Investigator updates Monticello cold case that’s 42 years old

Twenty-seven years after he was reported missing as an abduction victim, Jacob Wetterling’s whereabouts are no longer unknown.

Wright County law enforcement continues to investigate a cold case that dates back to the early 1970s.

Seventeen-year-old Belinda VanLith was last heard from in the morning hours of June 15, 1974, while house-sitting at a residence on the northern edge of Eagle Lake in Wright County, approximately 6 miles west of Monticello.

Belinda VanLith (Photo Courtesy Wright County Sheriff's Office)
Belinda VanLith (Photo Courtesy Wright County Sheriff’s Office)

Her disappearance is believed to be the result of foul play. The Wright County Sheriff’s Office reassigned deputies to the case in April 2013.

According to Lt. Albert Lutgens, the VanLith case has been reviewed several times throughout the last 42 years and has remained unsolved.

“We consider this one ours,” Lutgens said. “It remains open. Unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of leads.”

When the Wetterling case had a breaking develoment in the past, Lutgens said he would get one or two calls.

“Opening up a case that’s more than 40 years old, the first steps are to go read what’s been done by other investigators,” he said.

“Our goal in 2013 was to try and identify anybody who had not been spoken to already,” he said. “We did identify several people who were mentioned in the initial reports. Those people had not had a statement taken down. That was our main goal.”

Looking at the physical case file and transferring it from paper to digital storage was another initial task, Lutgens said.

“We had a lot of the information stored in three-ring binders, and we put it into our digital system,” he said.

There are dental records and family-supplied DNA available to investigators, Lutgens said.

“We don’t have her DNA, but we have material from family members,” Lutgens said. “It’s only being used for searches for this case.”

Belinda’s dental records and DNA profiles are out nationwide. If any remains are found, investigators can go by dental records on file, and the DNA. If there is a close match, the Wright County Sheriff’s Office gets notified.

“Over the years, we’ve had hits from all over the country, but most of them we’ve been able to weed out fairly quickly when we find out the age,” Lutgens said. “If we find someone who has only been missing a few years, we know it’s not Belinda.”

A front-page story in the June 27, 1974 edition of the Monticello Times reported Wright County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Jim Powers had issued a request for any information which could be helpful in locating Belinda.

In the news story, Powers explained that Belinda had been house-sitting at the Duane Cornwell residence near Eagle Lake from Monday, June 10, through Saturday, June 15, while Cornwell, a musician, was in Nashville, Tennessee, doing a recording.

According to the news story, telephone conversations with Belinda’s father Thursday evening and friends Friday evening and Saturday indicated Belinda, who had just completed her junior year at Monticello High School, was at the Cornwell residence on those days.

On Saturday when Cornwell returned home at 6 p.m. the girl was missing, the news report stated, although her clothing and purse were all found in the house.

The following day, the Wright County Sheriff’s Department was called in to investigate.

“There’s no sign of a struggle or any foul play,” Powers reported in the news story. Several searches of nearby woods did not yield any clues. Powers said that a Becker youth who knew Belinda reported seeing her Monday, June 17, hitchhiking with another girl toward the Twin Cities, near the edge of Monticello.

Powers could not confirm if that information was valid, and there were no other reports of a second missing girl to the sheriff’s department. The story ended with Powers stating law enforecment needed the public’s help.

“If somebody goes missing now, there’s more out there now than anybody could ever imagine,” Lutgens said. “Back in the 1970s, someone remained missing for quite a while. There are a lot of new requirements for missing person cases that we’ve had to follow. Unfortunately, 40 years ago, they didn’t have the advances that we do now nor the manpower.”

Missing adults and missing children were not always dealt with the same way years ago as they are dealt with now, Lutgens explained.

“Adults do still go off on their own and don’t call people. With those cases, about 80 percent of the time we do find them, because there’s a reason one way or another why they didn’t want to contact someone.”

Lutgens said the first step is dispatching a patrol unit and collecting information. “Right away, we try to determine if the missing person is endangered, or a child, is it somebody who didn’t go to work or just simply walked away.”

If law enforcement finds out a person hasn’t shown up for work for two or three days, the investigative process is stepped up at that point.

“One of the first steps a patrol officer takes is putting out an alert to all law enforcement with as much information as they can, including a physical description and make of vehicle if possible,” Lutgens said.

Amber Alerts are restrictive because they involve searches for children who are in danger and working with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), Lutgens said.

“We don’t start those on our own,” he said. “We work through a checklist before it’s sent out.”

There was some FBI involvement with the VanLith case in the 1980s. All law enforcement agencies are kept in the loop, Lutgens said.

“I would like to see something put out regarding this case every year on the anniversary of her disapperence,” he added. “We try and keep the family in our thoughts when we reopen a case because it is tough on them,” he said.

Lutgens and other investigators would like former classmates of Belinda’s to come forward. “I’d be interested in talking to her close friends, those who she went to high school with and those she hung out with,” he said. “That was one thing I focused on in 2013, trying to find her old classmates.”

Lutgens said the VanLith case will continue to recieve law enforcement attention.

“It won’t go away,” he said. “And as much as you might try, you can get emotionally involved. It’s tough. On one hand, you really hope you are able to solve it, but on the other hand, sometimes when you solve it, it brings more hurt. Those officers and investigators who have worked with Patty Wetterling probably know her better than anybody, even her own family.”

The Wetterling abduction, chosen the top 1989 story in Minnesota by the Associated Press, had other connections with Monticello.

On Nov. 30, six weeks after Jacob was abducted near his St. Joseph home, an attempt at a kidnapping of a 15-year-old boy in downtown Monticello was reported to authorities but no arrest was reported.

Nationwide interest in the plight of the Wetterling family prompted a Monticello couple, Kenneth and Betty Klein, to run a classified ad in the Minneapolis Star Tribune; its message to their three sons who disappeared on Nov. 10, 1951 was, “We are still waiting to hear from you.”

A Monticello VFW Club benefit on Dec. 17, 1989, for the Jacob Wetterling Fund raised about $2,300 and was marked by the appearance of Jacob’s parents.

Those with information, tips or leads in the Belinda VanLith case should call the Wright County Sheriff’s Office at (763) 682-1161 or (763) 682-7622.

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]