LeeAnna Warner, age 5, vanished on a one-block walk in 2003. It changed how police respond to child abduction
Her disappearance in Chisholm, Minnesota, remains unsolved, without much evidence. It prompted law enforcement agencies in the state's Northland region to create one of Minnesota's two child abduction response teams.
CHISHOLM, Minn. — It’s the photographs that get to Kaelin Warner.
"Every few years, we have to do the new and updated photographs of what she would look like now, and that's a struggle for me," Kaelin said. "Still to this day, I look for a 5-year-old. I can't get that out of my head, even though I know she'd be 24."
Kaelin's daughter, LeeAnna "Beaner" Warner, disappeared while walking between a friend's house and their home in Chisholm. It was only a block away.
Nineteen years later, there have been no clear signs of what happened to LeeAnna on June 14, 2003. The case has left a lasting impact on local law enforcement and motivated changes in how child abductions are handled in the region.
A one-block walk
LeeAnna was last seen walking barefoot between her home and a neighbor's house about a block away. She had made that walk to the friend's house several times before then. Her brown hair was cut into a short bob and she was wearing a sleeveless blue-denim dress with a belt, orange underwear and a flower earring with a red garnet in her right ear. Her distinguishing marks were a mole above her left ankle and a dimple on her left shoulder.
LeeAnna left her house around 4:30 p.m. and was last spotted knocking at the door of the house of the friend she hoped to visit at 5:15 p.m. Nobody was home at the neighbor's house at that time. After that, the trail for LeeAnna runs cold. By 5:30 p.m., the family started looking for LeeAnna, and by nearly 9 p.m., despite the effort of an extensive search party of friends and parents, there were no signs of LeeAnna. Next, the Chisholm police were called.
Over the next few days, an extensive search began. Over 300 volunteers showed up to help search a 4-mile radius surrounding the Iron Range city, which had a population of just under 5,000 residents at the time. Longyear Lake, in the middle of Chisholm, was extensively searched, along with surrounding mine pits.
"It was a herculean effort to search that area," St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman told the News Tribune in a recent interview. "We're pretty confident, though I suppose we can't say beyond all reasonable certainty, but we're pretty confident that she wasn't in that 4-mile radius."
Litman recalls Chisholm residents responding cooperatively to the search efforts, with many joining in to help cover the rough terrain surrounding the city. Volunteers called out "LeeAnna" and her nickname, "Beaner," for several days after her disappearance. Kaelin said the community rallied in a way she'd never seen before.
"It absolutely blows my mind the way Chisholm came together," Kaelin said. "People were truly supportive. Even to this day, people will come up to me and say, 'You're always in my prayers,' or something like that."
Despite the work of many volunteers and law enforcement, no clear evidence of LeeAnna was found.
"The most significant thing that always stood out about this case was the lack of information or knowing what had happened," said Chisholm Police Chief Vern Manner, one of the investigators who worked on the case at the time.
"Even in the (Jacob) Wetterling case, they knew from the start what they were investigating. This case, we still only have theories as we have no evidence to say what happened."
Attempts to find information over the years ranged from partially draining Longyear Lake, to searches with bloodhounds, to St. Louis County Board candidates including photos of LeeAnna along with campaign literature in 2004.
Following the leads
Police combed through hundreds of leads in 2003. Over the years, that number has grown to approximately 1,800.
"We still follow up on every lead, no matter how big or small," Manner said. "Even if it sounds like the same old lead, but there are new names or places, we look into it. There will come a day when one of them leads to answers."
Kaelin doesn't get notified about the leads that come through, unless police need to check something with her.
"It got to a point where it was just too hard for me to go through," Kaelin said. "It was just an emotional roller-coaster every time. So they stopped telling us about leads unless it was something specific they needed to check with us."
Kaelin said she stopped getting consistent updates around the time police were investigating Chisholm resident Matthew Curtis, 24, for LeeAnna's disappearance.
Curtis was arrested for possession of child pornography in August 2003 and was interrogated a number of times by police. Search warrants turned up no direct evidence. Curtis was found dead in September 2003, a few days before he was set to appear in court for the child pornography charges. His death at the time was ruled a suicide.
