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Jacobson disappearance, Part2: Police file reveals suspicion fell on husband in 1996 North Dakota case

A Forum News Service exclusive, from the full police case file: A re-investigation by the Bismarck Police Department into the disappearance of a mother and son explored the possibility of foul play, tracked phone and insurance records, and led to increasingly pointed questions for a family member.

Pictured is the header image for the story related to part 2 of the disappearances of Sandra and John Jacobson. It shows images of Sandra Jacobson, John Jacobson and the river where her vehicle was discovered.
Sandra and John Jacobson were last heard from on Nov. 16, 1996. Sandra Jacobson's vehicle was discovered the morning of Nov. 17, 1996 along the banks of the Missouri River.
Trisha Taurinskas / Forum New Service photo illustration
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Sandra Jacobson, Episode 2: Police file reveals suspicion fell on husband
Tue Jul 12 13:16:42 EDT 2022
In episode 2, examination of the police file related to the missing persons case of Sandra and John Jacobson continues. In this episode, reporter Trisha Taurinskas clarifies an important aspect of the case with retired detective, Tim Turnbull. We also hear from Sgt. William Connor, who took over the case in 2004. Connor reveals the key piece of evidence that could have shed light on what happened to Sandra and John. 

Editor's note: This is a multiple part series examining the investigation into the 1996 disappearance of 35-year-old Sandra Jacobson and her son, 5-year-old John Jacobson. To read part 1, click here .

BISMARCK — Sergeant William Connor was a patrolman for the Bismarck Police Department on the frigid 1996 November morning Sandra Jacobson’s vehicle was discovered near the banks of the Missouri River in North Dakota.

It was on that bitter cold day that the department received a report that a 35-year-old woman and her 5-year-old son had gone missing. With Sandra Jacobson’s purse located on the passenger’s seat, police officers were able to match the vehicle owner’s identity with that of the missing person.

Burned in his brain were the memories of searching the riverbanks — he recalled the family of Sandra and John Jacobson begging him to do his best to scour the area. Despite his best efforts, no trace of the missing mother and son were found.

“I had a K-9 at the time and so I was down along that river for several hours that night,” Connor said in a recent interview with Forum News Service. “It was horrible cold. I can remember that, and it was way below zero, the wind was howling, the river was already freezing up.”

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In 2004, Connor was reminded of the case through a phone call by the Missing and Exploited Children’s Center. Just like that, he was taken back to that day — and he got curious.

That curiosity fueled Connor’s quest to re-open the investigation. While he initially set out to update the case through the collection of DNA from family members, he ended up spending years attempting to gain answers to questions the initial investigation failed to obtain.

Connor's new investigation, revealed in a police file exclusively obtained by Forum News Service, details Connor's hunt through phone and insurance records, and hard questions for Alan Jacobson, husband to Sandra and father to John.

Forum News Service has made multiple attempts to contact Alan Jacobson to request an interview, without success.

A father’s refusal

The Missing and Exploited Children’s Center representative told Connor they attempted to reach Alan Jacobson several times to obtain pictures of Sandra and John Jacobson for the missing poster the organization was putting together. They had also requested his DNA for age-enhanced photos of his son, John Jacobson.

The organization turned to Connor to help them out.

Connor reached out to Sandra Jacobson’s family members, who were more than willing to provide pictures and submit DNA samples — simple mouth swabs — to aid in the investigation.

In April 2005, Connor sat down with Alan Jacobson at the police station with a long list of questions — among them were a few related to his cooperation with the Missing and Exploited Children’s Center.

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When pressed about the topic, Alan Jacobson told Connor that he had sent in the photos they requested. That caught Connor off guard.

“He said he had mailed them pictures of Sandy and John in the beginning and since he has seen they did an age enhanced poster of John,” Connor wrote in the follow-up report. “I told him that I had sent the pictures of John and Sandy that they created the posters with.”

An age-enhanced picture of John Jacobson, who went missing in 1996 from Bismarck, North Dakota when he was 5 years old.
An age-enhanced photo of John Jacobson was created to show what he would have looked like in the years following his disappearance. John Jacobson went missing, along with his mother, Sandra Jacobson, from Bismarck in 1996.
Photo courtesy of Bismarck Police Department.

Alan Jacobson admitted he did receive the DNA kit. While he understood his DNA would be used in efforts to find his son, he wasn’t interested in returning a sample.

Alan Jacobson told Connor that he and Sandra Jacobson were working on getting back together when she and their son went missing. He said they even went so far as to go to couples counseling, which they sought through the Employee Assistance Program included in Sandra Jacobson’s benefit package. According to Alan Jacobson, he was the only one who showed up to their appointment.

Connor set out to verify that claim. If true, it could shed light as to the nature of their relationship at the time of the disappearance.

After locking down a subpoena, he obtained documents from the Employee Assistance Program, which did not include a record of Alan Jacobson attending a couples counseling appointment. That was a red flag for Connor.

“If Alan attended a session with Employee Assistance as he said he did in the interview I would have been provided with that record,” Connor wrote in the follow-up report.

There was another question Connor had for Alan Jacobson. When reading through the original report, he noted Alan Jacobson told Turnbull in 1996 that Sandra had “off the wall” conspiracy theories that he was having affairs.

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He asked Alan Jacobson if he had been involved in extramarital relationships during their marriage. This time, Alan Jacobson had a different answer.

