This Northland man went missing without a trace. 7 years later, there are still no answers
Joseph Zak disappeared from his group home in Brookston, Minnesota, on Dec. 7, 2015. Investigators feel that a cellphone ping may have misled the investigation from searching the grounds near where he went missing until it was too late. His case, which remains unsolved, has had no developments since spring 2016.
BROOKSTON — On the morning of Dec. 7, 2015, Joseph Zak left his residence at a Brookston group home when he was supposed to be showering to get ready for work. Seven years later, there has been no trace of Zak or any leads in the investigation of his disappearance.
Zak, who would be 41 today, had lived at the group home run by Residential Services Inc. for 10 years. He is described as being 6 feet tall, and was about 325 pounds at the time he went missing. He is considered a vulnerable adult.
His mother, Marleen Zak, describes him as a charming man who loved to joke around. Despite his being on the autism spectrum and his struggles with mental health, Marleen noted his remarkable strength and adaptation. He lived at numerous group homes in northern Minnesota during his life, including in Duluth and Proctor, before he settled in at RSI in Brookston, about 17 miles northeast of Cloquet.
“To Joe’s credit, he was so resilient and he just adapted,” Marleen Zak said in a November interview. “... He had an incredible resilience to pick up the pieces and climb up again and get himself better.”
The night before Zak disappeared, he’d been texting his mother about plans for Christmas and was arranging his work schedule at a Super One bakery in Duluth. Marleen Zak said work and appointments were important her son, and it was highly unusual that he would try to leave knowing he had work soon and a medical appointment for a sinus infection scheduled later that week.
But that seems to be just what Zak did. He was last seen by an RSI staff member at 7:15 a.m., taking his medication before going to shower. As part of his care plan, the staff member was assigned to give visual check-ins with Zak every 15 minutes due to previous stints of leaving the property. The employee failed to check on Zak until just after 8 a.m., missing three check-ins. By then, he was gone, with the empty shower still running.
Dec. 7, 2015
Fond du Lac tribal police were called to the facility on McCamus Road around 8:30 a.m. Case records show the first officer arrived on the scene at approximately 9:30 a.m. Brookston is on the northern edge of the Fond du Lac Reservation.
Ashley Preston, who was the RSI Brookston program coordinator at the time, said both the police and Zak’s parents were called right away when they realized he was missing. While they waited for police to arrive, RSI staff searched the property. Preston and Jon Nelson, executive director of RSI of Northeast Minnesota, said they believe he may have left through the bathroom window.
“We’re not sure if he went out the window in the bathroom or if somehow he had snuck downstairs and went out the door without anyone seeing him,” Preston said in November. “But it seems like he may have planned it.”
Fond du Lac police requested for an emergency signal ping to be sent out from Zak’s phone just after 10 a.m. This technique helps investigators find devices and narrow down the location of a person, said St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Nick Voltzke, who later became lead investigator on the case. The only ping they received was a historical signal from approximately 9:15 a.m. that morning, which placed Zak’s phone on the I-35 corridor near Esko.
“A common problem encountered by rural law enforcement while utilizing this process is the distance between towers once outside populated areas,” Voltzke said. “In most cases, the more rural the area, the smaller number of towers are in the area, which generally results in very large radiuses or inaccuracy in the phone pings. This is often referred to as a ‘ghost ping.’”
Voltzke and other law enforcement officers were unable to determine if the phone was ever actually near Esko, which is about 26 miles southeast of Brookston, or if a tower picked up the signal from afar.
The group home is situated on the north edge of town, very close to the St. Louis River. Preston said she doesn’t remember any noticeable footprints on the property or leading to the river, which was a place Zak had run away to before and tried to swim across before being rescued.
However, Voltzke said police observed footprints in the snow on the morning Zak went missing. The footprints went from the residence to the St. Louis River near the back of the RSI property. They then went to an abandoned trailer house, and eventually were lost after returning to McCamus Road near the group home. Voltzke said he fears the phantom phone ping misled the investigation away from immediately searching the property surrounding the group home.
‘A mess right from the beginning’
Zak’s parents said they feel the investigation came to a standstill for the rest of December after the discovery of the ping. Marleen Zak claims law enforcement was unresponsive when she would call for an update or to try to arrange for St. Louis County Search and Rescue to go to the RSI property in the weeks following the disappearance.
“It was just a mess right from the beginning,” Marleen Zak said. “I just remember it was Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and I’m still spending all of that time trying to have anybody respond in any kind of way. ‘Just give me a call back, please just have the goodness,’ but they never did. Never. I found out that my messages were just being written on pink sheets and left on a desk to be unattended. That did not sit well with me.”