Police followed another lead to a convicted sex offender, James. E. Duncan III, as a possible suspect after he mentioned LeeAnna on his blog. Duncan wrote that he was afraid he'd be blamed for her disappearance because he was already a suspect in another abduction case in Idaho. Investigators soon ruled Duncan was not a viable suspect in the case.
Still to this day, I look for a 5-year-old. I can't get that out of my head, even though I know she'd be 24.
When looking back at the case near the end of his career as sheriff, Litman said there are a few things he wishes could've been done differently.
"On the criminal investigation side, given the number of leads and the people involved, yes, there are some things we'd do differently if we could do it again," Litman said. "I'd love to have some resolution to the case, not for my own selfish reasons, but for the community of Chisholm and for LeeAnna's family."
Lake Superior Child Abduction Response Team forms
When looking back on how things were handled in response to her child's disappearance in 2003, Kaelin said she believes that local law enforcement "did the best that they could do in that situation."
"From what I understand, nobody is prepared for anything like this, especially not in such a small town," Kaelin said.
In 2015, a group of local law enforcement officials started gathering to ensure that they would be prepared for the next time a child disappears. The group formed the Lake Superior Child Abduction Response Team, or CART.
"The idea behind a CART is the need for a specialized team. We look at it a lot like SWAT teams or emergency response teams," said St. Louis County Sgt. Eric Sathers, the CART coordinator. "You train teams extensively for a barricaded person or a hostage situation or an active shooter. Why wouldn’t we do the same for a child abduction?"
CARTs came into existence in Florida after a series of abductions in the early 2000s. Law enforcement decided a better approach was needed to deploy resources to respond quickly to an abduction.
"They combined state agencies with local agencies and created these teams that would train ahead of time and prepare for when they had an incident," Sathers said. "Then they could immediately deploy these teams of officials trained for this specific incident and it saved them a tremendous amount of time."
The program was then promoted nationwide, resulting in the creation of approximately 300 CARTs in the U.S. However, there are only two CART teams in Minnesota, the Lake Superior team being one of the two, according to Sathers.
The Lake Superior CART consists of many sheriff and municipal law enforcement agencies from St. Louis and Carlton counties in Minnesota and Douglas County, Wisconsin. Those departments who sign onto the standard operating procedures agree to dedicated personnel when there's a call out for an incident. There are also numerous partner agencies who haven't signed on with the standard operating procedures, but have dedicated resources to the team and join in the training exercises. Approximately 150 people are dedicated to the team in case of a deployment.
The team usually conducts training exercises about three times a year.
"We always do at least one practical exercise where we simulate an abduction or we might do a tabletop exercise, depending on the circumstances," Sathers said. "And we usually respond to two to three incidents a year, depending."
The team is trained to conduct canvasses of a neighborhood, coordinate volunteers, work with search-and-rescue, and manage leads.
"That's something that's become crucial for us," Sathers said. "When I think back to the Jayme Closs situation, they had hundreds of leads pouring in. We need to be able to take those leads, put them into a system to keep them organized so that when an investigator comes in and says, 'Hey, is there anything in there about a red Mitsubishi?' we can search the database easily and have those pieces in place."
The team officially went into operation in 2017. Sathers said that its formation wasn't a direct response to LeeAnna's case, but that it did factor in.
"In this county, ever since the Warner case, we've not wanted to have a repeat of that," Sathers said. "So if we can deploy resources quickly, make sure we're trained and ready to go, hopefully we can have a different outcome."
Back to Chisholm
As for Kaelin, she has recently moved back to Chisholm after being away for approximately 15 years. She and LeeAnna's father, Chris, recently divorced, which motivated her to move back.
"I hadn't wanted to move away in the first place, but Chris wanted to get away," Kaelin said. "I was scared that if we left, if she came to the house, no one would be there. That pretty much sat with me the whole time."
Now that she's back, Kaelin said she feels a kind of peace with being close by to where her daughter disappeared. Her son and two other daughters have all since married and moved away. Kaelin said she hopes to someday find out that the same is true for LeeAnna.
"That's all I can do is hope for the best for her," Kaelin said. "If I saw her today or could speak with her, I'd tell her how much I love her and that she'll always be my little angel. I would do anything in the world to find her and to make up for the last 19 years we've missed."