Cliff Montanye Sr. runs an excavating business from his rural home outside of Northfield, Minn. The hard gravel road off Cty. Rd. 46 that leads to his home stretches for about a half mile, and is clearly marked with a “Dead End” sign. He plows the road himself after it snows, though technically it’s not his responsibility. But because the road also doubles as a township boundary line, he said it’s easier to do it himself rather than wait for local government bodies to argue over who’s going to plow the road. The road also lies about a mile off the I-35 North and Highway 19 junction; the Montanye farmhouse’s east property line is the west “fence” of the freeway, and because it’s a dead end, no vehicle can get back to the freeway, or any other road to anywhere, if it heads down “my driveway,” as Montanye calls it.
In early November, Montanye received about 140 phone messages on his machine over a two-day period. “I erased all of them,” he said. The calls primarily were from Twin Cities media, wanting to talk to him. “I don’t know where they got my number,” he said. Some media personnel pounded on his door as well; others approached his wife in her vehicle. He told her to “just roll up your window” so she wouldn’t have to talk to them. He eventually called back the area newspaper, the Northfield News, but they said “it was over and didn’t want to talk to him any more,” Montanye said.
What was over?
The initial media shockwave surrounding Montanye’s discovery of a female body in a ditch near his home.
On Sunday, Nov. 6, at about 4:15 p.m., Montanye was riding down the gravel road on the huge tractor that is essential to his business. On the north side of the road, about 250 feet in from the adjacent county road, he saw a body. He could see the body amid the sumac and the brush because his rig stood about nine feet high; if he had been driving a regular truck, he would have seen nothing unusual. He immediately called the local authorities, who rushed in and sealed off the area for about 20 hours.
Montanye later found out that his closest neighbor had seen bright headlights shine through their windows around 4 a.m. on Nov. 6, ostensibly coming from a vehicle turning around on the road, and the resulting tire tracks near where the woman’s body was found seemed to bear that out. Montanye and his neighbor think it was the killer’s vehicle, though investigators aren’t entirely convinced. Montanye said he was relieved that he was the one to find the woman’s body, and not his grandkids, who were go-carting up and down the road just prior to the time when he spotted her body.
Montanye has his own personal theories about the incident. He thinks it was done by “someone who knows the area,” because the body seemed to him to be carefully placed, with no signs of panic by the murderer, since no brush was disturbed, except where the assailant walked off the road.
Investigators on the case differ with Montanye, saying that it appears to them the body was just dropped, not carefully placed, indicating a certain level of panic, and they think the killer(s) was looking for a quick, secluded spot to get rid of the woman’s body.
Who was the dead woman laying naked in the brush? And who put her there?
Lisa DeMeules was dozing near the television at her suburban Blaine home very early on Monday morning, Nov. 7. Footage from a local news report—first showing an overhead helicopter, then a ditch—caught her attention. The report mentioned that an unidentified woman with short blonde hair was found dead in a ditch, and gave a number to call if anyone might know who she was.
Lisa had a premonition that the woman was her younger sister Laura Lynn, even though the woman’s body had been found near Northfield, away from South Minneapolis, where Laura was thought to be still visiting. Laura had a rough past, including theft and prostitution charges, but had entered treatment programs for her drug problems and had kept a clean record for several years. Nevertheless, Lisa was still worried.
Lisa called her mom, Marlene DeMeules, and told her she thought the dead woman was Laura, and asked her mom to call the number because she was too scared to do it herself.
Nobody had heard from Laura for several days; Lisa had received a phone message from her on her machine on Nov. 2. Marlene had driven into Minneapolis, where Laura was staying with her oldest boy, Tommy, and the boy’s father that same night to bring her some money. Later it was learned that Laura had stopped by her son’s home again on Nov. 3, to get a change of clothes.
