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A year after her death, Starbuck teen remembered as 'captivating'

Laura Schwendemann's favorite color was purple. She loved the game Apples to Apples, and she hated spiders. She never drank pop, and she had a passion for music.

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Laura Schwendemann's favorite color was purple. She loved the game Apples to Apples, and she hated spiders. She never drank pop, and she had a passion for music.

These are just a few of the things that didn't make the stories in the wake of the 18-year-old's disappearance and death last October.

Schwendemann, of Starbuck, was a freshman at the University of Minnesota Morris when she disappeared, later to be found in a Douglas County corn field. The case would lead to a change in Minnesota law on penalties for concealing someone's death.

Now the people who loved Laura are speaking out, and they want the public to know that there was more to Laura's life than there was to her death.

According to her mother, Darla Schwendemann, Laura had a way of captivating a room.

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"Laura was spunky even when she was an infant," Darla said. "She made her presence known when she was born, weighing 5 pounds and 10 ounces."

Over her lifetime, one of Laura's passions was animals.

"Laura liked animals and had a way of talking her dad into getting some," Darla said. "One summer she bought two calves ... that she named Benjamin and LuLu. Then she got a horse, which led to us fencing in our yard so the horse could have room to walk and run. And finally, she had gotten some chickens.

Laura's friend and coworker, Brittany Boysen, says she misses Laura's infectious laugh the most.

"She was really bubbly and fun. She always made you laugh," Boysen said. "We could work together and get stuff done and still have fun. It wasn't ever boring. ... She was a great person."Laura's mother says that above all else, Laura cared about people and in return, people cared about her.

"She was just a good kid," Darla said. "People loved her, and she accomplished a lot in 18 years."

A HARD WORKER

Throughout her life, Laura took part in numerous sports and activities, but found her true passions in music and her jobs, which included working at the Starbuck Meats and Locker Service and the Minnewaska Lutheran Home.

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Sandy and Keith Knutson, the owners of Starbuck Meats, say Laura was someone whose maturity and work ethic captivated them from the start.

"She started and she was a go-getter," Sandy recalled. "She knew one speed and it was just to work fast, which is not always what young kids do at that age."

Over the three years she worked for them, Sandy and Keith say Laura became like a daughter.

"We'd have great talks," Sandy said. "You know how young kids are, they don't always talk to their parents but they'll talk to other people. We would have great conversations and sometimes we would be the mom and the dad and say, 'You know what, that's not a good idea.'"

Keith says Laura would joke about taking over the business one day, and would come in on Sundays just to gain more understanding of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the meat locker.

"She was going to college for business," Keith said. "She'd come in here on a Sunday and help me slaughter. She wanted to know all the aspects from start to finish. She was a good wrapper, steaks, burgers, all that. She'd come in ... and help, wearing her pink boots."

Laura's photo is displayed prominently at the meat locker, and her name is mentioned daily, whether it be by her coworkers or customers.

"There's not a day that somebody doesn't see her picture out there and talk about Laura," Sandy said. "A lot of our customers miss her."

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'A NEW NORMAL'

When Laura went missing on Oct. 15 last year, her friends and family did what they could in terms of searching for her.

"When we heard that she was missing, that was a horrible time," Sandy said. "We didn't sleep. My porch light was on and I slept out on the couch just looking, hoping she would show up at our door."

The multi-agency search for Laura was something that weighed on the minds of many law enforcement officers in the area, including Douglas County Sheriff Troy Wolbersen.

"When I think of the Schwendemann case, I think about the senseless loss of Laura's life and how devastating it is for her family and friends," he said. "Most officers involved in the case, including me, have their own children, and that can make the case feel more personal. It also helps drive everyone involved to bring resolution to the family as quickly as possible."

In the year since Laura's death, both her family and employers have had to adjust to life without her.

"It's hard," Darla said. "There's a lot of memories and things will come up. We're running out of pictures. It's a new normal."

Though Laura's death was a result of drug use, her friends and family say there was so much more to her life than that portion of it.

"I think what bothers me the most is if I hear anybody say she was just someone who did drugs," Sandy said. "It's like, 'No, she wasn't. No, she was not.' She was a really awesome kid that had so much potential and it just got stolen from her."

Boysen agrees, stating that there were sides to Laura that weren't shared last year.

"Laura was a very fun person, that's what nobody got to really hear about," Boysen said. "Everyone sees her as this person who got into drugs and whatever, but never saw the side of her that everyone else did."

FIGHTING FOR CHANGE

In the wake of losing Laura, the Schwendemann family has been instrumental in the passing of "Laura's Law," a state law that strengthens penalties for individuals who conceal a body or other evidence of a death. At the time of Laura's death, this crime was only punishable as a gross misdemeanor.

As of Aug. 1, 2016, the crime is now punishable as a felony.

"It's hard to lose Laura, but maybe the law will help some other family," Darla said.

Additionally, after Laura's death, a scholarship fund was set up to benefit graduating seniors at Minnewaska Area High School.

"When she passed away, the meat locker started this fund and people gave money," Darla recalled. "We put it all in the memorial fund and gave it away to seniors at the scholarship night."

Many people stepped up for the Schwendemann family during a difficult time, which Darla says was greatly appreciated by her family.

"We would like to thank all the law enforcement, the farmer that found Laura, everyone that helped work on her case," Darla said. "We also want to thank our community for all their love and support during that difficult time. ... We truly appreciate it."

The Schwendemann family also expresses thanks to State Rep. Paul Anderson, Sens. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Torrey Westrom, and Douglas County Attorney Chad Larson for their assistance in passing Laura's Law.

ABOUT THE CASE

On Oct. 15, 2016, Laura Schwendemann's mother, Darla, received a phone call from 21-year-old Nickolas McArdell of Starbuck. He called from Laura's phone, asking if her mother had seen her. The next day, he dropped off Laura's belongings and asked that her family not contact law enforcement. Later that day, Laura's parents called the Douglas County Sheriff's Office to report her as missing.

After days of searches, Laura's body was found in a Douglas County corn field. A toxicology report revealed the presence of methamphetamine and THC in her system. It was later determined that she had overdosed and McArdell had panicked, hiding her body rather than calling for help.

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