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Investigators hit dead end on 1985 North Shore cold case

Cassandra Rhines was 19 years old when she went missing. She was last heard from in June 1985, when she called a friend to confirm that she would be attending her goddaughter's birthday party. Rhines never showed up at the party and was not seen or heard from again.

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In 2015, authorities identified the man in this photo with Cassandra Rhines as Donald McSwain. It is believed that McSwain was living with Rhines at the time of her disappearance. McSwain has since died. Contributed / Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension
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In May 2014, an off-duty Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputy was training his dog in a remote, heavily wooded area in Gooseberry Falls State Park when he discovered the skeletal remains of a Minneapolis woman who had been missing for nearly three decades.

Cassandra Rhines was 19 years old when she went missing. She lived in an apartment building at 2700 Grand Ave. S. in Minneapolis, near Whittier Park. Rhines was last heard from in June 1985, when she called a friend to confirm that she would be attending her goddaughter's birthday party.

She never showed up at the party and was not seen or heard from again.

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Cassandra Rhines

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Law enforcement were able to identify the remains through advanced DNA technology that was unavailable at the time of her disappearance. DNA was extracted from the skull and linked to a sample provided in late 2013 by Rhines’ sister. In 2013, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension began asking family members of long-missing Minnesotans to submit DNA samples.

The remains were sent to the St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office and a forensic anthropologist analyzed the skull, determining that Rhines suffered from blunt-force trauma injuries.

During a news conference in 2015, officials released a photograph of Rhines with a man whose identity was unknown. Investigators believed the man had been living with her, and they hoped to question him.

Information from tips led investigators to identify the man as Donald McSwain. It was confirmed that he was living with Rhines at the time of her disappearance. However, he was dead.

Tips also led to the identity of a friend who worked with Rhines, who was working as an exotic dancer at the time of her disappearance, which was verified by multiple sources. However, it's unclear if her job played a role in her death. Investigators tracked down Rhines' friend and found that she had also died.

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Duluth News Tribune archives

Law enforcement is still working to identify Rhines’ killer, but they have hit multiple dead ends.

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Sgt. Tim Luoma, Lake County Sheriff’s Office lead investigator on the case, said they have run into many instances where there were people they would like to interview regarding the case, but who are now dead.

“Unfortunately, we’ve kind of hit a dead end with people that would still be alive from when the crime occurred back then,” Luoma said. “All those people who we would have liked to talk to were part of a partying lifestyle back then, which has kind of led to a shorter lifespan than anticipated.”

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Lake County News-Chronicle archives

Luoma said he has the case file on his desk and looks at it every day in hopes that something will pop up and he can get closer to giving her few remaining family members closure.

“We just don’t really have any more leads to follow,” Luoma said.

It remains unclear if Rhines had been in Lake County or the Twin Ports area before her death. Investigators are speculating that she was already dead when her body was left in the park. There did not appear to be any serious attempt to conceal the body, other than with some brush.

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After nearly 30 years, the remains were reduced to scattered bones and some clothing material. The search was complicated in 2014 because the ground was still frozen and partially snow-covered after one of the harshest winters on record.

Anyone with information about Cassandra Rhines is asked to contact the Lake County Sheriff's Office at 218-834-8385.

Adelle Whitefoot covers K-12 education in northeast Minnesota for the Duluth News Tribune. She has been covering education in Minnesota since 2014.
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