Steve Ridge, a prominent media consulting executive and native Iowan, recently convinced John Vansice to do several in-depth interviews about Jodi Huisentruit.
Ridge is the chief operating officer with Magid, Incorporated, which helped develop Jodi’s on-air talents from the beginning of her television news career in 1992 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The company’s consultants continued to work with Jodi when she was the morning news anchor at KIMT-TV in Mason City.
As a native Iowan and Magid executive for the past 36 years, Ridge has been strongly interested in the mystery surrounding Jodi’s disappearance. This interest prompted him to reach out to Vansice, who had granted no interviews since leaving Mason City in the late 1990’s.
Ridge talked with FindJodi.com’s Caroline Lowe about he got Vansice to open up, why Ridge feels a personal mission to help find Jodi, and what he learned from his conversations with Vansice.
Q: What prompted you to do your own digging on the Huisentruit case?
A: My gut tells me that the Jodi Huisentruit disappearance can be solved. If a major break-through in a 39-year-old cold case can be solved, a 24-year-old case should be solvable.
For years, the 1979 murder of high school senior Michelle Martinko at a brand-new mall in Cedar Rapids has hung over my hometown. Michelle attended the same high school that I graduated from many years ago. She had gone to buy a new winter coat after a concert choir event. She was found murdered in her dad’s car the next morning, a victim of roughly seventeen stab wounds, I believe. I was running the news department at the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, New York at the time, and could only follow the story from a distance. Since my return to Cedar Rapids, in 1983, every anniversary has been a stark reminder – just like Mason City has relived June 27, 1995. Hope had faded in that case, as well.
The local police used new technology to test blood at the scene which yielded a composite sketch based on DNA. When I saw the sketch, I thought I recognized the killer and was in contact with the lead detective in the case. Surprisingly, there was a rare eye-color match and my lead looked very promising. I agreed to help discreetly secure portrait photos at a location where police preferred not to be seen snooping around. Ultimately, this individual was not a match. However, a matter of months later, someone was arrested and charged — potentially unlocking a 39-year-old cold case. This arrest made me think that solving the 24-year-old Jodi Huisentruit cold case should be within reach. Really, discovering an audition tape that Jodi send to us triggered my action. I looked at three-quarter inch video cassette, with the business card Jodi had taped on top and realized I had the skills to help crack this case.
Q: How is your investigation connected to your work as a media consultant?
A: Ironically, my firm helps with every aspect of our TV and newspaper client’s product, from content and marketing to monetization. Jodi’s video was but one of approximately 17,000 anchors and reporters we had archived. Our research in many local markets continues to show that true enterprise and investigative stories resonates strongly with viewers. It is one of the last effective ways to differentiate a news product. Our mid-career training program, The Magid Institute™, has featured an annual investigative reporting three-day program. Expanding on that program, we have created a very specialized service to train the new generation of reporters on ethical journalistic investigative techniques. We actually work with individual clients on a topic of their choosing, helping them navigate a structured investigative process in real time. Some onions have many, many layers. Timing is everything. A golden gut is helpful. Mine is bronze, at best. I hope to see a whole new generation of curious journalists who thrive on uncovering and discovering.
Q: Did you ever personally work with Jodi or know her?
A: I did not. I do have many friends and employees who knew Jodi. Struggling with the pronunciation of her last name, some of them nicknamed her, Jodi Juicy Fruit. The syllables matched nicely, and the name rhymed, so it stuck with some who refused to learn how to spell her name properly since they expected her to move on after a short tenure.
Q: How and when did you first approach Vansice, and how did he react?
A: Honestly, he hung up on me, and I can’t say I blame him. Twenty-three years of calls from strangers like me. So, I reached his wife, Jane, and asked her to indulge me long enough to understand my unique relationship to the case. I was able to share with her that Jodi’s best friend at the time of her disappearance worked for my firm right out of college.
Q: Why do you think Vansice agreed to talk with you after so many years refusing to talk with the media?And why now?
A: Timing is everything. I had to laugh when I saw 48 Hours employ the ambush technique. Great video, but no story. He too knew Jodi’s best friend who had worked for my company. And, we we’re fellow Iowa Hawkeyes. I told him that I am not a reporter, which I am not. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you make your own luck. I’d prefer not to share the recipe.
Q: Where did you conduct your interviews with Vansice? And how much time did you spend with him?
A: I have agreed not to disclose the precise time and location of our meetings. I’d guess we are now up to about eleven hours of conversation all totaled. It is very ironic, however, that John and his wife drove right down the main drag in Cedar Rapids so recently without being recognized.
Q: Any overall impressions after spending so much time with Vansice?
