Article that Inspired Two Lakes, Two Rivers


TODD RICHMOND, Associated Press

Dec 11, 2006

Madison, Wisconsin Local News

Vanishing students. Dead bodies. Fears something sinister is lurking in the shadows.

A string of college student drownings across the Midwest, including eight in as many years in La Crosse, has all the makings of great mystery. Or does it?

Rumors have persisted for years that a serial killer is prowling Interstate 94, hunting young men in college bars and plunging them underwater. Investigators, though, say there’s no evidence of foul play. They say the victims were so drunk they fell in the river and died.

Not so fast, says criminologist Douglas Gilbertson.

An assistant criminology professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Gilbertson has spent most of the past year researching the drownings. He completed a study this spring he believes shows patterns that indicate some of the cases could be murders and could be linked.

“We definitely do have some cases that are just not accidents. When you fill in the patterns that are coming out, that’s the next logical step,” Gilbertson said.

St. Cloud Police Chief Dennis Ballantine, whose department investigated the drowning death of a St. Cloud State student this spring and concluded it was an accident, called Gilbertson’s study a collection of coincidences.

“It would make a great TV drama, but there’s no evidence to support it,” Ballantine said. “The only common denominator I’m aware of is young people, alcohol and water.”

According to Gilbertson’s study, more than 20 college-age men from Minnesota to Ohio have drowned after disappearing from a bar or party since 1997.

One of the hot spots is La Crosse, which sits on the Mississippi River and is home to three colleges. Eight college-age men have turned up dead in Area Rivers after vanishing from bars. Police have ruled all the deaths accidental.

The St. Cloud area has seen cases, too. In 2002, St. John’s University student Josh Guimond disappeared after leaving a party in Collegeville, Minn. This spring, 21-year-old St. Cloud State student Scot Radel disappeared after leaving a downtown bar. His body was later found in the Mississippi River.

In 2004, La Crosse police called a town meeting to allay that city’s fears, but ended up getting heckled by people who insisted a killer was on the loose. And talk of a possible killer is everywhere on the Internet.

The killer theory got a boost this fall when Minneapolis police abruptly changed course in University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins’ death. Jenkins vanished from a downtown bar on Halloween 2002 and turned up dead along the Mississippi.

Investigators originally ruled Jenkins’ death an accident or suicide, but reclassified it a homicide in November.

The about-face caused other investigators to re-examine their conclusions. So far, no links to Jenkins have emerged, though police in La Crosse have asked the FBI to recheck their findings in the drownings. La Crosse police Lt. Bob Berndt said he’s aware of Gilbertson’s study, but his department stands behind its conclusions.

“As police officers, we have to deal with the facts,” he said.

Seeking Internet Clues

The Mississippi River divides St. Cloud, a city of about 61,000 people about an hour and 20 minutes northwest of Minneapolis. As in La Crosse, the downtown bar district sits less than three blocks from the river.

Radel’s death spurred Gilbertson to dig deeper into the drownings. He and two graduate students scoured the Internet, newspaper stories and police reports. They found 22 victims who went to college within 50 miles of I-94 between Moorhead, Minn., and East Lansing, Mich.

The victims were white or Asian men in their early 20s, generally around 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds and athletic, with good grades. No victims were women.

They also found that 15 of the cities where the drownings took place were within 100 miles of I-94. Eighteen of the 22 drownings occurred during the first two weeks of the month, and three-quarters of the disappearance occurred when the moon was less than half-full.

Gilbertson said he can’t judge some cases because he doesn’t have enough information. He also acknowledges some are accidental. But others could be murders.

If the drownings were all random, there should be greater racial and academic diversity among the victims and they should be scattered all over the map, Gilbertson said.

The moonlight factor could support accidents because drunks would have less light to stumble around in, Gilbertson said. But it also could support a killer operating when darkness is deepest.

Amanda Presenger, one of the students who worked on the study, said the findings support the idea of a killer who travels the Midwest, perhaps for business.

“He’s traveling back and forth, maybe at certain times of the month or certain times of the year. Maybe he travels closer to the beginning of the month for his job,” said Presenger, 26, of Thunder Bay, Ont.

Disputing Murder Theory

But for every reason to think a killer is at work, there’s a counterpoint.

In 2004, weeks after UW-La Crosse wrestler Jared Dion was found dead in the Mississippi, two professors wrote a letter to students arguing the drownings are accidents.

The leading cause of death for young men is accidents; males between the ages of 15-24 have a drowning rate 10 times higher than females, according to the National Safety Council; and 40 percent of males in college binge drink, wrote then-psychology chair Betsy Morgan and sociology chair Kim Vogt.

“It is often harder to accept explanations that hit close to home; explanations that involve actions we ourselves have engaged in that put us at risk,” the two professors wrote.

St. Cloud State spokeswoman Marge Proell said the university stands behind Gilbertson’s research.

“It’s a real good thinking piece, a starting place for taking a look at a problem,” she said.

Dad View of Son’s Death

Allan Radel, Scot Radel’s father, said he hasn’t seen Gilbertson’s findings. He thinks his son escaped from someone who had him in a car and meant to rob him. Footprints show he tumbled down an embankment to the Mississippi as he was running, headed across the frozen river and fell into open water.

“We do not believe Scot was murdered,” Radel, of Owatonna, Minn., said. “We believe our son would be alive today if he hadn’t been overserved with alcohol and if he hadn’t been alone.”

Gilbertson isn’t giving up. He’s still working on patterns in the drownings, and over Christmas he plans to travel from New York to Minnesota to pinpoint the drownings’ exact locations.

“Additional research is necessary,” Gilbertson wrote in the study, “and I am hard on its trail.”

Serial Killer Theory

URBAN LEGEND: Rumors have swirled for years that a serial killer is stalking drunken young men in college bars around the Upper Midwest and drowning them. Police say the deaths are accidental.

SEARCH FOR ANSWERS: Douglas Gilbertson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at St. Cloud State University, has studied the deaths for the last year. He says patterns in timing and location indicate they can’t all be accidents.

COINCIDENCES: Investigators say Gilbertson’s findings are a collection of coincidences. There’s nothing more sinister at work than binge drinking and drunken students simply falling in, they say.

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