“It’s only in retrospect that you can see the path from allegedly stealing underwear from school lockers to abduction, stabbing, and rape. It is the culture of secrecy regarding sexual assault that allowed him to become a rapist.”
- Shirley Iverson*
It was the 22nd of November 2003. A Saturday. Twenty two year old Dru Sjodin was at work that day. Dru worked at Victoria’s Secret while studying visual art at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota, United States.
Dru enjoyed playing sport, anything from volleyball to golf, but she chose to study visual art as she loved art, drawing, painting and photography. Her nickname when she was younger was Doodles. She was well known in the area as she helped out a lot. She did volunteer work with the underprivileged children and loved to take them bowling. She taught young children how to read and helped fundraise for organizations like the American Diabetes Association.
That Saturday, the 22nd of November, Dru finished her shift at Victoria's Secret at 4pm. The store was located inside the Columbia Mall in Grand Forks. Dru enjoyed working there and it helped with her savings for her upcoming trip to Australia. She was due to travel there in Spring 2004. When Dru finished work, she looked around a few of the other stores inside the mall. She wanted to purchase a new purse and she found one she liked in Marshall Field's. When she paid for the purse, she left the mall and walked across the car park to her car. Her car was parked outside J.C. Penney. It was 5pm.
Dru was due to work that evening too but didn't show up for her shift. One of her friends reported her missing. Police spoke to Dru's boyfriend Chris Lang. He told them he didn't see her that afternoon but that she phoned him after she left the mall at 5pm and was walking towards her car. He said that the call ended abruptly and he heard her say:
The call ended after that and he presumed that the call had just dropped. He wasn't concerned as Dru didn't sound in distress. He received another call from her phone at 7.42pm that night but he just heard a static sound and the sound of someone pressing the buttons on the phone. Police went to the mall and searched the parking lot. They found Dru's car. It was still parked outside the mall. There was a knife sheath beside her car. Police feared that Dru had been abducted.
Police contacted Dru's phone-service provider and asked for assistance in trying to locate where Dru's phone was. They informed police that her phone was bouncing off a cell tower near Crookston in Minnesota.
The next few days involved hundreds of people searching for Dru but there was no sign of her. Three days later, police found one of her shoes under a bypass near Crookston.
Due to that and the information provided by Dru's cell phone provider, police focused on that area and narrowed down the search even further by questioning people who lived there who had convictions relating to sexual offenses and kidnapping. They also received a tip from a member of the public that one man who lived in the area, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., was in Grand Forks the day Dru went missing.
Police spoke to him. Alfonso had been released from prison just six months earlier and lived with his mother in Crookston. He was a Level III sex offender, the most dangerous category, and served twenty three years in prison for multiple rapes and an attempted rape. He admitted to police that he was in Grand Forks on the 22nd of November and that he was even in the same mall where Dru worked but he claimed that he was watching a movie in the movie theater there. When asked what movie it was, he told police that the movie was called Once Upon A Time in Mexico. Police contacted the theater at the mall and checked other movie listings in Grand Forks to corroborate his account of his movements and discovered that the movie wasn't on that day anywhere in Grand Forks.
Alfonso denied any involvement in Dru's disappearance. He consented to police searching his 2002 Mercury Sable. They found a knife hidden in the trunk. They also found blood on a rear window and on the car’s seats. When tested for DNA, it was confirmed that it was a DNA match with Dru. The knife found in the trunk of the car matched the knife sheath that was found beside Dru's car. Despite that, police had no idea where Dru was.
Alfonso was arrested and continued to deny that he was responsible for Dru's disappearance.
A few months later, on the 17th of April 2004, Dru's body was found in a drainage ditch outside of Crookston. Dru was naked from the waist down with her hands bound behind her back and she was lying face down. The area where her body was found had been searched before. Her body had remained hidden in the ditch due to the snow but when it began to thaw, that was when her body became visible. Rope and remnants of a plastic grocery bag were found around her neck. Dru had been beaten, raped and her throat was slashed.
