A crime remembered
BEMIDJI, Minn. -- The teeth were in the ashes.
They belonged to Katie Poirier and were the last remnants of her body.
"The bones were so badly degraded by fire that there was no DNA evidence left," said Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp. "Same thing for the tooth. But it had a filling in it."
Hodapp was an investigator with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in the summer of 1999 when Poirier went missing. He remembers every detail of the case, down to the partial license plate description he and other BCA investigators were given by a witness to Poirier's abduction.
"One number and three letters," he said.
Hodapp eventually tracked down Poirier's killer, Donald Blom, at a campsite near Alexandria, literally walking up to Blom's tent. But it was extensive work done in a lab that eventually convinced a jury of Blom's guilt. For the second time since helping to put Blom behind bars, Hodapp's successful investigation has landed him on television. On August 18, Paula Zahn's Investigation Discovery show "On the Case" delved into Poirier's killing, with Hodapp helping to tell the story.
"It was really an interesting case," he said. "And I suppose that's why they wanted to shoot another story about it."
In 2010, the Poirier killing was featured on "Extreme Forensics," also an Investigation Discovery program.
Donald Blom is not Donald Blom. His surname is actually that of his former wife, who, after Blom's conviction, said the killer had taken her last name in an effort to conceal his past. He'd done the same before.
At the time of Poirier's murder, Blom was working at a veterans home under the name Donald Hutchinson, according to media reports. Blom's list of aliases is as long as the list of other crimes Hodapp and Donald Fier, also a BCA investigator, believe Blom perpetrated. Holly Spangler, her body found decomposing in woods outside Bloomington in 1993, is one possible victim of Blom's terrorism; Wilma Johnson, found strangled near the St. Paul Cathedral in 1983, is another. Blom, according to Fier, is a suspect in several unsolved murders and disappearances dating back to the 1970s, he told a WCCO reporter in 2006. Hodapp still holds out hope for a deathbed confession.
"We'll keep sending guys down there to see if he wants to talk."
Born in 1949, Blom was the son of an abusive father. In an article on TruTv's website, author and forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland writes, Blom "went to a reform school because he was a frequent truant and an underage drinker."
Starting in 1975, Blom began a disturbing criminal career that included the kidnap and rape of women and girls, some as young as 14. He served time in prison for several of the crimes, and was on parole when he abducted Poirier on May 26, 1999.
"It was how I spent my whole summer that year," he said.
The VHS tape from the convenience store was "lousy."
It was grainy and blurry, but through the filter of nonsophisticated video, Poirier's abduction played out for investigators to see. So they watched the tape. Over and over again.
"We were finally able to figure out what he was wearing," Hodapp said. "It was a throwback New York [Yankees] jersey."
The garment was fairly rare, according to Hodapp, and investigators enlisted the star power of Paul Molitor to spread the word about the suspect. The St. Paul native recorded a public service announcement for police, and "that night we got a call from the killer's co-worker," Hodapp said.
Then came the description of the truck, and the one number and the three letters on the license plate, and the computer printouts and the search warrants, and the name: Donald Blom.
"So now three weeks later we find this truck we've been looking for," Hodapp remembered, "and it's been scrubbed with bleach from top to bottom."
But inside the vehicle, investigators found a receipt for gas purchased from D.J.'s Expressway Conoco in Moose Lake. That's where Poirier worked. And that's where the grainy and blurry surveillance video showed Blom, in his throwback New York Yankees jersey, forcing Poirier out of the store and into his black Ford pickup about 20 minutes before midnight, May 26, 1999.
Now, Hodapp has Blom's truck, but "he's gone."
He wouldn't be for long. The discovery of the receipt set off a fast-moving chain of events that sent investigators across the state in search of a man suspected of kidnapping and possibly killing an innocent, 19-year-old gas station clerk.
First it was a campground in Bemidji. "You can imagine, with all the campsites around here how difficult it would have been to track him down," Hodapp said. Then, Cass Lake and finally, Alexandria.
"We can't find him anywhere," Hodapp said. "Our guys in the [Twin] Cities interviewed someone down there. 'No, they left Bemidji and they're in Alexandria,' " investigators were told.
Moose Lake to Bemidji, Bemidji to Cass Lake, Cass Lake to Alexandria -- the miles on Hodapp's odometer are piling up.
"And we find him down there. We show up at midnight at his campsite," Hodapp said, remembering "literally walking up to" the killer's tent and unzipping the flap.
Nearly a month after Poirier's disappearance, thousands of tips and leads, untold hours searching stretches of the vast, northern Minnesota wilderness, scouring Blom's expansive property, Hodapp is a nylon tent flap away from getting his man.
"Then we interview him and I'm asking him things. ... I get him out to the truck and we're chatting and I said, 'Did you used to own a black Ford pickup?' " he said. "He lied about everything."
Blom told investigators he used paper and wood to burn Poirier's body, but the fire that destroyed her remains blazed so hot it almost killed any chance of identification.
Along with the teeth in the ashes, found in a burn pit on Blom's Richfield property, Hodapp and other investigators found a mandible, Poirier's jawbone. They sent the scant evidence to a forensic odontologist.
"She was able to identify which tooth it was," Hodapp said of Dr. Ann Norrlander, the odontologist. "She also was able to determine that that tooth belonged at a particular place in the mandible we recovered."
Norrlander found something else: The tooth had a filling. Further analysis showed a unique chemical makeup.
"If you want to talk about a miracle happening, this is it right here: The chemical makeup is unique to a brand-new 3M product, and that particular tooth had this new 3M adhesive," Hodapp said. "Katie had a cavity and she filled it using the new adhesive."
Blom is still alive. He's serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania. Hodapp thinks of him from time to time. He thinks of Katie, too.
"These are the kind of cases we wear around our neck forever," he said. "They never go away. You never forget about them."
Hodapp hasn't forgotten one of the lessons he learned as a result of the Poirier killing. At some point during the investigation, a jailhouse informant who shared a cell with Blom told investigators about a discussion the men once had. The prisoner apparently advised Blom of the best way to get rid of a body: Dig 6 feet down below a fire ring, burn the corpse and backfill the grave with ashes.
"People think to look in fire rings," Hodapp said, "but prior to that I wouldn't have thought to [dig that far down]. But now I do it every time."
Poirier, despite her tragic demise, represents a success story for Hodapp's long investigative career. But there are other, far less closed, cases. Among them is Anita Carlson, a 22-year-old Bemidji State University graduate who disappeared June 30, 1987. Her body was found in a stretch of woods off Highway 89, not far from the convenience store where Carlson worked. That was July 5, 1987. Hodapp knows little more now than he did that day. Carlson's murder remains unsolved, but far from forgotten.
Hodapp's rapid-fire remembering of the Poirier case gave way to a more solemn tone Friday afternoon. Remembering Poirier had reminded him of Carlson.
He said softly, "I think about her a lot."