On a quiet Saturday evening in 1989, a police officer was called to a Maple Grove house on a routine report of a teen runaway. He interviewed the parents. And the report was filed, drawing little police, public or media attention.
Now, 25 years later, dozens of FBI investigators, state forensic scientists and police officers are intensifying work on an unsolved mystery: What happened to Amy Sue Pagnac?
The 13-year-old, who vanished after a trip to her family’s central Minnesota farm, would now be 38, and her birthday Sunday is a reminder to her family and classmates of a case they say never got the attention it deserved — until now.
“It’s another year where she’s not present,” her mother, Susan Pagnac, said Friday while going through Amy’s childhood photos. “You focus on all the good memories — that’s all you have left.”
Two months after Amy disappeared, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a masked gunman in St. Joseph, Minn., sparking national media coverage and drawing thousands of people to community searches. Jacob became the face of missing children in Minnesota and nationwide, and the search for him, which continues to this day, changed the way Americans look at missing-children cases.
But Amy’s case, without a suspect or evidence of a crime, was filed away quietly. When classmates started eighth grade, they found out she was gone when her smiling face showed up on their milk cartons. Years later, Amy wasn’t even mentioned at their 1994 high school commencement.
Now, the case is getting renewed interest statewide. On May 18, about 40 officers showed up at the family’s Maple Grove home with a sealed search warrant, conducting a six-day search and tearing up the back-yard patio. On June 2 they did a four-day dig at the family’s wooded 140-acre Isanti County farm.
Police won’t say what prompted the searches or whether anything was found. No suspects have been named.
A history of running away
At 5:45 p.m. on Aug. 5, 1989, young police officer Jeff Garland was called to a two-story green house with purple siding in the 9700 block of Hemlock Lane N. It was a rather routine call for a juvenile runaway — a call police had responded to there several times that summer. Garland said Amy’s parents were frustrated with her running away repeatedly, suspecting she was wandering off to have sex or drink alcohol.
“They were upset with Amy with her behavior; they thought she was promiscuous,” said Garland, now retired. “They didn’t know how to control her behavior … no different from a typical parent with a teenager.”
Susan Pagnac disputes that, saying that there was no family arguments and nothing unusual about Amy’s behavior except for having a headache.
Pagnac’s husband, Marshall Midden, told police he and Amy went to tend crops at the farm at noon. The whole family was supposed to go, Pagnac said, but Amy’s sister had an event that day that she and her mother were supposed to attend. Midden and Amy were returning home about 5 p.m. when he stopped at an Osseo gas station 2 miles away. After he used the bathroom, he came outside to find the car empty, he said.
In a copy of the original police report, the couple told Garland that Amy had a cerebral medical problem that put pressure on the brain, creating headaches that caused her to wander off. Pagnac said recently that Amy had seizures and may have been bipolar, but she hadn’t been medically diagnosed or treated yet.
Police had responded to the house for several runaway reports that summer, according to a record of 65 calls to the address in the past 30 years. In the summer of 1989, police responded to a juvenile runaway report May 2. Then on June 28, there was a reported domestic assault, which Pagnac said was Amy having a seizure and accidentally flailing her arm up at her mother. Two juvenile runaway calls were reported June 29 followed by another the next day.
About a month later, Amy vanished.
Details about the calls may never be disclosed; the city said records not linked to the active investigation were purged in 1999, part of the city’s records retention policy.
Midden and Pagnac have clean criminal records.
In the years since Amy Pagnac and Jacob Wetterling disappeared, much has changed in how police and the public respond to missing children.
Now, Garland said, police would follow more procedures when a child or teen goes missing, looking at crime networks and exploring cases more in depth, such as checking surveillance cameras, which he doesn’t think existed at the Holiday gas station in 1989.
“There may have been more that we could have done. Taking it as a runaway … we thought we were just following protocols,” he said. “Jacob Wetterling changed a lot of things. … Now we understand we have to do much more in the first 24 hours.”
There’s also advanced DNA technology and nonprofits to support families.
In recent interviews, Pagnac said she pressed police when school resumed that fall, but they didn’t take it seriously until 1990, searching the house then and again in 2007.
“In their mind, she’s just a runaway,” Pagnac said. “There were several leads not followed up and stuff lost.”
Maple Grove police Capt. Keith Terlinden has said the case has been active and a priority for the city since 1989.
“We never stopped looking for her,” added Garland, who retired in May as work on the case ramped up. “It would have been nice closure to find her.”
Classmates have also followed the case since hearing about Amy’s disappearance when school started that long-ago fall; they say posters went up in the cafeteria and Amy’s face appeared on milk cartons.
“The whole thing was very strange. I thought there should be more alert or concern [in the community],” said Becky Brooks-Macris, a classmate now living in New York. “You can’t just disappear in Osseo.”
She and other classmates say Amy was smart and social. But, they say, she was bullied at school for years, even beaten up. Brooks-Macris said Amy was once pushed down stairs while on crutches and later talked about running away.
“It’s just such a mystery,” she said.
Pagnac is convinced Amy’s alive, possibly abducted for prostitution. She says Amy was spotted at a strip club years later and at a bus or train station in 1992.
Now, Pagnac keeps a blue bag packed with photos of her oldest daughter over the years — Amy as a bundled-up baby, Amy as a child smiling behind a pile of stuffed bears, Amy as a teen smiling at a dentist visit (the photo later used in missing posters).
“The more people help, the better chance we’ll find Amy,” she said.
The family has kept the same phone number in case she calls. And every time cases surface like last year’s three missing women escaping their abductor in Ohio, it gives her hope Amy will be found alive.
“We were expecting the next knock on the door to be: ‘We found Amy,’ ” she said. “We’re still kind of hoping that will happen.”