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Missing person case in Becker County remains a mystery: Family still looking for answers 43 years after woman vanishes near Bad Medicine Lake

Sheriff Jerry Townsend of Detroit Lakes points to an area where the search was conducted for Mrs. Milda McQuillan to Capt. Arthur Yliniemi (left) and Duane Winter (right) of the National Guard. Capt. Yliniemi coordinated National Guard activities in the search. File Photo1 / 4
Milda McQuillan. Submitted Photo2 / 4
Milda McQuillan's grandchildren, Valerie (Jo) Cornell (left), Lori Voigt (middle), and Michelle Donahue (right) set out in August to visit the site where their grandmother's car was found two days after she went missing back in 1975. Submitted Photo3 / 4
National Guardsman Kieth Brekken (left) of Detroit Lakes talks with Sheriff Manley Erickson (center) of Wadena County and Sheriff Rudy Tupa of Mahnomen County at Task Force Headquarters during the search for Mrs. Milda McQuillan. File Photo4 / 4

It has been 43 years since Milda McQuillan went missing in Becker County with little more than a trace, leaving her family with more questions than answers.

One of McQuillan's granddaughters, Lori Voigt, who was 17 at the time of her grandmother's disappearance, says it still haunts her family to this day, particularly her mother, Carol Hinze.

"My mom is going to turn 80 in April, and she just feels like she's never going to know what happened to her mother," said Voigt. "She's going to go to her grave and not know."

The afternoon of June 17, 1975

According to newspaper clippings from 1975, at approximately 1:30 p.m. on June 17, McQuillan left her Round Lake home to visit friends (the Williams) who were living in a cabin on Bad Medicine Lake. It was raining, making the country roads muddy.

A few miles into her journey, McQuillan's car stalled. She was soon helped along her way by a postman, only to get lost a mile or so from her destination. She had apparently missed a turn, which is what James Johanning, a Park Rapids truck driver she stopped to ask for directions, told her.

Johanning was the last person to see McQuillan.

Two days later, after an extensive air and ground search. McQuillan's pea-green, 1968 Dodge Sedan was found stuck in the mud on an old, logging trail just off Bad Medicine Lake, about three-quarters of a mile from her friends' cabin. A coat belt and rain cap were found slung over some bushes a little ways from McQuillan's vehicle. Then, the search went cold.

The Becker County Sheriff at the time, Jerry Townsend, followed a number of leads and interviewed suspects, but nothing turned up.

Back on the case

Today, Sheriff Todd Glander says McQuillan's case is still open and active—they can't be closed without being solved.

"After I became sheriff, I did meet with my investigators, and we have discussed this case over the last three-and-a-half years," said Glander. "So it's not something that we have only been looking at recently."

Actually, Glander says he's been keen on the case for a long time. He remembers McQuillan going missing when he was just a kid.

"I did—and still do—hunt north of that area, north of Bad Medicine Lake," said Glander. "I would go through that area with my family, and just knowing that this happened to a family back then...You definitely feel for them, for what they've gone through since 1975."

Glander says the case is something that's been in the back of his mind for a long time, but recently, after a request from McQuillan's granddaughters, Glander and some of his department made a trip out to Bad Medicine Lake to sweep the area again.

Sisters Voigt, Valerie (Jo) Cornell, and Michelle Donahue are McQuillan's only grandchildren. Voigt says they have been haunted by their grandmother's disappearance and have searched high and low for answers, including going to psychics. This summer, though, they began diving back into the disappearance of their grandmother, pouring over old newspaper clippings and compiling evidences. They spent a weekend finding what they could with their own research and, eventually, decided the next step in their investigation was to visit the site where their grandmother's car was found—and Glander agreed.

"They reached out to me about a month ago," said Glander, adding, "We did go up to the area where she was reported missing."

"For us, it was enlightening," said Voigt. "It was just such a wonderful day, and Sheriff Glander was so helpful. We were just so appreciative of all the time he gave us that day. It was just way more than expected."

Glander and McQuillan's three granddaughters spent nearly three hours scouring the woods all around Bad Medicine Lake, looking for anything that might give them some answers about McQuillan's mysterious disappearance.

During their ground search, Voigt says the Becker County Sheriff's department also had a boat crew out on Bad Medicine Lake, using sonar to scan the bottom of the lake. She says they found "two suspicious spots on the lake that they were going to investigate further," a hint of hope.

"We want to know, so we can have closure," said Voigt. "We understand we probably won't find out what happened to her."

Theories about Milda

Over the years, the family—and locals, alike—have come up with their own ideas about what happened to Milda on that mysterious, rainy afternoon.

"In our minds, she's not lost in those woods...We don't feel my grandmother drove her car into those woods" said Voigt. "We feel she was murdered."

A theory at the time, was that McQuillan became disoriented, wandering off into the woods after her car got stuck on a muddy back road. Voigt says her grandmother's age (and the fact that she was known to have a bit of a drinking problem) made it easy for people to dismiss the case as just that: a distraught, old woman who simply went missing.

But the family suspects foul play. Though, Voigt is quick to admit that her family's theories are all hearsay--no evidence of foul play was ever found.

Another popular theory in the area, one that's almost become folklore, involves two thieves who were staying at a resort just across the lake from where McQuillan's car was found. The men were apparently in the area stealing boat motors, and people think that maybe McQuillan stumbled upon something those thieves didn't want her to see.

"They recovered all but one of the stolen motors," recalled Voigt, "so the theory is they used that last motor to sink her in the lake."

Voigt says the two men were brought in during the early investigation for questioning, but they were let go after they both passed lie detector tests and, again, the family was left with no leads, though they're not giving up hope, even after all these years.

"The whole point of bringing all this back up was to trigger people's memories," said Voigt hoping that maybe—just maybe—there's someone out there who knows something, someone who has another piece to McQuillan's very pieceless puzzle.