Buried alive: Unanswered questions linger in 2012 death of North Dakota man
The disappearance of Eric Haider plagued Dickinson for three years. What began as a missing persons investigation, soured by allegations of police indifference and ineptitude, evolved slowly from
DICKINSON — The warm sun sliced through the chilly 50 degree winds in southwestern North Dakota on May 24, 2012. In Dickinson, 30-year-old Eric Haider gave his mother a hug and kiss before leaving for work on a sewer main project behind the Baker Hughes complex on Highway 22. Little did she know it at the time, but this would be the last time she would see her son alive.
The disappearance of Eric plagued Dickinson for three years. What began as a missing persons investigation, soured by allegations of police indifference and ineptitude levied by Eric’s mother Maryellen Suchan, evolved slowly from hopes of a triumphant return to considerations of declaring her missing son dead. The case began turning cold, with sparse information and only a handful of leads to guide investigators.
Three years would pass with little to no progress.
In May of 2015, after hiring a private investigator, Eric’s body would be discovered less than 10 feet from where police had previously searched. Unearthed at the construction site where he was last seen alive, the missing person case was resolved — but in the resolution, more questions would be raised as to how Eric was buried alive.
More than a decade later, Suchan believes there are still unanswered questions regarding her son’s mysterious death and the pain of losing her son remains as strong as it was 10 years ago.
“... It hasn’t gotten easier. It hasn’t gotten harder…. You would think by now it should have,” she said, becoming emotional. “... I don’t know how I keep going… I have days where I wish I was gone.”
In a sit-down interview on the 10th anniversary of his disappearance, Suchan shared her side of the story, including who her son was.
“I don’t want it to be forgotten,” she said. “... He always wanted to make everybody smile; always wanted everybody to be happy.”
'Nobody vanishes out of thin air'
On May 24, 2012, just shy of his 31st birthday, Eric was in his third week working for Cofell’s Plumbing and Heating. There Eric worked diligently as a top man — retrieving tools and helping strap water lines that are set into the trench. According to a lengthy 474-page Dickinson Police investigative report, Eric was part of a crew of six that had carpooled from Bismarck to the Dickinson construction site.
The work crew’s job foreman, Jack Bettenhausen, would later tell police that they went out to lunch around 11 a.m. at Wendy’s, where Eric sat alone. Earlier in the day, he had requested a few days off to help his girlfriend’s parents brand cattle, but that request was denied due to his recent hiring. The foreman noted that he remembered seeing Eric when they arrived back at the job site at noon, but 15 minutes later they couldn’t find him.
Workers had begun to backfill holes, picking up tools and putting equipment away for the day.
Around 2 p.m., without seeing Eric at the site, they attempted to call his cellphone. It went straight to voicemail.
Before dinner, the police report noted that there was about 25 to 30 feet of trench open, but that most of the 30-by-40 north hole was backfilled before dinner. Despite the missing employee, and considerable dangers of backfilling, work progressed without accountability of Eric.
The work crew headed back to Bismarck with Eric’s lunch box, backpack and paycheck — which was distributed to the crew in the morning — and arrived on time at 6:30 p.m. where his girlfriend, Jody Hewson, was waiting to pick him up. But he was nowhere to be found. His co-workers told her they couldn’t locate him at the job site all afternoon and they left town without him.
Hewson, who often talked to Eric throughout the day, stated to police that she last spoke to him at 12:04 p.m. and nothing seemed off.
“It's not like him to do this. It's weird. Nobody vanishes out of thin air in broad daylight,” Hewson said, in a 2012 Dickinson Press article .
According to a narrative filed by retired Detective Ron Van Doorne, Bettenhausen told police that he thought Eric was upset about the denied PTO request and walked off the job. When the detective questioned the foreman, “why they would just leave a man behind,” his response was that people have walked off the job before and it wasn’t abnormal.
Phone records would show that Hewson tried calling Eric, but it went straight to voicemail.
After he was a no-show, Hewson called Suchan to ask if she’d heard from her son. In the middle of making supper, Suchan said she hadn’t spoken to Eric since the morning when she dropped him off for work. She told Hewson to call the police, and the hunt for Eric crept into Memorial Day weekend.
On the morning of May 26, 2012, Eric’s family arrived at the law enforcement center in Dickinson, wanting to organize a community search and distribute posters. The Dickinson Police Department then organized a search party, and by about noon, a number of searchers with off-road vehicles were on site and set up a search based on cellphone pings.
Five days after his disappearance, police began excavating the construction site based on directions the crew gave them. However, they dug in the wrong direction.
“From the point of the first excavation, we were within 10 feet of where Eric was located,” said lead investigator and now Dickinson Police Lt. Kylan Klauzer in 2016. “From all of the information that we had at that time, in confirmation with talking to everybody in the crew and as many people on the work site as possible, with the parameters we dealt with, we still believed we had went wider and farther than all the information at hand.”
