searchers came within several feet of her snow-covered remains. Then, on the morning of the first major spring search, the retired deputy hugged Linda and said, "I'm going to find your daughter for you today." He did. "She's not lost anymore," says Dru's aunt Carol Sutfin, 54. "But it's been bittersweet. The finality of it is hard."
The discovery of Dru's body one state over from where she disappeared makes her murder a federal crime, exposing Rodriguez to a possible death sentence. The day after Dru was found, nearly 500 people gathered at a memorial at the University of North Dakota, where she was a senior; hundreds more are expected at her funeral, set for April 24. Meanwhile, those closest to Dru must cope with a new kind of pain. "I'll have to deal with her death now," says Chris Lang. "But I will never accept how she was taken from us."