For her family, steeped in faith and strongly connected, the discovery of Danielle Jelinek’s body in a Chisago Lake swamp eased one heartache, but opened another.
Their grim search came to a close Friday, five months after she had disappeared and on the 38th wedding anniversary of her parents, Jan and Ed, who gathered with family friends at their Cottage Grove home on Saturday.
“She’s now home — that’s all we were praying for,” said Jan Jelinek, her voice choking at times in tears. “I feel she gave me the best gift. I always said I just wanted her to be with me. I didn’t want to have to wonder any more if she was out there, cold and all by herself.
“We all wanted this day in one sense, but we also knew it would be a very hard day.”
“It confirms our worst nightmare. But it’s also a relief to know that now she can be laid to rest peacefully and respectfully,” added Cory Jelinek, Danielle Jelinek’s sister. “To think of her lying out there in that swamp for the past six months — it just breaks my heart.”
The Chisago County medical examiner completed an autopsy Saturday, but did not release an official cause of death.
Search takes its toll
The long and relentless effort to find Danielle Jelinek faced an almost immediate obstacle: More than a foot of snow began falling on the night the 27-year-old Cottage Grove resident spent at the home of Aaron Schnagl, who immediately became a “person of interest” in the case, and remains so today. But it also led investigators to believe her body wouldn’t be found far from the split-level house surrounded by nearly a dozen others in a spacious rural subdivision.
“It’s in the vicinity where we expected to find Danielle because of the night that she went missing,” said Chisago County Sheriff Rick Duncan, who grew close to the Jelineks through the search that began Dec. 9.
For the Jelineks, emotions ebbed and flowed through sleepless nights and preoccupied days as weeks flowed into months. Rising hopes faded to despair, frustration and anger. The one constant has been the ache of sadness and longing, tears that have come easily, unexpectedly. The not knowing was exhausting, Cory Jelinek said.
“I feel like the response to that has been different for each of us,” Cory Jelinek said of the waiting. “Like my dad, even up until yesterday I still had a little hope that she was still out there somewhere.”
But really, she already knew how it would end, that it was already over. “When I found out she had been with Aaron, I knew, I just knew,” she said. “My grieving process really began right then. And that really doesn’t make it any easier.”
Family reflection time
A dreary Christmas came and went. Danielle Jelinek’s 28th birthday was marked without her. And on a weekend celebrating mothers, her family continued to mourn and remember.
Jan Jelinek recalled the little girl, her baby, for whom she felt particularly protective because of the frightening perils of chronic asthma. The birthday parties missed and the teasing endured gave a young Danielle an empathy for others who felt the sting of being different.
“I think that built her character,” she said. “She carried that through her whole life.”
As if in defiance of her illness, Danielle Jelinek grew to be a fiercely competitive endurance runner, participating in races like the “Tough Mudder,” a 12-mile course that includes obstacles designed by the British Special Forces.
Jan remembered her daughter’s excitement over the townhouse she was in the process of buying, and the success she was enjoying as a manager at the Wells Fargo branch in Maplewood, where customers drawn to her vivacious charisma would bring her cookies.
Her fondness for tattoos was a source of motherly vexation. When her daughter announced plans for a new inking to record the birth dates of her parents and a grandfather on her arm, “it was, like, ‘Really Danielle, another one? Who do you think you are, Angelina Jolie?’ ” Jan Jelinek said with a laugh. “But her response was ‘Well, this way, I’ll always have you and dad and grandpa with me.’ ”
As it turned out, the tattoos would help identify her body.
One last time to bond
Danielle Jelinek spent a week at her parents’ home in late November recuperating after her body developed a painful rash following a tonsillectomy. It was a chance to dote on her as they had when she was a child. Jan rubbed her feet with lotion to sooth her pain. Ed made her favorite soup.
None of them knew it would be the last time the three of them would be together. “God gave her back to us for seven days,” Jan Jelinek said.
The Jelineks often joke about their family’s closeness. “Some people would say that we’re ‘enmeshed,’ ” Jan Jelinek said. It was Danielle Jelinek’s not calling to check in with her mom that led to the quick call to the sheriff that dreadful December night. With extended family, their faith community at Five Oaks Church in Woodbury, and Danielle Jelinek’s friends and co-workers, the Jelineks now look to that support in this new phase of their grief journey.
But they also gratefully marvel at a community of strangers who came together as well, arriving by the busload to search the rolling hills and lakeshores of Chisago County in midwinter, trudging in knee-deep snow, poking methodically at the silent banks with poles; the crowds who lined up out the door at the Doghouse Bar & Grill in Maplewood to raise a $25,000 reward fund; the 11,000-plus Facebook page followers who voiced shared anguish.
It’s a realization that their daughter and sister, in her life and her tragic death, touched many.
“I can sleep at night knowing she knew how much we loved her,” Jan Jelinek said. “In my heart, I know she did.”