Investigators find missing 5-year-old after babysitter murdered in plot to abduct girl
05/08/2018 5:17 pm PDT
It all started at a development in Minnesota in June 2016, when first-responders received a call of a home fully engulfed in flames.
An early morning fire rips through a home in Bemidji, Minnesota. Firefighters race to the scene. Buried in the debris in the still smoldering home, a horrible tragedy: the body of the homeowner, Melissa Norby.
"It seemed really odd because the main bulk of the fire had burned in a southwest bedroom, but then her body was in the middle of the house and had what appeared to be a mattress over the top," said Minnesota Deputy Fire Marshal Kevin Mahle.
Deputy Fire Marshal Kevin Mahle is called in to investigate and immediately notices something suspicious. Melissa's body and the mattress are both badly burned.
"Quite a bit more than what you would expect from a fire that would have started a few rooms away," said Mahle. "When we walked around the outside some of the things that we noticed were windows that had literally been blown away from the building, 12, 15 feet."
Evidence of explosives was easy to find. Bemidji Police Detective-Sergeant Mike Solheim filmed the scene.
"Parts of the trailer had been totally destroyed, but the victim's bedroom hadn't been destroyed completely, so the gas can was still intact," said Solheim.
Investigators quickly rule the cause of the fire is arson. And if this fire is no accident, Melissa's death likely isn't either.
"We looked at the victim and we saw her hands were bound with tape, it appeared to be duct tape, then we backed out and got the BCA [Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension] involved," said Solheim.
Melissa Norby was a 35-year-old single mother who loved ones called "Missy."
Melissa Norby and Amanda Smith had been friends since they were kids.
"She had the biggest heart ever," said Amanda. "You needed something, she'd be there. It's just how she was."
Neighbors tell investigators Melissa lives in the home with her young son. But there was no sign of the boy. Cops finally reach a relative and are relieved to learn Melissa's son was safe. He had spent the night with family in the Twin Cities area.
While sifting through the burned-out home searching for clues, Melissa's friend Amanda Smith comes running up to the scene. Melissa's cousin had called her. It wasn't just the shock that her friend had died in the fire; Amanda's 5-year-old daughter Brittany had spent the night at Melissa's house.
Amanda and her sons were at the scene within minutes.
"I kept telling them 'My daughter is in that house,'" said Amanda.
Amanda had no idea investigators had already been through the house many times, initially fearing Melissa's son was inside. They were confident there were no other bodies.
"Our fire marshal's office that we work with every day said 'No. She's not in the fire, Chad,' and that to us was kind of the beginning of Wow, this is more than we thought it was," said BCA Senior Special Agent Chad Museus.
If Brittany's remains weren't there, where was she? Detectives narrow down what could have possibly happened to the 5-year-old.
Amanda tells cops she's certain Melissa wouldn't have given her daughter to someone else without her permission.
"I had asked Amanda what their fire-safety plan was at home, what would she do, and she was convinced that she would just stay with Melissa," said Bemidji Police Det. Michelle Leffelman.
The woods around Melissa's house were searched, along with her neighbors' cars and homes, but the little girl is nowhere to be found.
Melissa Norby had been choked to death. She was fully clothed, and bound in duct tape before here home was set on fire.
Hours into the arson-murder investigation, Amanda Smith tells cops that Melissa was babysitting her 5-year-old daughter the night of the fire, but the girl was nowhere to be found.
Cops were already looking at the missing girl's parents. Cops learn that on the night of the fire, Melissa's son had left to stay with relatives while she and Amanda Smith's 5-year-old daughter had a sleepover. Amanda tells Crime Watch Daily she allowed her daughter to stay at Melissa's house at least 20 different times over the course of her little life. This is someone Amanda trusted, someone she knew for 30 years.
But cops haul in Amanda and the girl's father for questioning, and their phones were searched. After a few hours, investigators were fairly certain Brittany's parents had no involvement in their daughter's disappearance. That's also when they begin to realize the magnitude of what they were dealing with.
By now investigators wonder, Did someone murder Melissa Norby and set fire to her house all in an elaborate ruse to kidnap the little girl?
