When she vanished: 18 years after the disappearance and murder of Rachel Anthony, her killer remains a mystery
PINE RIVER—A Tuesday night in February 2001, 10 o'clock. The last of the league bowlers trickle out of the bowling alley, a few stools are warm at the American Legion, the occasional motorist stopping for a quick fuel-up. Four inches of fresh, dry snow skitters across ice beneath the feet of those seeking refuge from the arctic temperatures.
On Pine River's Barclay Avenue, the tailpipe of a parked Ford Escort puffs exhaust into the frozen air, the engine fighting to warm. Its owner finishes her shift inside the nearby liquor store, after she'd served one last customer as the clock struck closing time.
That car sat idling in the same spot nearly three hours later, when a Pine River police officer noticed it in front of the still-lit Ultimate Liquors.
But Rachel Anthony was gone. And months later the body of the 50-year-old liquor clerk would be found strangled and discarded down a roadside embankment 10 miles away.
Eighteen years later, the person—or people—who took Rachel's life have never paid for their crime. Those who loved Rachel are left to wonder why anyone would murder the bright, bubbly woman who adored her grandchildren and seemed well-liked by everyone. And many who call the city of less than 1,000 home lost a sense of security they may never regain.
The night that changed everything
For a year and a half, Rachel worked the night shift alone at Ultimate Liquors after spending the day with her young grandsons at the rural Pequot Lakes home she shared with daughter Jessica and her former son-in-law.
Feb. 27, 2001, was a winter day much like those in recent memory—especially snowy and unbearably cold. The snow measured 21 inches deep and the low temperature recorded that date was 17 below zero at the nearby Pine River Dam. It felt even colder with the wind chill—by 10 p.m., it approached 30 degrees below in Brainerd, 30 miles south.
Jessica Anthony knows it was a Tuesday when her mother vanished. She remembers because Tuesday was women's league night at Community Bowl, a block away from the liquor store. Jessica bowled with her team that night, finishing about 9:15 p.m.
"A lot of Tuesdays, sometimes I would go over and say hi to her before heading home. And occasionally I'd help her finish stocking up one of the refrigerators," Jessica said during a phone interview earlier this month. "I remember sitting in my car, looking at her car across the street, and debating about going to help her. And I thought, 'It's really cold outside, and I'm really tired.' And I decided to go home. ... What if I'd gone in? Would something different have happened if I'd gone in to say hi?"
Between midnight and 1 a.m. Feb. 28, 2001, the police officer noticed Rachel's car and began investigating. The front door of the liquor store was locked, but the back door swung open when the officer tried it. Nothing looked amiss, but Rachel's coat, purse and cigarettes remained. No Rachel.
Steve Abraham, Pine River police chief at the time, awoke to a phone call from the officer.
"I got out of bed, got dressed, came in and we searched the surrounding area for, oh I don't know, a half-mile around," Abraham said by phone Tuesday. "The snow had been really deep at that time. There was no tracks in the snow, nothing. We beat on every door for several blocks around, getting people out of bed, seeing if they'd seen anything at all. No one had."
Officers theorized the perpetrator took Rachel from the back alley while she was disposing of garbage, just before she planned to head home.
Jessica told police her mother usually followed a when closing down the business.
"She had a routine of going out, unlocking the front door, starting her car to warm it up, coming back in, locking the front door. Then taking the garbage out the back and then coming back through the back, lock that door and then come back through the front and leave," Jessica said.
Abraham said despite police believing the crime occurred in the alley, evidence was impossible to come by.
"You could literally get on your hands and knees and look across that ice, and you couldn't see anything," Abraham said. "It was just glare ice."
Investigators from Cass County and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension joined in the efforts to find Rachel. A Minnesota State Patrol helicopter used infrared technology to search from the air, Abraham said.
Jessica worried earlier in the night when her mother didn't come home, but the liquor store was in the process of moving to a new building, and Rachel worked atypical hours to help. A phone call from police woke up Jessica. Also informed were Kim Terhaar and her ex-husband, who owned Ultimate Liquors at the time. The owners confirmed for police another puzzling piece—no robbery of money or product appeared to have occurred at the store. Although the store was equipped with security cameras, they were not recording that night.
