20 years after Poirier kidnapping, some laws improve while others remain the same

"Out of that tragedy a lot of advancements have come, and we'll continue to seek more."

Katie Poirier
Katie Poirier. file / News Tribune
File / Duluth News Tribune

Sex offenders are more carefully tracked and repeat offenders spend more time behind bars. Law enforcement records are better connected. Technology has made it far more difficult for people to disappear without a trace.

Yet there is still no law preventing a convenience store employee from working an overnight shift by themselves - the situation Katie Poirier found herself in 20 years ago Sunday.

Sometime before midnight on May 26, 1999, a surveillance camera captured grainy footage of a man forcing Poirier out of the Moose Lake DJ's Expressway not far from Interstate 35. It took nearly a month to find her killer and her few remains on his property.

Since the kidnapping and murder of the 19-year-old college student, much progress has been made in preventing and responding to these horrific crimes.

"The investigative process continues to evolve and get more precise along the way," said Drew Evans, superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. "Out of that tragedy a lot of advancements have come, and we'll continue to seek more."


Much can still be done.

"Prevention is the key," said former state Sen. Becky Lourey, who led the Katie Poirier Task Force that ushered in many reforms the year after Poirier's disappearance.

Looking back on a legacy that led to a major modernization of law enforcement databases, streamlined communications and increased sex offender accountability, Lourey returns again and again to the safety measures she sought for convenience stores.

"This just brought back so many memories," she said last week. "My mind just ran over all the opposition, all of the failure, all of the tragedy. I thought we were going to do so much."

Some stores voluntarily staff multiple employees overnight. Others do not. It's something Patrick Poirier, Katie's brother, is very mindful of when he walks into convenience stores.

"I think it's gotten better as far as the security cameras and the quality with technology," he said. "But it's still concerning that you can walk into a gas station and there's one person working at night. That part of it really hasn't changed."


In 2000, while Katie Poirier's killer - a repeat convicted rapist and kidnapper - was awaiting trial, Lourey gathered her task force.

The measures that collectively became "Katie's Law" focused primarily on law enforcement resources and how such a repeat sex offender could slip under the radar.


"We had not adequately funded the BCA and the Department of Corrections to track sex offenders," former state Sen. Ember Junge recounted in a Senate publication at the time, which also pointed to "silos of information" when it came to law enforcement record sharing.

Meanwhile, legislation aimed at convenience store safety at one point included a requirement to provide a bulletproof glass enclosure, or two employees overnight, or keeping the store locked and conducting business by a pass-through trap overnight.

With industry opposition and lawmakers sympathetic to the costs such requirements would incur, the bill was eventually watered down to just require a higher standard of surveillance cameras - and even then it didn't pass.

"It was always money," Lourey said. "All that work by these mothers, all that work by Patrick Poirier, the heroism and courage of this brother - it's about them and we failed them."

Representatives from several gas station chains and the National Association of Convenience Stores did not return requests for comment.

At the time, Poirier didn't focus too much on whether or not proposed laws wearing Katie's name passed. Now, two decades removed from the tragedy, he thinks stronger safety measures at convenience stores would have made a difference for those working behind the counter.

"It would have meant a lot," Patrick Poirier said. "We would have been able to have a little bit more protection, especially for young women who are in college and working and that's the only job they have, is working at the gas station."


The technological leap that has occurred since May 24, 1999, may have seemed like science fiction at the time.


"We had to contact NASA back then," said Drew Evans, BCA superintendent. "That's stuff we're able to do ourselves now."

While law enforcement tactics remain largely the same, the tools of the trade have been greatly enhanced. Highly sensitive DNA testing is possible. High-resolution video cameras are everywhere. Digital footprints follow even the most determined criminals.

But with all that data, a new problem emerges - how to sort through it all. "Things move a lot faster, but we're quickly overwhelmed with the amount of information available to us," Evans said. "We're analyzing terabytes of data at a time. We've ramped up the number of people working in our accredited digital multimedia lab."

New technology such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition could make that job easier, but it comes with privacy concerns. San Francisco recently banned the use of facial recognition by police.

"It has a real promise to help solve cases but has to be done in a way that does not enact wide-scale surveillance," Evans said. "It's a topic of conversation with legislators."

Keeping the crime in the public eye as her abductor remained at large - something that is aided today by AMBER alerts on cellphones - helped bring in the tip that led to the arrest and life imprisonment of Donald Blom.

"It's a case that touched everybody because there was a video of her being taken, so people could relate," Patrick Poirier said. "If there wasn't that video, I don't know how big that would have become."


In 1999, the former 24-hour DJ's Expressway, where Katie was abducted stood alone - far from any neighbors and right off Interstate 35. Since then the location is surrounded by businesses such as McDonald's, Subway, Days Inn and Kwik Trip.


This brings in more traffic, which Moose Lake Chief of Police Bryce Bogenholm suggested translates into increased security.

"I would think in a situation where there's going to be more people around, something like that is less apt to happen because there are going to be witnesses," Bogenholm said.

A Minit Mart that closes at midnight now occupies the convenience store where Katie worked. The neighboring Kwik-Trip is open 24-hours, and Bogenholm said he always sees more than one person working. That, along with the addition of panic buttons and better security cameras, leaves the site safer than it was in 1999.

Patrick Poirier, Katie's brother, has experienced positive shifts in his own life since the 1999 crime that "completely changed" him.

"I've been married for 18 years to the woman who helped me through the kidnapping and killing of Katie," he said. "And I have four kids. Each one of them has their own trait of Katie. I get to see that every day."

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