"She had an ex-boyfriend that she saw, they broke it off for several years, and then it was rekindled," said Minnesota BCA Special Agent Paul Gherardi.
Detectives Heather Holden and Michelle Leffelman immediately track Melissa's ex-boyfriend. Leffelman says he was cooperative.
"He had had a conviction for an arson fire in the past, that was definitely a concern, that he could be our suspect at that point," said Det. Leffelman.
But the ex-boyfriend's alibi checks out, so cops begin building a lengthy list of other possible suspects.
"When we found out we had a missing 5-year-old from the scene, it expanded exponentially at that point, and we had just looked at all of our predatory offenders in the city and county, and started asking for consent to search their homes," said Leffelman.
Cops question one of Melissa's neighbors who babysat her son from time to time.
"Allegedly Melissa and him had a sexual relationship," said Gherardi.
But he was also cleared, along with many others.
"At that point we're talking to everyone that our decedent is talking to on social media, anyone that she had dated in the past. Neighbors, coworkers, we're talking to everybody who knows our victim," said Museus.
Those talks yielded investigative gold. During a conversation with one of Melissa's friends, investigators soon learn disturbing details about the single mom's sex life.
"Melissa was very into, not 'S and M,' but more like 'daddy-little girl' kind of scenarios that she was playing out with Chance."
Tuesdae Collopy tells cops "Chance" is the name Melissa gave to a man she had been secretly dating on and off. She claims at times the sex was rough, and had even turned violent.
"It ended in him punching her and choking her out and putting over the back of the SUV and raping her."
Tuesdae isn't the only friend Melissa confided in about her relationship. After a few more interviews, detectives learn "Chance's" real name is Jake, and he owns a food truck called Jake's Eats. They immediately know who everyone is talking about.
"We discovered that our dead victim was dating Jacob Kinn. And we knew Jacob Kinn, we knew his history, and we went 'Oh my God,'" said Museus.
Jacob Kinn was a registered sex offender, well-known to law enforcement in Bemidji.
"He actually put an ad out on Craigslist asking to take photos of a young girl. And we, the sheriff's office here, sent an undercover deputy, she posed as the mother of a 8-, 9-year-old-girl, and he was convicted on some charges related to that," said Museus.
Jacob Kinn was still on probation for that offense. But now he was also the prime suspect in the murder of Melissa Norby, and the kidnapping of a 5-year-old girl. Cops needed to find him quickly.
"At that point we are scrambling to try to figure out where he is, how do we find him and how do we find her?" said Chad Museus.
Detectives Holden and Leffelman were the first to arrive at Kinn's house.
"We went out to the house that he had and searched that at about 10:30 at night," said Leffelman.
But hearts sink when they see no sign of Jacob Kinn, or the missing girl. So detectives hatch a plan to get some help from Kinn's probation officer.
"We had probation call him, a non-threatening phone call, 'Hey, we have a missing child. Police would like to talk to you about it.' And he agreed to come in and meet us," said Paul Gherardi.
Nearly 20 hours after Melissa Norby was murdered, her home set on fire, and the 5-year-old girl she was babysitting abducted, investigators were knocking on the door of her on-again/off-again boyfriend Jacob Kinn.
"He was obsessed with child porn. He would, almost continuous throughout the day, access some image-sharing sites of young girls," said BCA Special Agent Paul Gherardi.
When detectives first arrived at his house around 10 o'clock at night, Kinn wasn't home. Special Agent Paul Gherardi says they asked Kinn's probation officer to contact him to face questions about the missing child. Shortly after midnight, Jacob Kinn willingly walked into the sheriff's station.
Kinn tells detective Gherardi and senior special agent Museus that he's already heard about the fire, murder and missing girl. Right away he admits to knowing Melissa Norby.
"I haven't talked to her in like six or eight months."
Kinn says the two once worked together. About an hour into the interrogation, he learns the real reason he's been called in.
"We got reports that you had a relationship with Melissa."
Kinn says he's heard the same thing, and believes he knows why Melissa Norby would be spreading the rumor.
