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Lake Elmo, Minnesota, authorities dedicated to solving 1988 disappearance of Sue Swedell: ‘It’s been too long’

The 19-year-old was worried about the blizzard conditions and was having car troubles when she stopped at a gas station about a mile from her home. She reportedly got into a car with a man and was never seen again.
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“I never learned how to drive because I thought somebody was going to take me,” Christine Swedell told Dateline. “I never got married because I’m afraid of men.” 

It’s been a traumatic 36 years since Christine’s older sister disappeared in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. 

Susan Swedell, who went by Sue, was only 19 years old when she vanished on her way home from work on January 19, 1988. 

Sue Swedell
Sue SwedellChristine Swedell

Despite a three-year age gap between Christine and Sue, Christine said they were like twins. “I talk like her. I laugh like her. I almost took her personality and meshed it into mine,” Christine told Dateline. “She’s just -- my very best friend.” Their parents divorced when they were young and the Swedell sisters became inseparable. “We spent more time together than I think most siblings do,” Christine said. 

Christine said they enjoyed spending time outdoors -- walking and biking, as well as feeding the horses at the farm down the street. “Just a lot of special time together,” she said. 

“When I turned 12 and Sue was 15, my mom got custody of us,” Christine told Dateline. “And then that’s when we lived in Lake Elmo.” 

Sue Swedell with her sister, Christine
Sue Swedell with her sister, ChristineChristine Swedell

“She was very scholastic. She loved school, which a lot of kids don’t. She was always studying,” Christine said. And Sue loved going to church. “She was just kind of the all-American girl.” 

After graduating from high school, Sue went to the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. “She got very homesick, and so she came back home,” Christine said. 

Sue decided she needed to get a job, and ended up with two. One was at a small clothing boutique called Body and Soul, the other at K-Mart. 

Christine says that Tuesday, January 19, 1988, started like any other for the Swedell family. “We were having our breakfast,” Christine remembered. “Mom left for work because Lake Elmo is quite a ways east of Minneapolis,” where their mother, Kathy, worked at the University of Minnesota. “We had breakfast together, and then I left. And then Sue left for work.”

Sue opened the boutique at 9:00 a.m. After her shift ended at 1:00 p.m., Sue headed to the K-Mart for a shift there at 1:30 p.m. “She was seen at both her jobs,” Christine told Dateline. 

Christine said that on a typical night Sue would have been home by around 9:30 p.m. But that night would turn out to be anything but typical. 

There was a blizzard in Lake Elmo, and Sue would never make it home.

“She hated any wind. She hated any storms,” Christine said. Sue and her mother spoke briefly on the phone that evening. “She was very scared of the weather -- and Mom just took her time and said, ‘You need to be on the main roads,’” Christine remembered. 

When Sue didn’t come home, Christine and her mother knew something had to be wrong. Around 11:00 p.m., they called the police.

Dateline spoke with three officials from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Criminal intelligence analyst Blake Trantham has been working on Sue’s case for six or seven years, Detective Nick Sullivan worked it for five years, and Detective Cooper Valesano was recently assigned to the case to bring a fresh set of eyes. 

They said their department has fewer than 10 open cold cases right now. Sue Swedell’s is the oldest missing persons case.

Trantham told Dateline how their department first learned Sue Swedell had vanished. “They were expecting her to be home and she just -- she never arrived. So I believe that it was about 11 o’clock that, uh, Kathy, Susan’s mom, called the sheriff’s office to report that she hadn’t come home,” he said. “Eventually that night, deputies went around looking in ditches and they -- they found her car parked at a, um, a gas station in -- in Lake Elmo. And it was empty. It was locked.” 

Gas station where Sue Swedell was last seen
Gas station where Sue Swedell was last seenChristine Swedell

The gas station was about a mile from Sue’s home. Her purse and glasses were left behind in the car. 

Trantham said there was no sign of Sue. “So the next morning is when the missing person report was filed,” he said. 

That morning is when officials learned from the gas station attendant that the teen seemed to have been having car trouble, which is why she had stopped there.

“She was just having her first car troubles and panicked like any other teenager -- or any of us -- and she was just right around the gas station on Stillwater Boulevard and Manning Avenue, and she stopped and went into the gas station,” Christine Swedell said. 

Christine told Dateline that her sister asked if she could leave her car at the gas station that night. The attendant told Sue to park it in a certain area. “Sue went ahead and did that,” Christine said. 

The gas station attendant also told authorities that she had seen a car pull up behind Sue. Sue spoke with the man for a couple of minutes before she asked the attendant if she could leave her car at the station. “There was somebody that rolled up behind [Sue],” Blake Trantham said. “They spoke for maybe 15 minutes standing next to one another.” 

“And then they left,” Trantham said.

“[Sue] got into the car of this man that she was talking to, and she was seen -- last seen going in the direction of our house,” Christine told Dateline. 

“She knew, obviously, about stranger danger and all of that. But if she is so upset about the weather and getting scared about her first car issues, I believe that she would do that,” Christine said, referring to Sue possibly getting in a car with a stranger. 

