Missing person cases in Bismarck still open decades later

BISMARCK (AP) — Michelle Julson hasn’t been seen since the day 25 years ago when she dropped off her 3-year-old son at his paternal grandfather’s house.
The last time anybody saw Roy Hagel was 30 years ago at a bowling tournament in Fargo.
The missing person cases of Julson and Hagel are still open at the Bismarck Police Department, despite the time that has passed. And the missing people and their families are still on the mind of Sgt. Mark Gaddis.
“I think about ’em,” said Gaddis, a member of the detective section for more than 20 years. “I couldn’t imagine being in their shoes and having someone you cared about … went missing and you don’t have any answers.”
The cases were handed to Gaddis a few years ago, after he received a promotion in the detective section. Years earlier he worked on the case of Sandra Jacobson, who disappeared with her 5-year-old son in 1996. The department keeps the three cases open, hoping to find a tip or clue that might help close them. As time passes, however, that possibility seems to become more remote, Gaddis said.
The department annually responds to 50 or 60 missing person reports, records from the last three years show. A much smaller number — 16 in 2018 and 20 in 2017, for example — require follow-up by detectives. Very few go on as long as the three that are open in Bismarck.
Families of the missing persons declined to be interviewed by The Bismarck Tribune . Gaddis said he has some contact with the families but less with each passing year.
Police and news reports about the three long-term cases show the following:
Julson, 26, on Aug. 2, 1994, was going to get her paycheck from the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation and maybe play bingo. She didn’t pick up her check, and police aren’t sure if she played bingo. Her son’s father and grandfather reported her missing that night when she didn’t come back for her son. Her ’87 Ford Thunderbird was found Aug. 8 at the Comfort Inn. It was clean except for a half-eaten sandwich on the front seat. She was reportedly seen in Fargo and then at the WeFest outdoor country music festival in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. She was taken off the missing persons list briefly after reports that people had seen and spoken with her but put back on because she had no contact with her family.
Hagel, 38, called a friend in early March 1989 saying he’d been in nine states in nine days, was almost out of money and planned to come back to Bismarck. His vehicle was found at Death Valley National Monument on March 10, his wallet and car keys on the front seat. Park rangers followed a set of footprints 6 miles into the desert but Hagel was never found. Even though his car and belongings were found in the national park, rangers said they never proved Hagel was there.
Sandra Jacobson was 35 when she and her 5-year-old son, John, disappeared in 1996. She lived in Center at the time and planned to go to her parents’ Bismarck home for supper about 5 p.m. but told them she’d be late. On her way to town, she called Bismarck police. She was upset and told them about satanic rituals she believed were taking place on a farm near Center. She called Bismarck police because she didn’t trust Center or Oliver County law enforcement.
She arrived at her parents’ home about 7:30 p.m. She seemed to be experiencing mental difficulties and agreed to let her mother take her to the hospital. She wanted to put gas in her car first, and when police found her car the next day at Centennial Beach — now Keelboat Park — they found a receipt to confirm she had done that. Her purse was on the front seat. She and John were never seen again.
There’s no policy regarding the amount of time that must pass before a missing person report can be filed. State law doesn’t allow police departments to refuse them. Police at first might search the route a person was taking or check local hospitals. School resource officers and the Police Youth Bureau help with runaway cases. Bismarck police had 179 reports of runaways and 186 welfare checks in 2018. Most of those types of cases are handled by patrol officers and cleared in a few days.
People are sometimes reluctant to give information about a missing person because they fear being in the spotlight or feel it’s too late to share. There’s nothing to fear, Gaddis said, unless they had something to do with the person’s disappearance. Tips can be made by calling the police department at 223-1212, through the department’s tip411 app or on the department’s website. All can be anonymous.
Gaddis has run into cases in which a person left for a few months to seek treatment for substance abuse and then returned to family. People might also try to get away from their past and hope that a new place and a new name will give them a fresh start. An adult who has chosen to leave and isn’t wanted by law enforcement can let authorities know they are OK. Their privacy will be respected, Gaddis said.
Missing people is a big issue around the country. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center created its Missing Person File in 1975. As of the end of last year it contained 85,459 active missing person records. Juveniles under the age of 18 account for about one-third of the cases.
During 2018, 612,846 missing person records were entered into the system. Records purged during the same period totaled 615,629. Reasons range from a person being found or returning home to the record being deemed invalid.
For cases that linger, fewer tips come in as they age. In 2019, there haven’t been any on the three open Bismarck cases. They seem to come in spurts, Gaddis said. Someone might call to say, for example, that someone is living in another town and going by an assumed name.
“We’re not going to discount those,” Gaddis said.
John Jacobson’s case gets some attention from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The center’s efforts have led to tips on the Jacobsons as recently as February 2016, but Gaddis’ follow-ups haven’t proven fruitful.
“You hate to give up. You’d like to be able to solve it. Your goal would always be to solve it and have that happy ending,” Gaddis said. “But being in this job 28 years, not everything ends in a happy ending.”