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‘Like it was yesterday’: Family, friends remember Brainerd's Erika Dalquist 16 years after murder

BRAINERD, Minn. -- Erika Dalquist will not be forgotten. The 21-year-old Brainerd woman -- known as "Sunny" for her cheery and bubbly personality -- disappeared Oct. 30, 2002, and her remains were found 18 months later. For the past 16 years, fam...

Erika Dahlquist Vigil
A senior portrait of Erika Dalquist stands in the middle of the sidewalk Tuesday night, Oct. 30, in front of The Parlor in downtown Brainerd, as friends and family embrace each other while listening to a song titled “You Should Be Here” by Cole Swindell. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service

BRAINERD, Minn. -- Erika Dalquist will not be forgotten.

The 21-year-old Brainerd woman -- known as “Sunny” for her cheery and bubbly personality -- disappeared Oct. 30, 2002, and her remains were found 18 months later.

For the past 16 years, family and friends have had to live with the tragic loss and the pain and agony of what happened to Dalquist. And as night fell on Tuesday, Oct. 30, people gathered around where Dalquist was last seen alive -- at the former downtown Brainerd bar Tropical Nites -- now called The Parlor. The bar on the 700 block of Laurel Street may have changed names a few times over the years, but the location and what happened that night 16 years ago has not.

Flameless candles glowed and yellow ribbons were placed around the sidewalk in front of The Parlor as people embraced each other with hugs and shared memories of Dalquist. Many of them -- including Dalquist’s parents Duane and Colleen Dalquist -- had not been at the downtown bar since a candlelight vigil for Dalquist after she went missing.

“It feels like 16 years ago,” Colleen said Tuesday night of what she was feeling on her drive to the former Tropical Nites to attend the vigil. “It made me wonder how a person gets through feeling like this 24 hours a day, with the same anxiety, sadness and hurt.”


The Dalquists have spent the past 16 anniversaries of their daughter’s disappearance and death at home, with family. The family shares their favorite stories about Erika, look at photographs and make her favorite meal -- tater tot hotdish.

“You would think it would get easier each year,” Colleen said of dealing with the tragic loss of her daughter. “Some years it surprises you. It creeps up and you are a week away from it and you don’t know why you are exhausted and crabby and it’s because it’s close. Other years I get through it just fine. The normal part of it. Other years, it’s like it was yesterday. You never get over it. We just learn how to handle it better and how to get through it and get past those days.”

Support from family and friends has helped the family cope with the loss.

“We talk about her a lot,” Colleen said. “It’s always great to hear her name. I love when her friends post pictures and are remembering (her). It helps to know people haven’t forgotten her.”

Colleen said, “The last time she was home was this time of year and she would come home and make pumpkin chocolate chip cookies. Every year, I think I will make them, but I can’t. I still can’t.

“Some years we carve pumpkins with our granddaughters, which helps a lot. They are a ball of energy. They are old enough; they know and ask questions about why Auntie’s in heaven.”

The Dalquists started “Erika’s Angels” -- every Christmas they adopt a family in Erika’s name. Christmas was her favorite holiday.

“We give them a Christmas they won’t forget,” Colleen said. “It is based on all the things Erika loved about Christmas. … We make all their wishes come true. It has gotten me through the holidays; I can focus on that. And on Christmas Eve we sit here, knowing she is making people smile.”


‘We have a life sentence’

This year was more emotional for family members and friends as Erika’s killer was released from prison. William Gene Myears pleaded guilty to second-degree unintentional murder in 2005 and was sentenced to 21 years in prison for her death, with the final one-third of time to be served on supervised probation. He served his sentence and was released from the Faribault prison in April. According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, Myears is being supervised under the Crow Wing County Community Corrections office and will be under supervision until March 17, 2025.

