Updated: 11/22/2013 8:21 PM KSTP.com By: Leslie Dyste
Photo: AP Photo/File
It's been nearly 10 years since Minnesota native Dru Sjodin was abducted from the parking lot of a Grand Forks, N.D., mall and killed by a known sex offender. While feelings of grief and loss are still very real, Sjodin's mother Linda Walker has spent the last decade working to empower women - as a promise to her daughter.
Her work has become an inspiration for others.
The Grand Forks Herald reported that Walker has dedicated her time to public speaking, lobbying politicians and attending hearings to make sure that what happened to Sjodin doesn't happen to others. She recently joined the debate over Minnesota's sex offender program, and is urging officials not to weaken its laws that keep sex offenders in custody.
Sjodin, a 22-year-old University of North Dakota student, was abducted on Nov. 22, 2003, by convicted sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who has been sentenced to death. Sjodin's body was found in April 2004, in a ravine near Crookston. During her funeral, Walker had the Cadillac carrying Sjodin's body make a detour to her house.
"I promised to bring her home," Walker told the newspaper.
The last 10 years have been hard for Walker. Her husband, Sid Walker, died of cancer two years ago. He was diagnosed about the same time Sjodin was killed, but he kept quiet about it and participated in searches when he could. Linda Walker's mother died in 2011, and her father, Maj. Drew Sutfin and Dru Sjodin's namesake, died in 2007.
Despite the hardships, Walker has continued to keep her promises.
Last month, she spoke to hundreds at the University of North Dakota, as part of the same "Take Back the Night" rally that her daughter participated in 10 years ago, weeks before she was slain.
"I just felt that I needed to carry on with what Dru felt was important, what we all should feel is important," she said.
Walker's commitment has inspired young women to get involved, said Kay Mendick, director of the Women's Center at the university.
Angela Champagne-From is one of them. She was 20 and living in the Twin Cities when Sjodin was killed. While the abduction affected her then, it has more of an impact now.
Last year, Champagne-From fought off an attack by a sex offender with a knife. She received a near-fatal stab wound, but her testimony helped send her attacker to prison for 20 years.
She started her own nonprofit foundation, "Fight Like a Girl," to encourage women to "be empowered," through self-defense classes and other programs. And she's heading to UND this week to take a women's self-defense class. Her participation will be filmed for a documentary.
The way Sjodin's family responded to her death has changed others, too.
Mike Hedlund, then a sergeant in the Grand Forks Police Department, held daily - sometimes twice a day - news conferences in the days after Sjodin's abduction.
"I've got three daughters, so I thought, as a father, if I was there in these people's place, what would I want these investigators to do?" he said. "I would want them to be on every show that goes out, so maybe that one person might see who might help my daughter out."
The way that Sjodin's family handled the media crush made him want to do whatever he could to help, said Hedlund, now police chief in East Grand Forks.
"There were a lot of very short nights with little sleep. And then when I would finally lay down, I would find myself looking at the ceiling, wondering 'What can we do different?'" he said.
Walker said she is still working to keep her promises to Sjodin.
A new focus is educating young children to empower them so they don't become victims of violence. She's working to win federal funding for the nonprofit radKIDS, which teaches children as young as 5 about the dangers of sexual predators.
She said she and her family were overwhelmed by the help they received from the Red River Valley after Sjodin went missing.
"I firmly believe that every child, every missing person, deserves the same attention and the same effort by people to try and find them," she said.
Sjodin's father, Allan Sjodin, also has consistently said for 10 years that his daughter's memory and spirit keep pushing him to make sure she gets justice and that she is not forgotten. He lives near Park Rapids with his wife, Linda.
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