"I was dating another girl at work and she got pissed off."
Kinn insists he and Melissa never had sex.
"I wasn't the least bit attracted to her."
Detectives then show Kinn a picture of the missing child, and he admits he's seen her before, that Melissa showed her a picture of the girl a long time ago.
"He identifies our missing 5-year-old's photo," said Museus. "And I'm thinking in my head, 'Wait, wait a second. She's 5, you saw her when she was 2, and you could immediately recognize her as somebody you know?"
Cops ask Kinn where he's been for the last 48 hours. What Kinn didn't know is that before he arrived for questioning, detectives had already determined his location through phone records based on his probation officer's call.
He says he's been fishing up north at Clear Lake, about 50 miles north of Bemidji. But Kinn's cellphone actually pinged in a town called Bigfork, about 40 miles southeast of Clear Lake.
Kinn tells detectives he was fishing from shore at a resort, but he can't remember the name.
"I'm still not seeing why that matters at all."
"I'll tell you why. Basically, Jake, your cellphone doesn't put you in that spot tonight."
"Well, that's where I was."
"If you were here, there's cellphone towers, your cellphone would've put you at here, instead of being, you know, way over here."
Despite the cellphone ping, Jacob Kinn insists he had been fishing at Clear Lake.
"I don't know how that would happen, but I wasn't in Bigfork, I had no reason to be in Bigfork."
Detectives believe they know exactly why he was there. They quickly turn the conversation, pleading with Kinn to tell them where the missing girl is.
"I would if I could, but I don't know where she's at."
Detectives ask if they can search his vehicle, but Kinn refuses.
"Why won't you let us search your Jeep?"
"Because at this point I don't trust you guys."
Cops were now certain Jacob Kinn had murdered Melissa Norby and abducted the girl. They desperately try everything to keep him from leaving, but time is running out.
"You can either go get me the judge's order right now -- no, like right this second -- or I'm walking out the door and taking my car with me."
At one point with one of the detectives out of the room, Kinn tries to bolt.
"You're not going. Sit down."
"Sit down. Sit down."
"You said I was free to leave."
"Sit down. Sit down. At this point, sir, you're going to have to have a seat, OK."
"At this point, I want to call an attorney."
"You can call whoever you want. Have a seat."
After four hours, Kinn offers to leave some of his personal items. But cops have no choice but to let Jacob Kinn go.
"We take his clothes, we take his Jeep, we take his phone, we literally send him home because at that point we don't really know quite what we have yet," said Senior Special Agent Chad Museus.
But that was all about to change.
"That phone data unlocked a whole new area that just really turned this case upside down for us," said Minnesota BCA Special Agent William Bennett.
Minutes after Jacob Kinn had walked out of the sheriff's station, special agents William Bennet and Jake Hodapp use special equipment to access everything on his phone. Some of what they find they expected to see on the phone of a convicted child predator.
"You could see his sexual desires, what he was into, 'cause his phone was full of other images of other kids," said Hodapp.
But it's what they didn't expect to find that leaves them stunned: a series of deleted text messages they were about to recover.
"I couldn't believe it," said Hodapp. "I was actually sitting here and the investigators were at the main table going over the case and what to do next and what steps, and I yelled 'Bingo,' I said 'You guys gotta come look at this.'"
The texts were between Jacob Kinn and Melissa Norby. The messages detail an elaborate plan between the two to kidnap the 5-year-old daughter of Melissa's best friend, who's now missing.
"I've never seen something documented so complete," said Hodapp.
According to the text messages, the kidnapping was actually supposed to happen a week earlier. Remember, Amanda Smith, Brittany's mother, told cops that Melissa often took care of the little girl at her house.
"I think the little girl got sick or something happened that it didn't work out, so he was pretty upset that she wasn't coming over," said Hodapp.
Melissa and Kinn first hatched a crazy random attack while she was watching the girl.
"The initial plan was that Melissa was going to be assaulted, carjacked, basically, and some unknown man was going to take Brittany," said Hodapp.
Once the girl was in their own clutches, they'd hide the girl so Kinn could keep her for himself.
