Dru Sjodin was a 22-year-old student at University of North Dakota in November 2003. She had just changed her major to photojournalism. She had recently been on the cover of her university magazine for a feature about the Clothesline Project, which honors victims and survivors of sexual assault by decorating colored T-shirts and hanging them on a clothesline to raise awareness about the issue.
On November 22, 2003, Dru was abducted.
Dru was taken from a shopping mall parking lot as she walked to her car after she finished her afternoon shift. Abducted from Grand Forks, North Dakota, her body was found four months later in Crookston, Minnesota, about 25 miles away. A 50-year-old registered level 3 (most serious) sex offender, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., was arrested and prosecuted federally because he crossed state lines with Dru while committing his crimes. He was convicted on kidnapping, rape and murder charges and sentenced to death. In May 2003, Rodriguez had been released from prison after serving 23 years for stabbing and attempting to kidnap a woman in Minnesota and had previously pleaded guilty to raping another woman.
Dru’s abduction, and subsequent murder, highlighted gaps in the sex offender laws at the time: No comprehensive sex offender registry system existed that included information from each individual state and territory. Someone living close to a state border had to search multiple state registries to identify sex offenders who lived nearby. Further, Native American tribes and sex offenders living on tribal lands were not included on any registry.
“It was shocking,” Dru’s mother, Linda Walker, said. “She was taken at 5 in the afternoon, walking across the shopping mall parking lot, doing what every 22-year-old woman does. How the system was failing our victims propelled me to look at the laws. If Dru was alive, and it was me that was taken, she would have done the same.”
After Dru’s death, Walker said it came to her attention that a website was going to be created to link state registry sites.
“I was very passionate about it,” she said. “Dru was living in North Dakota when she was taken, and a level 3 sex offender was living just across the state line. I felt the need for this system, where we could at least educate ourselves about who is living amongst us, and have one place that you could query that information.”
Walker said that she became very passionate about the website and pursued it with politicians in North Dakota and “anyone who would listen to me.” To raise awareness, she said she sent postcards to every politician in D.C.
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which directed the Attorney General to establish the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website in Dru’s memory. NSOPW.gov allows users to perform a national search through a single query across the 50 states, federally recognized Indian tribes, U.S. territories and Washington, D.C., creating a seamless web across the country.
After the AWA was enacted, Walker worked for about a decade with the nonprofit RadKIDS, which teaches children how to protect themselves from violence and harm, to include sexual assault prevention education.
Her work with RadKIDS to empower children is directly related to how Walker sees Dru’s legacy: shining a light on violence against women, children and young adults and empowering them to protect themselves.
“Just before she was taken, she was going to take an IMPACT [self-defense] course, to learn how to protect herself,” Walker said. “It’s something she would truly believe to this day: that women should be able to empower themselves to ward off people such as the man who took Dru.”
For Walker, the hardest adjustment has been living her life without her daughter: Dru having held her brother’s infant — her first nephew — but not having the chance to meet the rest of her seven nieces and nephews, seeing her daughter’s friends getting married and starting families and imagining the life that Dru would be living today.
What brings Walker comfort is knowing that her daughter didn’t die in vain — and that she will be remembered for the kind, caring and loving person that she was. “She probably would have reached out to the very man who took her and would have helped him if she had the chance,” Walker said. “The night she was taken, she was supposed to chaperone a dance for underprivileged teens, between her jobs. I’m proud of the young lady she was becoming.”
Walker also remembers her daughter’s kindness, sense of humor, love of travel and artistic talents, including painting, drawing, photography and pottery. One of her last pieces was a set of four hand-built teacups shaped like lily pads with flowers.
Every year, a scholarship fundraiser is held at a golf course where she worked while she was in high school: $5,000 is awarded to a senior graduate from the high school she attended in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, her hometown. Along with this scholarship, two others are given in her memory: one to Gamma Phi Beta for a sorority sister who is attending UND and another in an endowment in her name that funds a full, four-year tuition for one student annually to attend UND.
Today, the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website links all 50 states, 155 tribes, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. Users conduct over 4 million searches on NSOPW.gov and the corresponding mobile app each month.
Despite the positive aspects of Dru’s legacy, Walker sees that challenges still exist. “Realizing that we haven’t come very far in protecting victims of sexual assault, even in my home state of Minnesota,” has been difficult, she said. “In most cases, victims don’t have a voice. As a nation, we’re really failing those victims as well. It’s a constant reminder, when I hear of another tragic case, that there are cases we’ll never hear about, victims who go unnoticed. It’s a constant drip in my mind. That’s the frustrating and sad part, understanding that, for so many people who haven’t lost a child, it’s easy for society to walk away, when we can all come together and really do so much more for victims, and come together and stop it.”
Attorneys on behalf of Dru’s killer have appealed the conviction and the death sentence, asserting he is not mentally competent and cannot be executed. In December 2018, a federal judge ruled two new expert witnesses can testify on Rodriguez’s behalf, as part of the appeal. The hearing concluded February 7, 2019.