Ten Years Later Russell Turcotte Case Remains UnsolvedTen years ago today, Trent Haberstroh literally stumbled on the body of Russell Turcotte between rows of trees in a remote site northwest of Devils Lake, while looking for stray cows. The violent murder of Turcotte, 19 when he last was seen alive in Grand Forks, remains unsolved with no sign it will be solved soon.
By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald
Ten years ago today, Trent Haberstroh literally stumbled on the body of Russell Turcotte between rows of trees in a remote site northwest of Devils Lake, while looking for stray cows.
The violent murder of Turcotte, 19 when he last was seen alive in Grand Forks, remains unsolved with no sign it will be solved soon.
His mother, Linda Hansen, was the last person he knew who talked with him and she still holds out hope.
“It’s been hard. It never goes away, it never, ever goes away,” she said Sunday from her home in Wolf Point, Mont. “I can’t help but feel bad for all those other people out there who have cases unsolved. I know there are quite a few in North Dakota. I hurt for them, too.”
He called her about 11 p.m., July 13, 2002, from the Simonson’s truck stop at U.S. Highway 2 and Interstate 29 in Grand Forks, hitchhiking home to Wolf Point.
He spent the previous night with friends in Fargo he met at the hippie-themed Rainbow Gathering in Ottawa National Forest in Michigan.
Hansen promised to wire him $100 the next morning so he could get home faster for a wedding.
But he never picked up the money.
Despite some searching in the Grand Forks area, nothing was found until Haberstroh happened upon Russell’s nude body Nov. 5. It was a half-mile north of Highway 2, just off a gravel road in the wide tree belt, about 11 miles northwest of Devils Lake; or about 100 miles northwest of the truck stop.
Hansen told Haberstroh later the odd circumstance seemed guided by a higher power.
Haberstroh farms and raises cattle 60 miles north of the site, north of Hansboro, N.D., where his fences run along Canada.
The only reason he was wandering around on foot at the location was to catch two of his cows which had fallen out of his trailer at 60 mph on Highway 2 the day before and somehow survived and wandered off.
Chasing them down, he was stepping over what he thought was maybe a fallen branch, only to see the long, thin, bare legs of Russell’s face-down body.
“It was so covered with grass, it had been there for a long time,” Haberstroh said last week. “The grass was wilting at that time, and the leaves were off all the trees and had fallen on the body.”
What agency is in charge?
From the beginning, she felt like her family “got the runaround,” from law enforcement, with no agency seeming to take responsibility for the obvious crime, Hansen says. State Highway Patrol troopers were first on the scene, and Grand Forks police, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation all became involved.
“To me, it seemed there was really no one entirely that was given jurisdiction,” Hansen said.
Her main contact was with a BCI agent, Mark McNamee, early on. But since he died in March 2008, she hasn’t heard from anyone, Hansen said.
Liz Brocker, spokeswoman for the BCI, said Friday the agency has no comment and that it’s a Grand Forks Police Department case since that was the original jurisdiction.
Although the BCI has a list of several “cold cases,” on its website, including a murder from 2007, unless a local law enforcement agency refers a case to BCI, it doesn’t go on such a list, Brocker said.
On Friday, Grand Forks Police Chief John Packett said, “We still consider it an active case and we still have people assigned to it, as information becomes available. It’s kind of a cooperative effort between our department and the BCI.”
Not long ago he was briefed on the case by his investigators, Packett said.
“I don’t believe there are any suspects currently under consideration at this time. But I can certainly give the family assurance we still consider it an active case and an important case and we are working on it as time permits.”
While he was last seen in Grand Forks, Russell’s body was found about 100 miles northwest of Grand Forks in Ramsey County. That’s where Hansen said a BCI agent said a “substantial amount” of evidence was found and bagged.
Ramsey County Sheriff Steve Nelson says it’s an open investigation for his agency, too. But there hasn’t been the progress everyone would like to see, he said.
“We have been talking in the last few months and we have revisited it and reviewed some lead events,” Nelson said Friday. “We are trying to formulate a new plan and to move forward and conclude the investigation to solve this case.”