Christine remembers when the police came back to their house to tell the Swedells about finding Sue’s car. 

“When they came to the house, I ran up the stairs, and I just felt like she was gone,” Christine said. 

Trantham told Dateline that Kathy Swedell picked up the car the following day and took it home. “Five days later, she actually drove that car into the -- into the grocery store in Stillwater and the car started smoking, steaming on the way there,” the criminal intelligence analyst said. So the Swedells took the car to a mechanic to be checked out. 

“At the bottom of the radiator there was a drain plug, it was called a petcock. And the mechanic determined that petcock, that drain plug of the radiator, had been loosened, and so coolant had leaked causing the car to overheat,” Trantham said. “So there’s speculation that maybe is what Susan was experiencing that night on the way home.” 

Trantham told Dateline that the mechanic “believed that someone would have had to have tampered with it,” but authorities had no proof of that.

Sue Swedell
Sue SwedellChristine Swedell

Detectives began interviewing people in Susan’s circle.

“Detectives and deputies interviewed employees and supervisors at both of her jobs,” Trantham said. “Everybody at work really described her as being pleasant, mild-mannered, friendly, kind.”

They learned that there had been some strange phone call activity at Sue’s job at the Body and Soul boutique.

A co-worker told investigators that “a male had been calling for her, like, a couple of weeks or so leading up to her disappearance,” Trantham told Dateline. Authorities were never able to identify that person. 

“They ended up going to River Falls and talking to folks at the school, at her campus that she’d been at previously, interviewing friends and family,” Trantham said. 

Detectives also interviewed the gas station attendant on multiple occasions over the years. 

The attendant initially described the man who pulled in behind Sue as having “sandy brown hair, shoulder-length” with a stocking cap on. 

According to Trantham, the gas station attendant described the car he was driving as an “older model, full-sized, two-door, light-colored or cream-ish colored car.” 

“Initially she said it had sport wheels,” Trantham told Dateline. “She said it was in good shape, but it was very dirty.” 

About a week later, they brought the attendant into the sheriff’s office and had her look through a picture book of cars. “She pointed at a 1979 Ford LTD,” Trantham said. “She also described it as a -- as possibly being, like, a late ‘70s Thunderbird.”

“Her disappearance in ‘88 was weird. It was suspicious. It was out of character,” Detective Nick Sullivan said. Still, investigators had to look into the possibility that Sue left of her own accord.

At the end of the day, authorities have never been able to officially rule out Sue being a runaway, but they have no reason to believe Sue ran away, either. 

“We haven’t had any evidence or tips come in that have been substantiated saying she’s existing somewhere else or anything like that,” Det. Sullivan told Dateline. 

Sue Swedell
Sue SwedellChristine Swedell

Christine Swedell doesn’t believe her older sister would have run away. “I never have,” Christine said. “She had no reason to run away.”  

Plus, Christine told Dateline, Sue was big on family.

“Mom and Sue and I were extremely close, and she wouldn’t do that to us,” she said.

“She would never do that to her grandparents or aunts and uncles. She was so close to the family.” 

A week after Sue went missing, something strange happened. The Swedells returned home and found that the key to the back door was in the wrong spot. And when they went inside, they found dirty dishes that hadn’t been there when they left. 

“Christine says that she found a pair of red pants that had not been there before that were -- I think they’d been thrown under Susan’s bed in her bedroom,” Blake Trantham told Dateline.

The family also noted an odd, sweet smell, that they thought might have been the smell of marijuana. 

“They were pretty certain that someone had been in the house,” Trantham said. Nothing was missing from the home. “Kathy even made mention of that -- the idea that if Susan had been in the house, she didn’t take any other additional items with her.” 

It was believed that Sue had worn the red pants for the first part of the day she went missing, and then changed into something else. 

“When she left K-Mart that night, one of her supervisors -- I think it was the assistant manager at K-Mart, actually -- he reported to our investigator that he made a comment to her that she was underdressed for the cold weather and the blizzard,” Trantham told Dateline. According to the initial police report, Sue was wearing a mini-skirt, light flimsy shoes, and a jacket.

However, Christine told Dateline that she doesn’t believe Sue was wearing a mini-skirt, but rather a skirt down past her knees. “I know the skirt. It’s a longer skirt, and that was typical for her,” she said, adding that she wasn’t shocked Sue had changed -- despite the blizzard conditions. “Teenagers are teenagers. They’re going to just change into whatever they want.” 

The red pants were collected by police. Detective Sullivan told Dateline they did DNA testing on them. “We’ve ran it multiple times,” he said. “I think we had them rerun it in 2018, when I took this case. They -- just to see, you know? Obviously, technology changes, so to see if they could find anything. And there was -- there was nothing recovered.”

In fact, no other physical evidence was ever recovered in connection to Sue’s case. 

