10 years later, deaths of daughters continue to weigh on Minn. family

Family and friends of Gina Anderson release balloons with the message "Hope for Gina" at the Greenwood Cemetery in Thief RIver Falls. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service
Family and friends of Gina Anderson release balloons with the message "Hope for Gina" at the Greenwood Cemetery in Thief RIver Falls. Eric Hylden / Forum News ServiceEric Hylden / Forum News Service

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. -- When 32-year-old Gina Lin Anderson went missing in 2008, her mother, Judy Lappegaard, said cards, letters, prayer shawls and trinkets poured into her Thief River Falls mailbox daily from well-wishers across the country.

“There was this little old lady who would send me -- you know those little safety pins when they’d put the buttons and pearls on them? -- she’d send just envelopes full of them,” Lappegaard said.

A decade later, Lappegaard still has all of the gifts in a box. She can’t bear to throw them out.

She doesn’t open the box often, but not because she doesn’t think about Gina anymore. Ten years after their daughter’s death, she and husband Steve still say Gina’s name daily.

And Jill’s.

Because in the midst of searching for one missing daughter, their youngest of three, Jill, died in a snowy car wreck on a cold December night.

‘We knew she wasn’t far’

Lappegaard was close with all three of her daughters.

“We’re the type of family that we talk on the phone everyday,” she said. “Some people would say ‘Well how do you talk to your daughter everyday?’ But we were just like that. We’d just talk about what was going on, you know. Maybe we sometimes talked but we didn’t say that much.”

Anderson headed out on Oct. 23, 2008, in her bright yellow Pontiac Sunfire.

Lappegaard knew something was wrong when she hadn’t heard from her daughter by dusk. By morning a full search was in effect.

Lappegaard remembers Pennington County Deputy Ray Kuznia and her husband scouring the woods with dozens of friends and family members. She said Kuznia was back everyday.

“He told me ‘We’re not going to stop until we find her,’” she said. “And I think because he knew Gina, too, was part of why he was so determined.”

But despite an enormous communitywide search, there were no clues. Lappegaard remembers growing anxious as winter approached.

The family tried everything.

“We contacted psychics just to see and get a feel for where she might be,” Lappegaard said. “We kind of always knew she wasn’t far.”

‘Why did you go that night?’

Jill Lappegaard was 21 when her oldest sister went missing.

She was smart -- going to school for nursing at the University of Minnesota and home for summer break.

She was funny and witty -- Lappegaard remembers her youngest daughter teasing her when she tripped and cracking jokes just to make her smile.

She was outgoing -- “When she was growing up, my house was always full of her friends, she knew everyone,” Lappegaard said. “And of course I never told her no. They were all good gals.”

And she was caring -- Jill Lappegaard searched tirelessly for her sister.

She was so young, Lappegaard said. A parent should never have to see their children die before them, but Lappegaard already knew the feeling when she couldn’t get a hold of Jill Lappegaard on Dec. 7, 2008 -- just two months after Anderson was last seen.

Jill Lappegaard had left the night before and died in a one-vehicle crash overnight.

“That bothers me a lot, I just want to say ‘Why did you have to go that night?’ ” Lappegaard said.

‘Kind of numb’

Lappegaard can’t remember much from Jill Lappegaard’s funeral. And the day of Anderson’s service is blurry, too.

When Anderson was finally found on Oct. 14, 2009, Lappegaard said there was closure.

“But after nearly a year, you’re just kind of numb by that time,” she said. “You still can’t believe it.”

Detectives had received permission to drain some of the water in the nearby lake to help search efforts. And less than a mile from home, they found Anderson.

Her bright yellow Pontiac Sunfire was submerged in the icy waters. Investigators said they believed she may have suffered a seizure, which caused her to accidentally swerve from the road. Anderson took medication to prevent seizures and had left her pills at home the morning she disappeared.

After a year of hoping, praying and crying -- there was only silence.

But things haven’t gotten easier, Lappegaard said, they’ve just become different.

She attended a grief group at her church for several years. Most of the members were older and had lost spouses, but there was a core connection and understanding about the depth of loss that kept her returning.

Eventually the church lost the group, and another hasn’t been able to sustain itself in Thief River Falls.

Lappegaard said she still feels the community’s embrace, though, and she’s in touch with others from the group.

She said her already-close family has become even more tight-knit -- they rely on each other a little more.

“We’ve grown closer. He doesn’t go very far without me,” Judy said motioning at her husband, “And I don’t want to go anywhere without him.”

Though they’re gone, Anderson and Jill Lappegaard are still enormous parts of everyday life for the family.

Jackie Pagel, the middle sister, was pregnant with her second child when Jill Lappegaard died.

But Pagel’s children have not gone without their aunts.

Though two of Pagel’s three children didn’t meet their aunts, they know them. Lappegaard said Chloe Pagel keeps a box of Gina Lappegaard’s trinkets and Ethan Pagel treasures a framed photo of him and “Auntie Jill” playing Guitar Hero together.

And for the rest of the family, time goes on. Lappegaard said she’s had to learn to move forward and tread water amid the sea of grief. There are hard moments every day, and “there’s not a day that goes by where you don’t think of them.”

“It never gets easier,” she said. “You’ve just gotta learn to move forward and keep going.”

“Now you just live each day.”