By morning, Pine River began to wake up. Still, no Rachel. Jessica called her sister Tricia Lehr with the news.
"I don't really remember much of that morning, just knowing I had to get up there, I had to get up to Minnesota. I just knew I needed to be there for whatever might happen," Tricia said by phone last week.
She and husband Dan made arrangements with work and took off on the 16-hour drive west from Pennsylvania, sitting mostly in silence. "I remember I counted how many cops I passed, flying down the road," Tricia said. "I didn't get pulled over, thankfully."
Meanwhile, in Ohio, her brother Robert Mozden received word of his mother's disappearance when his father showed up at the door.
"That was the gut-wrenching shock, if you will. ... A bombshell just dropped in my lap," Mozden said during a phone interview. Soon after, Mozden took the first plane ride of his life to help hang flyers with his sisters.
Those in town grappled with the news, recalling where they were and what they were doing when Rachel vanished. Down the block from the liquor store, Bonnie Christensen processed income taxes instead of bowling with her own league team as usual. They'd finished early, she said, because the other team didn't have enough bowlers.
"I worked until like a quarter after nine, right here on this street, door wide open (unlocked), working," Christensen said Tuesday, Feb. 26, from her desk at Hanneken Insurance. "And then found out the next day she was missing."
Across town, Sharon Fey worried about her 16-year-old daughter, who was late home from her shift at Carl's Market.
"She didn't get home until about 9:30 or 10, and I questioned her, because I said I was concerned. Back then, there was not cellphones, at least not for her," Fey said Tuesday during her shift at Lifehouse Coffee. "So I was concerned, and she said, 'Oh Mom, what is there to worry about? Nothing ever happens in Pine River.' And then the next morning we found out that just across the street was where she had disappeared, probably within an hour after my daughter had gotten home."
For weeks, Rachel's friends and family did what anyone would do—helped in any way they could and prayed for her return. Tips poured into police in the beginning, though none yielded information on Rachel's whereabouts. Winter lingered, snowbanks piled high. No sign of Rachel anywhere. Until April, when on Friday the 13th, four teenagers on horseback made a gruesome discovery on a road between Breezy Point and Pequot Lakes.
Spanning 1 mile, Nelson Road runs north-south and connects Buschmann and Wild Acre roads. Wooded and hilly, the street is sparsely dotted with homes along with a large gravel pit, known locally as the Swenson pit. Across the street, southeast of the pit's entrance, Rachel's body lay about 15 feet down an embankment giving way to a wetland. The search was over for Rachel, and on for whomever left her there.
Coincidentally, Chief Abraham's own son was among the horseback riders who became part of Rachel's story. Perched atop the horses while traveling at a slow pace, the riders spotted what those driving by had not.
"The kids, after they found the body, they were absolutely terrified that whoever killed her, Rachel, was going to come after them because they found the body," Abraham said. "I had a hell of a time convincing them that when you dump a body in a ditch, you're dumping it there to be found. He wanted the body found, or they wanted the body found. ... They didn't want to believe me for quite some time. They were pretty scared kids."
A vibrant life cut short
Rachel Anthony was born May 30, 1950, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Douglass Pettet and Lucille Tyhulski. She grew up in Garfield Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. The second oldest of four children, Rachel's father died when she was a year and a half old, leaving Lucille with Rachel and sister Connie Clark.
Lucille sold Avon for awhile and then moved the children to California for two years while she worked for Pacific Bell. She eventually returned to Ohio and married Ed Tyhulski, who worked in the Republic steel refinery in Cleveland, and had two more children, Marilyn and Ray.
Rachel was undeniably smart, according to Connie.
"Because she was so smart she had a tendency to get in trouble," Connie wrote in an email. "We fought just like any other siblings would, but never lost our love for each other."
At 19, Rachel married Raymond Mozden and had a son, Robert. Two years later, she divorced, and Robert went to live with his father. After a lifetime mostly apart, Robert said he and his mother were in the process of reconciling, slowly but surely, before her death.