On Nov. 7 in the evening, Marlene called the number, and gave a description of her daughter, including identifiable marks like piercings, and the operators said they had to call her back to check on those details. So Marlene thought she had some hope, that it wasn’t her daughter that had been murdered and left in the ditch. But unfortunately, it turned out that it was 33-year-old Laura Lynn.
Not long after hearing confirmation that her daughter was dead, Marlene suffered a heart attack, and was taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids. “I thought it was just a panic attack, but I had this pain along my jaw and down my arm, and they said it was a heart attack,” Marlene said. Marlene is now out of the hospital, well on her way to recovering from her heart attack, but the deep grief over the loss of her daughter stays with her. And she said two questions continue to plague her regarding her daughter’s murder. “Why did somebody do this? And how much did she suffer?” she asks.
When she last saw her daughter on the night of Nov. 2, Marlene said “she seemed OK,” was enjoying her time with her oldest son, 16-year-old Tommy (Laura was very young when she gave birth to him), and mentioned her mom’s birthday coming up on Nov. 9, and that she wanted to help her mom celebrate it. That was never to happen.
Family members say Laura was a woman full of life with a great sense of humor who loved her three kids. Shortly after her murder, Laura’s cousin Trish Douglas said that Laura was really trying. “She finally decided ‘I gotta get my life together. I wanna live. I wanna be a good person.’”
Laura’s family members said they were upset by some media reports that ignored or didn’t bother to find out more about Laura as a person and her concerted efforts over the past several years to turn her life around for the better. Instead, some reports only concentrated on her life on the streets, and the past trouble she had with the law.
Rural Northfield witness Montanye was immediately sensitive to the family’s concerns, even before he knew who they were. He was reluctant to speak to any media initially, out of respect for the family, since at the time no one yet knew it was Laura in the ditch. Even when Pulse recently contacted him, his wife wanted to make sure we had really spoken to the family, asking us to verify the color of the business card that Marlene DeMeules had showed us earlier, saying to tell him she had said it was OK for us to call him.
In a discussion with Laura’s sister Lisa and her mom, Marlene, they expressed anger and frustration over the quality of Laura’s help from county workers at a crucial point in her recovery. “The system failed Laura,” her sister Lisa said.
Laura grew up in South Minneapolis, attended public schools in the neighborhood, and had a rough time for her 33 years. She was married for a short time but it was an abusive relationship; had been a rape and assault victim; turned to prostitution to support her drug habits; and had been in and out of several treatment programs. Her last arrest was in the summer of 2003, according to Minneapolis Police arrest records.
Last May, Laura’s county worker had arranged for her to live at an apartment at 19th Street and Chicago Avenue, though the neighborhood surrounding that location was known for drugs and criminal activity, things Laura was trying to avoid. Laura was to have an independent living arrangement, with county workers checking in on her routinely. Lisa said when Laura got to the house, she freaked out. “She got scared to death. They put her in the middle of Minneapolis, where she had been beaten, where she had been raped, where she had gotten into trouble.” And Laura had looked out the window to the alley where she saw drug activity going on. That was it. She ran.
After that, Laura lived here and there for a month or so, and then moved out to Blaine with Lisa and her family in early July for a short time, and then to her father Duane’s home up until just a week before her murder.
Sgt. Dave Stensrud has worked for the Rice County Sheriff’s office for 25 years, and is the supervisor of the investigations division for the office. Larger towns in Rice County include Faribault, with about 21,000 people, and Northfield, with about 18,000 people. Stensrud described what happened at the crime scene after Montanye called them from his cell phone. “Our deputies secured the area, and we did a ground search,” he said. “We called the BCA [Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul] to assist with the collection of forensic evidence, and evidence was gathered.”
Laura’s body was then taken to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s office, where an autopsy was performed. The official cause of death is listed as “multiple traumatic injuries due to an assault.” About 1,000 collective hours have been spent trying to solve this case, Stensrud estimated, and he said it probably will take many more hours before the case is resolved.
