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After agonizing search for Danielle Jelinek, 'closure'

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Authorities remove the body of missing Cottage Grove native Danielle Jelinek from a swampy area in Chisago County. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 3
Chisago County Sheriff Rick Duncan3 / 3

When Danielle Jelinek disappeared last December, family and friends held out hope they would find her alive.

As the five-month search for the Cottage Grove native dragged on, for some that hope turned to an aching wish to just find her.

The search for Jelinek, 27, ended Friday when local and state law enforcement found her body in a swamp just a few hundred yards from where she was last seen, the home of her ex-boyfriend Aaron Schnagl in rural Chisago Lakes Township.

"At least we get closure for the family," Chisago County Sheriff Rick Duncan said of the May 10 discovery, which came after authorities and Jelinek relatives and friends had conducted extensive ground and water searches since December.

The Anoka County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed it was Jelinek. Her body had been spotted by authorities conducting a search by helicopter.

Jelinek's childhood friend, Derek Jubinal of Cottage Grove, said her disappearance was agonizing and painful, but there was some relief in finding her.

"It's tough to even think about," said Jubinal, who created a Facebook page to provide updates to literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people who followed the search. "But it kind of helped in the end knowing that she's not somewhere unsafe."

Jelinek went missing after spending Saturday night, Dec. 8, in Minneapolis with Schnagl. They then returned to his home, about 45 miles north of Cottage Grove. Schnagl said he saw her leave his house about 4 a.m. Dec. 9, but then he passed out. He has denied any involvement in her disappearance. Duncan has continued to call Schnagl a "person of interest" and said he has not helped with the investigation.

Jelinek was reported missing later that day, after her sister, Cory Jelinek, with whom she was living in Oakdale, could not reach her. Her father, Cottage Grove resident Ed Jelinek, said at the time it was unlike her to go without keeping in touch.

Relatives and friends of Jelinek, a 2003 Park High School graduate, helped authorities search for her over the five months since her disappearance. A reward was established and was supported by a number of fundraisers and groups, including the Cottage Grove Crime Prevention Board.

Duncan's office conducted underwater searches and used a plane to search the fields and wooded areas near Schnagl's home. The search was made difficult from the beginning, when more than 18 inches of snow fell the morning Jelinek disappeared and bad weather continued to complicate the effort in the ensuing months. Last Friday, after snow and ice had melted, was the first time authorities used a helicopter.

Jubinal, Jelinek's childhood friend, recalled searching the area where she was found.

"We literally walked right over her multiple times," he said. "I probably scraped off the area that she actually went into the water at."

Duncan kept in frequent contact with Jelinek's parents since December and said it was very difficult for the family. Investigators struggled too, the sheriff said. "As the search went on and on, it wears on you."

Schnagl is currently imprisoned in the St. Cloud Correctional Facility for violating probation in an unrelated drug case. He was arrested after Jelinek went missing when authorities searching his home found marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy, according to court records.

Despite Schnagl's insistence he was not involved in her disappearance, Jubinal and others remain unconvinced.

"At that point when she went missing, I kind of began the process of grieving," Jubinal said. "It was amazing relief that someone didn't have her. At least she's at peace."

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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