An Anxious Search On The Plains

Dru Sjodin turns heads. The 22-year-old University of North Dakota senior with blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes--the homecoming queen in high school, as well as an honor student--was strolling through the Columbia Mall parking lot on the afternoon of Nov. 22. Finished with her shift at Victoria's Secret, she was chatting with her boyfriend on a cell phone. Suddenly, her tone changed: "Oh, my God!" she exclaimed. And then--nothing. Sjodin seemed to vanish.

For more than two weeks now, nobody has seen or heard from Sjodin. Police fear she caught the eye that afternoon of Alfonso Rodriguez, 50, a convicted rapist with a violent history. Rodriguez has been arrested and charged with kidnapping Sjodin. There is still no trace of her. The search continues to find her, but hopes now battle against the grim odds.

Some 1,700 searchers--including Sjodin's cousins from across the nation--have scoured riverbanks, ditches, ravines and grasslands in the flat, treeless prairie of the Upper Midwest. Sjodin's father, Allen, said he is "not wavering" in his resolve to find his daughter alive. But he said learning of Rodriguez's past "was a shock to my system." According to some reports, the blood type in Rodriguez's car matches Sjodin's. The case of Elizabeth Smart, the kidnapped Utah girl who surfaced after nine months, fuels the hope for miracles. But even the searchers and police find it difficult to sound optimistic. "I'd like to think she's alive someplace," says Fran Nelles, one of the searchers, his voice trailing off. Sgt. Michael Hedlund of the Grand Forks Police Department noted that the more time passes, the less likely it is that his forces will find a missing person alive. "Two weeks," he said somberly, "is a long time."

Rodriguez has spent most of his life in prison. In 1974, he was convicted of raping two women at knifepoint in Minnesota. On a furlough in 1980, he stabbed a woman as he tried to abduct her. His past is no secret in his hometown of Crookston, Minn. When Rodriguez was released from prison in May--after serving every day of a 23-year sentence--a Sex Offender Notification meeting spread the word that he was coming back. In the Minnesota town of 8,000, just about everybody knew about Rodriguez.

But in Grand Forks, Sjodin could scarcely have known about him. She was focused on triumphs and challenges ahead, like her upcoming studies in Australia. Scheduled to graduate next fall with a degree in graphic design, she is described by an academic adviser as a "wonderful student." But Sjodin is also known for cracking up with her sorority sisters of Gamma Phi Beta. One of them, Randy Canady, describes Sjodin as "so pretty she's one of those girls you want to hate--but you can't because you love her so much." She has always seemed to lead a charmed life. As they fight tears, her friends can only hope her charm can work again.