FARGO — Birthday and Christmas presents still wait for 32-year-old Brenda Kay Kartes at her parent’s West Fargo home. She vanished more than seven months ago, and her family is heartbroken and frustrated with the police investigation into her disappearance.
Of the dozens of missing person cases opened last year in Fargo, Brenda’s is the only one still without a resolution today.
Sgt. Kevin Volrath said the Fargo Police Department opened and closed about 60 missing person cases in 2018. He said Fargo is fortunate to have cooperation from the community to find missing people, with most cases involving a senior citizen or runaway juvenile.
But adult cases, like Brenda’s, are more complicated.
“An adult has the right to just take off. They don't have to tell anybody,” Volrath said.
The only other recent missing person case in the Fargo-Moorhead area that's still unsolved is out of Dilworth. Dilworth Police Chief Ty Sharpe said it involves a 50-year-old man, but couldn’t provide more information on the case because it’s “classified as a walk-away at a treatment facility” and the man is considered a vulnerable adult.
Fargo has five unsolved missing person cases dating as far back as 1971, with the most recent unsolved case, prior to Brenda's, opened in 2011, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, an online public database to store and share information on unsolved cases. Spokespersons for Moorhead and West Fargo police said those departments have no open missing person cases.
'It seemed like nobody cared'
Brenda’s parents, Lynn and Dale Kartes, told The Forum the circumstances of their daughter’s disappearance suggest to them that she is in danger. Her parents fear she may have become a victim of human trafficking because she is a vulnerable adult and hasn't been in contact with them since she disappeared in July.
Brenda was last seen at 1:30 p.m. July 12, leaving Centre Inc., a Fargo drug treatment facility at 3501 Westrac Drive. She was supposed to return by 4:30 p.m., but never did.
She has struggled with meth addiction and has a criminal history, including two felony convictions in May 2018 for possession of meth paraphernalia in Cass County. Her father said she is bipolar and should be on medication.
“She was self-medicating with the use of drugs,” Dale said. “It's more common than people want to recognize. Being bipolar, a lot of people self-medicate.”
Her mother said Brenda left all her personal belongings behind: IDs, a prepaid credit card with $200 on it, her vehicle, clothes and beauty products.
Brenda’s only sister, Danielle Rueckert, 25, said Brenda would never go anywhere without her makeup or hair straightener. Rueckert, a hairstylist, said Brenda was always asking her to do a new style and that Brenda took pride in her appearance.
Unfortunately, the family knows the public has a different perception of Brenda.
A month after her disappearance, Fargo police posted on Facebook the most recent photo of Brenda, taken at Centre Inc., to solicit information from the public. The family knows it’s not the most flattering photo, but were shocked at some of the heartless comments from strangers.
“Yes, our daughter had problems, but it seemed like nobody cared. Nobody took her missing seriously, the police, nothing,” a tearful Lynn said. “Anything we want to have done we have to beg.”
'The key to finding Brenda'
The Kartes family said Brenda’s past shouldn’t matter, that a missing person is a missing person.
“I feel because of who she is, they don’t care,” Lynn said. “She wasn’t always like this.”
Laura Vraa, 31, grew up with Brenda in Mapleton and said they have been friends since the third grade. Vraa said her friend was bubbly and funny, caring and considerate.
"She just wanted to be happy," Vraa said. "She deserves more recognition. She wasn’t a nobody. She’s human. Nobody's perfect. She was trying to do better."
Vraa said Brenda would "never in a million years" put her family through this and not speak to them for this long.
“We feel like nobody took it serious right away," Lynn said. "I don’t know if they are discriminating against her because of who she is and her past, but there was no urgency or care for our daughter Brenda.”
Brenda’s Facebook activity was concerning to her family leading up to her disappearance. They contacted Centre Inc. a few days before she went missing to tell staff about the “red flags” indicating that she might be in danger. But they said nothing was done.
Lynn and Dale Kartes pressed authorities to talk with other residents at Centre Inc., knowing their daughter would have struck up a friendship with someone. But to their knowledge, no one at the facility was interviewed about Brenda’s case.
“The key to finding Brenda is at Centre Inc.,” Lynn said.
Josh Helmer, Centre Inc. executive director, said periodically people do walk away because it's not a locked facility.
"This person (Brenda) did sign off to an approved location," Helmer said, adding that he couldn't speak in detail about the case due to confidentiality of residents.
Helmer said Center Inc. has cooperated with the investigation. He said police did interview other residents, and there is "absolutely no cover-up." He sympathizes with the Kartes family.
"I'm a parent, and I can't imagine," he said. "It's extremely unfortunate."
A post on Brenda’s Facebook page July 11 — the day before she was last seen — mentioned going to Texas and a new boyfriend, but the family thinks that is suspicious. Still, Lynn has called nearly every hospital in Texas and checked with authorities.
Vraa has been calling around looking for Brenda as well. She said she spends hours online searching missing persons forums trying to find her. She said the day before Brenda disappeared, Brenda messaged her on Facebook saying she had a job offer in Texas at Kohl’s.
"If I knew it was the last time I was going to talk to her, I would've said more than 'congratulations,' " Vraa said.
The family hired a private investigator and contacted the FBI, but they were told Fargo police is not partnering with the agency in this case.
Fargo Police Lt. Chris Helmick, who oversees investigations, said the department is waiting on some "key pieces of information" to help determine where Brenda might have gone.
Because there were three warrants for her arrest and she left on her own after signing out from Centre Inc. that day, she was first reported as a runaway before being classified as a missing person.
"We've been working with Centre since July, and they've given us everything they've had at the time," Helmick said, adding that there is video surveillance of Brenda leaving that day.
Helmick wouldn't say if foul play is suspected or if there is any evidence to suggest Brenda was trafficked.
"We're taking a look at all those possible circumstances," he said. "There's nothing clear cut on which direction to focus."
Regarding the family's criticism of police, Helmick said detectives are not neglecting Brenda's investigation and have been consistently working on it since July.
"We want to solve it and figure out where she's at," he said.
Old, unsolved missing person cases
Besides the unsolved case of Brenda Kay Kartes, there are five other missing person cases in Fargo listed on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
- Charles Tear, 68, last seen June 29, 2011. Police believe he may have been homeless.
- Kevin Mahoney, 25, last seen Oct. 1, 1993. Foul play is a possibility in the disappearance that happened when Mahoney was walking from a friend’s north Fargo home toward Moorhead.
- Jeanna North, 11, last seen June 28, 1993. Convicted child molester, Kyle Bell, confessed to throwing North in the Sheyenne River, but recanted. He was convicted of murder in 1999, though North’s body was never found. He's serving a life sentence.
- Mildred Roche, 38, last seen May 31, 1976. She disappeared en route to Fargo with her husband after leaving her family farm near Mankato, Minn. Police say the case is inactive.
- Kenneth Tank, 28, last seen Dec. 2, 1971. A former Moorhead bar, Ralph’s, was the last place Tank was seen alive.