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The Unsolved Pocket-Knife Murder of an Aspiring Teacher

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Anita Knutson was born to be a teacher.

When she enrolled as a freshman at Minot State University—about an hour from her tiny North Dakota hometown of Butte, where her father was once the mayor—in 2007, Anita was pursuing that calling, her younger sister Anna recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast.

Between working two jobs to help support herself and maintaining a healthy social life, the “beautiful, charismatic, and joyful” 18-year-old had done well in her first year as an elementary education major, and was looking forward to summer vacation.

“She was enjoying school,” the 30-year-old marketing director said, noting that her older sister always “had a lot of friends around her.”

One advantage offered by the close proximity to home was the ability for Anita—who was adopted along with her two young siblings—to see her tight-knit family often.

“Where my brother and I went to high school was about 30 minutes from Minot…. So we went multiple times a week,” Anna said.

That short travel time proved invaluable in June 2007, when Anita did not respond to her parents’ calls all weekend while they were in Bismarck for their son, Daniel’s, baseball tournament. Noting that it was “very uncommon not to hear from her,” Anna said, her mother asked her father to drive up to Minot that Monday to check on the incoming sophomore.

Alongside two maintenance workers who helped him enter his daughter’s off-campus apartment, former Butte Mayor Gordon Knutson was met with a grisly scene: his teenage daughter fatally stabbed to death, facedown on her own bed. A robe covered her bloodied body, and the pocket knife that was used to murder her was close by.

The brazen murder of the rural North Dakota mayor’s daughter shook the community, but the Minot Police Department has never made any arrests or even officially named a suspect over the course of a 14-year investigation. Instead, according to Chief John Klug, police have been left to rely on someone coming forward with information on a case that’s very much on ice—and that Anna Knutson believes contributed to her brother’s subsequent death.

“The police department continues to staff this case and follows up on leads,” Klug told The Daily Beast, adding that police believe Anita’s killer is still out there and they are determined to find answers.

For most of Anna Knutson’s early life, she remembers wanting to be just like her older sister. While she and her brother, Daniel, were just a year apart, Anita was three years older—an age difference that led Anna to admire everything her big sister did.

“We were really close,” she told The Daily Beast. “When we were really little, we always had matching outfits, which was really fun. Every single thing my sister did, I wanted to do it.”

One thing Anna especially loved about Anita was her ability to be “someone that everyone wanted to be like.” That charisma, she said, made it easy to imagine her elder sister as an elementary school teacher.

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The frequency with which she saw her sibling that year left Anna unable to recall every detail about the last time she did so—about a week before her murder—besides that it was a quick conversation at the clothing store Anita worked at inside a local mall.

That June weekend, Anna said, she remembered frequent conversations about how strange it was that Anita had not been answering her phone.

Chief Klug said that the last time anyone heard from Anita was that Saturday. Minot Police investigator Dave Goodman told the Minot Daily News in 2012 that Anita did not show up to her shift at a local hotel—where she worked her second job—that day. Denise Tobey, the front desk clerk at Minot’s Fairfield Inn, told the Bismarck Tribune in 2007 that Anita had worked at the hotel for about a year, her job mainly consisting of helping housekeepers clean the rooms.

On Monday, June 4, 2007, Anita’s father made the hour-long trip from Butte to Minot—dropping off Anna, who was then 15, at a friend’s house along the way. A little while later, Anna said, she received an ominous call from her dad, telling her that her brother was going to pick her up and “don’t ask any questions, just go home.”

“I remember I got in the car and he had clearly been crying,” Anna said. “It was not a super normal thing for my brother to do, and he wouldn’t tell me anything. So I just started naming people. Like, ‘Is it mom, is it our Aunt Karen, or Uncle Joe?’ ‘Is it Anita?’”

“And then he started crying and kind of looked at me and said, ‘She’s dead,” Anna continued. “I just remember the whole car ride, we sat in silence. It was about a 30-minute ride home.”

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Crime scene analysis later concluded that Anita had been dead for more than a day before her father burst into her locked apartment with the help of two maintenance workers. One of the workers, Klug pointed out, noticed the screen to Anita’s bedroom window had been slashed.

Matt Murphy, a student at Minot State University who lived in the apartment across the yard from Anita’s, told the Bismarck Tribune at the time that he noticed her bedroom window was broken on Monday morning—and that glass was on the ground.

“I went over there because I bike down to work, and I saw the window was busted out, and I didn’t think anything of it,” Murphy told the outlet.

Inside the apartment Anita shared with a roommate, the teenager’s father found a grisly scene. Police say that Anita was stabbed at least twice in the chest with a pocket knife that was recovered at the scene. While there was no evidence of sexual abuse or defense wounds, Klug noted that Anita was found wearing a robe.

“So it was just another consideration about how things may have played out,” the chief, who was a lieutenant at the time, added.

More bizarre was the realization that Anita’s car was still parked a few yards away from her front door and that nothing appeared to be missing from her apartment.

“It’s just a tough situation all the way around,” Lt. Jason Sundbakken told the Minot Daily News in 2012. “This is one of those cases that hangs over your head. It is frustrating.”

Local newspaper outlets reported that Butte residents rallied together to support Gordon and Sharon Knutson, including with grocery runs. High school students from the alma mater also put together pink bracelets in Anita’s honor.

“The whole community is doing whatever they can do,” Sandie Hartman, a resident, told The Bismarck Tribune at the time about her grocery trips for the Knutsons. “This is something I can do. I used to work in a restaurant. You just give whatever you can.”

Anita’s death prompted Minot State University to ramp up their security, including the installation of video cameras in school parking lots and new lighting. President David Fuller told local media in 2007 that the school was also looking into an emergency alert system that could be sent to student’s cell phones and computers.

“Speaking for all of us at Minot State, we are extremely saddened by this loss of one of our students. We have extended our deepest condolences to Anita’s family,” he said in a June 20, 2007, report to the school community.

Klug said that the Minot Police Department collected DNA samples from everyone close to Anita and interviewed widely in their efforts to solve the case.

“We will not release specifics on DNA—except we are hoping new advances in technology will lead us to a suspect,” Klug added.

Among those interviewed was Anita’s roommate, who told police that she was out of town with her parents at the time of the murder. Klug confirmed that the roommate, who has not been publicly identified, has never been ruled out as a suspect—but also said that police were simply not ruling anything out in the open investigation.

Minot Police investigator Dave Goodman told the Minot Daily News in 2012 that the case initially produced a “large circle” of possible suspects—and over the years, police have been able to whittle down the list. Klug also noted to The Daily Beast that while one witness told police she had seen a man running away from Anita’s apartment building around the same time of her murder, they were able to identify and clear that individual of having anything to do with the case.

While Klug maintains that the investigation is ongoing and that all tips have “received attention,” Anna told The Daily Beast that the police have not done enough to solve the murder, a horror she said played some part in her brother’s demise.

On April 9, 2013, Daniel Knutson died by suicide. Anna said that their sister’s death was particularly devastating for her brother and the incident changed him and “caused a lot of pain.”

“He was never the same after she died. Absolutely, it was difficult for all of us, but… whoever killed my sister had a hand in also killing my brother.”

Anna said that while police still call and provide the family with updates, those conversations have “been few and far between.” Now, she believes, it’s up to the public to help solve the crime.

“If anyone knows anything at all, I am just asking people to have a little courage here and just speak up,” Anna said. “If you know anything at all, please say something. It’s not lost on me how heavy that is. We’ve lost two people in our family. We’re just asking for a little courage.”

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741