I am just sick! I started keeping up on her from when it was frist in the newspapers. I can only guess how the family must feel.

Missing LeeAnna: A family endures while authorities struggle for answers
Jill Burcum, Star Tribune

Published August 3, 2003 CHIS03

CHISHOLM, MINN. -- By all accounts, it was just another lazy spring Saturday on the Iron Range when 5-year-old LeeAnna Warner happily skipped off to see two small chums with a mountainous stash of toys in their living room.

Late in the afternoon on June 14, the little girl, nicknamed "Beaner," arrived barefoot at her friends' house around the corner only to find that the family had gone to Wal-Mart. Then she headed back the way she came. She never made it home.

Authorities pursued theories that the little girl might have wandered into a nearby lake or got lost on the rugged Range. But after nearly two months of dead ends, investigators now believe something sinister and rare happened on the quiet tree-lined street near LeeAnna's home.

The family said law enforcement told them for the first time last week, at a meeting in Hibbing, that officials believe Leanna was likely the victim of the rarest and most serious type of kidnapping -- a stranger abduction.

"We knew it in our hearts. But it's not an easy word to hear," said LeeAnna's father, Chris Warner, 31.

About 115 children out of the approximately 800,000 reported missing each year in the United States are considered to have been kidnapped by a stranger or slight acquaintance who intends to harm them or hold them permanently, according to a landmark study of missing children.

LeeAnna's mother, 29-year-old Kaelin Warner, said she struggled to breathe as she listened to investigators Tuesday.

Images of her child in fear or pain flashed through her mind. "My first question was, what are the odds of bringing her home alive?" she said. "They said, 'Don't you ever lose hope.' "

In a three-hour interview at their home last week, the Warners said hope and faith will have to sustain the family.

In the 50 days since LeeAnna disappeared, investigators and family members have sorted through more than 1,300 leads and extensively searched the area. Yet there's precious little information about what happened to the tiny, brown-haired, brown-eyed chatterbox after two neighbors saw her leave her friends' house.

'It's like she disappeared into thin air or someone zapped her somewhere with a laser. Or that she was abducted by aliens," Kaelin Warner said. "Just vanished. Gone."

Law enforcement people share her frustration.

"We're really grasping right now," said Dave Bjerga, special agent in charge of northern Minnesota for the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

One agent with 30 years experience told Bjerga there's never been a case "where there's so little to go on."

Even compared with Jacob Wetterling or Corrine Erstad -- two Minnesota kids whose disappearances garnered headlines and stymied investigators -- authorities in LeeAnna's disappearance say they have less information to work with.

With the Wetterling case, at least, two young companions reported seeing someone snatch the boy. With LeeAnna, investigators didn't even have that as a starting point.

Strategy of exclusion

St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman just shook his head last week when asked whether there's any possible link between LeeAnna's disappearance and that of other missing children in Minnesota or nationally.

"We don't have enough information to make that determination," he said. "We can't find her. That's the only similarity."

At this point, Litman and Bjerga say, investigators are pursuing a strategy of exclusion. Family, people, places and things are checked out and checked off.

And that process of elimination has led authorities to the conclusion that LeeAnna was mostly likely kidnapped by someone with little or no connection to the Warners.

"What we don't know tells us something," Litman said. From the moment she was last seen by two neighbors leaving her friend's house, ". . . We know nothing, and that's significant."

The rarity of stranger abductions is one reason authorities pursued the theory that LeeAnna had wandered off and why they didn't issue a nationwide AMBER Alert to law enforcement agencies and the media of a child abduction. Authorities continue to stand by that decision but say they are confident that they've done the legwork to support the conclusion that LeeAnna was abducted.

Since LeeAnna disappeared, divers have searched the clear waters of nearby Longyear Lake more than a dozen times. Searchers have trudged multiple times on foot through the countryside in a circle whose outside edge is about 5 1/2 miles from the Warners' gray stucco duplex.

Neighbors also were interviewed multiple times, and in some cases, had their houses and vehicles searched. Tips about suspicious cars and people seen in the area have been checked and, for the most part, ruled out. Officers have talked to area sex offenders and heard mostly alibis.

Names of those visiting the area for a concert and charity-fundraiser motorcycle rally the weekend LeeAnna disappeared were culled from the records of gas stations, hotels and campgrounds. That work has so far yielded nothing substantial.

