***Editor's note: This story was published August 9, 2015***
UNDERWOOD, Minn. – The man who prosecuted a murder and sex crime that shattered the peace of this small Otter Tail County town long ago says there's one piece of evidence he wishes he had submitted at trial: a Bible belonging to 13-year-old Sarah Ann Rairdon. The Bible was found in the family station wagon authorities think was used to move her body after she was killed by her father, John Rairdon.
Two drops of blood had fallen on a passage that read "Honor thy father and thy mother." Former Otter Tail County Attorney Michael Kirk, now a Minnesota Court of Appeals judge, said without current-day technology to prove the blood was Sarah's, he didn't want to risk the evidence being viewed as prejudicial. In hindsight, Kirk would have included it because "it would have said something to the community, too, about how evil this really was."
That evil came to light 30 years ago this week when John Rairdon, then 38, was charged with the murder on Aug. 14, 1985, accused of repeatedly sexually abusing Sarah and killing her with a pick-like tool when she tried to fight off one of his advances.
Unlike today, when an Amber Alert would be issued, news of Sarah's disappearance while walking home from school on May 20, 1985, took several days to spread. Sarah had vanished, sparking fears that a stranger had driven through and abducted her from a county road. In the days that followed, John Rairdon helped lead the charge to find Sarah, working alongside volunteers and pleading with whomever took her to "let her go."
The community was shocked when Sarah's body was found more than two months later - even more so when her father confessed. "You never believed it could happen," said Vicki Severson, a neighbor to the Rairdon family who had developed an almost mother-daughter bond with Sarah over the years.
Three decades later, "I get emotional thinking about it," she said.
The mom Sarah never had
At her home about 4 miles east of Underwood, Severson was the nearest neighbor to the Rairdon family. The former Rairdon home housed John, his wife, Marilyn, and 11 children. Five of the children were John's and four were Marilyn's from previous marriages, and they had two children together. Sarah was John's only daughter from his first marriage. "Of all the kids, Sarah stood out," Severson said. "She was so full of joy, such a witty, fun person." Sarah spent a lot of time with her neighbor, often babysitting for Severson and her husband's two boys.
Sometimes, Sarah would ask if she could stay overnight. Severson knew it was tough at the Rairdon home, but Sarah wouldn't elaborate and never hinted at any sexual abuse.
Things were tense with the stepmother and Sarah was "picked on" by her siblings, presumably because she was John's "favorite." "She told me several times, 'I wish you were my mom,' " said Severson, adding, "I often wonder, what did I miss?"
Severson did call a social service agency once after Sarah talked about her stepmom getting angry with her and becoming physically abusive. Severson was told unless she saw it happen, nothing could be done.
Despite her situation, Sarah excelled in academics and athletics, participating in basketball, track and speech.
"She just threw all of her energy into school to try to compensate for what was going on," Kirk said.
Someone once told Severson it was probably good that Sarah "didn't make it," because she would be so messed up by what she went through. Severson strongly disagreed. "If there were one person who could come out of it, she could," she said.
Severson wonders what Sarah might have been doing now, at age 43. "She would be a remarkable, talented young lady," she said.Severson has many good memories, including the time she came home to find that her boys and Sarah had dug all the sand out of the sandbox and filled it with water to make a swimming pool. She remembers Sarah had on the same T-shirt adorned in teddy bears that she was said to have been wearing when she was murdered.
Sarah and her neighbor also had conversations about a boy in school who was trying to kiss her. Severson advised Sarah to save herself for marriage if she could. "Just say no," she told her.
Severson's voice shakes as she wonders whether that advice played a part in Sarah deciding to begin rejecting her father's sexual advances.