The St. Louis County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation Division in Duluth was assigned the case on Jan 12, 2016 — 36 days after Zak went missing. Voltzke said he and his supervisor, Wade Rasch, advised Fond du Lac police they wanted to offer assistance on the case as part of a mutual aid agreement.
“Because Fond du Lac is considered an ‘open’ reservation, all violent crimes or major cases fall on the appropriate sheriff’s office of the county the incident occurs in,” Voltzke said. “It really comes down to resources. In this case, the (St. Louis County Sheriff's Office) was better equipped to take the lead in the continued investigation and the search efforts that were made.”
Voltzke said in the time before the sheriff’s office took over the investigation, no search efforts were made after the initial observation of footprints that led back to McCamus Road. No requests were made by police for assistance from the St. Louis County Search and Rescue Squad.
On Jan. 19 — 43 days after Zak’s disappearance — a search party was organized to cover the grounds surrounding the group home. Marleen Zak said she initially had planned the search with just family, friends and RSI employees, but the sheriff and rescue squad stepped in and took over with more human, canine and mechanical resources.
Voltkze said the search used a grid system that extensively covered land, woods and water. Dozens of holes were drilled in the ice on the river, and remote-operated vehicles were used to search underwater.
“It was so cold,” Marleen Zak said of the Jan. 19 search. “It was awful weather and that particular day was extremely frigid.”
Several additional searches were conducted by the Search and Rescue Squad in the following weeks. Voltzke recalls the ice melt was particularly heavy that spring, which made the water too dangerous to search until the river’s flow slowed down. Boat searches, cadaver dog searches and a helicopter flyover to the Sappi dams in Cloquet were all conducted that spring, but no evidence of Zak was discovered.
While several other leads were pursued during the investigation, none resulted in any answers.
Fond du Lac police submitted administrative subpoenas to AT&T for Zak’s phone records. The records showed his phone had no outgoing activity after the 9:15 a.m. ping in Esko, and had no activity after Dec. 9, indicating the phone was off.
A Walmart gift card, which RSI reported missing from Zak’s bedroom on Dec. 7, was never spent. Zak’s debit card was also never used.
Zak’s mother learned of him using dating websites and sites with sexual material in the months before his disappearance. The websites, which she said were highly inappropriate for a vulnerable adult to be using, were taking money from his bank account in what Marleen Zak believes was a scam. The investigation found no substantial evidence that Zak left with or was taken by someone he had met online.
Zak struggled with a gambling addiction, and had previously run away from RSI to Black Bear Casino Resort in nearby Carlton. No trace of Zak was found at the casino, Voltzke said.
Other various reports of potential sightings were all followed up on by law enforcement, and all discredited by Fond du Lac Tribal Police.
Zak’s parents covered a lot of ground while looking for their son. They canvassed downtown Duluth, searching for Zak in places he frequented, including the Great Lakes Aquarium, Canal Park and the Super One grocery store where he worked. They checked with local homeless shelters, where he had not been seen. They also asked people in the area who had horses if he had been there because he had a great love for animals, especially horses, and was working with horses in his spare time before he went missing.
“I was a little more calm than most people (might be in this situation) because I’d been down this road before. I knew that there wasn’t going to be much help and I knew that if there was going to be anything, that I had to be the one generating it all and hounding,” Marleen Zak said. “I know how to use my resources. I’m sure they were a bit afraid of me. And I wasn’t getting anywhere.”
‘He just didn’t have enemies’
Zak spent his childhood between family homes in Pine City and Lake Vermilion. When it was time to enroll in school, he began living at a Duluth group home, where he could be integrated into public school classrooms. Marleen Zak, who worked in special education in Pine City, said smaller school districts didn’t have the resources to support students with autism in the 1980s and 1990s.
When Zak turned 18, he had to move out of the children’s group home, and was transferred to an adult group home in Proctor. He graduated from Proctor High School in 2000 after attending classes at Duluth Secondary Technical Center.
“He did really well there,” Marleen Zak said, noting that former football coach Dave Hylla took him under his wing. “He got so much enjoyment out of that Proctor football team, and for some reason they just circled around Joe. They really liked Joe and saw that he had a great sense of humor. All the guys just really enjoyed having him on the team and rooted for him.”
Zak became certified in industrial cooking at Secondary Technical Center in Duluth, which was a skill he enjoyed. He was also passionate about the Navy. He participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and studied marine mechanics, but struggled with the fine motor skills it required. However, Zak's primary interest in life was taking care of animals. In addition to helping with horses, he also took care of rescue animals on a hobby farm at RSI in Brookston.
“He was a nice person,” his father, Jim Zak, said. “I don’t think he would’ve hurt anyone. He loved animals, too. He was very kind to them. He really got along well with animals.”