Rachel gave birth to her two daughters—Jessica in 1974 and Tricia in 1976—before marrying the girls' adoptive father, Frank Anthony, in 1984. She also gained two stepchildren, Brian Anthony and Cherie Pederson. The family eventually made their way to Princeton, about 30 miles east of St. Cloud. There, they lived on a hobby farm replete with animals of all kinds, indoors and out, and a massive garden.
"She just had that natural animal whisperer-type thing," Jessica said. "When we had some baby geese that were hatched, I just remember being jealous because these baby geese imprinted on her and would follow around her everywhere. They didn't want anything to do with the rest of us."
Tricia recalled her mother's aptitude with plants, particularly those in the house.
"She had plant lights, and she had them in this corner. It was like a little jungle corner, with all these houseplants," Tricia said.
These were just two of the many attributes that made up Rachel, remembered for her eclectic taste in music, magnetic personality, her love for books and Scrabble and photography and the spectacle of nature, particularly thunderstorms, meteor showers and the northern lights.
Everyone who spoke of her remarked on her intelligence. Sister Connie said that contributed to her restlessness in settling on a vocation. She worked a number of jobs over the years, from driving instructor to mall Santa, but her true passion came putting pen to paper. Poetry, journalism, short stories, a children's book about her farm animals—she wrote it all. She freelanced whenever she could, and won a poetry award for a 1984 poem about the drought in the southwestern United States and Mexico.
She once wrote a piece for Coventry Village News, a newsletter for a Cleveland Heights neighborhood, addressing women's safety in the wake of two stranger rapes. In hindsight, her words have taken on an eerie quality.
"Caution is their advice to women in the neighborhood," Rachel wrote in 1980. "Develop some kind of 'buddy system' with friends or neighbors, so that when you have to come home alone late at night, someone can be there to meet you that's friend instead of foe."
In about 1996, having divorced her second husband a few years earlier, Rachel moved to the lakes area to be closer to her daughter Jessica. A few years later, when she applied for the last job she'd ever work, Kim Terhaar said she liked Rachel immediately. She became a trusted, reliable employee of Ultimate Liquors.
"She was fun, and outgoing and talkative," Kim said. "She had a presence about her, and she had beautiful blue eyes. ... A really cool lady, and a good friend."
Who killed Rachel Anthony?
Since the discovery of Rachel's body, an autopsy of which revealed she died of asphyxia due to homicidal violence, investigators have worked to determine who was responsible. Theories vary on who killed Rachel and why, and with no major suspects ever identified, the debate continues. Generally speaking, however, law enforcement officials leaned toward the likelihood the murderer is, or was at the time, a local.
Dave Bjerga was a BCA agent tasked with death investigations at the time. A native of the area who once worked at the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office, Bjerga has since retired from the agency and returned to living up north. Bjerga said the location of Rachel's body played a major role in the suspect profile. While used by locals as a shortcut, avoiding county highways, Nelson Road is not one most people from out of town seem to know.
"We went to the FBI and had this case looked at, and they agreed with us, that this is somebody who knows this area of southern Cass and northern Crow Wing County," Bjerga said during a phone interview Tuesday. "To us, that just gave us more incentive to now spread out the parameters of our search for suspects, not just around Pine River, but to those two areas."
Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch, who was chief deputy at the time of Rachel's death, said he thinks it's important not to get too hung up on the local suspect theory.
"If you only focus locally, you could really jeopardize searching for suspects," Burch said. "It was talked about, but we have to keep a broader, you have to keep your mind open and make sure that you're not looking beyond what you've found. You have to make sure you're including all possible suspects."
Among those investigated were people considered suspects in another unsolved murder case in the Pine River area. In 1984, Clarence and Marge Paulson, a father and daughter, disappeared from their home. Six years later, a worker dismantling a 19th-century farmhouse in rural Pine River discovered their skeletal remains.
"We cross-referenced those (suspect) names with the Rachel Anthony case," Bjerga said. "In some cases, there was very tenuous (connections), maybe crossed paths at one time or another. So we ran those folks down, and we put them down on the night and time that Rachel was taken, and we weren't able to make a strong connection either way."
Bjerga said there are a lot of facts of the case remaining unclear.