“He admitted to one affair earlier when they first split but then they reconciled in early 1996,” Connor wrote in the follow-up report. “Alan would not admit to any other affairs when I mentioned that Sandy had told others of his affairs and that was why she moved out.”

The phone records puzzle

In the week before Sandra and John Jacobson disappeared, those close to her said there were a lot of late night calls between her and Alan Jacobson. The calls, they said, were so frequent that they caused her to go without sleep. Often, the heated conversations left Sandra Jacobson in tears.

Access to Sandra Jacobson’s landline phone records would have helped Connor confirm this information — and would shed light on who was doing the dialing. Yet as Connor would discover, time wasn’t on his side.

Pictured is a page from a 1996 phone log from Sandra Jacobson's car phone.
Phone logs obtained for Sandra Jacobson's car phone showed one call per page. Phone logs for her landline were not initially obtained by investigators for the month of November.
Photo courtesy of Bismarck Police Department.

While the original report contained phone records for Sandra Jacobson's landline phone, they were only for October of 1996. That didn’t help Connor, who was after November records from the week before she went missing.
He attempted to obtain the November phone record, but it was no longer available. That wasn’t the only time he’d hit that roadblock.

He also attempted to obtain phone records from 1996 for Alan Jacobson’s cell phone through Verizon Wireless, but was told records only went back to 2001. It was the same case for records related to his landline phone. Quest Subpoena Compliance only kept local calls on the log for three years.

What about life insurance?

As Connor scoured the original police report, he came across phone records from Sandra Jacobson’s car phone. In 1996, Turnbull asked Alan Jacobson to fetch them from her phone company. It was a move that wasn’t out of step with the 1996 investigation. Turnbull turned to Alan Jacobson for a lot back then.

While reviewing the logs, Connor noticed something peculiar: In the hours before her disappearance, Sandra Jacobson had called the same number twice. The number belonged to Bismarck United Life Insurance Company. The phone log clocked the calls at around 10 seconds each — that’s 10 seconds after someone answered the phone.

When initially going through the phone records together, Alan Jacobson told Turnbull that Sandra Jacobson probably misdialed. After all, the number was similar to the one belonging to the Bismarck Police Department.

Turnbull didn’t question Alan Jacobson’s explanation, nor did he mention anything in his report about calling the insurance company.

That was a detail Connor couldn’t let go unexamined.

 A 1990 gray Honda Civic belonging to Sandra Jacobson is displayed. The vehicle was found along the Missouri River in Bismarck, North Dakota on November 17, 1996.
Sandra Jacobson's gray 1990 Honda Civic was discovered by law enforcement officers the morning of Nov. 17, 1996. It was parked in Bismarck's Centennial Park, along the shores of the Missouri River. Sandra Jacobson and her son, John Jacobson, have not been heard from since.
Photo courtesy of Bismarck Police Department

Bismarck United Life Insurance Company was sold to ING ReliaStar, but did still hold information related to policies obtained prior to their takeover. A representative of the company told Connor that Sandra Jacobson did have a policy: a term policy that was taken out in 1991. However, it lapsed in 1995.

Roughly eight years after her disappearance, Connor attempted to track down any information related to additional life insurance policies on Sandra Jacobson. But, as he discovered, that’s a lot like finding a needle in a haystack. One single database for insurance policies didn’t exist.

“… we would have to contact individual companies to find out that information,” Connor wrote.

There was one avenue Connor could go down, though. Connor spoke with Bob Evans, the director of Human Resources at the Motor Vehicle Department, where Sandra Jacobson worked.

“He said he thought it was a couple days after her disappearance that he came in and was rather aggressive about her benefits,” Connor wrote in his follow-up report.

In Connor’s quest, he did find one life insurance policy — a $30,000 policy that had Alan Jacobson listed as the beneficiary. Alan Jacobson openly admitted to receiving that payout five years after her disappearance, claiming it was used to cover administrative costs and bills.

That was a reasonable response for Connor. Yet there was one aspect of this case that still didn’t sit well with him. It had to do with claims by Sandra Jacobson’s family members that Alan Jacobson had taken a number of items from her home — a trailer in Center, North Dakota — just days after she went missing.

Sandra Jacobson, Episode 1: Police file reveals flawed investigation into North Dakota mother and son missing persons case
Wed Jun 29 18:01:51 EDT 2022
The police file from this 1996 case, recently obtained by Forum News Service, reveals what Bismarck Police Department found when it reinvestigated the case of Sandra and John Jacobson: an initial missing persons investigation that left key questions unanswered, vital evidence unaccounted for and potential suspects cut loose.

Reporter Trisha Taurinskas unpacks the North Dakota mystery in this multiple-part series. 

Read more here: https://www.inforum.com/news/the-vault/police-file-reveals-flawed-investigation-into-1996-missing-persons-case-of-north-dakota-mother-and-son

Connor had been told by those close to Sandra Jacobson that she diligently kept a diary. If there was anything that could give Connor a glimpse into her mind — and what was happening between her and Alan Jacobson, it would be in that diary.

If the diary existed, Alan would have known about it. If he hadn’t been aware of it from the start, he would have found it eventually when he sold the trailer after Sandra Jacobson went missing.

In part 3 of this series, to be released soon, learn more about what Connor discovers as he continues his investigation, including details regarding the final hours before Sandra and John Jacobson went missing.

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Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons and unsolved crime. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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