The crime and coincidences
As laid out by prosecutor Kirk at trial, this is how Sarah's murder on May 20, 1985 happened:
On the eve of the last day of the school year, the seventh-grader stayed late to wrap up a home economics project. When her father didn't pick her up by 6 p.m., she began walking home along Otter Tail County Road 122. John Rairdon, who worked for a co-op in Fergus Falls, had repaired a tire at a farm nearby and stopped to get his daughter about halfway between the school and the Rairdon home.
He pulled into an abandoned farm and tried to have sex with her in the cab of the truck, but she resisted. The struggle continued outside the truck when he grabbed an awl from a toolbox, thrust it into Sarah's abdomen and struck her in the throat with his arm.
He said Sarah bled profusely and died. He hid her body in a farm building nearby and returned to work to punch out. Later that evening, he picked up his daughter's body and drove north of Rothsay, where he tossed her into a ditch near a culvert. Sarah's body was found July 6 in a pasture by a farmer who noticed his cattle were avoiding that area and the grass there had grown tall.
It's believed heavy rains shortly after Sarah's death washed the body to that location. Kirk said John Rairdon initially appeared to have an alibi because he had punched out at work sometime around 7 p.m. The whereabouts of other family members also appeared to be accounted for.
"Really, it kind of looked like a stranger abduction from everything we had," Kirk said.
In fact, they had a solid suspect related to an eyewitness sighting of a particular green Chevy seen turning around on the road near Sarah that night. A search warrant of the vehicle owner's home turned up suspicious items, Kirk said, including a serial killer "starter kit" and pictures of girls on the walls. But a search of his credit card records indicated he was pumping gas in another state that night.
The eyewitness, in fact, had blended memories from two different nights. As they combed through possible suspects, investigators received numerous calls and comments from people saying Sarah's dad was responsible.
"It was always women saying, 'He did it!' " said Kirk.
As leads dwindled, investigators looked again at the family. Rairdon became a suspect a few days before his arrest, when two of Sarah's step-sisters revealed to investigators that he had been sexually abusing Sarah. Each step-sister said it was the other who had actually walked in on an incident.
Rairdon admitted he sexually abused Sarah, but at first denied killing her. Then he said he might have done it, but couldn't remember. Kirk attributed that to the concept of psychogenic amnesia, where people have difficulty remembering a horrendous act that's not the norm for their behavior.
"Your mind has this protection element that will suppress the memory, and the longer time goes, the more suppression you get," Kirk said.
He believes Rairdon actually wanted to get caught. Ultimately, Rairdon recanted his confession.
"He didn't want to get away with this, but he didn't want to say unequivocally 'I did it,' either, because it was too terrible a thing for him to rationalize," Kirk said.
He believes Rairdon enjoyed the attention and playing the role of a grieving father early on. And Rairdon, who has only a ninth-grade education but a lot of natural intelligence, according to Kirk, enjoyed playing mind games with investigators.
"This was, in a sense, his opportunity to shine a little bit before he fell," Kirk said.
Life in prison, a town forever changed
John Rairdon, now 68, is serving a life term in the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights. He unsuccessfully appealed his murder conviction in 1995 with the help of a woman he met and married in prison.
Betty Lou O'Dair, or "Bible Betty" as she was known, worked as a prison evangelist. According to a search of county records, Rairdon and O'Dair were married in 1990 and divorced in 2004. According to her obituary, she died in 2011.
Rairdon has been up for parole and denied three times. His next review comes up sometime in 2016. Even if he is paroled on the murder charges, he'll still have to serve time on the sex abuse charges.
Kirk thinks if Rairdon is ever released, it will be as an elderly man. People in Underwood, including Jan Johnsen, still think of Sarah, especially those who've lived there a long time. Even though Johnsen didn't personally know Sarah, she helped put together missing person flyers and even helped make her funeral arrangements.
She has nothing but disdain for John Rairdon. "We hugged him," Johnsen said.
"This guy killed his daughter and I hugged him," Sarah's death even prompted Johnsen to seek a career in child protection services.
Severson, the once mother of sorts to Sarah, said the community pulled together after her death to keep an eye out for children who are being abused.