"Not everyone can be eliminated," Bjerga said, noting that people don't go around making sure they have alibis. But of the small group yet to be cleared, there's no information that makes anyone a suspect.

Investigators have also apparently completed the sensitive task of checking out LeeAnna's parents and family.

"At this point, we're comfortable with what the family is telling us," Bjerga said.

Litman added, "They're not the focus of our investigation."

Goodwill between law enforcement and the Warner family was obvious last week after the meeting at the Hibbing Police Department. LeeAnna's parents and paternal grandparents lingered outside talking with investigators. The handshakes were long and seemed heartfelt.

Uncomfortable scrutiny

Chris and Kaelin Warner said they have been interviewed numerous times by law enforcement officers and were told that they are "cleared." They said officers told them that's why the couple has not been asked to undergo lie-detector tests. Authorities said they don't comment on anything involving lie-detector tests.

As part of the investigation, officers dug up parts of Chris and Kaelin Warner's pasts that the couple said they'd rather forget.

Both have been divorced. According to court records, Chris and his ex-wife came to blows in Hibbing in October 1998 -- the year LeeAnna was born. Chris Warner notified police of the incident. The couple sought mutual restraining orders.

In her petition for a restraining order, Chris's ex-wife claimed that he had an "uncontrollable" temper, even around kids. In his petition for a restraining order, Chris Warner claimed that his ex-wife had threatened Kaelin, her two daughters from a previous marriage and LeeAnna.

Bjerga and Litman said that authorities are aware of the situation but that many people have domestic problems. The incident, Litman said, "has not raised any red flags."

Chris and Kaelin Warner said they understood the need for authorities to go through this incident and look at their pasts.

"We'd be angry if they hadn't," said Kaelin Warner, who has managed a Chisholm convenience store but is no longer working.

"We're not perfect," said Chris Warner, a heavy-equipment mechanic at the nearby taconite mine. "But we have nothing to hide."

Last week, the Warners told the Star Tribune that a county social worker once asked them about a complaint from someone concerned about LeeAnna.

According to the couple, someone told social services that the girl had been tied up. But the Warners said they told the social workers that neighborhood kids had been playing with LeeAnna and used her as a Maypole of sorts while they wrapped a jump rope around her.

The Warners said the social worker accepted their version of events. Officials for northern St. Louis County's child protection services did not return calls Friday, but they typically do not comment on such matters.

Still, the scrutiny from law enforcement, the media and the people of Chisholm has been intense and painful, the couple said.

"It's like living your life under a microscope in a pressure cooker," Chris Warner said.

Holding out hope

There's no room in the couple's home in which they aren't reminded of LeeAnna (whose name is often misspelled on posters and in news bulletins). Dozens of studio photos and pictures taken with the family's point-and-shoot camera decorate the walls and shelves.

They show a child who loved frilly dresses and family pets. Halloweens when LeeAnna and her half-sisters Karlee and Whitney Chandler happily mugged in costumes. Wintry evenings when LeeAnna snuggled with her mom and dad on the couch. Gleeful family wrestling matches where LeeAnna mixed it up with her dad and her half-brother, Anthony Warner.

Chris and Kaelin Warner say they're well aware that many have questioned why they didn't call 911 sooner. The couple realized around 5:15 p.m. that LeeAnna wasn't where she said she'd be. When initial searches turned up nothing, neighbors were mobilized and went house to house. The call to 911 went out shortly before 9 p.m.

In a small town like Chisholm, Chris Warner said, you don't believe anything like this can happen. And LeeAnna, a kid who never met anyone she didn't like, had many friends and places to go around the neighborhood, he said.

The couple said they did what they thought was best at the time, not wanting to believe the worst or having any reason to.

"It's such a different way of life up here," Kaelin Warner said. "Until you live up here . . . you can't understand. And you can't pass judgment."

The Warners are keeping LeeAnna's pink bedroom just as it was. The neighborhood kids have converted an old shed into the "Find Beaner Kids Clubhouse" and decorated it with LeeAnna's favorite toys and colors.

The Warners, who have set up booths at nearby festivals to publicize their search, say they'll continue to do whatever it takes until LeeAnna comes home.

"As a parent, you'd feel it in your heart if she'd passed on," Chris Warner said. "We haven't felt that yet. We'll continue to hold that hope until they can show us otherwise."

Jill Burcum is at jburcum@startribune.com.

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