"We don't know that it was just one person, and we don't know that there wasn't a weapon involved," Bjerga said. "Just because we don't believe that a weapon was used to kill her, we don't know that a weapon wasn't used to gain compliance. ... How do you keep someone in your vehicle against their will, unless you have a way to restrain them or to cause them enough fear where they're afraid to try and flee?"
Just like investigators, Rachel's children have spent many years going over their mother's disappearance, in search of answers.
"They never did find out who the last customer was that night," Jessica said. "That was the only sale that they could not find out who it was. So there's always that question if that was the person. I personally think that that last customer had something to do with it, being that that person never came forward. Because everybody else did."
Robert said his mother wasn't a mean person and had no known enemies.
"I think it was somebody she knew and I think it was personal," Robert said. "It was either somebody she told no, and the other thing is, my mom isn't exactly a weakling. My mom stood like 5-11, was a butterfly swimmer in college. I've heard stories of my mom lugging feed sacks from when I was a kid. So you know what, when I hear those things, when I know those facts, and you look at that they can't determine how much a struggle, I know she didn't go without a fight. That just wasn't my mom."
Tricia agreed the suspect may have been someone her mother knew.
"One of our theories was that ... they argued about something and the argument went wrong," Tricia said. "There was some closure finding her body, that was a good thing. It still bothers me that there's somebody out there that took her life, and maybe has—hopefully not—but maybe has taken somebody else's life. ... That makes me angry sometimes."
Will Rachel's case ever be solved? Bjerga is confident it can happen, particularly in light of advances in DNA technology and the proliferation of genealogy databases. Famously, the "Golden State Killer," suspected to be Joseph James DeAngelo, was arrested in April 2018 after allegedly evading justice for four decades. DNA found at crime scenes was compared with those profiles willingly uploaded by people to these databases—often in search of long-lost relatives—and distant relatives of DeAngelo revealed the connection.
"Law enforcement is now mining those databases for familial DNA," Bjerga said. "I really think that's what's going to solve this case. I'm convinced of it now, unless somebody just comes forward. ... If I was a person or persons that did this, knowing the advances in technology we have, I wouldn't be super comfortable right now. Because all you have to do is read the news. People are turning up that they thought were dead, people are being arrested that had no known connection to their victim."
In the wake of tragedy
Rachel's children's book was never published. Her grandsons, 3 and 4 years old at the time of her death, barely remember her. She never met grandchildren born later. Jessica and Tricia long to share their lives with their mother, to talk to her, to be with her. Robert carries his pain deep, describing it as a wound that each February is mounded with salt, never allowed to heal.
So many books left unread. Too many milestones missed. A life cut short, and for what?
"It's kind of a double-edged sword," Jessica said. "I like thinking of my mom and stuff, but at the same time it's kind of hard to miss her, too. It's kind of surprising some days when I can get through the day without thinking about her. But there's things, hurdles in your life or whatever, when you want to talk to your mom about it and she's not around anymore to talk to her about it."
Tricia said she still talks to her mom all the time.
"I want her to know her granddaughters and that I'm finally thinking about going back to college and finishing what I started years ago, and I'm doing alright," she said. "One of the things, when life's little disasters happen, having three teenagers, I want her to be here sometimes so I can ask her how she managed it. ... She's not just somebody who got murdered. She was somebody who had a life and she had people that loved her. She meant a lot to us, she meant a lot to me."
Robert, whose birthday falls just days after the anniversary of his mother's disappearance, said he hasn't celebrated it in 18 years. This time of year is dark for him. He recently composed an essay—reminiscent of the poetry his mother once wrote—expressing his pain.
"Terrible, terrible pain. Terrible, terrible grief. I cannot let go of it, I can't make it diminish. Every passing year that the anniversary comes and goes, that hole is open wide and salt is poured in. Every year the sadness makes its presence known. Every year a reminder I was robbed, my children robbed, my siblings and their children robbed. ... All the rage I cannot express, all the hate I cannot let go. When does it end, when will there be peace, when will the culprit be revealed and justice served?"
In Pine River, the fate of Rachel Anthony echoes through the lives of residents. Her photo can still be seen on billboards and in what was until recently Ultimate Liquors, now Barstock Liquors.
