Police found the body of Danielle Jelinek in a shallow pond Friday, just one-quarter mile from the home where she last was seen more than five months ago.
Jelinek, the 27-year-old Oakdale woman missing since Dec. 9, was found late Friday afternoon after a helicopter search led investigators to a swampy area less than a quarter-mile west of the Chisago Lake Township home of Aaron Schnagl, a friend who police have identified as a person of interest in her disappearance.
Chisago County Sheriff Rick Duncan said searchers found the body in a reedy area in about 2 feet of water. She was clothed but had no shoes, and her identity was confirmed by the Chisago County medical examiner.
Before the body was identified, Cory Jelinek, Danielle’s sister, said family members were awaiting confirmation but believed their wait to find her was over.
“It’s just really bittersweet,’’ she said. “We want this. It’s honestly devastating to think of her having been there for six months.”
Finding the body is significant, Duncan said.
“It’s more significant for the family, for the closure of the family,” he said. “But it also gives us more evidence to be able to look and see what happened that night.”
When deputies had arrived at Schnagl’s home after her family reported her missing, they found her shoes, car keys, cellphone and an asthma inhaler that she was never without. That led to an immediate suspicion that something was wrong, and the investigation began almost immediately.
The season’s first heavy snowfall had begun the night of her disappearance and continued through the next day. Searchers, including hundreds of volunteers bused in who joined law enforcement officers, trudged in knee-deep snow around nearby lakes, and the slow retreat of ice thwarted efforts by investigators who had suspected — rightly, it turns out — that she had been placed in a body of water.
“Let’s face it, Mother Nature hasn’t cooperated in this case from the get-go,” the sheriff said.
With Friday’s break in the weather, and the availability of a State Patrol helicopter, Duncan said it was decided to focus searches again on watery areas around the former Schnagl home in the 11000 block of 261st Street. The areas had been searched on foot and by air many times before, but this time the helicopter’s whirling blades would blow aside the weeds.
The chopper took off at 2 p.m., and about an hour later, a body was seen. Law enforcement officers descended on the rural subdivision and cordoned off the area as neighbors looked on and giggling children played. An airboat and divers were deployed, and the body was retrieved about 6:30 p.m. It was taken away to the medical examiner shortly before family members arrived.
Suspicion still focuses on Schnagl, Duncan said, adding, “He’s not cooperating in this investigation.”
Schnagl, who has not been charged in the case and adamantly maintains he had nothing to do with Jelinek’s disappearance, is described by family members as an infrequent friend. The day before she vanished, Jelinek had told her sister, with whom she lived, that she was meeting a girlfriend. She instead spent the day with Schnagl, police say. He is in the state prison in St. Cloud after being convicted of a probation violation in an unrelated drug case stemming from the search of his home in the Jelinek investigation.
Duncan said the Jelinek case has been emotionally wearing. “I’m sad,’’ he said, while awaiting official word from the medical examiner. “I’m also elated that we did find a body that we suspect is Danielle.”
Jelinek’s disappearance drew an outpouring of support for the family. Funds were raised for a $25,000 reward for information about her disappearance.
And on a Facebook page with more than 11,000 followers, this message was posted Friday: “There are absolutely no words that can describe the anguish the Jelinek family has endured. But now we know she is safe and no longer in pain.
“We were all given a new Guardian Angel. … We love you and will never forget you Dani.”
Friday’s discovery also was the second time in less than 72 hours that a family’s anguish of not knowing has been supplanted by the fresh grief of knowing, finally, what happened to their daughter and sister.
Kira Steger Trevino’s body was recovered Wednesday afternoon from the Mississippi River near the Robert Street Bridge. Trevino’s husband, Jeffery, is charged in her murder after she vanished in February.
The search, meanwhile, continues Saturday for Mandy Matula of Eden Prairie, last seen May 1 with her boyfriend, David Roe, who shot himself when coming in for questioning by police in her disappearance.
Star Tribune staff writers Abby Simons and Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039