Though loved ones finally received closure, her absence is still greatly felt.
Since his daughter disappeared a year ago, Wayne Matula has a daily ritual to cope with his loss.
Every day, he comes home from work, opens up the laptop where her smiling face is the desktop background, and plays the video from her memorial. Every day, the video’s slide show of photos tell Mandy Matula’s life story — first, the baby photos, then her posing in middle school in a green Girl Scout vest. Another one shows her smiling with her brother at Christmas. Years later, she’s in a softball uniform.
“This brings her to life,” Wayne Matula said, watching the slide show that still makes him emotional. “It keeps her memory alive.”
A year ago, the disappearance of 24-year-old Mandy Matula on May 1 captivated the Twin Cities. She was the third metro-area woman to go missing in five months. Of the women at the heart of three high-profile cases, Matula was missing the longest, sending hundreds of neighbors, University of Minnesota Duluth classmates and Eden Prairie friends scouring the west metro for any sign of her. Her remains were finally found last fall in a park near St. Cloud.
Now, the TV cameras have gone. The friends who packed their house with hugs and meals have gone. But the grief remains.
In fact, time stands still in their Eden Prairie home — Mandy’s purple bedroom, with its mix of Barbie dolls and softball medals, remains untouched. The living room has become a shrine to her with photos of her smiling face filling it.
Poster-board photos of her high school senior portrait and a 2007 Star Tribune story highlighting her pitching skills cover the mantel. Dead, dry purple flowers surround the urn with her ashes. Foam shaped in her favorite number, 14, once full of carnations, has a few browned flowers remaining.
“We’re not just forgetting her,” Wayne Matula said. “It’s still part of us. We live this every day. And for me, it will always be that way.”
‘Glad it’s over’
For the grieving father, it’s therapeutic to talk about and live among the constant reminders of life without Mandy, replaying the memorial video every day. For her mother, Lisa, it’s more difficult to talk about: she declines most media interviews.
“I cry every day,” she said. “I just can’t believe she’s gone. I still want to believe she’ll walk through the door.”
Younger brother Steven has moved on to what he says is a new normal in life, working as a mechanic at City Hall, where his sister once worked as a seasonal park maintenance worker.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” he said of the searches.
For nearly six months, the shy sibling stoically represented his family in the media and at the dozens of searches he led. He started a Facebook page to spread the word about other missing Minnesotans — a page the 22-year-old still fills with photos of children, men and women when they go missing, and alerts when they’re found safe. He wants to be a resource, he says, for others going through similar ordeals.
“It’s exhausting,” he said of organizing searches.
That’s why this weekend the family will quietly reflect, taking a difficult trip to the park where her remains were found in a shallow grave.
“It’s a moment of reflection … forever that will be her grave site,” Wayne Matula said.
Months of searching
Late on the night of May 1, 2013, Mandy Matula left the family’s home without her phone or purse to talk with her ex-boyfriend, David Roe, 24, of Victoria. When she didn’t return the next morning, her mother called Roe, who told her that Mandy had left from his car at a nearby park.
But neighbors reported hearing possible gunshots at 1 a.m. near a church, and an unspent bullet was later found in the church lot.
When police called Roe in for questioning, he fatally shot himself in the head in the police parking lot, leaving only a Post-it note about a goodbye video. Mandy’s blood was found on his jacket, but police had few other leads.
The suspected murder-suicide stunned the suburban community, spurring hundreds of Eden Prairie High School alumni, neighbors, University of Minnesota Duluth classmates, even strangers to search for Mandy. They combed wooded areas and searched lakes and rivers from Eden Prairie to Victoria and along the Mississippi River to St. Cloud, where Roe had studied criminal justice.
They posted 20,000 signs with Mandy’s smiling face at boat launches on lakes, sporting goods stores and every license agent in five counties, hoping anglers or hunters would spot something. They sold purple bracelets (her favorite color) and purple shirts with No. 14.
But still, no sign of Mandy.
Until last Oct. 26. A Boy Scout leader hiking through Mississippi River County Park in Rice, 12 miles north of St. Cloud, noticed a scrap of clothing in the dense woods.
Police and searchers, including Mandy’s brother, had scoured the park without a sign. But a shallow grave deep in the woods held Mandy’s remains, her class ring and remnants of a jacket embroidered with the UMD fast-pitch softball logo and No. 14.
Authorities said she died from a single bullet to her head.
Families united in grief
Months later, the Eden Prairie police investigation remains open, awaiting test results.
Wayne Matula is hopeful it could bring more answers. Did his daughter struggle? Did Roe plan to kill her? Why was there no evidence of a crime scene, or any blood? “As a father, I do have questions,” he said. “Whether I’ll find any answers, I’ll never know.”
A year ago, he saw the news reports of two missing women, Kira Steger, 30, of St. Paul and Danielle Jelinek, 28, of Oakdale. And then, the unimaginable: his daughter’s photo added to a trio of missing women.
“Why did you have to do this?” he said. “Why did you have to take my daughter?”
Unlike the other cases, the suspect in this one, Roe, is dead, taking with him any answers of what happened that night.
“To go six months without knowing where your daughter is … it’s hard to talk about,” Lisa Matula added. “In some ways, I wish she wasn’t found because then there would still be hope she’d be alive. I wish she would just walk in that door.”
The three missing women’s families, though, are forever joined in their grief. They helped each other with the searches. And this August, Steven will join the Jelinek family for a 5k race in Danielle’s honor.
For the Matulas, it’s comforting to see how much people were moved by Mandy’s story — from hundreds of searchers to the more than 2,000 people at her memorial service.
And on April 11, the family celebrated UMD’s first home softball game, designated as “1FOURMandy” weekend to honor the 2011 graduate. The team is retiring No. 14 and set up a fund in her name. They plan to raise awareness about domestic violence and money for Duluth women’s shelters.
“If it was anyone else, Mandy would want it done,” coach Jen Banford said. “She was selfless and always put other people first. We want her memory to stay alive and make sure she is never forgotten.”
So do friends like Natalia Becker, who spent what would have been Mandy’s 25th birthday Jan. 14 with Lisa Matula over Mandy’s traditional birthday meal at Red Lobster.
‘She’s in a good place’
“I miss her like crazy,” Becker said. “But I don’t think she would want us spending a lot of time mourning; she would want us to be happy and celebrate her. I know she’s in a good place and is at peace and not suffering.”
Alone in their living room, Mandy’s father is also comforted by replaying the slide show illustrating Mandy’s life, bringing back memories of taking her on motorcycle rides or playing catch. “It brings her life back every day,” he said.
“It’s still raw. … It’s alive with me every day,” he added. “I haven’t lost those feelings; I don’t know I ever will. … You don’t expect to lose a child.”
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib