Former news anchor writes book about Huisentruit’s disappearance

by Nathan Warner
Contributing writer

Author and speaker Beth Bednar landed at the Sherburne History Center in Becker Aug. Aug. 4 to speak about her book, “Dead Air: the Disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit,” to a small crowd, while also sharing a little about the ongoing investigation into what happened to the Mason City, Iowa news anchor.

Jodi Huisentruit’s disappearance has continued to reverberate through the Midwest and the nation since the day she vanished outside her apartment in Mason City in the early morning hours of June 27, 1995.

A native of Long Prairie, Huisentruit had earned her bachelor’s degree at St. Cloud State University and worked briefly as a flight attendant before entering the news business as a TV news anchor in Mason City.

She had only been in the town for two years on the fateful morning of her disappearance when her news producer, Amy Kuns, called her at 4 a.m. to remind her to come into work. “Kuns said Huisentruit sounded groggy and added that she seemed alarmed she’d overslept,” Bednar recounted. This was the last known conversation anyone had with Huisentruit.

By 7 a.m., Kuns knew something was wrong and called the police. When police arrived at the Key Apartments, they found a crime scene in the parking lot. Huisentruit’s belongings were scattered around her red Mazda Miata and there were signs of a violent struggle: Someone had been thrown into the convertible roof of the car, crushing it, and blood and tissue were found on the driver’s side mirror. Marks on the pavement suggested Huisentruit had been dragged away to an unmarked, white van that witnesses had seen waiting outside with its running lights on earlier that morning.

As the hours flowed into days and weeks, the scent grew cold and the investigation sank deeper into mystery with no evidence forthcoming to explain what had happened. Jodi Huisentruit had truly disappeared.

At the time, Bednar was a 20-year news veteran and TV anchor at KAAL-TV in southern Minnesota. She was a colleague of Huisentruit, who worked for rival station KIMT-TV in Mason City. “We weren’t really friends,” Bednar recalls, “but we certainly knew about each other and had met several times. We were both news anchors and had a natural rivalry going.”

Huisentruit’s disappearance shook Bednar to the core and she was physically sick from the event.

“I couldn’t believe that anyone would go after a well-known, visible individual in the news business,” she said, adding that she had never seen her job as dangerous in the slightest.

Bednar began a career as a public speaker and seminar trainer and currently is involved in ministry and humanitarian efforts around the world. In 2002, she bumped into her old news director, Gary Peterson, at the Austin, Minn. news station she had worked at for so long. Peterson had launched his own nonprofit organization with news anchor Josh Benson called “findjodi.com,” which investigated cold and missing-person cases.

Peterson shared the knowledge he’d gained from his investigation into the Huisentruit case. “He told me he was putting it all together, but he needed someone to turn it into a book,” Bednar recalls, “and then he asked me if I would write it.” Bednar says she dismissed it at first, but the idea wouldn’t let go and with encouragement from her family and friends, she finally decided to write “Dead Air” seven years later, in 2009.

She wrote down a few of the questions she hoped to answer: Why should we still care about a case this old? Was Jodi targeted because of her celebrity? How has this case affected people personally? Has enough been done to look for Jodi? What is the hopeful outcome of writing a book about Jodi Huisentruit?

Bednar’s first step was to drive down to Mason City to interview people and conduct more research, but she was in for a shock. “No one wanted to talk about Jodi Huisentruit,” she said. “I hit road block after road block and doors were even shut in my face.”

She says the police stonewalled her and people asked her if she knew she was putting her life in danger. The people she did eventually coax into talking with her shared knowledge that was crucial to the investigation, but had never shared with anyone else. “I asked them why they didn’t talk to the authorities,” Bednar said, “and they told me, ‘Look, lady, I have to live and work in this town, you don’t.’”

This surprised Bednar. “I never expected there to be an atmosphere of denial and a culture of resistance to solving the murder of this young woman,” she said, “and after I encountered it, I was hooked — I knew I had to write this book and work on solving this case. There was just something unnatural about the situation that begged to be explained.”

Bednar says most people experience “six degrees of separation,” which means everyone on average is approximately six steps away from any other person on Earth by way of introduction. “In small towns like Mason City it’s more like two degrees of separation,” Bednar says. “The people of Mason City know something — they know a whole lot more about what happened to Jodi Huisentruit than they are letting on.” She adds that a pastor in the town told her that if she hung around the bars long enough with the rough crowd, she’d eventually hear the truth of what happened to Huisentruit.

“If you’ve read the great mystery writer, Agatha Christie, you know she says all murders happen for one of three reasons: love, money, or to keep someone’s mouth shut,” Bednar says, and she believes Jodi was murdered for one of these three reasons and possibly all three.

“At the time of her death, Jodi was hanging around some very unscrupulous people,” she said, “and people who knew her often remarked that she lacked the ability to judge character and intent, all the while wearing her heart on her sleeve.”

Bednar says Jodi was spending an enormous amount of time with a 50-year-old man named John Vansice who had lived in the same apartment with her. Vansice was also the last person Huisentruit saw before she vanished. According to Bednar, Vansice seemed to have more money than made sense for his job as a corn seed-salesman at the time. Among other things, he bought a $26,000 boat in 1995, naming it “Jodi,” and there is still the mystery of the expensive Mazda Miata, Jodi had been driving around that year. She did not purchase it and likely couldn’t have on her meager salary, but there is no evidence related to who made the purchase or where the money came from. Was it an affectionate gift from an admirer? A gift to purchase silence? We may never know.

There are also a number of unsolved murders in Mason City and the surrounding area that Bednar believes may be linked to Huisentruit’s case. She is actively investigating them with Gary Peterson and other private detectives. “1995 was a pretty busy time for drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and meth in small towns along Interstate 35,” Bednar says, “and there was a large-scale drug operation in Mason City at the time of Jodi’s disappearance.” While Bednar believes this angle may be the strongest, she did not elaborate on details of the evidence or the players she and others believe are involved with Huisentruit’s disappearance because she wants them to be explored through the context meticulously laid out in “Dead Air.”

“I think one of the reasons this case is so enduring is that it is a cautionary tale about an ordinary small-town woman who may have gotten in over her head with some very bad people,” Bednar said. “It also hit close to home in small-town America, and we know that there’s a murderer still out there, walking free, but those of us who remember Jodi won’t rest until this is solved.”

She credits her determination for justice with her faith. “I’m a Christian,” she said, “and I really feel called to seek justice for those who have been forgotten and have none in this life — it’s just part of who I am.”

The investigation into Jodi Huisentruit’s disappearance is far from over, and much work remains for those who work to bring justice for these forgotten faces of yesterday, but their passion and determination only grows stronger with every passing year. New leads and evidence have come forward because of “Dead Air,” and this month Bednar will be back in Iowa, helping private investigators search for evidence. From Bednar’s perspective, the evidence chronicled in “Dead Air: The Disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit” is a strong step towards finding the answers necessary to solve this murder and perhaps many others.

Visit Beth Bednar’s website at www.bethbednar.com to purchase her book, to see updates on the case, or to find out the location of her next speaking engagement.

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