Bonnie Christensen said the murder so close to home changed how she raised her daughters, and made her think twice about working alone at night. Bjerga, who drives by the site of Rachel's disappearance regularly these days, said her case is one that haunts him.
"It never really goes away. You want to know who and why," Bjerga said. "Living in this area, her name is brought up quite often amongst locals. But it's always in a way that, they never solved that murder of the lady from the liquor store. ... To not have it solved, it just feels like a black mark on your career."
Kim Terhaar, Rachel's former boss, said it's an honor to help keep Rachel's memory alive. She's confident there will be justice—one way or another.
"No matter what happens here on this earth, we all get, there's a reckoning," Kim said. "I would love to have the case solved, I would love to see justice served in this lifetime, but I know it will be. Nobody gets away with this in the grand scheme of things. That is my firm belief and I would love to have the case solved for Jessica and the rest of Rachel's family, but I think justice will be served in the end."
Help solve Rachel's case
The case remains an open investigation with the BCA and the Cass County Sheriff's Office. Spotlight on Crime is offering up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for Rachel's murder. If anyone knows anything about the case—even if it seems to be a small, inconsequential detail, Sheriff Burch said—they are asked to contact the BCA at email@example.com or 877-996-6222, or Cass County at 218-547-1424 or 800-450-2677.
Coming soon on the DispatchCast
The Brainerd Dispatch podcast, DispatchCast, will explore the Rachel Anthony case through the voices of those affected. The DispatchCast is available through Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or almost anywhere one listens to podcasts.
Other area unsolved cases
• Peter Achermann, 82, of Leader, went missing July 24, 2009, while running errands for groceries and his wife's medication. His abandoned vehicle was found the following day, but Achermann was never found. It remains unclear whether Achermann's disappearance was the result of foul play. He was declared legally deceased on July 24, 2013.
• Terrance Brisk, 41, of Little Falls, was found shot to death Nov. 7, 2016, while hunting alone on his parents' property in Belle Prairie Township. At first considered a possible hunting accident, Brisk's death was ruled a homicide. Investigators later revealed he was killed with his own gun, a Winchester Model 30-30 lever action rifle. The rifle was missing initially, and was later located by investigators.
• John Greenwaldt, 29, of Brainerd, was reported missing July 14, 2017. Greenwaldt was last seen July 4, 2017, in downtown Brainerd. His body was discovered by a search team made up of volunteers and law enforcement Aug. 17, 2017, in a wooded area near a trail close to the 300 block of Hattie Street, north of Little Buffalo Creek. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner's Office was unable to determine a cause of death.
• Shawn Hess, 28, of Brainerd, disappeared Feb. 27, 2002. He was last seen near Eighth and Oak streets after attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Although investigators believe Hess' death was not the result of foul play, but rather hypothermia, his body was never found. Most of Hess' clothing was found along the railroad tracks, about a mile east of Brainerd.
• Charlotte Lysdale, 68, of Pine River, went missing June 14, 1985, from her apartment. There were no signs of struggle in the apartment, and Lysdale's body was never found. The case did go to court, however, where Jerome Bye, a 54-year-old Pequot Lakes real estate agent, was tried and acquitted of a first-degree murder charge. Lysdale was reportedly last seen at Bye's residence. Bye purchased Lysdale's home on Lower Hay Lake on contract for deed in 1984. Bye is believed to be the first person tried for murder in Minnesota without the direct evidence of a body. He was later convicted of theft of a property deed in the Lysdale case.
• Clarence Paulson, 59, and Marge Paulson, 34, of Pine River. The Paulsons, a father and daughter, went missing from their Pine River home in 1984. The home appeared undisturbed, with Marge Paulson's purse with money still inside and Clarence Paulson's all-terrain vehicle parked outside. Six years later, a worker dismantling an abandoned 19th-century farmhouse in rural Pine River found their skeletal remains.
• Wally Thompson, 44, of McGregor, was reported missing Nov. 5, 2005. Thompson's skeletal remains were found in a remote, wooded area on March 11, 2006, near McGregor, where Thompson was last seen. Thompson's death was ruled a homicide.
Have information on an unsolved case or see one from the area missing? Email the Dispatch at firstname.lastname@example.org.