The BCA is still working on forensic evidence in the case, according to Senior Special Agent Robert Berg, and is expected to be completed within a few weeks, although those results will not be released as public information. Laura’s family members expressed frustration over how long it is taking to complete the forensics work, saying that they were told by the sheriff’s office that they would hear from investigators by the first of the year. That has not happened, said Lisa DeMeules. Agent Berg said the time spent on forensic work is necessary to help solve the case.
And it is a difficult case to solve, according to Stensrud, partly because of Laura’s less-than-predictable behavior and checkered past. “We don’t believe she was murdered in Rice County,” Stensrud said. But because her body was found in that county, that’s where the investigation is centered, though Laura was last seen leaving a house near 21st Avenue and Lake Street at around 3 or 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 6. So far, there are no official suspects in the case, although Stensrud said, “We have a person of significant interest.”
Rice County authorities said Laura Lynn had cocaine and marijuana in her system at the time of her murder, leading them to believe that she may have been partying with her assailant(s). “Unfortunately, with that lifestyle, there’s a lot of predators,” Sgt. Stensrud said. There is reason to believe that Laura may have been acquainted with her killer(s), he said, and that there is no evidence to suggest a serial killing.
BCA Agent Berg said he believes the public is not in any danger because the case has not yet been solved, “not unless you’re involved with high-risk behavior. Obviously, if this person is willing to kill someone else,” there is a possibility of danger to others, Berg said.
Montanye told Marlene DeMeules that he didn’t sleep for a week after finding Laura Lynn’s body. “It’s hard to take anytime, knowing that someone could do that to somebody.”
A rally/vigil was held in Laura’s memory on Nov. 16—an evening march down a section of Lake Street known to be a tough neighborhood—the same neighborhood where Laura was last seen. The 50 or so people who attended marched down Lake Street from the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater building at 15th and Lake to the Midtown YWCA at 22nd and Lake Street. Ward 9 Councilmember Gary Schiff’s office played a major role in organizing the event. Other organizers of the rally included the East Phillips Improvement Coalition, PRIDE Program; the Longfellow Community Council; and Tubman Family Violence, among others. Councilmember Schiff said the rally called for “an end of the victimization of women,” and to advance “the empowerment of women and girls.” He said Laura’s tragic death is a wake-up call for Minneapolis to develop successful models of treatment options for women with drug problems or criminal histories, including prostitution.
He thinks treatment centers and self-sufficiency programs should be located in more rural areas, such as the Volunteers of America program, located in Shoreview, to help people avoid inner-city temptations and dangers while they recover. He said he believes programs like this are underfunded, and that should be changed. He will work toward that end in Minneapolis by arranging a tour of model treatment programs, and working with the legislature on these issues. He also wants “to make sure we recognize all victims of violence, whether it’s a prostitute or a gang member … so we don’t perpetuate a belief that anyone is expendable.”
Laura’s family has received a few of her belongings, including a beaded necklace, a silver ring and a belly ring. Laura had three children—Tommy, 16, who lives with his dad; David, 14, who lives with an aunt, and Jerome, 4, who is in the process of being adopted by a friend of the family.
One of Laura’s younger sisters, Sheila, said the two were inseparable when they were younger. “I couldn’t leave her side,” she said. Sheila said she admired Laura because “even through everything she had been through in her life, she still held her head up high. And if someone was hurting, she would have done anything to help you.”
Family friend Lisa Goenner said that Laura may have not lived a perfect life, but “to be found like that just thrown there like she was garbage. It’s just so wrong.” Laura’s sister Lisa said she thinks Laura “was savable,” and that it’s a tragedy that didn’t happen for her.
Laura was last known to be wearing blue jeans, a multi-colored striped shirt, white tennis shoes, and a mid- to long-length black leather jacket. She was also carrying a brown- or maroon-colored large purse or carrying pack with a strap.
If anyone has information on the DeMeules homicide, please call the Rice County Sheriff’s office crime tip line at 866-968-8477, or the BCA at 651-793-7000.