A: Yes, but none that I will share. My responsibility is to stay objective and not be judgmental. Stick to the facts. I told him at the outset that I had to be open-minded enough to consider that he might be guilty. He said that was entirely fair. He never once refused to answer a question. That was unusual for a person-of-interest back in my days as an investigative reporter.
Q: What were the main things you learned from your conversation that you hadn’t already known from following the investigation in the news?
A: Actually, it was a stark reminder that everyone connected with this case is a human being. I think everyone should stop to think that if he is innocent, consider what he has had to endure to twenty-four years. You can’t get that time back. I’m also glad that I was sensitive enough to call Jodi’s sister JoAnn to get her blessing before I did anything else. Through the telephone line, I could feel her pain. This is not a made-for-TV murder mystery. So many people, so many families and friends have had to suffer not knowing. And, bear in mind, I have not solved this case. I simply got a once-in-a-lifetime interview. Although, I did the same thing in 1975 in Sioux City when I got an exclusive interview with a young couple that was eventually arrested and tried for a double murder.
Q: Why did you agree to help Vansice share his story by releasing a statement through you?
A: This not about me. The end goal is justice. Closure for Joann and everyone else. I suspect the interview highlights in the form of a statement may help breathe new life into a very cold case. I can understand why John Vansice is reluctant to speak with the media. He really has nothing to say that he has not already said, at least as it relates to his involvement with Jodi’s disappearance. Sure, the peripheral stuff is fascinating, but it does not solve the case. That is ultimately the only thing that matters.
Q: Did Vansice say why he has avoided talking directly to the media and giving give his side of the story when he’s been mentioned by police as a person of interest?
A: He did not, but I did not ask. That would be like asking, are you sure you want to tell me all of this.
Q: What are your thoughts about how he’s been treated by the news media?
A: I will only say that I think the news media should have spent more time looking at alternative possibilities. That alone might have balanced the focus on John Vansice.
Q: Did Vansice say why he thinks he’s remained on the police radar in Jodi’s disappearance! Have they told him why he’s a person of interest?
A: I think the continuing subpoenas for inspection of cars, finger prints, palm prints and DNA swabs tend to make it clear that he remains a person of interest. I think John Vansice remains the most highly visible person of interest. I suspect that the police have several other suspects, some not yet revealed. I now believe that this case will be solved.
Q: Were any questions off limits in your interviews with Vansice?
A: Absolutely none. I asked him everything. It can be uncomfortable to look a man in the eyes and ask, “…did you kill her?”, “did you have anything to do with it?”, “…do you have any knowledge of who did this?”
Q: Have you formed any personal opinions about whether you think Vansice had any involvement with Jodi’s disappearance or who else might be responsible ?
A: I will not comment on John Vansice, but I will say that I think there are a number of other people who might be responsible. I will leave that investigation to others. I hope to teach investigative skills, not exercise mine.
Q: How did John Vansice describe his relationship with Jodi? Some of her friends said they felt he was obsessed with Jodi.
A: Father-daughter. I never met Jodi, and I only recently met John. Having not observed them together, I reserve judgement.
Q: We’ve heard a lot about the fact Vansice named his boat after Jodi. What did he tell you about that?
A: John Vansice tells me that her name was never emblazoned on his boat. I’m sure if it had been that would have been the money shot for 48 Hours. Although, they apparently did overlook the mat at the front door. That would have been a powerful visual in and of itself. John told me that referring to the boat as Jodi was his way of showing his admiration for her and that she was flattered by the gesture. I think people have heard this so much that they actually think that they have seen video of Jodi on the back of the boat. I watch 48 Hours and I watch it. It is nicely done and highly ethical. I do, however, think I could help improve it given the combination of my skills.
Q: Investigators have questioned Vansice’s claim Jodi stopped by his duplex the night before she disappeared to watch a video of a surprise birthday party he’d hosted for her. Did he have anything to say about that?
A: John said that it was fact.
Q: Did Vansice say how and when he found out Jodi was missing?
A: John said a friend came by his residence to tell him and then drove him to the scene.
Q: Do you plan to continue your conversations with Vansice?
A: Time will tell. We did not make any specific arrangements. If he is eventually vindicated, I would definitely reach out to him.
Q: Do you anticipate sharing future statements from Vansice regarding Jodi’s case?
A: I do not. I think this was a one-time deal.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share with FindJodi.com followers on what you’ve learned in your digging? Any surprises?
A: How much there is to learn with a little digging. There is more stuff out there to be mined.
Q: Looking back at your old videos of Jodi, anything that stands out about her potential in the television news business?
A: Jodi was unique. This is not in rank order, but I think she was authentic, endearing, determined and competitive. I believe, however, that she was also a free spirit, naive and therefore vulnerable.
To learn more about Steve Ridge, you can do so here.