About a decade after Sue vanished, police decided to bring the attendant back in to create a composite sketch of the man she saw Sue leaving with. “I don’t think it’s as reliable as people just automatically assume,” Trantham said. Details began to change. “She later remembered him having curly, almost black hair.” Not the sandy brown shoulder-length hair that was initially reported. She also said the car the man was driving was darker colored, where she had previously reported it was a lighter color. 

“Having that sketch 10 years later, you know, it’s nice to have, but it’s just, we don’t know how reliable it really is,” Det. Sullivan added. 

At some point in the ‘90s, Christine and Kathy Swedell entered their DNA into the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension records. “They were actually the first relational DNA to be entered in Minnesota,” Trantham said. Authorities also have Sue’s dental records in the file. 

“We get notices all the time,” Trantham told Dateline. “Anytime that there’s any kind of a body recovered, missing person is found, um, that’s unidentified -- DNA is -- is attempted to match. So that’s happened dozens and dozens of times.” 

There have been no matches to date. 

In the early 2000’s, authorities got a lead. There had been a hit on Sue’s Social Security number. However, it turned out to be identity theft.

“We’ve had people report that they think that they’ve met her or seen her,” Trantham said. “As recently as just a couple of years ago, there was a homeless lady that went through a city in southern Minnesota,” who had been given food and clothing by a local who learned the woman’s name was Susan. They reported it to police, who tracked the woman down. She was not Sue Swedell.

Billboard featuring Sue's case
Billboard featuring Sue's caseChristine Swedell

“We’ve gotten so many leads over the years, I couldn’t even tell you how many we would be at now,” Det. Nick Sullivan said. “We just hit a lot of dead ends. You know, the thing with all of our cold cases is, you know, we call them cold cases just simply because of their age. But all of our cases are always assigned to a detective. They’re always going to be actively worked if we get any tips in or anything like that. And Susan’s case is no different than that.”

Detective Sullivan told Dateline that they have no physical evidence to suggest that Sue was abducted. “Could it be foul play? Yeah, it could be. It absolutely could be,” he said. “But it’s so hard. We’re kind of at this point where we’ve reviewed this case and we’ve interviewed these people so many times, so it’s like, what ave-- what direction can we attack this that we haven’t done before?” 

The detective said that it seems like tips come in once a month or every couple of months in Sue’s case. “She’s probably been the one cold case that we have got consistent tips in over the years,” he said, noting that they always follow up on those leads. “We’re going to keep working it until we solve it or until there’s some sort of answer, you know?”

Detective Cooper Valesano, who recently began investigating the case, said he’s taking a look through the files with fresh eyes. “The case file itself is over 2,000 pages long,” he said. “So that’s something that I’m reviewing.”

Christine and Kathy Swedell
Christine and Kathy SwedellChristine Swedell

“We’ve had leads, but obviously nothing goes anywhere,” Christine Swedell said. “It’s no closure.” And after 36 years, that’s what Christine and Kathy Swedell are hoping for — closure.  

“It’s been too long,” Det. Sullivan said. “Kathy, who is just a sweetheart, she’s just—she’s getting older, and trying to find some closure is the ultimate goal.”

“Every time I have a dream about her, it’s like I‘m 52 and she’s 19,” Christine said. “I never got married. I never got --. I -- I didn’t do any of that because I wanted her to be home. And if she comes home in any way, I didn’t want her to lose anything. I didn’t want her to miss anything.” 

“We were going to have children together. So you see, we’re going to get married together, children together. Everything was lined up in our brains because we talked about it so much when we were little and what we were going to do -- always thinking of what we were going to do and make Mom proud,” Christine said. “So I’m still waiting.”

Christine said, in a way, it’s like she disappeared, too. “I’m putting my life aside, so in a way, Sue and Christine are both missing,” she said. “But I’m coming back. I came back in my 40s, so it took a while, but --. It took a while to think about me.” 

Christine told Dateline that she has begun to take steps to find herself. “I am going to the University of Minnesota,” Christine said. She is studying Global Studies, which is something Sue would have loved. “She would have been a translator. She really liked Spanish.”

The Swedells have kept Sue’s belongings, just in case. “I’m still using her curling iron when I need to,” Christine said. “Everything’s waiting for her.” 

Christine runs the “Swedell Strong” Facebook page, where she shares updates and information in Sue’s case. 

Spotlight on Crime, an organization that helps statewide law enforcement agencies solve violent crimes in Minnesota, has offered a reward of up to $25,000  for information leading to Susan Swedell’s whereabouts. 

And the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently created a new age progression photo of what Sue might have looked like at 54 years old. 

Sue Swedell age progressed to 54 years old
Sue Swedell age progressed to 54 years old

Sue was 5’4” and 100 lbs., with sandy brown hair at the time of her disappearance. She would be turning 56 years old in February. 

If you have any information about the disappearance of Sue Swedell, please call the Washington County Sheriff’s Office Investigations Tip Line at 651-430-7850. You can also contact the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Tip Line at 877-996-6222 or email them at bca.tips@state.mn.us.

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