FARGO — Fargo police have interviewed dozens of people in the ongoing death investigation of Brenda Kay Kartes who disappeared last summer.
One of the people interviewed is Steven Floyd Helm, a Minot, N.D., native living in Fargo, according to Detective Mike Lovejoy.
Helm, 41, told The Forum he met Kartes about a year before she went missing. Helm maintains he had nothing to do with her disappearance and death.
Helm owns an adult entertainment and exotic dancer business, Sinful Desires. He said someone referred Kartes to him for work and she first reached out to him on Facebook, where he recruits women for escort services, private events and parties.
Lovejoy confirmed he knew Kartes worked for Helm and that police are aware of Sinful Desires. Lovejoy declined to say whether police consider Helm to be a person of interest or suspect in the case.
"I decided to help her as long as she was honest with me," Helm said of Kartes. "We got closer and closer. The closer that we got, I got to know a little bit about her (and) didn’t think it was a good idea to be in a relationship with her, you know, an intimate one. She’s always my friend, and when you love somebody, even if you don’t think they’re good for you, you still care."
Kartes was last seen July 12, 2018, leaving Centre Inc., a drug treatment facility in Fargo, on foot by herself around 1:30 p.m. reportedly headed to Island Park, according to authorities. Kartes was 31 years old when she went missing.
"I knew something happened to her after not hearing from her for three days . . . because we had a bond and she wouldn't go over three days without communicating with me, directly or indirectly," Helm said.
On Aug. 29, police announced that the skeletal remains found the previous week near the Red River in south Fargo were identified as Kartes. "I was expecting that," Helm said of the announcement. "I just didn’t know when."
Police have said evidence found where the remains were discovered leads them to believe Kartes' death is suspicious, but that a medical examiner was not able to determine her manner of death. Police have said investigators have "persons of interest," but they have not publicly named them.
"They are finally catching up to speed, the police are," Helm said. "But I’ve known for quite some time that something happened . . . so I feel relieved, to say the least."
Lovejoy said police are talking to people "within Brenda's inner-circle," but anyone with information about Kartes can call police at 701-241-5777 or text tips to 701-730-8888.
During a recent interview with Helm, The Forum learned of his involvement in the ongoing investigation and his relationship with Kartes.
It was shortly after 4 p.m. on a recent afternoon when he sat down at a downtown Fargo pizza place for what he called breakfast, along with several glasses of red wine. He works late nights, so he arrived with an energy drink in hand — one of his many vices, he said.
Helm said he submitted to a polygraph test earlier this summer, in June or July, and claimed to have voluntarily given police his cellphone, which contains a lot of personal information about his clientele.
In January, police obtained a warrant to search Helm's phone while he was in jail on an unrelated offense, according to one of several search warrants in Kartes' case that were filed in Cass County District Court.
An agent with the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation interviewed Helm at that time along with a Fargo police officer. "During our meeting with Helm he refused to provide any information he had regarding Brenda, stating the police were getting paid to investigate this case and he was doing it for free," according to court records.
Police interviewed Helm on Aug. 27, 2018, and he "stated he was concerned that she was possibly dead," according to court records. He also told police he last heard from Kartes on July 11, 2018, "which he referred to as the time she went missing," court records stated.
Two friends of Kartes told authorities about Helm, court records stated, and one pleaded with Helm to tell her where Kartes was. He told the friend "to not ask him that again unless she wanted to be lied to," court records stated.
Helm said he met with police on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. He said he's cooperated with the investigation, providing information on potential suspects and leads for detectives.
"I do know more about Brenda than the average guy," he said. "It wasn't easy dating her."
Throughout the missing person investigation, Helm posted on Facebook about missing Kartes and shared photos of them together. Some of Kartes' Facebook posts referenced Helm and her love for him dating back to May 2018 up until July 4, 2018, not long before she went missing.
A few months before her disappearance, Helm said he distanced himself from Kartes because she seemed "distraught" and attributed that to her mental health and addiction problems. Kartes' family previously told The Forum she had bipolar disorder and struggled with a methamphetamine addiction.
Helm said he doesn't believe Kartes' work for Sinful Desires resulted in her death. Rather, he said he believes Kartes overdosed or possibly killed herself over them breaking up.
He said they used drugs together in the past and that one of Kartes' drug dealers lives near the treatment facility where she was last seen alive. Helm said he previously told the dealer that he worried about the "lethal" amounts Kartes would take and asked him to stop selling to her.
Kartes' last Facebook post on July 11, 2018, mentioned a new boyfriend in Texas, but Helm believes that was written by someone else who possibly abducted her. Her family previously told The Forum that they don't believe Kartes planned to go to Texas, nor was there a boyfriend there.
Helm claims he kept receiving text messages from Kartes' phone number on July 12, 2018, the day she disappeared, hours after she left the facility up until 6 p.m. The texts referred to Kartes in third person and said she worked for the Secret Service, along with other disjointed messages that mentioned rape and Helm's business.
Asked if he regretted not responding to the messages that day, he said yes, but he doesn't believe the messages were from Kartes. "Maybe that's someone who took her phone after something happened to her," he said, adding that Kartes had many "cry-wolf stories and I don't know which ones to believe."
The day Kartes went missing, Helm said he was painting his SUV. The next day, he said he drove south of Fargo to take outdoor nude photos along the river, likely the Wild Rice River and somewhere secluded. He said he could not recall whether he was alone or with someone else.
'High risk behavior'
According to court documents, Kartes was considered a vulnerable adult needing medication for schizophrenia. She talked about her mental health on Facebook openly, as well as her run-ins with the law.
"I am an ex prostitute," Kartes wrote in a Facebook post July 2, 2018. "I used to break the law twenty times a day. I got 2 reckless driving a dui and busted with drugs four times in 3 weeks. Now i am clean and have a career in retail. Im sorry but i think thats beautiful and im fabulous."
In warrants to search Kartes' Facebook accounts, authorities stated "individuals who use illegal narcotics and engage in commercial sex are often exposed to dangerous situations and individuals as a result of the high risk behavior."
Kartes' criminal history in North Dakota and Minnesota mostly includes traffic violations and misdemeanors going back to 2009.
Helm’s criminal record is longer, dating back to 1996. Charges against him include terrorizing, disorderly conduct, fleeing police and meth possession. Most of the cases involved misdemeanors, but he's faced several felony charges in North Dakota stemming from drug-related arrests, terrorizing and reckless endangerment.
He pleaded guilty in 2010 to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge after his then-girlfriend accused him of choking her. The woman, who worked for Helm as a dancer, told police she found out he was sleeping with another dancer who worked for him, according to court documents. When she confronted him, Helm attacked her, court documents said.
Helm asserted that he was defending himself, claiming he was attacked in his sleep, according to court documents. He also denied choking anyone.
Helm details many of his run-ins with the law in a self-published Kindle book, "Stolen Life: Controlling The Rage." It was published in 2016, but the book describes events in the early 2000s. Within the book's 38 pages, he talks about Sinful Desires, faith, family, and authorities taking away his three children due to his business.
“At Sinful Desires, we were not selling sex or kidnapping children to say the least. I sure as hell was not sowing lies or seeds of deception," Helm wrote in his book.
The Forum interviewed Helm in 2010 for a story on the local stripper scene, a scene that he said left him conflicted.
"I don't know what this does to some people in the long haul," he said. "I really despise it."
Forum reporter Raju Chaduvula contributed to this report.