Two months, two tragedies: Thief River Falls, Minn., family seeks missing daughter
THIEF RIVER FALLS, MINN. - Steve Lappegaard spent Thanksgiving Day thinking about his daughter Gina Anderson, who went missing two months ago today.
Now, he looks back on Thanksgiving with regret.
"I still have guilt of not being as thankful as I should have been," said Lappegaard, his voice choking with emotion.
"Here I'm missing Gina and, ah, I should have just been thankful for Jill and still having my Jack," said Lappegaard, referring to Jackie Pagel, 29, his middle daughter, and Jill Lappegaard, his youngest.
Jill, 22, died Dec. 7 in a car crash near Thief River Falls.
The heartache of past weeks was evident in Judy Lappegaard's voice as she talked about her daughters.
"I got this big hole in my heart," she said. "I was mad at God the day Jill was killed. How somebody could take two of my daughters away."
She said her husband helped her to see they still have much to be thankful for, including their daughter Jackie and a community that has shown its compassion with visits and financial help.
"All of her (Jill's) friends have sat here in her bedroom and asked if they can come back," said Judy Lappegaard. "I love them and that's what's going to keep me going."
The first tragedy took time to unfold.
The Lappegaards believe it started at about 2:30 p.m. Oct. 23 - two months ago today.
That's when workmen remodeling a neighbor's house said they watched Gina Anderson, 32, leave her home in Thief River Falls and drive away in her yellow Pontiac Sunfire.
Family members have not seen or heard from her since.
Ask Anderson's parents, or her husband, Jeremy Anderson, if they think she was capable of walking away from her family and the four dogs she loved, and they will answer with an emphatic no.
"That's not Gina. It's not her," said her father.
Jeremy Anderson agreed his wife would not willingly subject her family to the agony they're experiencing.
"She was in good spirits. And as far as the relationship between Gina and I, it's better than it's ever been," he said.
"We love each other," Anderson added. "She loves her parents. She loves her dogs. That was her life. That was her zone."
Gina Anderson's purse was found in her home and as far as her family knows she does not have a cell phone or any credit cards with her.
As word of Anderson's disappearance spread, sightings of yellow cars started coming in from places like Pelican Rapids, Minn., and Fargo.
Family members check out every lead, but so far there's been nothing to go on.
"All of us want 'em (the reports) to be true. Then again, we don't want to get our hopes up, either," said Jeremy Anderson.
No one was trying harder to find Gina Anderson than her sister, Jill.
She drove to towns where yellow cars had been reported and she helped with efforts to raise money the family needs to hire a private investigator.
"She (Jill) went out and got all kinds of donations from different places," said Judy Lappegaard.
Pagel said there was a special bond between her older and younger sisters.
"They were extremely close," said Pagel. "Jill wouldn't want us to give up looking for Gina."
Also, Pagel added, "Jill wouldn't want us to be down because she was a happy person herself."
What happened to Jill Lappegaard on that early December morning isn't clear.
Her family knows she was on her way to see a friend, but why she crashed remains a mystery.
Authorities are checking phone records to see if she might have been talking to someone at the time of the crash, but Jeremy Anderson, who examined the accident site, believes other factors may have played a role as well.
"There was possibly a little bit of snow on the road, some deer tracks coming out of the ditch," he said. "My theory is, there was a deer that come out of the ditch and she lost control."
Live for today
Photos of the three Lappegaard sisters dot their parents' home in Thief River Falls.
A set showing the three together is framed next to the television set in the family room.
Steve Lappegaard sometimes watches movies to take his mind off things.
But he can't help looking at the images of his daughters.
"I look at that picture, my heart just drops.
"One thing I want to say ... live today as today, because tomorrow your whole world could change," he said.
Now, the family prays for word, any word, that will narrow the search for Gina.
"That, more than anything, is what we need," said Steve Lappegaard, adding the family is hopeful people traveling for the holidays will first go to a Web site set up to aid the search - www.helpfindgina.com - and print fliers to post in the communities they visit.
Jim Van Schaick, an investigator with the Thief River Falls Police Department, said authorities from several agencies are checking leads, but to date they have found nothing that sheds light on what happened to Gina Anderson.
Pagel said as hard as dealing with the twin losses has been, her family is grateful for the support they have received.
"It's been overwhelming and humbling how compassionate people can be to people who are hurting as much as we are," she said.