Jacobson disappearance, Part 4: Remembering Sandra and John

This is the fourth story in a series about the disappearance of Sandra and John Jacobson. This bonus story gives a glimpse into the lives of Sandra and John, through the eyes of their family, before they vanished in November 1996. 

Pictured are Sandra and John Jacobson, including an age-enhanced photo of what John would look like as an older boy.
Sandra and John Jacobson have been missing since Nov. 16, 1996. They were last seen leaving a relative's home in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Photo illustration - Trisha Taurinskas/photo courtesy of Bismarck Police Department
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This is the fourth story in a series about the disappearance of Sandra and John Jacobson. This bonus story gives a glimpse into the lives of Sandra and John, through the eyes of their family, before they vanished in November 1996. To read the series, start here .

It’s in the midst of family holiday celebrations that Sandra and John Jacobson’s presence is missed the most.

“Holidays were her thing,” Sandra's sister-in-law, Susan Grensteiner, told Forum News Service in a recent interview. “Everyone had to be together, everyone had to have fun. She was all about family.”

In the months following Sandra and John's November 1996 disappearance, Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went, setting off warning signals for those close to the mother and son.

“That’s when we knew something was really wrong, because she wasn’t there for all that,” Grensteiner said. “And those were her big things — birthdays, holidays, everything. She basically loved every holiday, everyone around her.”


Sandra Jacobson left her mother and father’s Bismarck home the evening of Nov. 16, 1996, with her 5-year-old son, John, to get gas. Her vehicle was found the next morning parked alongside the Missouri River in Centennial Park. The driver’s side door was wide open — her purse sat on the front passenger’s seat.

Forum News Service recently obtained access to the police file for the case, revealing an initial investigation that failed to investigate the possibility of foul play.

More than 20 years after their disappearance — with no sign of either of them — family members still recall the mother and son that once brought immeasurable joy to their lives.

Getting to know John

John Jacobson was just 5 years old when he and his mother went missing — he had his entire life ahead of him.

While it’s difficult for family members to say what he’d be like today, they know exactly what he was like back then. He was known to tie a makeshift cape around his neck, mimicking the superheroes he longed to be.

John Jacobson
Sandra Jacobson and her 5-year-old son, John Jacobson, were last seen on the evening of Nov. 16, 1996 in Bismarck.
Photo courtesy of the Bismarck Police Department.

“He was my daughter’s best friend,” Grensteiner said. “They loved each other. They were inseparable at Grandma’s house. That’s where we were always at — at Grandma’s house.”

It was at his grandma’s house — the last place he was seen — that he would run around with his little cousin, playing games and making his presence known.

“He never wanted to leave, because he always wanted to be with Mikayla,” Grensteiner said, referring to her daughter, Mikayla Kacena.


Together, the two would run up and down their grandmother's handicap ramp, pushing her wheelchair when the kids got their way. When together, there was always laughter and childlike energy in the air.

Aside from his typical boy behavior, there was one other thing about John Jacobson that stood out to those in the family: He was his mother’s whole world. The same went for Sandra Jacobson's eldest son.

Getting to know Sandra

Grensteiner's memories of Sandra Jacobson run deep. While related through marriage, they shared a sisterhood — a friendship — that surpassed typical in-law relationships.

Part of their connection had to do with Sandra Jacobson’s deep love and commitment to family — whether married or born into the family, she looked at it all the same.

“If you were her family, she loved you,” Grensteiner said.

A picture of Sandra Jacobson sitting on a chair, smiling for the camera
Sandra Jacobson and her 5-year-old son, John, went missing in 1996 from Bismarck. Their case remains unsolved.
Photo courtesy of Bismarck Police Department

Grensteiner still hears her laugh today through family members who have unknowingly adopted Sandra Jacobson’s charm. Glimpses of her face are found in Sandra Jacobson’s niece, reminding Grensteiner of the joy she brought to the family.

"When she laughs, she's Gordy's sister ... all the way," Grensteiner said. "It's the weirdest thing. Sandy could have given birth to my daughter and nobody would have questioned it. It's crazy."

Grensteiner still wonders what life would be like if Sandra and John Jacobson hadn't gone missing. She imagines the relationships she and her daughter would have continued to share, and the memories that were never able to transpire.


The journal

As noted in the police file, Sandra Jacobson kept a detailed journal. It was a part of her life that Grensteiner said was incredibly important.

“She was very adamant about her journal. That was almost as important as her family and her purse, that she kept with her at all times,” Grensteiner said.

Sandra Jacobson kept her journal under her mattress, a secret location that only those close to her were aware of. For that reason, Grensteiner finds it difficult to believe that Sandra's husband, Alan Jacobson, didn’t come across the journal when searching — and selling — her trailer.

The journal had become a sought-after object when Bismarck Police Sgt. William Connor took over the case in 2004 as it could shed light on what happened to the mother and son.

The initial investigation into Sandra and John Jacobson’s disappearance failed to secure access to her trailer and belongings.

By the time Connor took over, the trailer had been sold by Alan Jacobson. He claimed to have no knowledge of the journal.

The purse

There was something else about Sandra Jacobson that her sister-in-law recalled, and it had to do with the way she always kept an eye on her purse. She wasn’t one to leave it behind.

When Grensteiner heard law enforcement discovered Sandra Jaobson's purse on the front passenger’s seat, along with an open driver’s side door, she grew suspicious.

“When they found her purse sitting there, I said there’s something really wrong because Sandy didn’t go anywhere without her purse,” Grensteiner said. “I mean she kept everything in there. Her whole life was in that purse.”

For Grensteiner, the purse sitting on the front passenger’s seat was a sign of foul play.

“She always had her purse with her. She did not go anywhere without her purse. She would not have left that car without her purse,” Grensteiner said. “I don’t care, whatever was going to transpire, she would not have left it willingly.”

The theory that Sandra Jacobson willingly entered the waters of the Missouri River, with John in tow, never sat well with family members. Investigators pointed to the purse as a sign that she knew she wasn't returning.

Even if the theory was true, Sandra Jacobson left no note — no explanation — for the family she so deeply loved.

"She would have never left her family," Grensteiner said. "She just wouldn't."

To read the entire series on the disappearance of Sandra and John Jacobson, start here .

Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons, unsolved crime and general intrigue. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha is also the host of The Vault podcast.

Trisha began her journalism career at Wisconsin Public Radio. She transitioned to print journalism in 2008, and has since covered local and national issues related to crime, politics, education and the environment.

Trisha can be reached at
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