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Horrific murder of North Dakota college student remains unsolved as family waits for new evidence

Investigators continue to monitor advances in DNA technology — including the expansion of DNA databases — in the hopes of revealed answers. Yet by all accounts, the case has gone cold, leaving Anita Knutson’s family and friends in a perpetual state of disbelief and uncertainty.

Anita Knutson Photo 2.jpeg
Anita Knutson is described by those who knew her as a kind and wonderful person. An elementary education major at Minot State University, her life was cut short in June 2007 when she was found stabbed to death in her off-campus apartment bedroom.
Photo courtesy of In Loving Memory of Anita Knutson Group.
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MINOT, N.D. — For nearly fifteen years, family members and friends of Anita Knutson have lived with an aching grief, intensified by a lack of answers regarding what happened to the then-18-year-old in her final hours and minutes.

On June 7, 2007, Minot State University student Anita Knutson was found stabbed to death in her off-campus apartment. Her body was discovered by her father and two apartment maintenance workers.

She was found face down on her bed. The murder weapon, a pocket knife, was discovered by law enforcement in her room, according to Minot Police Chief John Klug.

From that moment, the search for Anita Knutson’s killer began — DNA swabs were collected from all known close contacts and interviews with persons of interest were conducted. Yet with every turn, the case hit barriers.

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Alibis dismissed Anita Knutson’s roommate and a prominent sketch of a man seen running near the scene of the crime turned out to belong to a runner on a regular route.

Investigators continue to monitor advances in DNA technology — including the expansion of DNA databases — in the hopes of revealed answers. Yet by all accounts, the case has gone cold, leaving Anita Knutson’s family and friends in a perpetual state of disbelief and uncertainty.

Anita Billboard 2013 .jpeg
In 2013, friends and family members of Anita Knutson raised funds to display a billboard in Minot, N.D. Knutson was murdered in her off-campus apartment in June 2007.<br/>
Photo courtesy of In Loving Memory of Anita Knutson Group.<br/>

Discovering Anita Knutson

Anita Knutson came from a close-knit family from the Butte, N.D. area. Her parents, Gordon and Sharon Knutson, adopted Anita Knutson as a baby — later, they also adopted her younger siblings, Daniel and Anna Knutson.

The family was known for their kindness and closeness, family friend Erin Haustveit said. Even as Anita Knutson had moved out of the house to attend Minot State University, a roughly 1-hour drive away, Sharon Knutson remained in touch with her daughter daily.

It was for that reason that Sharon Knutson began to grow worried after not hearing from her over the early June weekend in 2007. Concerned, Gordon Knutson made the drive on a Monday to Anita Knutson’s off-campus apartment, where he first noticed her vehicle parked outside.

Unable to get in through the front door — and unable to get an answer to his knocks — he requested the assistance of the maintenance worker and janitor, who initially pointed out that the window screen to Anita Knutson’s bedroom was slashed.

As they looked closer, they saw her face down on her bed. A robe covered her bloodied body.

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Law enforcement deemed the time of death to have occurred at some point in the early hours of Sunday morning — a claim Klug said was reached based on the information known at the time.

“There hasn’t been anything to indicate that it would have been earlier. I think the conclusion that was drawn was the day before she was found was the last time we knew that anybody had heard from her, so that’s why we believe that it would have probably been some time the day before or the morning of,” Klug said.

Reports indicate no evidence of sexaul assault. Klug was not able to confirm whether there were defensive wounds on Anita Knutson.

For those who loved her, the next few days were a blur of disbelief and heartache.

“It was devastating, I mean there’s just no good way to say it,” Haustveit said. “I still remember when I found out. I was at work, and I had gone to my work locker and pulled out my cell phone, and I had so many missed phone calls from a number of different people.”

The news of Anita Knutson’s death spread fast, particularly throughout her college and hometown communities. Near her hometown, friends and family members gathered to mourn and wrap their heads around a tragedy that only days before had seemed impossible.

“For me personally, and again we were 19 at the time — or however old — it was really overwhelming because it was scary,” Haustveit said. “It was scary. Things like that don’t happen in Minot, North Dakota. Things like that don’t happen to people we know.”

Expecting answers

One thing Anita Knutson’s family and friends could cling to during those first turbulent days, weeks and months was a hope that answers would soon be delivered.

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Investigators were busy collecting DNA from those who were close to Anita Knutson, and interviews were being conducted. Those who mourned waited for answers they believed would come.