Despite all his skills, Joe Zak was still a vulnerable adult, and his mother said he wasn’t taught all the coping mechanisms needed for independence in adulthood. After high school, Joe moved around several group homes. Marleen said because group homes are very transient facilities, where both residents and staff have high turnover rates, he never developed a strong network of friends, except for staff who were paid to take care of him.
“Part of the difficulty of him missing is, there’s no friend to go to or anything like that,” Marleen Zak said.
Because of this and a lack of knowing independent coping skills, his mental health severely declined in young adulthood, leading to several hospitalizations. He also left group home properties without permission on numerous occasions.
In one case, Zak felt his mental health declining, but wasn’t receiving an adjustment to his medication at a group home. He took a group home vehicle and drove himself to the Hibbing hospital, where he’d been previously treated. Instead of treating him, Zak was arrested. It was later discovered that his medication did, in fact, need to be adjusted.
However, Marleen Zak said in the months leading up to his disappearance, her son’s mental health had seemed exceptionally good. He’d even been able to attend his brother’s wedding the previous August, which his parents said was a huge milestone. He had come a long way with medication and therapy, and felt at home at RSI Brookston.
“He lived in the same place for 10 years. Most people don’t understand that,” Marleen Zak said. “They always talk about people running away from group homes, but it was his home. Every time something would happen and his health would collapse and he was in a hospitalization and whatever, he always preferred to go back to RSI at Brookston. It changed from a forced choice by social services putting him there to his choice.”
Marleen said her son “stood out from the crowd,” because of his height and size, and that his dimples always made her smile, especially when he was joking around.
“He’s just such a jokester, and that’s why everybody that ever came in contact with him liked him,” she said. “He just didn’t have enemies.”
What happened to Joe Zak?
Many people have several differing theories about what might’ve happened on that December morning in 2015.
Marleen Zak believes her son was upset by something — possibly the fact that he was being scammed online, the death of the beloved horse he worked with, or another unknown factor — that caused him to impulsively run away.
RSI management believes his exit seemed premeditated, because it was so different from his other spontaneous attempts at running away.
There’s been speculation of whether Zak got into a vehicle on McCamus Road — although the only evidence corroborating this theory is the lone phone ping and the trail of footprints on the property.
Voltzke believes, based on the evidence he collected with other investigators, Zak either entered the St. Louis River or became lost in the woods. He does not believe there is evidence that Zak’s departure was planned in advance.
“Because of Joseph’s medical needs and mental health capacity, I do not believe … that he could be solely managing himself on his own somewhere,” Voltzke said.
Marleen Zak agreed with that sentiment, saying he knew how to get himself to a hospital or police station if he needed help with his mental health. She also noted that he would prefer to be somewhere comfortable, and would not willingly stay outside overnight, especially in the winter.
Despite numerous theories, none have led to finding Zak.
A search for answers
In the wake of Zak’s disappearance, his family, caretakers and others who knew him or followed his case are still searching for closure and answers.
The RSI employee who failed to check on Zak that morning was fired from the company, Preston said. The facility was investigated by the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which proved maltreatment occurred. The maltreatment could not be defined as “serious” neglect by DHS because there was no physical evidence of serious injury or death caused by the neglect. No other action was taken against RSI.
Despite the Zaks’ frustration with the employee who failed to check on their son, Marleen said she knows his disappearance has been hard on Preston and other RSI staff who had cared for Zak for up to a decade. She said they cared for him like a son and she appreciates the help they’ve provided in the investigation and searches.
“It’s still very hard,” Preston said. “Working with someone for 10 years, they become very close to you. Joe was an amazing guy.”
The early investigative failures have been “the ultimate of frustrations,” Jim Zak said, because chances of finding evidence greatly diminished before the grounds were finally searched in January.
“That’s the most difficult part in Joe’s investigation: there’s nothing,” Marleen Zak said. “The reason there’s nothing is because when you’re a vulnerable adult like Joe and all your people are pretty much paid people, there’s not a whole lot of loose ends anywhere to go digging to find out anything. We just really needed boots on the ground immediately, and unfortunately that wasn't available to us, so here we are.”
Zak’s parents said remembering and rehashing the details and trauma of their son’s disappearance is still incredibly painful. They miss their son and desperately wish for answers.
“We didn’t find Joe yet, but I hope that someday we will and we can reach out to his family and give them closure,” Voltzke said.
Seven years after he disappeared, Joseph Zak’s case is still open, but is inactive. The case is leads-based, but no new information has been provided since spring 2016. The case will not be officially closed until Zak is found.
“Although I am no longer in the Criminal Investigations Division after a promotion to a new job assignment in July 2021, I kept this file and have Joe’s case file sitting on my desk to this day,” Voltzke said. “I’m hopeful that we will, one day, find Joe.”