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Rescue officers disperse at 4:45 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, after recovering the body of 11-year-old Anthony Kuznia from the Red River, 26 hours after he went missing from his rural home south of East Grand Forks, Minn. (Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald)

Missing East Grand Forks boy's body found in Red River

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It was shoes found on the bank of the Red River Thursday afternoon, a full day after he went missing, that led to the recovery of Anthony Kuznia’s body just after 4 p.m., said Polk County Sheriff Barb Erdman.

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Using the shoes as a reference point, law enforcement officers in boats on the river found his body in the water, she said.

Kuznia, 11, had gone missing from his home about a half-mile away shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday, sparking a massive search that ended 26 hours later.

Erdman held a news conference at 6 p.m., alongside East Grand Forks Police Chief Mike Hedlund, after giving the boy’s family about 90 minutes to absorb the sad news and to contact relatives.

Kuznia’s body was taken to the medical examiner’s office in Grand Forks for an autopsy, Erdman said.

There were no obvious signs of trauma on this body, according to the brief preliminary information she got from searchers and no other information to suspect foul play, Erdman said.

“We have a kid who walked away,” she said.

His body was found in the water near the end of the Greenway riverside park in East Grand Forks. It’s across the river from the Olson Drive area in Grand Forks.

Long night

Kuznia lived with his grandmother, Janet Luettjohann, in her rural home nearly two miles south of East Grand Forks on Rhinehart Drive. He told her shortly before 2 p.m. Wednesday he was going outside to play in an older recreational vehicle in the yard. When the grandmother went out later, she couldn’t find him and after a brief search, called 911 about 2:10 p.m.

Within two hours the search had turned massive, with multiple law enforcement agencies and 200 or more volunteers.

Anthony had autism, which gave him difficulties walking and expressing himself, said those who knew him. He had run off and hid before and was prone to walk into someone’s house and was attracted to basements, RVs, tents or other “cave-like” spaces, all factors that added urgency to the search, Erdman said.

But dark came Wednesday night with no good ending. Law enforcement continued working various angles, including any possible criminal action, into the early hours of Thursday.

The main search began again Thursday morning with re-doubling of efforts, covering some of the same ground but more closely, and expanding the area searched to roughly nine square miles centered on Kuznia’s home.

He was said to be attracted to water, so the Red, despite being a half-mile from his home, was a focus from the start.

Massive search

The search included top technology such as heat-imaging equipment on a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter that cruised the Red at a slow 20 mph, 50 feet or less from the water, and a sonar device on a Grand Forks-based water rescue team’s flat-bottomed boat. But it was boots on the ground that spotted the boy’s shoes on the river bank that led to the recovery, according to Erdman.

A team of law enforcement searchers, who beat the brush and grass along the Red River in a long, probing search, came across the shoes on the river bank west of Kuznia’s house.

“That certainly helped in defining the location for searching,” Erdman said.

The same area had been searched, perhaps more than once, on Wednesday. But the terrain on the Minnesota bank of the Red in that area is very difficult to get through, with such thick grass and brush and trees that “you can be five feet from something and not see it,” said Hedlund.

The concerted second-day effort to use trained law enforcement officers, including U.S. Border Patrol agents walking the brush, as well as police and county deputies and others from the area, on both sides of the Red River, paid off, Erdman said.

Meanwhile, about 490 volunteers signed up to go out in staged walking searches of about a mile at a time, many of them going out more than once.

About 4:45 p.m. Thursday, Jamie Cordell stood outside the VFW Arena in East Grand Forks where volunteers signed up and were shuttled to and from searches on school buses.

“I went out four times and I was going to go out again, but they said they weren’t taking any searchers anymore,” Cordell said, emotionally moved by the obvious conclusion that Kuznia’s body had been found.

Cordell said he couldn’t think of a better way to spend his vacation that to try to help a child like Kuznia who needed it.

“We lost our daughter two years ago, she was 12 and had a disability,” Cordell said. “That’s why my voice is a little shaky. Her name was Meagan.”

They have sons, 16 and 6, and when they heard of Anthony missing, it seemed natural to volunteer to search, he said.

His fellow searchers included teachers and social workers who worked with his daughter as well as with Anthony, he said. “These people really care.”

Covering bases

There was a criminal investigation side to this incident, although Erdman emphasized that there had been no clear indications of anything amiss.

Kuznia’s parents, who have two younger daughters, both live in Grand Forks and the entire family had cooperated with the search, Erdman said.

But parallel to the searching Thursday, crime investigators could be seen stopping people in the area of the Red River, questioning them. Officers, including probation and corrections officials as well as police officers, checked on all known sex offenders living in the area.

The parents’ homes were searched, even late Wednesday night and “everyone who knew Anthony,” was interviewed, Erdman said.

It was all part of part of making sure all the bases were covered in such a far-flung emergency operation, Erdman and Hedlund said.

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