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The 2002 Pontiac Sunfire belonging to missing Thief River Falls woman Gina Anderson sits on a trailer after it was hauled out of the Red Lake River in the city today. (Photo: Mark Allen, Thief River Falls Radio (www.trfradio.com/page/local_news/)

Year-long search for Thief River Falls woman apparently over after car found in river

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THIEF RIVER FALLS -- Family and friends of Gina Anderson gathered in her parents' home Wednesday, grieving a year's worth of wondering and loss after her car was found in the Red Lake River about noon.

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Law enforcement told the family they believe her body is in the backseat of the bright yellow Pontiac Sunfire that Anderson, 32, last was seen driving away from her home Oct. 23, 2008.

Pennington County Deputy Ray Kuznia was one of the investigators in a boat who first saw the car.

"It was about a foot below the surface," he said of first spotting it from about 15 yards away. "We didn't know it was a car right away."

By 4:30 p.m., the car was in the Pennington County shop, and investigators jimmied open the locked doors of the mud-covered car and began checking the interior, shining flashlights into the backseat, where her remains apparently were seen. The muddied license plate on the front barely revealed the first three digits: 224.

No official word can be made yet about what was found in the car, Thief River Falls Police Chief Kim Murphy said.

But family members said law enforcement had told them they believe Anderson's body was in the car.

Judy Lappegaard, Gina Anderson's mother, said friends and family had gathered in her home as she and her husband, Steve, grieved. They didn't feel like commenting.

She referred questions to Kuznia, who has spent much time with the family.

Gina's husband, Jeremy Anderson, was there, and the Lappegaards' daughter, Jackie Pagel, was on her way up from her Twin Cities home.

It's been a terrible year for the Lappegaards, not only because of the mystery of their daughter Gina's disappearance. But only weeks after Gina disappeared, their youngest daughter, Jill Lappegaard, died in a traffic accident, alone on a rural road near Thief River Falls in December.

Gina had left her purse with her seizure medication in her home when she left the house in midafternoon of Oct. 23. Men working on a house next door said they exchanged brief pleasantries as she drove away and that she appeared OK.

When her husband, Jeremy, got home from work that evening, he found her gone, her purse still in the house. He began calling family and friends, but no one knew anything.

The next morning, he reported her missing.

No leads or tips about her whereabouts in the months following, some from the Fargo and Detroit Lakes, Minn., areas, ever panned out, Kuznia said.

The region was searched by land and air, and the river was searched several times.

Kuznia said where the car likely entered the river on the southeast side of the city has a steep drop-off right next to the road. Where Sherwood Avenue dead-ends at the river, there are two yellow signs, with space between them that would allow a small vehicle to go down the steep bank. The path is used as a snowmobile trail, so maybe if there were tracks left, they weren't seen as anything out of the ordinary, Kuznia said.

It's very possible for a driver to accidentally go off the road at that point and into the river, Kuznia said.

Nate Ricks lives next to the site. He said about noon Wednesday he noticed law enforcement vehicles gathering on the street along the river. By mid-afternoon, a tow-truck had pulled the yellow car up the river bank about 70 yards north, downstream, from the corner, he said. "They covered it up right away with a tarp," Ricks said.

Lower river level

Anderson's car was found because of an effort to lower the river level. A gate in the city's dam was raised Monday to let more water through, lowering the river reservoir where the Thief River from the north meets the Red Lake River that comes in from the southeast, curving through the city to leave toward the southwest.

Where Anderson's car was found is on the upstream leg of the Red Lake River as it comes into the city from the southeast.

The water level where the car was found had gone down about 5 feet by Wednesday morning, allowing searchers to spot the car, still submerged, Kuznia said.

The rivers in the city had been searched several times; using hi-tech equipment including sonar and underwater cameras and a mini-sub loaned and operated by the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office in Duluth.

"We thought they did an excellent job," Kuznia said. "But a few of us still said we wanted to see with our own eyes and thought that it would be a good idea to lower the river."

His brother, Ben Kuznia, also with the sheriff's office, began checking with state Department of Natural Resources officials and others, including the city's utility department, about what lowering the river would involve.

Because water levels were at seasonal lows, the effects of increasing the flow through the dam didn't have any negative effects downstream, as it could in the spring, city officials said.

As soon as he realized they had found the yellow Pontiac, Ray Kuznia went over to be with the Lappegaards. "I've been talking with them every week," he said. "They've become like family."

Friends of Anderson stopped to see the place by the river where her car was pulled out.

"She was a great person," Laurie Wilson said. "She loved her family."

Wilson worked with Anderson at the Hugo's grocery store and several times saw Anderson suffer the "grand mal" seizures that afflicted her. "She would fall, the cart would fall. It would last maybe five minutes."

Anderson had a string of serious health problems beginning when she was in her teens, her family says. And she had long struggles with prescription drug abuse, say those who knew her.

But her family said she had really turned her life around and was working steadily and appeared happier than she had in years.

Brian Minks stood looking down at the river, shaking his head. "I graduated from high school with her," he said. "She always was getting together with her family."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com.

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