Five days before Thanksgiving 2003, Dru Katrina Sjodin pushed open a Columbia Mall glass door and stepped out into the fading sunlight.
A shopping bag in hand, Sjodin spoke on her cell phone to boyfriend Chris Lang while walking to her red 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass parked at the Grand Forks, N.D., mall.
As she neared her car that Saturday afternoon, the four-minute phone conversation abruptly ended.
She was missing.
In days and months to come, thousands of people, many of whom had never met the 22-year-old University of North Dakota student, searched for her along the windswept and snow-covered landscape of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.
Before the search ended five months later in a ravine near Crookston, Minn., millions nationwide would know Sjodin's face and story - and the man suspected of kidnapping and killing her.
Now, more than 31 months after her disappearance, twice-convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. stands accused of the crimes in a historic and unprecedented trial that begins Thursday in Fargo's federal courthouse.
Federal prosecutors want the 53-year-old to die if he's found guilty, though North Dakota abolished capital punishment in 1973, nearly 68 years after the state's last hanging.
The case is a federal one because the crime is presumed to have taken place in more than one state.
A grand jury indictment claims Rodriguez killed Sjodin "in an especially heinous, cruel and depraved manner" involving "torture, and serious physical abuse."
But since Sjodin's body was found April 17, 2004, few details of the crime have emerged.
Prosecutors claim Rodriguez planned the attack, held Sjodin to sexually assault her and intended to kill her.
In a recent court hearing, one of Rodriguez's court-appointed attorneys, Richard Ney, referred to prosecutors' belief that the defendant bound her and put a plastic bag over her head.
"This was a very violent crime and the government will be required to prove what happened and what the defendant's role was," said Thomas Heffelfinger, a former U.S. Attorney in Minnesota now working in private practice. "That will entail a very detailed description of a very violent crime."
Selection of 16 jurors, including four alternates, begins Thursday from more than 1,500 potential jurors from southeastern North Dakota.
If jurors find Rodriguez guilty, they must consider two options: life in prison or death. The sentence, which only can be determined by jurors, would come after arguments about whether the defendant - based on his prior history or elements of the crime - is eligible for the death penalty.
By Thanksgiving Day 2003, police narrowed their focus to one man as Sjodin's abductor - a rapist with a violent and predatory history who spent most of his adult life behind bars.
On Dec. 1, 2003 - nine days after Sjodin's disappearance - Crookston police arrested Rodriguez, who was living with his mother six months after he left a Minnesota prison.
Neighbors kept a watchful eye on him, concerned about their children's safety after police there notified the public of his past, but Rodriguez remained quiet.
Once arrested in Sjodin's disappearance, Rodriguez also remained silent, invoking his right to a lawyer.
But those who quickly learned of Rodriguez's past were anything but silent, angry that he was free to possibly have harmed Sjodin.
Her disappearance evoked fear across North Dakota and Minnesota.
Lawmakers in both states rewrote sex offender laws to make punishment for such crimes much more severe.
U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., sponsored a bill titled "Dru's Law" that establishes a national sex offender registry.
Thousands of women - young and old - enrolled in self-defense courses. Colleges beefed up security and assured jumpy parents that their children were safe.
"When a case gets close to home - geographically, emotionally, students can identify with a college student being victimized by a stranger - those kinds of cases generate a serious amount of fear," said Thomas McDonald, a criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University. "This thing challenges and bends a lot of perceptions about the safety of the community fabric."
Retired Minnesota U.S. Attorney Heffelfinger agrees.
"The thing that made this such a compelling case was the brazen nature in which a young woman was abducted in broad daylight," he said. "Every parent who has a daughter fears this."
Rodriguez wore a bullet-proof vest to his first court appearance in Polk County, Minn., before the case moved to Grand Forks County, where prosecutors charged him with abduction.
U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley of North Dakota then filed a single count of kidnapping resulting in death and, by late October 2004, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who considered the family's wishes, gave his blessing to pursue the death penalty.
Death penalty cases follow a complex process, prompting pretrial hearings and motions that aren't present in other types of criminal cases.
In Rodriguez's case, fiercely litigated pretrial debates have focused on his prior crimes and factors that jurors might use in sentencing him if he's convicted.
The high school dropout, convicted for two 1974 sexual assaults, spent his early adult years at a high-security Minnesota state hospital, where he earned his GED and attended sex offender courses, before attacking a woman in Crookston while on furlough in 1980. The attempted kidnapping and stabbing led to 23 more years in prison.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors wrangled over legal definitions and interpretations, including whether Rodriguez's prior victims suffered "serious bodily injury" in earlier attacks.
The first attack in 1974 was against a woman he knew, but a month later he raped a second woman, a stranger, at knifepoint. The 1980 attack also came against a woman he didn't know. She fought him off to escape despite Rodriguez stabbing her twice and threatening to kill her.
At his sentencing for the 1980 attack, Rodriguez said he drank heavily, dabbled in acid and marijuana and that an older woman molested him as a child.