Anita Knutson Grave .jpeg
Anita Knutson was found murdered in her off-campus Minot apartment building in the summer of 2007. A suspect has yet to be named.<br/>
Photo courtesy of In Loving Memory of Anita Knutson Group.<br/><br/>

“I think now, we kind of lived on that hope for so long that this would get solved… that we would figure out who did this, we’d figure out why they did it, and then we could kind of move on,” Haustveit said.

But that wasn’t the case. It still isn’t.

An ongoing investigation

Where the case sits today, Klug said there are no named suspects.

“So far, we don’t have any strong suspects. I think it’s just that there may be some people that fit a little stronger on the list for us, but there’s not a strong suspect at this point,” he said.

There were theories investigators looked into during the early days. Anita Knutson did have a roommate she did not get along with. At times, their verbal altercations had led to accidental physical contact, yet no arrests were ever made.

While the roommate did have an alibi, provided by her parents who claimed she was with them throughout the weekend, she was still subject to polygraph tests and multiple interviews throughout the years.

“There has been nothing that I would consider completely clearing her as a suspect,” Klug said. “At this point we just don’t have enough evidence to clearly say that it’s not a particular person.”

Following her death, a tip also led to a sketch drawing of a man seen running away from the apartment around the suspected time of the killing. The man quickly came forward in cooperation with investigators. A regular runner, he was cleared once it was proven he was out for a jog on his routine route.

The severed window screen and the robe

Law enforcement continued to look into other factors of the case, including the screen on the window that had been cut. Klug said that, to the best of his knowledge, there were no obvious signs of blood left on the screen. He did, however, confirm the window was not considered by law enforcement to be the point of entry for the person who killed Anita Knutson.

“It doesn't necessarily match up based on how that apartment is laid out and where the window is and how far you would have to climb to get in that window,” he said. “There were a number of things that were a little unusual about the screen.”

Klug said it’s difficult to know if the severed screen was a move by the killer to make it look like he or she had entered the apartment through the window, but he claims it is possible.

“There are some theories. I guess we haven’t done anything, as far as an in-depth trial, to see if it could be done, but with where the cut was, where the window was, it appears that maybe the cut was done as a stage and not necessarily as an entry point,” he said. “But again, it’s one theory that we have.”

While the case has slowed to a near halt in recent years, advancements in DNA collection and databases do provide some hope that a potential match within the system could provide long sought after answers. Investigators also still remain in possession of the murder weapon, the small pocket knife.

In terms of the robe used to cover Anita Knutson’s body, Klug said that aspect of the crime scene doesn’t point them in one direction or another when considering whether the assailant was someone Anita knew.

“I think if we developed a strong suspect, maybe it would mean something, but at this point there’s nothing unusual about it, I guess,” Klug said.

On the near horizon, Klug also said there will be a renewed effort to bring in new investigators from around the region — and country — to gain a fresh perspective on the case and hone in on any details that deserve attention.

Dealing with the loss of Anita Knutson

For those who knew and loved Anita Knutson, she was a shining star — a devoted daughter, sister and friend who is deeply missed to this day.

“It was hard for everybody — her family, her brother, my classmates, there are still so many people who are heartbroken over it,” Haustveit said. “Even to this day, I still get emotional talking about it.”

Anita Knutson Photo 1 .jpeg
Anita Knutson had just finished her freshman year at Minot State University when she was found stabbed to death in her off-campus apartment. No arrests have been made in connection with her murder.
Photo courtesy of In Loving Memory of Anita Knutson Group.<br/>

For Anita Knutson’s younger brother, Daniel Knutson, the loss was particularly devastating. Due to the close nature of their relationship, many who knew Daniel Knutson claimed her death changed him.

“Unless you knew him, it’s really hard to describe it. He was outgoing, he was funny, he was homecoming king, people loved being around him,” Haustveit said. “And all of that magnetism just died when she died.”

Daniel Knutson died from suicide a year and a half after his sister’s murder. His family and friends link his death to the loss of Anita Knutson.

From Haustveit’s perspective, watching the Knutson family, known for their closeness and kindness, walk through immense grief has been hard for many to wrap their heads around.

“I think what’s so devastating about this too is that this family was just loving and wonderful and beautiful and kind. They lost a daughter, and then shortly thereafter they lost a son, and they’re still fighting to try to figure it out to this day,” she said.

As for who killed Anita Knutson, so many are still at a loss to answer that question. For Haustveit, it’s difficult to imagine that someone who knew her would be capable of taking her life.

“Part of me in a weird way hopes it was a stranger, and not somebody that actually knew her because I can’t imagine if you knew her, you would ever do something like this,” she said.

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

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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