'It's healing to know Gina is with Jill'
THIEF RIVER FALLS - They've been told already they may never know exactly how or why Gina Anderson ended up in the Red Lake River in her hometown, say her family mem-bers: parents, Judy and Steve Lappegaard, her sister, Jackie Pagel, and her husband, Jeremy Anderson.
But they have a good idea what they think happened.
Gina Anderson, 32, last was seen leaving her home Oct. 23 2008 in her yellow Pontiac. Nothing was seen of her until her car with her remains in it was found Wednesday in the river here after the water level was lowered to aid the search.
What seemed so hard to figure about her disappearance was that she left behind her purse and the medication she needed daily to keep at bay the grand mal seizures she had suffered for years.
The seizures came on fast and left her physically helpless for up to 15 minutes, once caus-ing her to have a car accident.
"It would fit," said Pagel on Thursday, of the idea that Anderson had a seizure while driv-ing that day.
Gina might have left on a quick errand toward Wal-Mart, Kmart, or a medical clinic on the southeast corner of the city, felt a seizure coming on and inadvertently drove into the river at a dead end at a steep bank.
"She would feel it coming on," said her mother, Judy, of what she thinks happened. "And maybe she turned off the highway and on to that road (Sherwood Avenue). She would feel it coming on and she would stiffen."
About six months ago, Gina had an accident after having a seizure while driving, said her father, Steve Lappegaard. "She was on the highway, felt a seizure coming on, and turned to pull off the road and she ran into the back of a parked car. She would stiffen out and hit the accelerator instead of the brake."
After that accident, her family took her to a specialist in the Twin Cities who got her on a new medication which seemed to stop the seizures.
Judy Lappegaard said an investigator told her Thursday it was unlikely a clear determina-tion of death, including whether a seizure was involved, would be made, because of the long time Gina's body was in the river.
Thief River Falls Police Chief Kim Murphy said Thursday morning that nothing had been ruled out yet, as to possible causes of her death, including foul play, although there's no indication of that.
Anderson's body was taken to St. Paul for an autopsy.
Pagel said law enforcement sources told her Thursday "they didn't see any evidence of trauma to her bones or her body. I think they are considering it a fresh-water drowning." Gina's grande mal seizures would put her out for up to 15 minutes, Pagel said.
"We'd like to think she wasn't awake and didn't go through the drowning."
Gina Anderson's funeral arrangements have been set. A wake and prayer vigil will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday in Trinity Lutheran in downtown Thief River Falls; the funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the church.
That's the family's church, where Jill Lappegaard, the youngest of the three daughters, was buried last December after losing her life in a one-vehicle accident on a snowy rural road near Thief River Falls. Jill had been leading the effort to drum up support for searching with benefit events.
"Gina will be buried directly next to Jill," Pagel said.
Jeremy is quiet, often getting tearful while his in-laws talk about his wife, in this family that has gotten even closer through the twin tragedies.
"We have some closure now and can lay her to rest," he said. "It's so sad she was so close, right in town."
Living in a small town made the connections close.
Pennington County Sheriff's Deputy Ray Kuznia became very close to Gina's family the past year, touching base at least once a week, spending hours and days searching with them. Ray Kuznia was in a boat Wednesday and the first one to see the car, about a foot under the lowered water level, nearly a mile upstream from the city's dam.
He immediately went to shore, leaving the retrieval effort to others, and drove over to Steve Lappegaard's place of work and took him home.
"I knew as soon as I saw Steve coming up to the house," Judy Lappegaard said of finding out Gina's car had been found.
Ray Kuznia stayed with the family all Wednesday, handling telephone calls while Gina's family dealt with the traumatic yet welcome news.
Kuznia's brother, Ben, is the investigator with the sheriff's office who led much of the search, especially pushing the idea of lowering the river level this week. Sheriff's offices have primary jurisdiction on waterways, even within city limits, in Minnesota.
It was all part of a stepped up effort the past two months to finally bring some resolution to the mysterious case, Ben Kuznia said.
"We just had no information, just nothing confirmed, that she was sighted out of town at all. The big thing was we've got to really look at the river. We did it with radar, sonar. But the best way to search it was to drop it down so we could physically look at it."
About a month ago, he began running down all the details of how to get the river level low-ered in the Thief River Falls. It took state and federal officials signing off on it.
The car was found Wednesday about 8 feet from the new, lowered shoreline, or about 15 feet from where the shore was before the river was lowered, Ben Kuznia said.
The area had been searched several ways the past year.
The site is about 80 yards downstream from where investigators think the car went in, down a 50-foot steep bank at a dead-end T where Sherwood Avenue hits a small road that parallels the river, just northeast of Wal-Mart on the southeast corner of the city.
Some might wonder why the river wasn't lowered earlier. But Ben Kuznia said during the initial weeks of the search a year ago, there were so many avenues to pursue that permission to lower the river might not have been as forthcoming.
And during the high water levels in the spring, increasing downriver flows would be prob-lematic.
The find Wednesday might affirm one of the dangling leads in the case.
The last confirmed sighting of Anderson was mid-afternoon on Oct. 23 last year, when men working on a house next to hers saw her drive away in her yellow car, and waved goodbye to her.
The only other possible sighting that is considered plausible was about 5 p.m. that day, when the son of one of the men working on that house said he saw Anderson driving her car on state Highway 59 near Wal-Mart, not far from the site where her car was found in the Red Lake River.
That sighting was never able to be confirmed but it's possibly accurate and it would place Anderson in the area where her car entered the river, Kuznia said.
Steve Lappegaard had searched that part of the river bank more than once, he said, as had Police Chief Kim Murphy. There never was any clear sign a year ago that a vehicle had gone down the river bank there, both men said Thursday.
But there isn't much vegetation there, and it's used as a snowmobile trail in the winter, and if the car went airborne slightly, perhaps it left few signs, Ben Kuznia said.
The family talked to three psychics or spiritual seers over the past year in their attempts to leave no stone unturned. One psychic, especially, from Virginia, spent lots of time giving the family three readings.
Some of the images or ideas suggested by the Virginia psychic seem related, say Gina's family: she would be found near a curve in a road, in water, near the smell of hamburgers. "That would be McDonald's," said Judy, about the restaurant near where Gina was found.
But it's not like they credit the psychic with finding Gina.
Rather, getting such information spurred them on to keep searching, kept them going, they say.
"We credit the investigators, Ben Kuznia, Ray Kuznia, the police, all the others," Jackie Pagel said.
They have kept Gina close enough and alive in their hearts so that they automatically told people this week she was 33, as she would be if she had reached her birthday last March 17.
Pagel, who lives in Minnetonka, Minn., with her husband and their two children, Ethan, 3, and Khloe, 6 months, said she named Jeremy as godparent for Khloe, and Gina as honorary godparent this summer.
It's a strange feeling after pressing every day for nearly a year to find her sister, "to feel that now it's over and finally be able to grieve for Jill and for Gina," Pagel said. "It's healing to know Gina is with Jill and she has been since Jill was gone."