'A lie to everyone you meet:' Homicide of NDSU freshman still a deep wound 4 years later
FARGO—It's been four years since Tommy Bearson was mysteriously killed, and investigators have yet to name a single suspect or motive behind the homicide of the 18-year-old North Dakota State University freshman.
Bearson was only four weeks into nursing school at NDSU when he went missing Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Three days later, his body was found in an RV sales lot in Moorhead, far from his Reed Hall dorm room.
To the Fargo community, Bearson was one of hundreds of new faces at NDSU, still in the process of establishing his place. In his hometown of Sartell, Minn., Bearson was beloved: an all-star basketball player, brother, boyfriend and alumnus of a small Catholic school.
"I think he would've been a great leader of the community because he was already—a good role model, good mentor for kids his age and even younger," said Janelle Von Pinnon, publisher of The Newsleaders of St. Joseph and Sartell, newspapers for the towns near St. Cloud.
When news broke of Bearson's disappearance, Von Pinnon said Sartell was in total shock.
Most freshman, like Bearson, are "just learning to find their own wings and become their own person," Von Pinnon said. "So, it's just a very senseless thing to have had happened."
Mike Knaak was helping lead the St. Cloud Times newsroom when Bearson was reported missing. From the start, Knaak said, it was a big story for several reasons: "a missing local person, the circumstances, the seeming lack of any leads." Also, Bearson and his family were well-known in the Sartell community.
"Fargo, like St. Cloud, is a pretty safe place to live. Your chances of being killed are pretty small. How did this all happen?" Knaak said. "As far as I can tell, there still aren't any real good answers on that from the investigation. Four years later, it seems like we're in the same spot we were a few days after the crime."
But Knaak said one thing is certain: Somebody knows something.
Bearson's parents, Greg and Debbie, believe the same.
"To the people involved in Tom's death," Greg Bearson wrote in an email to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead newspaper, "You will never find peace as long as the knowledge of your guilt is walking beside you everywhere you go and with everyone you meet.
"Real peace rests with the ability to admit guilt. Until then, who you are is a lie to everyone you meet," Greg Bearson wrote.
What we know
Moorhead Police Chief Shannon Monroe said his department is the lead agency in the investigation, with help from Fargo police and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Monroe said he couldn't comment on whether any persons of interest have been identified in what's been ruled a death by "homicidal violence."
Detectives are not releasing any new information as part of the four-year anniversary of the killing, though they talk about it each fall as students return to campus. They contemplate whether any undisclosed information would be worth sharing with the public.
"It's always been something that we just want to make sure the public knows we're still working on, and there's still a need for us to keep as much of the case protected as possible," Monroe said. "But Tommy is not forgotten in our eyes. We're going to continue working on it."
The autopsy, interviews, evidence and case documents are sealed from public view. The chief said some things remain undisclosed because "if the wrong information is out it can allow people that would be involved in this case to use that information to try and avoid us trying to further advance the case."
Monroe said in addition to Bearson's relatives, who are hurting all the time, another group deeply affected by his death are the investigators working the case.
"They do not want to go into retirement and have an open case like this," said Monroe, who took over as chief in July when David Ebinger retired after 12 years leading the department.
After Bearson's death was discovered, police asked for the public's help in locating a suspicious car caught on surveillance footage near the RV lot.
They also asked for help in finding Bearson's silver iPhone 5 and a white Nike Air Jordan left shoe.
The phone and shoe were never found. And the car turned out to have nothing to do with the case, authorities said.
Given that police have been unable to find the phone, potential clues it may contain remain out of the reach of investigators.
The last post from Bearson's Twitter account was a cryptic, chilling one that police have said had nothing to do with his death.
"Dude it's jake come pick us up," the tweet said. "We are so lost and we are going to die. Just get somebody."
The message was sent to Cody Mead—who lived at the house where Bearson was last seen alive about 3:40 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014.
The message, which originated from Bearson's phone and Twitter account at 1:23 a.m. that Saturday, was actually sent by Jake Wenzel, a longtime friend of Bearson's from Sartell.
Bearson's body was discovered the following Tuesday at about 11 in the morning. The RV lot where he was found in Moorhead is more than five miles from where he was last seen alive.
Bearson's family issued a statement in 2015 calling on those who last saw their son alive to take polygraph tests, suggesting then that some had not.
What happened between the time Bearson went missing and when his body was found is unknown.
Greg Bearson said his family is "in regular contact with law enforcement and remain confident that one day there will be justice for our son Tom."
"This is an active case and we can't thank law enforcement enough for their efforts and support of our family," he added.
Not releasing more information about the case puts investigators in a tough spot, Knaak said.
"You don't know if they're not doing anything because of competence, or if they're not doing anything visible because they're trying to solve the case and make sure it sticks," he said. "Are the Fargo-Moorhead area law enforcement people proceeding by being very cautious and quiet, or are they really a blank page?"
Had Bearson continued at NDSU, he would likely have graduated this spring. He'd probably still be playing basketball and visiting his parents on weekends and holiday breaks.
The Saturday he went missing he had plans to drive home that afternoon. Instead, his parents came to Fargo frantically wondering where he was and what was wrong.
They described the ensuing days as living hell, followed by every parent's worst nightmare when they were told their son was dead.
"I think the community grieves for his family," Von Pinnon said. "I think it's an ongoing heartache for the town and for the community and especially for his family."
Knaak said the Bearson family, through the Tom Bearson Foundation, has put on many events and has sponsored scholarships to keep their son's memory alive.
"It's (the homicide) still on people's minds," he said. "It's not disappeared from community life by any means. People remember it and think about it."
Greg Bearson said his son's "spirit continues to live on through the hearts of so many people. He will never be forgotten and his legacy will endure."
Listen to the podcast: "Who Killed Tommy?"
The Forum is producing a true-crime podcast on the Tom Bearson case called, "Who Killed Tommy?" The first episode goes live Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, to mark the four-year anniversary of the unsolved homicide. Listen as reporter and host Kim Hyatt digs deeper into the case to try to uncover who killed Bearson, how his death happened and why. Episodes will be released occasionally on Inforum.com throughout the next 12 months leading up to the five-year anniversary. Follow @WhokilledTommyB for more information and send questions, comments and tips to 701-969-0806.