BEMIDJI, Minn. -- In July 1987, the city of Bemidji was shaken by the murder of a young woman with a promising future. Anita Ann Carlson, 22, was a recent Bemidji State University graduate who disappeared while working a night shift at the Pete’s Place West convenience store.
Her loved ones described her as: almost too good to be true, a kind and caring soul, a bright light extinguished.
“She was the kind of gal who if you sat down and tried to think of something negative about, you really couldn’t,” said her pastor, the Rev. Don Meyerson, in the days following her death. “She just wanted to be the first person to do something nice.”
Her tragic death caused community hysteria and the timeline of her final days and the so-far fruitless search for her killer played out in the pages of the Bemidji Pioneer. As part of Forum News Service's new cold-case series, “The Vault,” the Bemidji Pioneer recently revisited the unsolved murder through its archives.
In spite of her murder more than 30 years ago, the grieving town and the much larger community are still feeling the impact, and the search for the perpetrator still continues.
“The gut feeling area residents have that, ‘Things like this just don’t happen in Bemidji,’ makes her murder all the more incongruous and frightening, knocking askew our values, expectations, the rules of our small universe,” wrote Pioneer managing editor Jody Grau in an editorial at the time of Carlson’s death.
The case is now listed among the cold cases on the Minnesota CrimeStopper’s website, and as it is still under active investigation, many details of her death and potential suspects remain unpublicized.
Anita Carlson was a recent Bemidji State graduate from Plummer, Minn., who finished her mass communication degree with honors less than two months before her death at age 22. Planning to pursue a career in broadcasting, she managed the BSU television station and had recently accepted a contract position at the KAWE station.
Carlson had a steady boyfriend her parents said they expected her to marry, and she regularly attended the First Assembly of God church in Bemidji. She was the valedictorian of her high school class. She enjoyed knitting and baking to share with others.
Tuesday night, June 30, 1987, Carlson was working the evening shift alone at Pete’s Place West, a convenience store west of Bemidji at the crossroads of U.S. Highways 2 and 89. She had held the cashier job for two months since her graduation, while seeking employment in her career field.
Carlson called her roommate around 10:30 p.m. to let her know she’d be home soon. The final sale, a fuel purchase, had been rung up just after 11 p.m.
She was never seen alive again.
The following morning around 6:15 a.m., store manager Bryon Elperding discovered the interior of the store in disarray and Carlson's car still parked out back. Her purse and a bracelet suspected to be hers were found in the store, and law enforcement noted more than $1,000 worth of cash and food stamps had been stolen.
The search to find Carlson began.
Scouring Beltrami County
While Bemidjians enjoyed the 1987 Fourth of July Jaycees Water Carnival down by the Lake Bemidji waterfront, search crews examined the southern Beltrami County area for signs of Carlson.
Special teams of search dogs were brought up from the Twin Cities to sniff out the area. Carlson’s family and friends searched up and down roadsides. Search parties covered nearly 280 miles of ground.
A state patrol helicopter from Duluth scoured the area on Thursday, July 2 and Friday, July 3 with the Civil Air Patrol joining on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4.
Authorities said they hoped to work quickly, as there was a better chance to find Carlson alive in a short period of time following her disappearance.
By Saturday, Beltrami County Sheriff Orielle Norland said the case file was “already four inches thick,” and that officials were going over the crime scene, “with a fine-tooth comb.” Due to the mass of varying law enforcement officers and departments assisting with the case, two to three meetings of 12 to 15 officers were held per day, according to Norland.
Investigators at the time said while they had not ruled out the possibility of someone passing through town abducting Carlson, case details lead them to believe that the perpetrator knew the Bemidji area well. Sheriff Norland said he did not know if more than one person was involved with the kidnapping.
Officers also searched for three cars that had potentially visited the Pete’s Place store around the time of Carlson’s abduction.
Suspects and search warrants
In the Monday, July 6, 1987 edition of the Pioneer, the headline “Body of Carlson is found,” ran across the front page. Sheriff Norland was not available for comment at the time, as he had “been working on the case around the clock with little sleep for the past five days.”
Carlson’s pastor, Meyerson, of the First Assembly of God Church told the Pioneer on July 5 he had been notified that Carlson’s body had been found just two miles northwest of Pete’s Place West. The area had apparently been previously searched aerially, but the spot was not visible due to thick brush.
Her partially clothed body was discovered by a private citizen, Bobby Sampson, around 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 5, 1987, in a wooded area near Scribner Hill off of U.S. Highway 89. Sampson, who lived in the area his whole life, said he knew the land well and always helped search for missing people.
At the time of her discovery, the cause of death was unknown.
The next day, Monday, July 6, officials held the first press conference regarding the murder. Law enforcement agents made it clear Carlson’s death had been ruled a homicide. Other than this, officers were relatively tight-lipped.