The Autopsy determined that the most likely cause of death was asphyxiation or suffocation, a slash wound to the neck, or exposure to the elements.
As it was alleged that Alfonso had taken Dru across state lines before he killed her, he was charged in Federal Court. Due to that and the fact she was killed during the course of an abduction, the Prosecution could seek the death penalty and they made it clear that that was what they would be seeking.
Alfonso Rodriguez Jr.
The Prosecution told the Jury that there was no doubt that Dru was abducted outside the mall, taken across state lines and murdered. They also believed that she was raped.
The Jury heard about the knife found in Alfonso's car and the knife sheath beside Dru's car. They heard about the DNA that was found and that police also recovered hair and fiber samples from Dru's body, which matched Alfonso and his possessions.
The Court heard about Dru's injuries and the Medical Examiner, Dr Michael McGee, testified. He told the Court that there were two large cuts to Dru's neck and he believed that was the most likely cause of her death but he testified that he could not be certain and it could not be ruled out that Dru died as a result of suffocation or exposure to the freezing elements.
Dr McGee testified that he could also not say exactly how, where or when Dru died. He told the Court that he could only provide an opinion in that regard and that opinion was based on his twenty six years of experience and the fact he had carried out at least 4000 Autopsies. In his opinion, he believed Dru died as a result of homicide violence during the course of a sexual assault. Dru was wearing a pink sweater the day she went missing and that sweater was torn down the front. It was pushed over her shoulder. Her pea coat was also found pushed over her shoulder.
He told the Court that Dru's body and the injuries and bruises found indicated that there was a struggle. He told the Jury about the two cuts to her throat. One cut was across her throat and measured five and a half inches in length and the other one was three and a half inches. Dr McGee testified that the five and a half inch cut pierced Dru's internal neck organs using a start and stop method. Dr McGee testified that he believed that they were inflicted at the site where Dru was found. He based that opinion on the circumstances that surrounded her abduction. If she was killed in Alfonso's car, there would have been a lot of blood found in the car and on Dru's clothes and there wasn’t. He believed that as Dru was found face down and had once been hidden in the snow, the blood could have pooled onto the ground below her.
Dr McGee testified that Dru's hands were bound with four millimeter nylon rope. Rope and remnants of a plastic grocery bag were found around her neck. Dr McGee testified that even though the rope was wrapped twice around Dru's neck, there was no sign of manual strangulation. He could not rule out that the plastic bag that was once over her head may have caused her to suffocate.
The Jury heard that both suffocation and the cut wounds to Dru's throat could have caused her death in a matter of minutes. If her cause of death was due to exposure to freezing conditions, it may have taken a number of hours before Dru died and Dr McGee testified that that would appear to be the least likely cause of Dru's death.
Dr McGee testified that he believed Dru was sexually assaulted and he told the Court that lab results of a specific enzyme that was found, typically found in the male prostrate, indicated that Dru had sexual contact within 24 to 36 hours of her death.
The Defense disagreed. Alfonso had offered to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty but that offer was rejected. So the main issues that had to be dealt with related to whether or not Dru was raped and the crucial point, where was she murdered? That would determine whether Alfonso would face the death penalty or not. Was Dru killed after she was taken across state lines? The Defense told the Jury that there was no evidence that Dru was raped and no proof that she died after she was taken across state lines. They told the Jury that it was likely Dru died from suffocation within just minutes of her abduction.
Alfonso was found guilty in Federal Court of kidnapping resulting in the death of Dru. The Jury had to decide whether or not to recommend that he should be sentenced to death. After they heard the arguments from both sides, they deliberated and unanimously recommended that Alfonso be sentenced to death.
