Just named employee of the month, Wadena 23-year-old was never seen again
Authorities continue to ask for help in gathering any information about what may have happened to Carla Beth Anderson, who disappeared 34 years ago.
WADENA, Minn. — On the night of Friday the 13th in November 1987, deer hunters were gearing up for the opening weekend, a fire burned in a swamp on the edge of town, an unremarkable brown car was stolen and the employee of the month at the local Hardee's vanished without a trace.
Those events are either coincidental, or the keys to solving a now 34-year mystery that has yielded many theories and tips, but no answers.
Despite countless leads, sightings, psychic visions and rumors, Carla Beth Anderson, who became the subject of an intensive search in the Wadena, Minnesota, area, has never been found. Local authorities, though several generations have now held the case in their hands, continue to say the case is at the forefront of their minds.
Carla is a white female, who would be 57 years old now, but was just 23 at the time of her disappearance. She had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a half inch scar above her right eye. She was petite, just under 5 foot tall and just 80 pounds. Last seen, she was wearing a brown and orange Hardee’s jacket, a white Pepsi and Mountain Dew sweatshirt with three bears on it, blue jeans and pink sneakers. Carla was mildly mentally disabled.
Carla was well liked by her Hardee’s manager at the time, Wayne Wolden, who went on to become the mayor of Wadena.
"She was a fantastic employee. Wonderful personality, lighthearted, smiling a lot," Wolden said in a previous interview. "I used to call her 'spud' because she was like a little potato ... She was probably 4-foot-10 inches tall, maybe, on a good day, on heels."
He added that she was kind and hard working. She was known to volunteer to come work at her job on days she wasn’t assigned to work. She had an innocence about her that makes this case even more disheartening. The sweet memories of the girl remain as current investigators continue to search for her.
Anderson's loved ones stated local people sometimes harassed her or attempted to take advantage of her. Although she's mildly mentally disabled, she tried to lead as normal a life as possible and was proud of being independent and having a job, her own home and a boyfriend.
Anderson lived at Greenwood Apartments in Wadena, just a couple blocks from her place of work, so she was able to walk to work easily.
She was expected to have her photo taken the following Monday for the Employee of the Month display. It was one of many things that would go unfulfilled with her disappearance.
Looking back at that Friday the 13th in November, Anderson just found out she had been named employee of the month at work. She and her mother and stepfather went out to eat at Taco John's that evening to celebrate the honor.
After dinner, between 7:30 and 8 p.m., Anderson's mother and stepfather picked up some movies for her to watch, then dropped her off at her apartment at Greenwood Apartments.
Anderson got safely inside her apartment that evening. She had been carrying a cup full of soda when her parents dropped her off. The empty cup was found in her apartment, and one of the videos she had gotten to watch was found in her VCR.
Nothing appeared to be amiss in Anderson's apartment and the only thing missing were her keys and her light jacket, with the Hardee’s logo on it. Her purse remained on the table.
The apartment door was locked from the outside. The building itself had a security door, but the door had been propped open that night by other tenants who were moving in.
On the night of Anderson's disappearance, there was a fire burning in a swamp on the outskirts of Wadena. She would have been able to view the fire from her window, according to the investigator at the time, Lane Waldahl. Waldahl has his suspicions about who started the fire that night, but no evidence. Authorities theorized she left home to look at the fire up close, and someone attacked her. There is no evidence to support this theory, however.
That same evening, a brown Plymouth Horizon was stolen a couple of blocks from Anderson's apartment building and was never recovered. It is unknown whether the stolen car has any connection to her case but many believe this to be too much of a coincidence.
“They’ve got to be related, but we just can’t prove or disprove it, yet,” Wadena Chief of Police Naomi Plautz said.
“The one thing that has always stuck with me, that vehicle has never been located,” Wadena County Sheriff Michael Carr Jr. said. “If you were to find that vehicle, you would probably find her.”
Carr remembers Carla going missing while he was a sophomore in high school.
"Still in the back of my mind there is a connection between that car and Carla," Waldahl said. They searched for the car across the region and combed other states.
Wadena Sgt. Brandon Pearson reflected on all the stolen vehicles that they deal with now. Eventually they are found. But 34 years later, this one has not been found. Waldahl suspects it's in a lake or buried in a gravel pit.
What’s been done
Police searches, intense media coverage, state and federal investigations — nothing revealed what happened to the 4-foot-11-inch, 80-pound, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman.