"So then once the carjacking was supposed to have taken place, then Melissa obviously didn't have Brittany, and was gonna be 'Jacob's toy,' as he called her," said Hodapp.
Why would Melissa Norby allow someone to hurt her best friend's daughter?
"She definitely wanted to do anything she could to have a relationship with him, and at all costs," said Hodapp.
"Jacob Kinn only maintained that relationship with Melissa because he could have access to a little girl," said Special Agent Paul Gherardi.
Investigators may never know for sure why the kidnapping plot wasn't carried out the way Norby and Kinn had discussed. But Senior Special Agent Chad Museus has an idea that Kinn had his very own diabolical plan.
"So she willingly, you know, in my estimation anyway, willingly was bound and tied up and then at the last seconds of her life, choked out because Jacob Kinn didn't want a witness to the abduction," said Museus.
Whatever role Melissa Norby may have played in the abduction didn't matter in that moment. The only thing that did was finding the little girl.
During the time detectives were busy questioning Jacob Kinn at the sheriff's station, Minnesota BCA special agents Don Newhouse and Rob Fraik were told to head to Bigfork to start searching for the girl. It was the middle of the night and not a street light in sight.
Before leaving the sheriff's station, the agents got a good look at Kinn's Jeep.
"The undercarriage had a lot of vegetation, grass, yellow and white flowers hanging from the undercarriage, muddy tires," Newhouse tells Crime Watch Daily. "It was pretty clear that he was out, we figured in a wet area, possibly driving in a hayfield or somewhere that he had to go through a lot of grass and wildflowers."
That didn't exactly narrow down the search area. Much of Bigfork is rural. Fortunately back at the sheriff's station a phone call leads to a critical clue.
"The dispatcher says 'Wait a second here, we have a Kinn who owns property in that same area, 3.1 miles from the cellphone tower,'" said Chad Museus.
Jacob Kinn's family owns property in the area. Newhouse and Fraik make it to Bigfork just as the sun was coming up.
"We got to Bigfork right about the time where we could start seeing things without a flashlight or headlights," said Fraik.
Another advantage, compliments of Mother Nature, there was a heavy downpour overnight.
"A lot of the roads in the areas that we are checking are dirt roads," said Fraik. "It's a relatively rural area and there shouldn't be a lot of traffic up and down some of those roads."
They knew if anyone had driven in the area recently there would be fresh tire marks. The two men start making their way from the cellphone tower to the direction of the ping from Kinn's phone.
Just as they reach the road leading toward the Kinn family's property:
"That's where you could see clearly that there are tracks coming off of the gravel road under the pavement, dirt deposited on the pavement, and we stopped right there and Rob started taking photos," said Newhouse.
The tracks matched the tires on Kinn's Jeep. After about a half-mile, the gravel road came to an end. And it was clear which direction they needed to go.
"Nobody had driven down that road for weeks, except for those tire tracks that were in and out after it rained," said Newhouse.
The men get out and start to follow the tracks on foot.
Just over 24 hours after 5-year-old Brittany was kidnapped and her babysitter murdered, special agents Don Newhouse and Rob Fraik knew they were close to finding her. What they didn't know: Would she be dead, or alive?
"Had it not been for the tracks, we would have been focusing our efforts somewhere else," said Newhouse.
After walking about half a mile, detectives spot a camper off in the distance. The tire tracks they were following led right to it.
"I'm actually on the phone because our bosses are basically curious as to how things are going. We're giving them a play by play on what we're seeing, basically telling them we're going to know pretty soon one way or another, good or bad, what happened to this little girl."
The door to the camper was taped shut with electrical tape. Fraik removes the tape and slowly opens the door. The incredible moment that follows was all captured on his cellphone camera.
"Hi, what did you say your name was again? I'm gonna take a little video."
"My name's Brittany."
"Brittany, how'd you get here, Brittany?"
"Missy's friend brought me here."
Both agents were trembling with adrenaline and joy.
"Oh. What's his name?"
"I don't know."
"OK, when did he bring you here?"
The little girl was even able to describe the vehicle that Missy's friend was driving,
"White, and it has a name on it."