“We knew it would happen someday,” Colleen said. “(Some) days I let myself say it is not fair, as his sentence is done and we have a life sentence. I just choose not to think about him. It doesn’t change anything. I will admit I did not want to come to Brainerd after he got out for a few months because I didn’t want to risk seeing him.”

“It’s different this year,” Cynthia Ann Vice said of the anniversary of Erika’s disappearance. Vice and Aimee Watson were Erika’s best friends and have been doing candlelight vigils on their own for the past 16 years.

“This year I wanted more than me and you,” Vice said to Watson as she spoke to those gathered around. “I wanted more because the person who did this to her has been out of prison since April, and it is just different. It’s emotional every year, but I think it’s different this year because he is out walking around and she is not here. So I wanted everybody to be here. I wanted him to know that you may have taken her away from here, but you haven’t taken her away from everybody.”

“We remember her every day,” Watson said. “She would have been a good mom. … She was all sunshine.”

“We think of her on a daily basis and it is not fair that we have to miss out on what could have been,” Vice said. “I want him to know she is here every day.”

Watson said Erika’s disappearance and murder was hard for everyone.


“Knowing that the person who did this is out in the world again ... we just want people to know that terrible things happen,” Watson said. “And to remember that violence can happen at any time, and we want to remember those who are victims of violence and to be sympathetic to them and do what we can to be good neighbors to everyone.”

Memories of Erika

Friends of Erika, a 1999 Pillager High School graduate, said she loved bonfires, dancing on picnic tables, chocolate cake and sleep. She also loved to make people laugh. Her mom said she was a cheerleader and she loved to cook and bake. Pillager school named an annual spirit award in honor of Erika.

Dawn Squires-Hart of Motley has known the Dalquist family for 25 years. Squires-Hart said Erika was her babysitter and one of her employees for about a year.

“It seems like a long time ago, yet it seems like a short time ago that we stood out here and did the last vigil for her when she wasn’t home yet,” Squires-Hart said. “It’s been 14 years since we were here. We all were angels for Erika. I really haven’t been down here besides to get my hair done. It’s just hard.

“I’m so proud of their family and how they have (gotten) themselves through one of the worst things that could’ve ever happened. I see a stronger family than ever. I’m grateful to God that he wound this love between (Erika’s) brothers, Colleen and Duane. ... They have a stronger bond than you see in most families.”

A look back

Myears, 27 when Dalquist disappeared, is now 40. He was the suspect in Dalquist's murder since she disappeared on Oct. 30, 2002, from downtown Brainerd. Myears and Dalquist were drinking together at the downtown bar. Myears intended to give her a ride home, but instead they drove around Brainerd drinking and they got into an argument over what Myears said was “over some pretty worthless … stuff.”


In a news story by FOX 9, Myears said his temper took over: "I remember grabbing a hold of her and trying to get her to calm down for a minute and talk to me sensibly and I think things got way more out of hand than what they would have if I would have been sober. … Once I did realize she had quit breathing I let go of her and I panicked.”

Myears buried her body in the woods on his grandparents’ farm east of Brainerd, where he was raised.

In January 2003, he was charged in Crow Wing County District Court in Brainerd with second-degree manslaughter in connection with her disappearance, but those charges were dropped when authorities were unable to find Dalquist. Myears left Brainerd in August 2003 to work with a traveling carnival. After months of searching for Dalquist, her remains were found May 15, 2004, in a shallow grave on Myears’ grandparents property.

Murder charges were then filed and authorities had to find him. The television show "America's Most Wanted" profiled Myears, and he was captured an hour after the segment aired on June 5, 2004, working at a carnival in Birmingham, Mich.

Myears never went to trial. He pleaded guilty to second-degree unintentional murder in exchange for the dismissal of a charge of second-degree intentional murder. That same day in court, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

Myears was only housed in the Crow Wing County Jail for about a month. Shortly after his arrest he became ill and was housed at a prison hospital in Oak Park Heights. He was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord that left him paralyzed from the waist down.


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