"I look for that all the time now," she said.
May 20, 1985: Sarah Ann Rairdon, 13, of rural Underwood, Minn., disappears while walking home from school on Otter Tail County road 122. Air, ground and water searches along the route in the days to follow fail to turn up any clues.
May 24: Investigators announce they’re looking for a green Chevrolet, after a witness said he saw the car turn around after passing Sarah on the road the night she disappeared. Also, volunteers stuff 8,500 envelopes with missing-person flyers bearing Sarah’s picture.
May 26: John Rairdon issues a plea to anyone who may have taken Sarah to “spare her from any more harm” and to “let her go.”
May 29: Otter Tail County Sheriff’s department asks the FBI to get involved in the investigation.
July 6: A farmer finds Sarah’s decomposed body in his pasture near Rothsay, Minn., about 25 miles from where she disappeared.
July 9: Nearly 600 people turn out for Sarah’s funeral at the Underwood school auditorium.
Aug. 6: Minn. Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III speaks about abduction prevention at an event in Fergus Falls sponsored by a new non-profit, Search and Find Missing Persons, Inc. founded by local psychic George Ward. John Rairdon is named chairman and Marilyn Rairdon, treasurer.
Aug. 13: Investigators arrest John Rairdon after questioning him about claims from two family members that he was sexually abusing Sarah, and after he confessed to killing her when she rejected his sexual demands. Officers confiscate an ice-pick type tool as a possible murder weapon.
Aug. 14: Rairdon is charged in Otter Tail County District Court with first- and second- degree murder and first- degree intrafamilial sexual abuse. According to a complaint, Rairdon admitted sexually abusing Sarah as many as 60 times over the past five years.
Aug. 17: Rairdon recants murder confession, saying he can’t remember whether he killed Sarah.
Nov. 1: Rairdon pleads not guilty to murder charges and is granted a change of venue to Stillwater, Minn.
Nov. 26: Marilyn Rairdon files for divorce from John after vowing to stand behind him until proven guilty.
Jan. 27, 1986: John Rairdon pleads guilty to two sex abuse charges.
Feb. 3: Murder trial for Rairdon begins in Stillwater.
Feb. 6: Psychiatrist testifies that Rairdon wanted to divorce his wife but feared she would tell authorities about his abuse of Sarah and other family members.
Feb. 11: Rairdon testifies on own behalf, saying he couldn’t remember killing Sarah and that he confessed under pressure from investigators.
Feb. 20: Jury finds Rairdon guilty of first and second degree murder in Sarah’s death.
March 6: Rairdon is sentenced to life in prison for killing Sarah and 11 years for sexually abusing her. His now ex-wife Marilyn re-marries the very same day.
March 10: Rairdon’s ex Marilyn Nagel is indicted by a grand jury for knowingly permitting sexual or physical abuse of a child or children.
July 16: Nagel pleads guilty to permitting physical abuse of a child. She maintains she suspected Rairdon was sexually abusing Sarah, but had no direct knowledge. A judge stayed imposition of a four-month jail sentence, put Nagel on two years probation and ordered her to undergo counseling.
1995: With help from a public defender and a woman he met and married in prison, Rairdon files appeal of his murder conviction in Otter Tail County District Court, claiming prosecutorial misconduct and exclusion of evidence linking his stepson, Jeff Barry, to the crime. A judge denies the petition.
Dec. 12, 1996: Minnesota Supreme Court upholds lower court decision to deny Rairdon’s request for appeal.
July 1999: Approximately 1,000 Underwood area residents sign petition urging that Rairdon be denied parole when his case comes up for review
September 1999: Minnesota Department of Corrections denies Rairdon possibility of parole. Parole reviews in 2002 and 2009 were also denied.
2016: John Rairdon will be up for parole again on the murder conviction. However, if paroled, he still must serve time on the sex abuse charges.