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Family still looking for answers 43 years after woman vanishes

Becker County Sheriff Jerry Townsend of Detroit Lakes points to an area where the search was conducted for Milda McQuillan to Capt. Arthur Yliniemi, left, and Duane Winter, right, of the National Guard. Capt. Yliniemi coordinated National Guard activities in the search in 1975. File Photo1 / 4
National Guardsman Kieth Brekken, left, of Detroit Lakes talks with Sheriff Manley Erickson, center, of Wadena County and Sheriff Rudy Tupa of Mahnomen County during the search for Milda McQuillan in 1975. File Photo2 / 4
Milda McQuillan. Submitted Photo3 / 4
Michelle Donahue, front, and Valerie Cornell, along with Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander, walk through a wooded area where Donahue and Cornell's grandmother, Milda McQuillan, went missing back in 1975. Submitted Photo4 / 4

It has been 43 years since Milda McQuillan went missing in northwest Minnesota's Becker County with little more than a trace, leaving her family with more questions than answers.

One of McQuillan's granddaughters, Lori Voigt, who was 17 at the time of her grandmother's disappearance, says it still haunts her family to this day, particularly her mother, Carol Hinze.

"My mom is going to turn 80 in April, and she just feels like she's never going to know what happened to her mother," Voigt said. "She's going to go to her grave and not know."

June 17, 1975

According to newspaper clippings from 1975, about 1:30 p.m. June 17, McQuillan, 71, left her Round Lake home to visit friends who were living in a cabin on Bad Medicine Lake. It was raining, making the country roads muddy.

A few miles into her journey, McQuillan's car stalled. She was soon helped along her way by a mail carrier, only to get lost a mile or so from her destination. She had apparently missed a turn, which is what James Johanning, a Park Rapids truck driver she stopped to ask for directions, told her.

Johanning was the last person known to have seen McQuillan.

Two days later, after an extensive air and ground search. McQuillan's pea-green, 1968 Dodge Sedan was found stuck in the mud on an old, logging trail just off Bad Medicine Lake, about three-quarters of a mile from her friends' cabin. A coat belt and rain cap were found slung over some bushes a little ways from McQuillan's vehicle. Then, the search went cold.

The Becker County sheriff at the time, Jerry Townsend, followed a number of leads and interviewed suspects, but nothing turned up.

Back on the case

Today, Sheriff Todd Glander says McQuillan's case is still open and active — they can't be closed without being solved.

"After I became sheriff, I did meet with my investigators, and we have discussed this case over the last three-and-a-half years," Glander said. "So it's not something that we have only been looking at recently."

Actually, Glander says he's been keen on the case for a long time. He remembers McQuillan going missing when he was just a kid.

"I did — and still do — hunt north of that area, north of Bad Medicine Lake," Glander said. "I would go through that area with my family, and just knowing that this happened to a family back then ... you definitely feel for them, for what they've gone through since 1975."

Recently, after a request from McQuillan's granddaughters, Glander and some of his department made a trip out to Bad Medicine Lake to sweep the area again.

Sisters Voigt, Valerie (Jo) Cornell, and Michelle Donahue are McQuillan's only grandchildren. Voigt says they have been haunted by their grandmother's disappearance and have searched high and low for answers, including going to psychics. This summer, they began pouring over old newspaper clippings and compiling evidence. They decided to visit the site where their grandmother's car was found—and Glander agreed.

"For us, it was enlightening," said Voigt. "It was just such a wonderful day, and Sheriff Glander was so helpful. We were just so appreciative of all the time he gave us that day. It was just way more than expected."

Glander and McQuillan's three granddaughters spent nearly three hours scouring the woods all around Bad Medicine Lake.

Voigt says the Becker County Sheriff's Department also had a boat crew out on Bad Medicine Lake, using sonar to scan the bottom of the lake. She says they found "two suspicious spots on the lake that they were going to investigate further," a hint of hope.

"We want to know, so we can have closure," Voigt said. "We understand we probably won't find out what happened to her."

Theories about Milda

Over the years, the family and locals have come up with their own ideas about what happened to Milda on that mysterious, rainy afternoon.

"In our minds, she's not lost in those woods ... We don't feel my grandmother drove her car into those woods" Voigt said. "We feel she was murdered."

A theory at the time, was that McQuillan became disoriented, wandering off into the woods after her car got stuck on a muddy back road. Voigt says her grandmother's age and the fact that she was known to have a bit of a drinking problem made it easy for people to dismiss the case as just that: a distraught, old woman who simply went missing.

But the family suspects foul play, though Voigt is quick to admit that her family's theories are all hearsay — no evidence of foul play was ever found.

Another popular theory in the area, involves two thieves who were staying at a resort just across the lake from where McQuillan's car was found. The men were apparently in the area stealing boat motors, and people think that maybe McQuillan stumbled upon something those thieves didn't want her to see.

"They recovered all but one of the stolen motors," recalled Voigt, "so the theory is they used that last motor to sink her in the lake."

Voigt says the two men were brought in during the early investigation for questioning, but they were let go after they both passed lie detector tests .

The family, though, is not giving up hope.

"The whole point of bringing all this back up was to trigger people's memories," said Voigt hoping that maybe, just maybe, there's someone out there who knows something, someone who has another piece to McQuillan's very pieceless puzzle.

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