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Family says they just want peace, closure more than four decades after Theresa Holappa was murdered in 1979

The 18-year-old was last seen on June 3, 1979 and her body was found in a wooded area 10 days later.

Theresa Holappa had just graduated from high school and was about to trade her drama club performances for military duty.

It was June 1979 and the 18-year-old was leaving her small town of Tower, Minnesota, with a population of about 500 people, to embark on a new adventure - the U.S. Army.

Sunday, June 3 was Theresa’s last day before her family would send her off on a bus the next day. She had plans to attend her niece’s baptism and then would hang out with her friends later that night.

Theresa Holappa

Her older sister, Kathy Holappa Black, and Kathy’s husband, Paul, were holding the baptism at their house for their three-month-old daughter, Theresa’s niece. And Theresa was the godmother.

“We were all there together that day,” Kathy told Dateline. “That was the last time we saw her.”

After the baptism, Theresa told her family she had to get home to finish packing. She also had plans to hang out with her friends one last time that night.

But she never made it out that night -- she didn’t even make it home from the baptism.

Her brother, John Holappa, told KARE11 back in 2019, that he told Theresa to wait as she ran out the door, but she was already up the block.

“That was the last time I seen her,” he said in the interview, breaking down.

Her sister Kathy told Dateline she remembers her parents being worried because when they returned home, Theresa’s things were still not packed and it looked like she hadn’t even been home.

Theresa was reported missing by her family the following day and an excruciating 10-day search was launched by the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office.

On June 13, 1979, Theresa’s body was found in a wooded area about a mile south of Tower, Sergeant Steve Borchers told Dateline. She had been stabbed multiple times, he confirmed.

Theresa’s family was in shock, and for 40 years, wondered who would have wanted to hurt such a kind-hearted, carefree person. They also wondered if there was any way their sister’s murder could have been avoided.

“For years, we went through so many ‘what ifs,’” Kathy told Dateline. “What if we had driven her home, what if she had left at a different time. We played the blame game. But the person who did this was so obsessed with her - he was going to do it one way or another.”

In 1980, a year after Theresa’s murder, investigators told her family they had identified a prime suspect. And that suspect was a classmate and neighbor of Theresa’s.

“From what we know, he was someone who was obsessed with my sister,” Kathy told Dateline. “We think he had been watching her, waiting. He knew she was leaving and I think he saw this as his chance.”

But investigators had more news for the family. The suspect was no longer alive.

According to Sgt. Borchers, who was not on the case at the time, but has taken it over in recent years, the suspect was identified as the perpetrator in the rape of a 14-year-old girl in 1980. But the suspect took his own life and Theresa’s case was suspended.

While Kathy said her family believed the suspect was the one who killed her sister, they had their doubts and never really had closure.

“This was something my family never got over,” Kathy said. “Still now, 40 years later, we’re affected by it. Just talking about it is hard.”

A few years after Theresa’s murder, their father died from cancer. Months later, Kathy’s brother, who was a paramedic, contracted meningitis from one of his patients and died at just 29 years old.

Their mother, who lived well into her 80s, passed away about five years ago, but Kathy told Dateline she believes her mother was at peace that Theresa’s killer was the person who took his life all those years ago.

The case went out of the spotlight for decades until 2019 when Theresa’s high school class was preparing for its 40th reunion, and suddenly her story was all over social media.

Kathy told Dateline she was scrolling on Facebook when she saw her sister’s photo.

“It was definitely a shock,” Kathy said. “We went 40 years with no information, nothing, and suddenly everyone was talking about her again.”

Classmates took to social media to discuss Theresa’s case, pleading with authorities to take another look at it. It worked.

Investigators began to focus on the prime suspect again, who they say was last seen with Theresa, but also explored theories that there were other people involved. Sergeant Borchers told Dateline that the original records from the case indicate the department was close to presenting evidence to a grand jury. The suspect had been interviewed already, but killed himself before that could happen.

So investigators took on the case and began combing through the original evidence, hoping to use DNA technology that wasn’t available 40 years ago.

Theresa's case is the second-oldest unsolved murder in St. Louis county, even though investigators believe they knew who killed her.

Sergeant Borchers told Dateline there haven’t been any significant updates in the investigation since they renewed it in 2019, but encouraged the public to call the sheriff’s office if they have tips that might help the case.

“We’ll follow any and every lead to the best of our ability,” he said. “If we could get final closure for the family, that would be the best outcome.”

Every year, around this time, Theresa’s family is reminded of the tragedy that rocked their family decades ago, but say they are finally finding peace.

“It’s been 40 some years and I’ve accepted that my sister is gone and I believe her killer is gone, too,” Kathy told Dateline. “That’s closure for me. It doesn’t bring her back. But I have peace.”

Anyone with information about Theresa’s case is asked to call the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office at (314) 615-4724.