David Dahl vanished in the bone-cold November darkness with no car, no phone and no hint of when he might return.
His disappearance on foot has left his family and police in Anoka County grasping for answers in a case where they don’t suspect foul play. Searches by law enforcement and others have so far come up empty for the 56-year-old longtime machinist, who his family says had struggled with mental health issues.
That’s where Deanna Villella and her team of volunteers come in.
Villella and her United Legacy organization deploy awareness campaigns, ATVs, helicopters, horses and specialized equipment to continue ground searches for people like Dahl. Law enforcement can dedicate only so much time and manpower to such searches, but United Legacy doesn’t stop looking until families ask.
Villella started the group after her own brother’s disappearance in 2014. Now the young nonprofit is making a name for itself among law enforcement departments and families, having successfully aided in several high-profile searches across Minnesota.
“When we take on any case, we stay with the family until they have answers,” said Villella, 40, a Minnesota native who quit her job as a personal chef to run United Legacy full time. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a month or 10 years.”
And there’s no shortage of work to do, with several new cases coming in weekly, she said.
Minnesota law enforcement officials file about 11,000 missing person reports each year, according to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Nearly 80 percent involve children.
In missing person cases, police say they must juggle the manpower that ground searches require with other pressing parts of an investigation, such as combing phone or credit card records.
“You want to throw everything you have at it, and if we had unlimited resources we would do that as well,” said Ramsey Police Chief Jeff Katers, whose department has been involved in at least five searches for Dahl and continues to follow up on leads.
Villella said that her group’s aim is to stand in the gap between family and investigators during the search for answers and closure.
“We work with law enforcement hand-in-hand,” she said. “Usually by the time we’re called in, they have already exhausted all of their efforts.”
Villella knows firsthand the nightmare of having a loved one go missing.
In August 2014, her brother Christopher Rossing disappeared from the Howard Lake, Minn., area. His fragmentary remains were eventually found in a fire pit in Hutchinson, and a man later pleaded guilty in his death.
From her brother’s disappearance came Villella’s mission. She quit her job in Las Vegas and moved back to Minnesota to help other families look for missing people.
“Deanna understands because she’s gone through it,” said Shakopee resident Sarah Saba, whose best friend went missing in November 2015.
United Legacy conducted searches and rallied awareness to find Saba’s friend Martise Windom, of Savage, even persuading area pizza chains to put fliers on their delivery boxes.
When Windom’s body was found by a passerby the following spring, Saba said Villella came to her front door with flowers.
“She sat with us,” said Saba, now a board member for the nonprofit. “United Legacy never went away.”
Raising awareness is key during a search, Villella said. When 15-year-old Jasmine Block went missing from Alexandria last year, her family reached out to United Legacy, which carpeted the area with fliers and plastered billboards in the Twin Cities.
Police say Block was abducted but escaped her three male captors 29 days later, swimming across a lake in Grant County and finding help from a farmer who recognized her instantly from media reports and fliers.
“When I see people missing, I mention their name now,” said Sarah Block, Jasmine’s mom. “Everything they do is free.”
Villella said the group survives purely on donations. There’s no fancy brick-and-mortar building or staff, just Villella, her husband, Ryan Schroeder, and a cadre of core volunteers working the phones and social media to coordinate searches.
“We are literally one donation to the next,” Villella said.
‘An amazing resource’
Anytime they go into new turf, Villella said the nonprofit relies on recommendations from law enforcement officers they’ve worked with.
Many of those endorsements come from Capt. Sean Deringer of the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, who has worked with Villella on several high-profile cases in recent years, including her brother’s.
“They are an amazing resource,” Deringer said.
Deringer said United Legacy volunteers have found the bodies of at least two missing persons in Wright County, one from the Mississippi River and another from a marsh near Monticello. In one case, Villella marshaled about 5,000 volunteers over a five-day stretch.
Villella said she doesn’t keep track of the number of families helped or people found: “I quit counting a long time ago.” But in general, the group limits searches to individuals who have disappeared on foot.
That’s the situation on the northern edge of Ramsey, where Dahl went missing Nov. 14. “Thinking about him has taken over my whole life,” said Andrea Aistrop, 25, Dahl’s daughter. “It feels like I’m not doing enough.”
For months, Aistrop has posted pleas on social media for information on her dad’s whereabouts, offering a $1,000 reward and starting a GoFundMe campaign to help with search costs. She continues to drive from St. Croix Falls, Wis., to look for him with United Legacy volunteers, including one recent cloudy morning.
Search team members, some of whom had driven several hours to help, fanned out across a field near where Dahl had been living. Volunteers high-stepped through tall grass, eyes fixed on the ground, sifting through tangled heaps of underbrush. Birdsong mixed with the sporadic chirps of hand-held radios.
As the small group swept the pasture and wetland for signs of Dahl, Aistrop sat with her 2-year-old son near the check-in table. Her worried eyes told of the uncertainty of the last seven months.
But Aistrop said she knows she isn’t alone. There’s the United Legacy Facebook support group, 100 members strong. And she said she’s still holding fast to the hope that her father will be found — maybe alive.