MOORHEAD - It's been nearly two years since Tom Bearson was last seen alive, but the memory of his laugh - one that would build to a crescendo and leave everyone in stitches - is still strong.
"If you ask any of our friends, he had a very distinct laugh," said Sam Neeser, a close pal who grew up with Bearson. "That's one thing I really miss about Tom."
Bearson, an 18-year-old freshman at North Dakota State University, went missing on Sept. 20, 2014. His death was ruled a homicide, and police continue to look for his killer. Though they haven't zeroed in on a suspect or a motive, detectives are still working the case and have conducted interviews as recently as last month.
His father, Greg, says it's a daily struggle not to become angry or depressed about the loss of his son, a high school basketball standout from Sartell, Minn.
"We have to always try to see the positive," he said. "Happiness can be found in the darkest of times; you just need to be willing to turn on the light."
It was this sort of thinking that led Greg Bearson to come up with the idea for the Tom Bearson Foundation, a nonprofit organization that's raised about $140,000 since it was created in spring 2015.
"To try to channel our grief and pain into something that's positive was the best thing we could do to heal," he said.
A legacy lives on
Greg Bearson, his wife Debbie and their 22-year-old daughter Maddie, along with family friends, sit on the board of the foundation, which gives out basketball scholarships, holds an annual golf tournament and recently funded a renovation of the St. Francis Xavier Catholic School gym in Sartell.
"Personally, we wanted to see Tom's legacy live on," said Greg Neeser, a foundation board member and father of Sam Neeser. "We all love Tom, and we felt compelled to be a part of that."
In the future, the foundation plans to focus on teaching high school students about personal safety and personal responsibility before they go to college.
"For us to head in that direction," Bearson's dad said, "doesn't necessarily have any indication as to what happened to Tom."
Bearson had been attending NDSU for just four weeks when he was last seen leaving a house party near campus about 3:40 a.m. Sept. 20, 2014. His body was found three days later about 5 miles away in an RV lot in south Moorhead.
No 'agreed-upon theory'
Investigators confirmed last week that they still haven't identified a motive or any persons of interest or suspects. One of Bearson's shoes and his cellphone are still missing. Police have asked for the public's help in finding both items.
Moorhead police have taken the lead in the investigation, with help from Fargo and NDSU police as well as the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FBI. While there isn't a detective dedicated to the investigation full-time, authorities say the case is far from cold.
As recently as August, detectives were conducting interviews and sending away evidence to be processed by the BCA, Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said, declining to elaborate on these developments.
Jacobson said investigators have explored a number of theories of what led to Bearson's death, but wouldn't say what those are.
"There have been some new theories that were recently discussed and continue to be investigated," he said. "I wouldn't say that there's an agreed-upon theory."
Three open homicides
Police have said Bearson's death was the result of "homicidal violence."
However, they haven't specified how he was killed, saying that releasing such information could compromise the investigation. This month, both Jacobson and Chief David Ebinger declined to say whether police know exactly how Bearson died.
"This late in the game, we continue to have very extensive communications and very specific conversations with the medical examiner's office" that conducted Bearson's autopsy, Jacobson said.
Along with the Bearson case, Moorhead police are trying to solve two other homicides: the 2013 slaying of Henry Volochenko and the June death of Melissa Dykes Willcoxon, whose body was found in a house that, police say, was intentionally set on fire.
Ebinger said it's unusual for Moorhead to have three open homicide investigations. He said each case is receiving the attention it requires, even though his department is understaffed.
Greg Bearson said he's optimistic there will eventually be a resolution to his son's case. He said there are people who know what happened, and he called on them to come forward.
"If they have a conscience, they realize that by remaining silent they are living a lie," he said. "Guilt is a very powerful emotion, and someday it will all come crashing down on them."