It was the first time a death sentence was handed down in North Dakota in nearly a century. The State does not have the death penalty. It is only allowed to be considered in federal cases. The Judge, Judge Ralph R Erickson, acknowledged the enormity of it when he sentenced Alfonso:
“This is the first time since 1914 that any judge has been confronted with a death penalty sentence in North Dakota or Minnesota.”
Judge Erickson found it hard to sentence Alfonso to death and called it the worst day of his life.
Alfonso's Attorneys immediately requested a new Trial but it was denied. They Appealed and requested a stay of execution until the Appeal was heard.
In September 2021, the death sentence was overturned on Appeal by a Federal Judge. Alfonso's conviction was upheld.
Judge Ralph Erickson, the same Judge that sentenced Alfonso to death, ruled that misleading, unreliable and inaccurate testimony about Dru's cause of death from the Medical Examiner, the failure of the Defense lawyers to outline the possibility of an insanity defense, and evidence of severe post-traumatic stress disorder had violated Alfonso’s constitutional rights:
“While it is beyond question that Rodriguez abducted and murdered Sjodin, the evidence now in the record has led the Court to conclude that errors were made that violate the United States Constitution such that due process demands a new penalty phase trial be held.”
Judge Erickson referred specifically to Dr McGee’s interpretation of the sexual assault evidence. He said that the opinions he gave at the Trial were not written in his Autopsy report. He said that his opinions were not scientifically supported by literature or any other expert who testified at the Trial:
“Few trials are perfect. Admittedly, even fewer trials are riddled with error because expert testimony is later proven to be so unreliable that had all the circumstances been known it would have been inadmissible. But, these post-conviction relief proceedings have uncovered credible evidence demonstrating that in the trial of this case, the truth was obscured.”
Judge Erickson ordered a new sentencing phase to be conducted. The Prosecution disagreed with the ruling and believe that imposing the death penalty shouldn’t depend on proving that Dru was raped:
“Does anyone imagine that the outcome on our decision to seek the death penalty or not would have been different if the medical examiner had just said she froze to death after he tied her, beat her, stabbed her and left her in the weeds?”
It is unclear if Prosecutors will appeal the ruling and seek the death penalty or settle for a life sentence. Acting North Dakota U.S. Attorney Nick Chase said his office is still considering the options.
A successful appeal would reinstate Alfonso's death penalty. If it is not successful, the Department of Justice would need to decide whether to go through the sentencing phase of the Trial again to try to secure another death sentence. If they decide not to pursue it, Alfonso would be sentenced to life in prison without parole. It is unclear how the Department of Justice will proceed if required to make a decision. Federal executions were halted when President Biden took office. He opposes the death penalty. However, his administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the original death sentence given to the surviving Boston Marathon bomber.
Alfonso’s actual conviction wasn’t overturned so he remains incarcerated at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana until a decision is made in relation to the ruling.
*Shirley Iverson was raped by Alfonso in 1974. She testified at Dru's Trial and said that the overturned sentencing has brought back painful memories for her. She believes the culture of secrecy allowed him to become a rapist:
“Each time I get on the witness stand, either on Dru’s trial or other trials, it is that the validity of my experience, my assault that is questioned, even though he’s already been found guilty and sentenced in my 1974 case, but the validity of that sentence comes under cross examination of his defense attorneys."
President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act into law which included Dru’s Law.The name of the National Sex Offender Public Registry was changed to the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website (NSOPW). It provides information to the public on the whereabouts of registered sex offenders regardless of state, territory or tribal boundaries.
Dru's murder changed the way Minnesota handles convicted sex offenders. More sex offenders were committed indefinitely to their sex offender treatment program after their prison sentences ended.
Despite the fact that Alfonso decided to abduct and murder Dru of his own accord, it should not go unnoticed that Dru, like many other victims, was let down by others too. Alfonso was released just six months before Dru was murdered and when he was due to be released, he expressed anxiety and fear of living back in society. His family were also concerned about his release and expressed that concern to the Minnesota Department of Corrections officials. Alfonso was released anyway.
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