"I don't think you have the power within you to control yourself," Minnesota District Judge Warren Saetre told him at the time. "I think that probably you are a very tormented person, you have no peace of mind and cannot have peace of mind as long as you remain as you are, a healthy physical male whose lust or hostility toward women is such that you can't control yourself."
It's unclear what role those attacks might play in the trial, but prosecutors want jurors to hear evidence and testimony about the convictions.
Prison records show Rodriguez lived a quiet life in prison, often displaying model behavior. But documents also show alarming comments:
- A 1976 evaluation said Rodriguez is sexually aggressive and "appears to be suffering from an alcoholic personality disorder with some paranoid, schizoid and anti-social tendencies."
- In 2001, Rodriguez told prison officials considering whether to recommend civil commitment, which would send him to a security hospital indefinitely, that he had a past history of domestic violence and trouble controlling his anger.
- A committee, months before his 2003 release from prison, classified Rodriguez as a high-risk sex offender, those most likely to reoffend. The committee agreed his assaults appear spontaneous and random while "Rodriguez's willingness to use force may be escalating in severity."
At a court hearing last fall, Wrigley said the prior attacks and Rodriguez's character plays a role in seeking the death penalty.
"At the end of the day, Alfonso Rodriguez stayed in prison longer than he had to because he wouldn't undergo treatment," Wrigley said. "He left prison with the same propensity, the same propensity to kill and act violently toward women."
Many details about Sjodin's death remain unknown, but Polk County court records, obtained through The Forum's request to unseal search warrants shortly after Rodriguez's arrest, reveal some findings likely to come up at trial.
Police confiscated several items from Rodriguez for forensic analysis, including two light-colored hair strands, blood matching Sjodin's DNA profile, knives, latex gloves, speaker wire, multiple swabs of blood and blood spatters found on clothes and in his car.
Surveillance tapes, checked after two tipsters contacted police, show Rodriguez was in Grand Forks about the time Sjodin disappeared.
His alibi - Rodriguez told police he watched a movie at a theater near the mall and ate at a fast food restaurant - didn't check out.
At a Dec. 15 court hearing, Wrigley said Rodriguez tortured and "gratuitously" assaulted Sjodin, who suffered two life-threatening injuries during hours of physical and emotional abuse.
Defense lawyers disagreed, saying Sjodin may have been unconscious within minutes of her abduction. Torture, they argue, requires a victim to be conscious to suffer mental or physical pain.
While prosecutors will focus on forensic science - with blood evidence as the cornerstone of their case - to prove Rodriguez's guilt, the defense strategy is unknown.
An order issued by Judge Ralph Erickson last month reveals Rodriguez's lawyers may rely on mental health experts during the penalty phase, if jurors convict him, to mitigate punishment.
Cass County Jail records show visitors to Rodriguez's private cell. They include:
- Dr. Karen Froming, a neuropsychologist who evaluated Unabomber Ted Kaczynski
- Marilyn Ann Hutchinson, a Kansas City, Mo., psychologist specializing in victimology
- Chicago lawyer Ingrid Christiansen, a sentencing advocate for persons facing the death penalty
- Dr. Bret Haake, a neurologist at Fargo's MeritCare Hospital
- Sister Yvonne Nelson, the director of the Presentation Peace Sisters Program in Fargo
Nelson, who has visited Rodriguez every week for more than two years, declined to talk about the visits. She has publicly denounced the death penalty.
The government's witness list includes forensic analysts, investigators and Dr. Michael McGee, the medical examiner for Minnesota's Ramsey County who performed Sjodin's autopsy. Prosecutors said they may call up to 163 witnesses during the trial.
As hyped as any court case in North Dakota history, the trial represents high stakes for Sjodin's loved ones, the Red River Valley and Rodriguez.
The court, which set aside 12 weeks for the trial, has hosted more than a dozen hearings to litigate pretrial issues.
Judge Erickson said the trial will run four days a week, with most Fridays off, so he can handle other cases assigned to him.
He's pushed lawyers to file timely motions to make sure the trial begins on time, saying Rodriguez, Sjodin's family and the public deserve justice.
McDonald, the NDSU professor who teaches a course about the death penalty, said interest in the upcoming trial demonstrates the public's concern about whether the system works in protecting the community and reinforces important lessons from Sjodin's disappearance.
"This shows this area is not a fortress against predators," McDonald said. "You do have to stay alert."
Sjodin's parents, Linda Walker and Allan Sjodin, said several months ago that they are ready for the trial's start. They've attended nearly every court hearing and plan to watch the trial inside Erickson's courtroom. Both are expected to testify about the impact of their daughter's death.
After one hearing earlier this year, Walker said the case represents her daughter's defense and admits frustration with how long it's taken to reach this point.
Most importantly, Walker said she wants to make sure her daughter's voice isn't silenced.
"We don't want anyone to forget," she said.