(NewsNation) — Iowa news anchor Jodi Huisentruit disappeared a year after she filed a police report saying she had been followed. But 28 years later, there are still no answers on who is behind her disappearance.
The 27-year-old anchor had a bright future in TV news. But on June 27, 1995, her hopes and dreams mysteriously faded to black.
Huisentruit, a morning news anchor, was due at KIMT in Mason City, Iowa at 3:30 a.m. to anchor “Daybreak.” When she hadn’t arrived by 4 a.m. her producer, Amy Kuns, called her.
Kuns said it was obvious Huisentruit had just woken up but nothing else seemed out of the ordinary.
“I’m like, it’s four o’clock, you’re coming into work?” Kuns said.
Huisentruit said she’d be on her way.
That was the last time anyone spoke with her. She never showed up for work that morning and the station called police to check on her.
When news director Doug Merbach arrived, it was obvious that Huisentruit’s absence wasn’t a simple case of someone oversleeping or forgetting to call out sick.
“It was there’s police in the parking lot, Doug, and they’re looking at it as a possible crime scene,” Merbach said. “That just stops you in your tracks. Crime scene? What the heck?”
Mason City police arrived at Huisentruit’s apartment complex after 7 a.m. and found nothing unusual inside her second-floor apartment. But outside, an officer found signs of a struggle next to her car, still parked in the lot.
The key to Huisentruit’s red Mazda Miata was bent, her blow dryer, earrings and hair spray found scattered on the ground nearby.
In a press conference, Jack Schlieper, then chief of the police department, said they didn’t believe the case was one of someone who left voluntarily without telling anyone.
“Information that we have, uh, acquired today and over the investigation would certainly lead us to believe the possibility of foul play,” he said.
Search crews scoured the area while the disappearance left the residents of Mason City on edge.
A Mason City police lieutenant said they found the toilet seat up in Huisentruit’s apartment, raising questions on whether she had a male visitor. But the next day, the chief told local paper Globe Gazette they found no evidence that anyone was with her prior to her disappearance.
Later, a police official said there were no eyewitnesses to Huisentruit’s disappearance and very little forensic evidence found at the crime scene. Police did collect a partial palm print from Huisentruit’s car, along with a strand of hair.
In the weeks leading up to her disappearance, Huisentruit had spent time at nearby lakes, boating and partying with friends. Among those friends was John Vancise, a man 20 years her senior who had even named his boat after her.
“I remember him throwing her a birthday party shortly before she disappeared,” Kuns said.
The party was on June 9. On the 27th, Kuns recalled a phone call she received in the newsroom before anyone even realized Huisentruit was gone. It was Vancise, asking if Huisentruit was at work.
“The phone rang at 7:20 and I thought, oh my God, I don’t have time for this,” Kuns said. “I’m like John, I don’t know. All I know is she’s not here. I gotta go.”
Later that morning, Huisentruit’s friends, including Vancise, arrived at her apartment complex.
Police told Vancise he was the last person to see Huisentruit alive after she went to his apartment the night before to watch a video of the birthday party he threw her weeks earlier in Clear Lake.
“She was in good spirits when she left here,” Vancise told the Des Moines Register.
He also said police interviewed him and gave him a lie detector test, which he said he passed.
“I gave them all the information I could possibly give. I’ve tried to help as much as I possibly could. I’ve been able to verify where I’ve been and my times that’s not a problem,” Vancise said.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the FBI joined investigators on the case. The focus turned to a man who lived two blocks away from KIMT-TV, convicted serial rapist Tony Jackson, along with another convicted sex offender, Tom Corscadden.
Mason City police interviewed both men but ruled them out after they both denied any involvement in Huisentruit’s disappearance.
That focus raised new questions about a police report Huisentruit filed the year before she disappeared, in which she claimed she had been followed by a man in a white truck.
Huisentruit has not been found and nobody has ever been charged in her disappearance.
