Authorities still working to solve Gooseberry Falls cold case

Two years ago this month, an off-duty Lake County Sheriff's Office employee discovered the skeletal remains of a woman while training his dog in a secluded part of Gooseberry Falls State Park.

Two years ago this month, an off-duty Lake County Sheriff’s Office employee discovered the skeletal remains of a woman while training his dog in a secluded part of Gooseberry Falls State Park.

A year ago, local and state authorities announced they had identified the remains as those of a Minneapolis woman missing for 30 years.

While tips have been received over the past 12 months, the case remains unsolved.

“When you’re late to an investigation and have a case we didn’t even know about after how many years later, and finding her remains 30 years later, you’re coming in that much farther behind,” Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson said. “Once you start following up and finding that these persons of interest that you want to talk to to get the information you need to help solve the case are deceased, it just makes it that much more difficult.”

Cassandra Rhines, 19, was last heard from in June 1985 when she called a friend to confirm she was attending her goddaughter’s birthday party in Minneapolis the next day.


Almost 30 years later her remains were found 200 miles away on the North Shore. The remains were linked to Rhines through advanced DNA technology, said Catherine Knutson, the director of forensic science services for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, during a news conference last year.

In 2013, the BCA began asking family members of long-missing Minnesotans to submit DNA samples. DNA extracted from the unidentified skull found at Gooseberry Falls in 2014 was linked to a DNA sample provided by Rhines’ sister. The St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s Office and a forensic anthropologist analyzed the skull, determining that the woman suffered from blunt force trauma injuries.

During the news conference a year ago, authorities said Rhines had no clear ties to the Northland. They released a photograph of Rhines with a man whose identity was unknown who may have been living with Rhines at the time she disappeared, and asked former neighbors and acquaintances to provide information to help piece together her life.

That plea for information resulted in about a half-dozen tips and led to the identity of the man in the photo.

“Based off of the information we got from the press conference and releasing her picture, we were able to identify the male as Donald McSwain and verify that he was in fact living with her at the time, but has since died,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the tips also led to the identity of a friend that worked with Rhines as an exotic dancer.

“We tracked down Rhines’ friend and found that she was also deceased,” Johnson said. “We felt that she would have had information we could have used, but hit that roadblock again.”

Johnson said the case is still an active investigation and that authorities still hope they’ll get the piece of information that will solve the case.

“We’re always hopeful we’ll find somebody that will know or will call in, even if it is a person that is potentially someone that was told something about someone who has died,” he said. “We’re always hopeful that we’ll get information that will solve a case like this. But realistically, is it going to happen? It’s hard to say.”


Johnson said the sheriff’s office and BCA will continue to follow up on any tips received about the case, with the latest tip being called in this week.

“If anyone has looked backed at that time and thinks there was something weird about (something they saw), we’ll take any information that we can get to help solve this case,” he said.

Anyone with information about the case is asked to contact the Lake County Sheriff ‘s Office at (218) 834-8385.

Other cold cases in Lake County
Rhines’ case isn’t the only unsolved cold case in Lake County. There are many missing persons cases, with the oldest dating back to the 1980s.

Among the open cases:

  • Charles Johnson, 51, of Silver Bay was reported missing in 2002. He was presumed to have drowned in Greenwood Lake, but a body was never recovered. 
  • In 2004, Nathan Williams was reported missing after going to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to go fishing. Williams, 21, was a student at the University of Minnesota Morris. His truck was found unlocked on the side of a forest road by a remote stream in Lake County on the edge of the BWCAW. Sheriff Carey Johnson said no remains were found and nobody came forward or was found to have information about what happened to Williams in the wilderness. 
  • The most recent open missing person case is from June 2012, when a plane traveling along the North Shore dropped off radar. Michael Bratlie, 67, of Lakeville, Minn., was testing out his new twin-engine airplane when it disappeared. Air, ground and water searches focused on the Silver Bay area, where Bratlie’s plane was last detected by radar and cell phone signals - but no clues were found.

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