The police followed every tip. Four three ring binders are filled with the tips, the hunches and the interviews. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also has a copy of all the details. A search committee went out looking to find Carla about five days after she went missing. A WCCO helicopter was used to search from the air. The Civil Air Patrol lent their eyes from the skies. It was deer hunting weekend when Carla disappeared, and hunters were alerted to be on the lookout for the girl.
Carr said authorities acted fast as the ground was bare at the time of her disappearance. They knew snow would soon arrive and cover up any disturbed ground. Within days of their searches, it did snow, Carr said.
Waldahl said the combined efforts of local, regional, state and federal law enforcement agencies was impressive and he feels they left no stone unturned. Years later he recalls speaking again with BCA and FBI profilers interested in taking a fresh look at the cold case. That again turned up no solid evidence to follow.
Suspected serial killer Floyd Todd Tapson was considered a possible suspect in Anderson's disappearance for a time, but he was cleared from that case after being interviewed by investigators. He apparently had a solid alibi putting him elsewhere that night.
All the members of Anderson's family have been ruled out as suspects in her case, as was her boyfriend. They were given a polygraph test and passed. Foul play is suspected in her disappearance, but little evidence is available as to her fate.
A psychic who said she knew where Carla was came to town but brought up another dead end.
Anderson was placed on playing cards in 2008 among a list of the top 52 cold cases in the state. The card decks have been distributed to all 515 Minnesota police departments and sheriff offices, plus 75 county jail and annex facilities. In addition, over 10,000 decks have been supplied to Minnesota state prison inmates. While the cards have been effective in some of those cold cases, no solid tips in Carla's case have come from that effort.
In the days after the disappearance, volunteers including the Wadena Pioneer Journal newspaper staff worked to create 5,000 posters with Carla Beth Anderson on them, pleading with people to call if they had seen her. The posters were plastered all over north and central Minnesota. They even made it to the Metrodome as the local Verndale Pirates football team were playing at the Prep Bowl.
Much has changed over the last 34 years. The former Hardee's is a Burger King, the Taco John's location is a parking lot, and all the police working at the time of Anderson's disappearance have moved on, retired or died. Anderson’s mother and father-in-law died months apart in 2008: Verne Wells on Feb. 9, and Roberta Wells on June 3. Her biological father, Marvin R. Anderson, is still alive and living in Brainerd, where Carla was born and raised.
What hasn't changed is a concerted effort to solve this bizarre case.
“Anytime we get a lead or tip, we look into it,” Plautz said. There’s been about a half dozen tips in Plautz’ 23 years working in Wadena. They continue to search and most of all are looking for honesty from those involved.
“We’re still diligently working on it, she has not been forgotten,” Sgt. Pearson said. At this time, they are running down a tip which they believe may be valuable in finding Carla. “We’re still very much in investigation mode.”
The police department puts out a reminder of the disappearance every November hoping someone will talk. They know that someone knows.
“The reminders … it just gets people talking,” Plautz said. “If someone is just too afraid to say something, maybe the next year they’ll get enough courage to say something.”
“The guilty conscience weighs heavily on people as the years go on,” Pearson said.
“We’re hoping to appeal to that, to anyone who knows something,” Plautz said. Plautz promises anonymity for those looking to share information.
Police say Carla has extended family in the Brainerd area that would very much like to see this resolved. Anyone that knew Carla would like to see her found. The community of Wadena has been hanging on to hope.
“It’s one of Minnesota’s most predominant cold cases just because of how she vanished and was never heard of again,” Pearson said. Plautz shared one difference with this cold case is that Anderson was such an innocent girl.
“The most innocent among us, and to not be able to come up with the answers that everybody wants …” Pearson said, talking about the difficult case. Carla was that picture of innocence. Her child-like 23-year-old face is one the community cannot forget.
Waldahl, who had just been named investigator about two months before this all began, regrets that he was unable to solve the case while Carla’s parents were still alive. He continued the search until his retirement in 2002. Beyond that, he keeps an interest in the case and still gets people asking him if he followed this lead or that.
"It's never gone away. It's always there," Waldahl said. "I hope someone finds her before I go."
Details about Anderson's case are posted to various missing person sites including:
The Wadena Police Department is the investigating agency. If you know any additional information or can provide tips regarding Anderson contact the Wadena Police Department at 218-631-7700. The BCA can be contacted at 1-877-996-6222, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit information via the tip form (can be done anonymously).
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally stated that Carla's parents were both deceased. Her mother and father-in-law died in 2008, but her biological father, Marvin Anderson, is alive and living in Brainerd. We regret the error.