During the event, Undersheriff Ron Otterstad said, “We’re not trying to keep information from the public, but it’s important to keep things confidential until we’ve exhausted all of the leads. We’re trying to catch somebody who killed somebody here.”
Officials asked the public to keep an eye out for the clothes Carlson was last wearing -- a pair of pink bib overalls and a pink and white blouse.
Otterstad said the investigative team had another 20 leads to follow up.
At that point in time, two search warrants had been executed in the case’s investigation, and Sheriff Norland said a vehicle potentially related to the murder had been seized. Investigators were checking car parts found near Carlson’s body to see if they matched the seized vehicle.
Monday evening, Norland said although the owner of the car seized was one of the last people to patronize Pete’s Place the night of Carlson’s disappearance, he had apparently been cleared of any connection to her murder.
Norland also said authorities were investigating whether the case might be linked to a 1985 sexual assault and abduction case of a Brainerd woman who was taken from the area near Pete’s Place two years prior.
On Tuesday, July 7, a week following her disappearance, law enforcement released Carlson’s cause of death: two bullet wounds to the head. This was determined after an autopsy performed by the Hennepin County Medical Center. Autopsy results indicated that Carlson was killed closer to the time of her kidnapping than initially suspected.
A community in mourning
For the following days and weeks, the Bemidji community mourned Carlson.
The town adorned itself in pink ribbons -- her favorite color -- affixed to car antennas in her honor.
Funeral services were held Thursday, July 9, in both her hometown of Plummer and in Bemidji. The attendees packed the First Assembly of God Church in Bemidji, many fellow BSU students, while the Rev. Meyerson comforted and addressed the crowd.
“The community is suffering -- they are rocked and shocked,” he said to the congregation of more than 300 friends, family and church members.
Afterward, an editorial published by the Pioneer bore the title, “Killing rocks community,” describing the mood in both the newsroom and the community as “solemn and anxious.”
“There remains in Bemidji a sense of community which makes Carlson’s loss personal, even to many who never met the young woman, who has repeatedly been described as the kind of person about whom nothing bad could be said,” Grau wrote in the Pioneer editorial on July 8. “A television news crew (asked) how the community in general is reacting to Carlson’s killing. From this vantage point, it looks like the community’s taking it hard.”
Letters to the editor document the fear and finger-pointing in the community -- at law enforcement, at store managers for allowing young women to work alone at night, for and against people being armed.
A lasting legacy
The case has left a lasting impression in the years since. 2007 marked the 20-year anniversary of her death -- Carlson’s parents, Merlin and Judy, told the Pioneer a few years prior, in 2002, that the discovery of her body did give them a sense of "closure," adding that many parents never find out what happened to their missing children.
They said then that they had adjusted to life without Anita as best they could. They tried to use their grief for good, counseling other parents who lost children and other family members who suffered loss in tragic circumstances. Their greatest consolation came through their Christian faith, their strong belief that they will again see Anita in heaven. As of 2021, both Merlin and Judy Carlson had died.
At some point after Carlson’s passing, the Anita Carlson Memorial Scholarship was established at Bemidji State, to be awarded to a mass communications major with a caring attitude towards others.
Not too much media attention has come to the case in the time since Carlson’s death, with the exception of stories on milestone anniversaries.
However, Illinois journalist Rachel Lacina is currently producing a podcast called “Dead End Road,” meant to analyze, recount and bring attention to the Carlson murder.
Lacina said she was drawn to research the case after seeing herself in Carlson, as Lacina is also a young woman who has worked in a convenience store and majored in the journalism field. Lacina traveled to Bemidji to research the case after one of her college professors, who went to BSU and knew Carlson, recommended looking into it. The podcast is slated to be released by the end of the year.
The case continues
The search for Carlson’s killer is still underway 34 years later. Beltrami County Investigator Bill Thompson said he bristles at the use of the term “cold case” to describe the Carlson investigation. As county investigators followed up on leads regarding the case as recently as a week or so ago, he told the Pioneer in March 2021.
Thompson said he couldn’t provide much information regarding the case or potential suspects as it remains an ongoing investigation, but said it “is very much still an active case.”
In 2013, in speaking about another cold case eventually solved, former Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp spoke about following leads in the Carlson case.
“You get a ton of them right when the case happens,” said Hodapp, who was with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension when Carlson disappeared. “We’ve had the BCA cold case unit take the (Carlson) case at least twice, I think three times, based on new evolutions in DNA science. The leads that we get are usually out of the jail or out of the prison system.”
A $50,000 reward is being offered to anyone who can provide information that leads to an arrest. The reward is offered through Spotlight on Crime.
Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. She can be reached at (507) 676-1101 or firstname.lastname@example.org.