An exhaustive ground and air search lasted weeks from a cell tower located southeast going north of the job site area. The search was expanded to cover more area than where the cellphone had been pinged. The results were nothing but dead ends. The search would then be called off.
Suchan claims that when the search was called off, she reached out to the police and was told in no uncertain terms that she didn’t, “know her son,” and that he had merely, “walked off” the job site.
“Everything leads back to the job site area,” Suchan said. “‘He’s not here. Face the fact, you don’t know your son and he walked off.’ Few choice words were going through my mind. One of the detectives made the remark, ‘If I would have known he was a criminal, I wouldn’t be wasting my time looking.’”
Suchan said the comments hurt her deeply, adding “... It’s still someone’s son. He’s still a person.”
Three years missing, first dig unsuccessful
In the first year of Eric’s disappearance, a rumor circulated between Dickinson and Bismarck that pointed to an accidental burial at the job site, with some even suggesting foul play. Other rumors followed, including one that pondered the possibility of him walking off to escape debts that he may have had.
“We have, in the last four or five months, talked to a number of people as leads or phone calls have come in,” Klauzer stated in a 2013 Dickinson Press article . “I've made a number of trips out of the area to visit with people and we have a couple of other agencies helping us out, doing some things. It's been slow, but it's an active case. We're trying to do whatever we can.”
From day one, Suchan has been adamant about her son’s disappearance, and that it wasn’t on his own accord.
“He did not walk off the job site,” she said in 2013. “I believe there was foul play. I believe Eric was caught in the middle of something, that he knew something he shouldn't have known. I have spent many, many hours up at that job site and I just don't believe he's there. Whoever did this and took Eric's life also took my life.”
Finding his body
After Eric’s family hired the private investigations firm Discovery Investigations, Inc., based out of Rapid City, his body was found on May 21, 2015, buried at a depth of about 6.5 feet — less than 10 feet away from where police originally dug. His left hand, wearing a red work glove, was discovered when construction workers were excavating water and power lines in the area. Further excavation revealed the rest of his body and authorities were called to the scene.
Buried under the earth in a crouched, kneeling position and facing the same length of pipe he’d been working on three years earlier, Eric’s yellow hard hat was positioned underneath his face. His body positioned in a “manner that was consistent with dirt being pushed in on top of it while he was seated near the pipe or while he had been standing and had been forced to the ground,” according to a narrative filed by Klauzer.
Eric’s body was transferred to the University of North Dakota forensics lab in Grand Forks for examination. A pacemaker, a device used to control an irregular heart rhythm, marked his time of death at 12:19 p.m. — five minutes after his co-workers began backfilling the trenches.
“After three years of burial at that depth, the posterior scalp and rib cage bore only remnants of mummified tissue,” according to the examination report.
Jay Cofell, owner of Cofell’s Plumbing and Heating, stated in a previous interview that he was, “very sorry” to hear that the body was confirmed to be Eric. Cofell also stated that his company and the employees working with Eric the day of his disappearance cooperated with the local investigation.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the family and those friends, relatives and co-workers,” he said.
The discovery of Eric’s body left his family more desperate for answers. Questions would drag on for years to come.
Case closed: 'Open it back up and get the real story'
When the late Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning declined to file criminal charges in relation to the incident, the Dickinson Police Department close d the case in 2016. This decision prompted Eric’s family to formally protest in front of the City of Dickinson Public Safety Center, demanding action.
Ten years after his death, Suchan’s questions remain.
“Sometimes books don’t always have the right answers. Open it back up and get the real story. It’s out there, they just have to work for it,” she said. “They don’t want to.”
According to his mother, she believes, “Eric was taken care of.”
“Even though we don’t have anyone working on it right now, I have a lot more information than what is out there. I know who did (it). I know why they did it. Of course, we know when and where. So we have all the W’s — the who, what, when, where and why — I have that. Just because it hasn’t been brought through the courts yet, it doesn’t mean we don’t have those answers. Someday, God willing, it will be brought up,” she said.
A Facebook page titled “ JUSTICE FOR ERIC HAIDER!!! ” is updated often with information on Eric’s case. The page features stories by family members, including his daughter Brynn. Several posts demand that the investigation to be reopened.
“It’s hard to admit failure, because I feel like a failure in a lot of ways. I’m tired of fighting… with the anxiety. I’m tired of fighting with the guilt that he laid there for three years and we couldn’t get him,” Suchan said.
On a sunny day in rural Selfridge, North Dakota, Eric’s family finally laid him to rest on May 24, 2022.
“Ten years ago today, I got my last hug and kiss. Ten years ago today, he took his last breath. Ten years ago today, his heart stopped. Today, I buried him again,” she said. “So it’s been a day I don’t want to repeat.”
The Dickinson Police Department cooperated with The Dickinson Press on this story, but declined to answer questions directly related to the case for this story. As of publication, the Eric Haider case remains "closed," with no legal action taken.