Iowa kidnapping suspect probed in cousins’ deaths

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The man suspected of kidnapping a still-missing 15-year-old Iowa girl and her friend as they walked home from school is being scrutinized in last year’s unsolved kidnapping of two young cousins whose bodies were found 100 miles away.

One reason investigators are interested: It’s extremely rare to abduct multiple children at once, and police say Michael J. Klunder has done that at least twice.

Investigators were scouring an area in central Iowa Thursday in their search for Kathlynn Shepard, who along with a 12-year-old friend disappeared Monday. The younger girl was able to escape and told investigators she and Kathlynn had accepted a ride from a stranger.

Authorities say that stranger was Klunder, who spent two decades in prison after kidnapping two 3-year-old girls and a 21-year-old woman in 1991. He committed suicide Monday night.

Police Chief Kent Smock of Evansdale — where cousins Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins vanished while riding their bikes last July — said stranger abductions involving more than one child being taken at the same time are “very, very rare.” He said the similarities between the two Iowa cases have captured the attention of local, state and federal agents looking for the cousins’ killer.

“They’re looking into it and keeping us updated,” Tammy Brousseau, the cousins’ aunt, said Thursday. “I really hope that it’s him. My fear all along was that this person was out there and could harm another child. Now we have another missing little girl, and I really do hope that it’s him.”

Meanwhile, the 12-year-old who survived Monday’s abduction relayed her story to the local newspaper, the Dayton Leader, and Iowa Public Radio. She said she wanted her friend to be found alive.

She said Klunder asked them if they wanted to make money mowing lawns and promised to give them a ride home so they could ask their parents. She said she knew something was wrong when they ended up at a hog confinement.

She said she escaped Klunder’s pickup truck when he took Kathlynn to another part of the property, explaining that she ran through the woods and past a cemetery until she found farmers and called for help.

Lyric and Elizabeth, who were 10 and 8 when they disappeared, were found dead in a wooded wildlife area in Bremer County in December, about 25 miles from where they were last seen. Smock acknowledged investigators were aware of Klunder’s ties to the county, where Klunder once lived in a home for troubled youth.

“We’re looking under every log, every rock, everything that could lead to a connection or disconnection,” he said.

Police allege that Klunder, 42, convinced Kathlynn and her friend to get into his pickup truck while they were walking home after exiting a school bus in Dayton, a town about 60 miles north of Des Moines. Klunder took the girls to a hog confinement building where he worked, and the 12-year-old girl escaped through the woods.

Klunder was found dead of self-inflicted injuries hours later, at the site of another agricultural operation where he worked.

Teams of officers were searching for Kathlynn near an area where the girls’ backpacks were found Tuesday and other locations, said Lt. Robert Hansen of the Iowa Department of Public Safety. He said 60 volunteers, horses, all-terrain vehicles, boats canvassing the Des Moines River and police dogs were also part of the effort.

Investigators said they would provide new information Thursday afternoon about evidence found during the search.

Klunder was convicted in the 1991 kidnappings of the toddlers in Charles City, who were found alive 50 miles away in a garbage bin, and a 21-year-old girl who he assaulted after forcing her into his car near Mason City. Klunder completed a roughly 20-year prison term in 2011 after being convicted in those cases.

“It seems that he chooses females, but the age range doesn’t seem to matter. The little toddlers were only 3. The other woman was 21. These girls were 15 and 12,” Brousseau said. “Our girls were 8 and 10.”

But the kidnapping allegations and suicide have stunned Klunder’s family, said Ron Ohotto Sr. of Mason City, whose son is married to Klunder’s sister. Ohotto said he met Klunder last year at a child’s birthday party and “he seemed like a pretty nice guy to me.” He said relatives thought Klunder, who was married last year, was turning his life around after prison.

“They’re pretty shocked about the whole thing,” he said.

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