Nelson emphasized there is information law enforcement can’t reveal because it might hurt the investigation.
“That’s one of the frustrating things, that you can’t give out too much,” Nelson said.
Blunt force trauma
Hansen said she kind of gave up on asking law enforcement for answers.
“I didn’t think anyone from law enforcement has ever treated me very courteously other than Mr. McNamee. He would call me intermittently. He just tried to put more of a human element to it.”
Even McNamee told her little about the case, including whether there was DNA evidence. “They would never tell me that outright,” Hansen said. “The only thing they ever did on DNA, they had his dad and I go in and give blood tests to determine DNA. And I know at one point they looked at a car, the trunk of a car.”
Investigators would not give the family autopsy information, she said.
All she learned of his cause of death was there was “blunt force trauma to the back of his head,” Hansen said.
Ever since seeing how lonely the site is, she’s figured it was someone who knew the area, Hansen said.
She gathered that investigators at one point were looking at someone from Cando, N.D., who was incarcerated for another crime, Hansen said. “Which to me adds to the feeling that it was somebody from the area.”
Cando is about 20 miles north and west of the site.
'I chose to put it in God’s hands'
Russell, as is his father, Bill Turcotte, was a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, based in Belcourt, N.D. Hansen is a member of the Fort Peck (Mont.) Tribe of Assiniboine Sioux.
Bill Turcotte, who lives in Chinook, Mont., has several times wondered publicly if Russell’s ethnic background was a reason for lack of interest in the investigation, a claim law enforcement officials have denied.
Early on, Hansen, Bill Turcotte and their older sons, Michael and Jacob, pressed authorities about the case, visiting North Dakota, organizing searches.
In 2005, Hansen testified before a legislative committee in Bismarck on a bill to improve cooperation between local, state and federal agencies in solving crimes. Not so much anymore.
“I could have pushed them and made it my life’s work, but it would have taken me down emotionally. So I chose to put it in God’s hands,” Hansen said Sunday.
She’s banking on God leading someone to come forward with answers, not law enforcement cracking the case, Hansen says.
“I went through a period of being angry at God the Creator for not watching out for him more,” Hansen said. “But I guess it just brought it full circle to me — that in a sense, He was there in another way. Yes, He wasn’t there to save him from death, but maybe He saved him by being there with him at the time of his death and taking him over, so he wasn’t alone.”
Darby Parsons, the young woman who met Russell at the Michigan gathering and stayed with him and other friends in Fargo the night before he hitched to Grand Forks, stopped in Wolf Point this summer to visit Hansen.
Parsons grew up in Larimore, N.D., but still lives on the road, still attends Rainbow Gatherings, Hansen said.
“She is a very nice young lady who has got a big heart,” Hansen said. “As far as we know, she was the last person who was ultimately very kind to him. And in the way he died violently, you have to hold on to things like that.”
Prayer: 'this person has not hurt someone else'
Hansen says, “There are many more little Russells. He has many people named after him. I have a grandson named after him and a couple friends named their sons after him, so he lives on in different ways.”
Back in 2003, she and Russell’s father, Bill, asked to meet with Haberstroh and his wife in Devils Lake in 2003. They bought them dinner and talked.
“We gave him a blanket, which is our way,” Hansen said. “Because we felt he was sent there for a reason, to find him and help us bring him home.”
Haberstroh said he knows a little of what they are going through, still.
“We lost a daughter, Gretchen, in a car accident in 1995 when she was 15,” Haberstroh said. “I feel good that I was there, to help the family.”
Today is another anniversary for Hansen.
“In fact, my wedding anniversary is tomorrow,” she said Sunday, of her marriage Nov. 5, 2004.
“I had to replace that milestone (of Russell’s body found) with something happy,” she said.
She has had to learn to live without Russell by focusing on the rest of her family but still looks for justice for him.
“He was a good person. I know it would hurt him to no end to know that the person who hurt him went out and hurt someone else. I just pray that sooner or later this person is brought forward and I just pray this person has not hurt someone else.”