It was a few days before Halloween. October 26, 1996.
Lisa Ann Rodrigez, who was only 13 years old at the time, remembers that fateful night in Argyle, Minnesota as being “chilly and stormy.”
She was supposed to go to a sleepover with friends. But decided not to. So she waited for her mother to come home from a Halloween party in the neighboring town of Warren, Minnesota. But her mother never returned.
The next morning, Lisa called her mother’s friends, thinking maybe she had just stayed with them that night. But no one had heard from her.
Veronica “Voni” Safranski, 40, had been out at Mick’s Bar that night for a Halloween party. She was dressed as Pocahontas.
It was around 12:30 a.m. when one of her friends noticed she couldn’t find Voni. Witnesses later told the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office that Voni had been seen with a man named Kevin Skjerven, and that they left together in his black 1997 Dodge Power Wagon pickup truck. Voni was wearing her costume, but left her coat and purse behind at the bar, according to witnesses.
Lisa said she later learned that her mother, who was going through a separation with Lisa’s father, had been casually dating Skjerven.
Skjerven admitted to authorities that he left with Voni that night, but said he did not know what happened to her afterwards.
About a month later, authorities said the belt from Voni’s Pocahontas costume was found three miles from Skjerven’s home in rural Newfolden. Skjerven, who had been previously convicted of sex crimes and served time in prison, was questioned as a person of interest by authorities, according to Chief Deputy Jon Tinnes with the Marshall County Sheriff’s. He has not, however, been named a suspect in Voni’s disappearance.
Over the next several years, countless searches were conducted, including one five years after Voni’s disappearance. A psychic said Voni’s body was buried somewhere in Old Mill State Park, located between Warren and Newfolden. But there was no trace of Voni.
Every time a new tip or lead surfaced, Voni’s four children experienced a surge of hope, only to be left heartbroken yet again.
“It’s like someone is ripping my heart out every time,” Lisa told Dateline. ““We’re at the point where we don’t want her to be alone anymore. We just want her back. We need to know where she is.”
Lisa only spent 13 years of her life with her mother.
“It’s not a lot of time,” Lisa said. “I’ve lived more of my life without her than I did with her. I have a 13-year-old daughter now and I think about what that would be like for her.”
Lisa, who now lives in North Dakota with her husband, son and two daughters, works as a hairdresser. She said her memories of her mother are fading, but she remembers watching Voni put on makeup and fix her thick blond hair.
“She had such a great laugh,” Lisa said. “But it’s fading. Her laugh is fading from my memory.”
Voni was a stay-at-home mom and also worked as an award-winning salesperson for Mary Kay.
“She did really well,” Lisa said. “Even won one of those cars: a red Grand Am.”
Voni’s four children, who were ages 21, 16, 13, and 11, at the time, are all grown up now, and are married with childrenof their own, but say they still feel the pain of their mother’s disappearance. They credit their father, Ed Donarski, with getting them through the last 23 years.
“We’re not victims, we just want answers,” Lisa said. “Our father raised us to be strong through all this.”
Ed was also questioned by authorities in 1996, but was cleared of any involvement in his wife’s disappearance.
The family hopes the sheriff’s office will continue to investigate the case.
“There are so many rumors and theories, I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Lisa said.
Chief Deputy Jon Tinnes was brand new to the force when Voni disappeared in 1996. He didn’t work on the case until 2015, but said he continues to review it often and follows every tip they receive.
“Honestly we’re at a loss,” Tinnes told Dateline. “But we keep pushing. We track down every lead and every tip we get. I want to believe that someone out there knows something. They just need to come forward with the information.”
Just a few weeks ago, a contractor uncovered a scene that authorities feared may have been related to Voni’s case. A few bones and a collar attached to a chain were found beneath the ground at a farm in Argyle, the city where Voni lived.
But it turned out that the bones were not human and authorities say the findings had nothing to do with Voni’s case. To this day, the only trace of evidence is the belt from the Pocahontas costume.
“We just want closure,” Lisa said. “If it’s not our ending, then nothing is going to change– we still have a huge void in our lives.”
If you have any information in Veronica Safranski’s case, call the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department at: 218-745-5411.