Three days after Myrtle Cole was brutally murdered in her Fairhaven, Minn., home, two cats still hunkered down on the 81-year-old's porch.
The cats, immortalized on the front page of the Minneapolis Star, were just two of the dozens of stray cats Cole had fed through the years even though she was poor and lived alone in a rundown house with no plumbing.
"Her nephew brought her canned milk and water every two days. She was very poor but she was a very sweet, loving lady," said Verna Salmela, 81, who has lived in Fairhaven most of her life. "She always had some candy for the kids. And she loved cats. She would go hungry and buy cat food. That's the kind of person she was."
Cole's body was discovered the morning of Saturday, Dec. 12, 1981, by her nephew Milo Cole who drove to her home after being unable to reach her by phone.
"I saw the window in the door was smashed and the glass was all over and her nightlight was still on in the living room and I thought, 'Oh my, something had to happen,'" Milo Cole told the Minneapolis Star in 1981. "And then I found her, draped over the bed."
Authorities released few details at the time. Initial reports stated Cole was found naked, likely strangled and stabbed multiple times. No weapons were found but authorities collected fingerprints and a bloody palm print on a pillow case.
Authorities are hoping new forensic technology and a public push for information on the 40th anniversary will bring closure on the case that's unsettled the Fairhaven community for decades.
"Blink and you miss it," Salmela said of Fairhaven, an unincorporated community about 25 miles south of St. Cloud in southeastern Stearns County. The community has grown from about 200 residents in 1981 to about 420.
Salmela was 41 with two children in 1981 and sometimes joined her in-laws for a weekly Bible study at Cole's house. Salmela described Cole as someone who was cautious and always kept her door locked, someone who peeked through the window and didn't open her door until she saw who was there.
Cole's murder terrified the town, Salmela said.
"Our kids were afraid. My husband was an over-the-road trucker and I was gone for a meeting or something and when our daughter came home from school, she was so scared she hid behind the couch," Salmela said. "In a small town, we never locked our doors. We left our keys in the car. It just changed the way we lived."
Tri-County Crime Stoppers, an anonymous crime-reporting organization serving Stearns, Benton and Sherburne counties, put up two billboards in mid-December asking for tips and advertising a $1,000 reward.
"It's just to keep it fresh. Forty years have passed," said Alicia Mages of the Tri-County Crime Stoppers board. "As people go about their lives, they tend to forget. We're just bringing awareness to the fact this woman was murdered 40 years ago."
Tri-County Crime Stoppers was created in 1981 following the murders of Mary and Susanne Reker, ages 15 and 12, who were discovered stabbed to death in a quarry in 1971. Their murders also remain unsolved.
"Having any kind of case — whether it's burglary or homicide — sitting open really eats away at you," said Steve Soyka, Stearns County sheriff.
Cole's murder also came three years after the at-the-time unsolved shotgun killings of 36-year-old Alice Huling and three of her teenage children about five miles from Fairhaven. A jury convicted Joe Ture for the murders in 2000.
"Stearns County is getting a bad reputation. This causes a lot of tension and stress around here every time there's a murder and no one knows who did it or why," resident Glenda Bettstold the Star in 1981.
Stearns County has multiple open cold cases. Possible missteps early on is something that's always on leader's minds, Soyka said.
"Did we do things wrong in the past as law enforcement? Yeah, absolutely. And the potential is [there] to continue to do things wrong. We're humans," Soyka said. "You hope that we can rectify those now with a relook, a fresh look.
"I think one of the biggest misnomers is people think that we don't work on these because they're old but every detective in our investigative division is assigned some type of a cold case."
The Sheriff's Office also has presentations on cold cases every few years so staff and deputies are kept up-to-date on the cases.
"We have people that weren't even alive in 1981," Soyka said.
In addition to sending case files to other agencies to help investigate, the county for years has taken palm prints when booking people and sent the prints to the FBI to be analyzed for a match.
"We never came up with one," Soyka said.
Because it's an active investigation, Soyka can't share much information about DNA evidence but said investigators are "trying to use science to our advantage."
"I think it's a solvable case. We're missing that one link, I think," Soyka said. "If there's something you didn't think was important back then, let us be the judge of that. Call us, let us know. Maybe a friend or a relative acted really strange right after that. Maybe someone mentioned it in passing."
Salmela said she hopes the renewed push for tips leads to a resolution.
"I think people still think about it when they drive past — there's a trailer on that lot now — and now with the billboards, it's really in people's minds again," she said. "You just want someone to be reckoned for it."
Tips can be reported to the sheriff's office at 320-259-3700 or to Tri-County Crime Stoppers at 800-255-1301.