Her ankles and legs were taped together. She shows the officers scrapes and bruises on her arms, and says it's the only thing that hurts. She tells them she had been to the man's house, and described the color and size of the house, and told them there's a cat there with kittens.
It had been a long sleepless night for Brittany's mom when she finally got the phone call she'll never forget.
After rescuing Brittany from the camper, Newhouse takes a photo of the girl in Fraik's arms and sends it to their colleagues.
"I grab my phone and I see a picture of Rob holding Brittany alive. She's right there, alive," said Senior Special Agent Chad Museus. "The text message says 'Arrest him.'"
About 90 minutes later Jacob Kinn is spotted behind the wheel of his dad's truck heading north. He's pulled over and taken into custody.
"He's located on his way back out to that camper in Bigfork," said Museus. "Either he was going to kill her or move her or hide or do something to keep us from finding her."
Hours after he was released following a night of questioning, Jacob Kinn was back at the station. Kinn was given one last chance to come clean, unaware the girl had been rescued and that his kidnapping plot had been uncovered through deleted text messages. He denies everything.
After a few minutes, Kinn wants to know why he's being arrested.
"What changed between two hours ago and now?"
That's when Special Agent Paul Gherardi shows him what changed, revealing the picture of the little girl in the arms of detective Rob Fraik.
"Now, start over. We know more than you think we do right now, and now is the time for you to fill in those blanks."
Jacob Kinn admits being at Melissa Norby's house the night of the fire and kidnapping.
"Did you know that she was going to be there?"
Kinn claims the girl was there once before when he visited.
"What was her role?"
"To be looked at, for the most part."
"Kind of like, like viewing porn while you're having sex?"
But that was about all Kinn was willing to say. He asks for an attorney.
Detectives say in the early morning hours of June 22, 2016, Jacob Kinn choked Melissa Norby to death with a belt during sex. He then brought the girl she was babysitting to his house, where he raped her and left her tied up.
He returned to Melissa's and set the house on fire. Later that night he brought the girl out to the camper in Bigfork.
Thankfully little Brittany did not have to tell her story of torture and abuse in open court. Jacob Kinn cut a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to three felonies: kidnapping; first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor; and second-degree unintentional murder.
"Because Melissa Norby, part of her sexual gratification was to get choked out during the sex act, and there could be an argument made that she was accidentally killed," said Special Agent Paul Gherardi.
Jacob Kinn was sentenced to 52 years in prison. The plea meant his young victim wouldn't have to face him in court. But her voice was still heard. She wrote a powerful letter.
"She told him she hated him, she does not like the way he plays with her, she does not want to play with him, but 'Thank you for letting me play with your kitties,'" said Brittany's godmother Michelle Rogalski. "He bribed our baby with kitties because she loves animals. So somehow she is strong enough with everything he did to still be thankful that she got to play with a kitty."
Cops will never know why the kidnapping plot Melissa Norby and Jacob Kinn were planning wasn't carried out, or why he killed her.
But Michelle Rogalski has come up with her own conclusion.
"I can only hope and pray that it went the way it did because she was backing out," said Rogalski. "But we will never know."
Amanda Smith says her daughter is still processing what happened and coping with the trauma.
"She'll tell us what he did. She has nightmares, she has flashbacks. She talks about it at school with some of her teachers, her therapist," Brittany's mom Amanda Smith tells Crime Watch Daily.
Despite everything she's been through, she says her daughter is thriving and is still the rambunctious little tomboy she's always been.
"Beating up her brothers. Running, playing, riding a bike, games, selfies," said Amanda.
As for the investigators who worked day and night to bring her home:
"They are our family, all of them," said Amanda. "If it wasn't for them, we would have lost her."
And Brittany is a hero to all of us.
"She's resilient," said Amanda. "She's a rock and nothing's going to break her."
The men and women who worked so hard to find and rescue the little 5-year-old were honored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Their extraordinary teamwork was praised during the group's annual Heroes Awards ceremony.
As for Jacob Kinn, his 52-year prison sentence could be extended if the child pornography found on his phone leads to federal charges.