Current Mason City Police Chief Jeff Brinkley said the department is not considering the case a homicide investigation.
“We still have it classified in a missing person’s case, until there’s evidence, that would point us in a different direction. That’s the angle that we work from,” Brinkley said.
Huisentruit’s disappearance is Iowa’s most famous unsolved case and it has proven difficult for investigators to solve. One challenge is evidence, since investigators in the 90s were working with very different tools than they have today.
“The challenge is the age of the case,” Brinkley said. “I think, there’s no way to go back and technology was clearly different when this happened back in 1995. There’s just challenges to going back and essentially recreating the past,” Brinkley said.
Brinkley said there are pieces of information that could help police put the puzzle pieces together, but nothing specific he could discuss with the public.
In the wake of Huisentruit’s disappearance, a group called FindJodi was formed. Podcaster Scott Fuller said the initial search for Huisentruit included search dogs as law enforcement scoured the area.
“The ground search for Jodi on day one included about 20 members of law enforcement,” Fuller said. “By the end of the day on Tuesday, search dogs from points all over Iowa were organized and brought to Mason city in an effort to track Jodi from what appeared to be the point of her disappearance in the parking lot.”
The group was created in 2003 by two TV journalists, Josh Benson and Gary Peterson. The all-volunteer team is made up of journalists and former law enforcement officials who hope to finally close the case.
“The hope being, somebody has some information they’ve been reluctant to share, or they may not even know they have information that might relate to Jody’s case and that the introduction through TV or the internet is enough to bring them forward to the police,” Fuller said.
FindJodi has produced more than 30 podcasts, hosted events appealing to people for information and put up billboards asking Mason City residents not to sit in silence and come forward if they know anything.
The group has also done its own digging on the people police questioned about Huisentruit’s disappearance, including Vancise.
“We know that the police are very interested in Vancise or at least they have been recently. There was a warrant that was executed on John Vancise,” Fuller said.
The warrant was executed by Iowa authorities in 2017. It was sealed at the time and has been resealed each year since, leaving the public in the dark about what police were looking for.
Investigators also convened a grand jury in 2017, where Vancise was subpoenaed to testify as well as provide finger and palm prints.
It wasn’t the first grand jury. Iowa authorities convened another grand jury 20 years earlier, according to LaDonna Woodford, a friend of Vancise. She said she testified for five hours.
Grand jury proceedings are not made public and the outcome of that grand jury is unknown. But it’s safe to assume Vancise was not indicted.
Brinkley told NewsNation he was not at liberty to comment on the grand jury proceedings.
In April 2019, Vancise came forward and issued two statements via an intermediary. He said he “had absolutely no involvement in the apparent abduction of his friend, Jodi Huisentruit.”
Vancise denied having had a romantic relationship with Huisentruit and said he was in a relationship with another woman at the time and Huisentruit was like a daughter to him.
Vancise also said he has fully cooperated with all local, state and federal law enforcement officials since Huisentruit disappeared. He said he has been the subject of two voluntary polygraph tests, had his DNA tested and had his finger and palm prints taken.
Vancise also disclosed he had recently been diagnosed with moderate, advancing Alzheimer’s disease, a claim NewsNation was unable to independently verify.
Brinkley insists Mason City police are continuing to work the case.
“I think it’s something that we want to be absolutely certain at the point that we would make a move on something. And at that point, with the county attorney, having some game plan for how to move ahead,” Brinkley said.
He added that investigators are being very deliberate on how they are handling the case so they can answer questions in a court of law.
“We have some working theories that we continue to work on,” Brinkley said.
Huisentruit’s family had her declared dead in 2001. They planted a tree in her honor 28 years ago which now stands quite tall in front of KIMT-TV. Meanwhile, the community is still desperately seeking some closure.
Kuns said she doesn’t think Huisentruit will ever be found, but hopes police are getting closer to providing some answers.
“I’m tired of this,” Kuns said. “We need to know what happened.”