FARGO — Tom Bearson was killed five years ago, and that’s basically all the public knows.
No arrests. No suspects. No known motive for a crime that's left his family and friends without answers as the years go by.
But more is known today about how the 18-year-old freshman at North Dakota State University mysteriously died.
Details from Bearson’s death record, a public document obtained by The Forum through the Clay County Recorder’s Office, shed some light on the unsolved homicide, but also introduce more questions to a case full of unknowns.
Bearson, a standout high school basketball player from Sartell, Minn., went missing Sept. 20, 2014. His body was found in a Moorhead RV sales lot following a tip police received during a three-day search in Fargo-Moorhead.
Until now, the only explanation of Bearson’s death offered by authorities was that he was the victim of "homicidal violence." The death record reveals that Bearson died of asphyxia, meaning he was somehow deprived of oxygen until he died.
Lori Hedican, chief investigator with the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office in St. Paul, said with homicide being the manner of death, it rules out the possibility that his death was an accident, suicide or the result of natural causes.
Alcohol was present in Bearson’s system when he died, according to the death record, as well as two prescription medications: alprazolam, an anti-anxiety drug commonly known as Xanax, and temazepam, a sedative used to treat insomnia.
It’s unclear how much of each substance was in his system. Hedican said the substances were not ruled as Bearson’s cause of death, and officials also said early in the investigation that he did not overdose.
Forensic psychologist and author Frank Weber, who is not involved in the investigation nor privy to undisclosed details of the case, said asphyxia related to homicide suggests Bearson was either strangled or suffocated.
In Weber’s 25 years of experience assessing violent crimes, he said he has not frequently seen homicidal asphyxiation. But based on his expertise and the case information that's been made public, he said the homicide likely involved “someone who knows the person well, who had a significant personal issue with them.”
“It’s often the result of rage or some type of major argument over an issue,” he said of homicidal asphyxia. “It’s a very intensive way to take somebody’s life because you have to put your hands on them. It’s not like shooting them with a gun where you can have some distance from them. You may have to look them directly in the face. So it would suggest that there was some type of issue between him and the person who committed the crime.”
But those close to Bearson say he was well liked with many friends and few, if any, enemies. He had no violent criminal history and was only enrolled in NDSU's nursing program for four weeks before he was killed.
“I don’t know how anybody could hurt him, or why they would,” said Bearson’s best friend, 25-year-old Patrick Fischer.
“If you were lucky enough to have his path cross with yours . . . you were blessed by the presence of a legend, really,” he said. “He was going to succeed at whatever he did in life. For it to fall short and someone to take it, it’s disgusting, it’s frustrating, it’s sad.”
Weber believes authorities know the person or people responsible for Bearson’s death, “Otherwise you’d be asking help from the public, and instead it seems like they are just waiting for someone to mess up or someone to come forward."
'Inch closer and closer'
Moorhead Deputy Police Chief Tory Jacobson, whose department leads the investigation along with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said in light of the five-year anniversary he wants to reassure the community that this is not a cold case.
Jacobson said this case is unusual in that death investigations tend to have answers earlier on.
“That’s why this case is different,” he said. “You know, his body was found outside days later after his disappearance. There are circumstances in this case that are more of a challenge.”
A new lead investigator has been assigned to the case and has been re-interviewing people, he said, but he declined to say who those people are or if there are any persons of interest.
“All of us wish that we were to the point where we had all the answers that we ultimately feel someday we are going to reveal. But we’re not at that point now,” he said.
“We’re looking for that break,” he continued. “But I think we collectively all believe we inch closer and closer.”
Jacobson said that break could come either through ongoing investigative work, or somebody coming forward with new information.
“One thing that can’t be stopped is time, and as time goes forward we know that someone is shouldering something that is very, very heavy on them,” he said.
The FBI reports that in 2014, the year Bearson was killed, nearly 43% of homicide victims were killed by someone they knew, while the relationship was unknown in about 50% of cases. When the circumstances of a homicide were known, it occurred during an argument 40% of the time.
Similar statistics were shared by the Tom Bearson Foundation last year. The nonprofit organization created in Bearson’s memory stated, “Tom was most likely murdered by a male (or males) that he knew and was very familiar with.”
Whether Bearson was prescribed the medications present in his system when he was killed, took them recreationally or was drugged remains unknown. Jacobson declined to comment on that question, and Greg Bearson, Tom's father and foundation president, said in a series of messages to The Forum that “We cannot comment on specific details such as this.”
However, the family holds onto hope as investigators continue to work on the case.
“Justice will ultimately prevail — of that we are certain,” Greg Bearson said. “The case remains very active, and we are in touch with (investigators) on a regular basis. We remain confident that they will one day soon provide justice for Tom and our family.”
Greg Bearson maintains that the people last seen with his son are not cooperating with investigators. And with each anniversary, he asks for those who know what happened to finally tell the truth.
“A guilty conscience is a heavy burden to carry in one’s life and a guilty conscience never sleeps,” he said. “The only way to overcome it are honesty and grace.”
'I just miss him so much'
Bearson was last seen at 824 14th St. S. in Fargo, a house near the NDSU campus that’s since been demolished. A tweet sent from his phone at 1:23 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, offers clues of who he was with that night.
Cody Mead and Jake Wenzel both lived at the house. Wenzel, who went to high school and played baseball with Bearson in Sartell, is believed to have sent the tweet from Bearson’s phone and tagged Mead in it.
“... dude it’s jake come pick us up. We are so lost and we are going to die. Just get somebody,” the tweet read.
Wenzel has not responded to The Forum’s repeated requests for comment over the years. Earlier this year, Mead replied to messages inquiring about what happened that night.
“Police have all the information from me,” he wrote. “As far as that goes I believe it’s better to let them do their job and not compromise anything with their investigation.” Mead declined to comment further.
Days after Bearson disappeared, Mead told a Forum reporter that Bearson and Wenzel got a ride back to their house and they “hung out for a while.” Mead said Bearson, who he met for the first time that night, left between 3:40 a.m. and 4 a.m.
But questions remain: When and how did Bearson end up 5 miles away in an RV sales lot? Was he still alive then or was his body left there?
Fischer said he doesn’t get too hung up on that last tweet because he video chatted with Bearson after it was sent. He recalls them talking about missing each other and making plans to visit soon.
“He sounded great. Sounded happy. Sounded like he was having fun,” he said.
Fischer was one of many friends who drove to Fargo that weekend to help search for Bearson. And they are still searching for answers today.
“Five years seems like an eternity,” he said.
Despite the time that’s passed, Fischer said he can still picture himself with Bearson in the driveway playing basketball. Or driving around Sartell listening to a new song Bearson discovered.
He said they planned to visit a new golf course every year as they got older. Instead, Fischer joins over a hundred of Bearson's friends and relatives at annual Tom Bearson Foundation golf outings to keep his memory alive.
TJ Bevans, 23, was born just 10 days before Bearson, and he said losing his best friend “still stings.”
Sam Neeser, 24, and Jackson Miller, 23, echoed this, saying there is an empty space without Bearson’s presence and infectious, positive personality.
"I just miss him so much, and I wish I could have another day with him, I really do," Miller said.
Though Bearson’s friends have grown closer through this tragedy, they said it’s not the same without Bearson around.
“He just made people’s lives better, and I think that’s why there is so much hurt around it now,” Neeser said.
Find more information on the unsolved homicide of Tom Bearson through The Forum's podcast Who Killed Tommy B? Interviews featured in this article are part of the most recent episodes available on Spotify, iTunes and Google Play.