Missing Duluth couple found dead near Brookston; foul play not suspected

After a week of searching by family, friends and law enforcement, Ron and Mary Tarnowski were found deceased in the Brookston area on Saturday. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations helicopter crew discovered the elderly...

After a week of searching by family, friends and law enforcement, Ron and Mary Tarnowski were found deceased in the Brookston area on Saturday.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Air and Marine Operations helicopter crew discovered the elderly Duluth couple’s vehicle in a remote location at about 3:45 p.m. Saturday, according to the Duluth Police Department. The investigation into the deaths was ongoing Saturday night, but foul play wasn’t suspected. It appeared the couple’s SUV had gotten stuck, police said.

They were found about a mile from the family’s hunting camp, according to a statement posted on the “Find Ron and Mary Tarnowski” Facebook page that family members had started to aid the search. The camp is near U.S. Highway 2 between Brookston and Floodwood, and a few miles from where the couple had been last seen, the Country Corner store.

“The family would like to thank the many men and women of law enforcement, the active and retired firefighters, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the overwhelming support of the community and the media for the diligent efforts this past week,” the Facebook statement read.
Aircraft involved in the search had been grounded Friday because of thunderstorms in the region, officials said, but returned to the air on Saturday.

The news prompted an outpouring of condolences and support on social media for the Tarnowski family - including the couple’s sons, Kurt and Karl, and Karl’s wife Bev - who had been tireless in recent days in organizing search efforts and checking on possible sightings.


Ron, 82, and Mary, 78, had been last seen July 29 at the Country Corner store along Highway 2. Ron was in the early stages of dementia, and Mary suffered from right-side paralysis and had difficulty speaking. They lived in a home Karl Tarnowski built for his parents, adjacent to his own home in Duluth. They generally spent most of their time at home, going out only for an occasional meal at nearby restaurants.

They weren’t carrying cellphones or credit cards when they went missing, and an OnStar system in their vehicle was not activated, which left authorities with few clues to pinpoint a search over the past week.

“We're not looking for a needle in a haystack, because we haven't found the haystack yet,” Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said at a Saturday morning gathering at the Tarnowskis’ home.

More than 100 volunteers, some wearing purple T-shirts and ribbons for Alzheimer’s awareness, gathered in Ron and Mary’s driveway to begin another day of searching for the couple Saturday. A photo of Ron and Mary was taped to their garage with a sign above it: “Missing 8 days.”

About 20 current and retired Duluth firefighters were among the crowd of volunteers to search for one of their own. Ron was a Duluth firefighter for 31 years.

Retired Duluth firefighters Jim Reed and Mark Lavalier had already been out searching in the past week. Lavalier worked with Ron and lives one block south of the Tarnowskis. Trying to hold back tears on Saturday morning, before the couple was found, he said, “If it was me, I know that they’d be there for me.”

Reed didn’t know Ron well, but said “nobody deserves this, to be lost” and to be confused with dementia.

Law enforcement’s efforts to find the Tarnowskis ramped up on Saturday with a new emergency command center set up in Pike Lake and a new tip line with two dispatchers dedicated to the case.


During the Saturday morning gathering, Tusken said the police department’s violent crimes unit, which handles missing person cases, had been working on the case since Day One and had tracked down dozens of leads in six counties and two states.

The police department decided to change tactics on Friday night due to the expanding search for the couple, and the command center created a centralized location for the various agencies assisting in the search.

At the command center on Saturday, before the Tarnowskis were found, there was a steady stream of phone calls with tips and search updates.

Law enforcement officials studied a gas station’s surveillance video, cross-referencing it with Google Maps and a tip to determine the likelihood that Ron and Mary’s vehicle might have been captured on the video.

On the wall, areas already searched were being marked on a large map of Northeastern Minnesota. Authorities had notified FedEx, UPS and rural mail carriers to keep an eye out, and some student pilots had flown over the region to search while getting in their practice hours.

Reed, the retired Duluth firefighter who had gathered with dozens of other volunteers Saturday morning at the Tarnowskis’ home, said at that time that the community response “is a big circle. Hopefully somebody will do it for us or one of our loved ones if it happened to them. That’s how we do it. We live in a society where we all got to help each other out.”

Andrew Krueger of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.


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