Pulis case remains 'frustrating': 10 months after disappearance, and several months since body discovered, police still searching for answers
BEMIDJI -- The yard where police gathered that day is drier now. The snow that covered the ground had melted May 16, soaking the soil where his body was pulled from Lake Irving. Leaves, purged from the trees in autumn, gathered in low spots behind a cabin at the end of Woodlawn Avenue Southwest. The ice that covered the lake, and concealed him for an unknown amount of time, had broken up almost completely, prompting a renewal of the search for his body. But the trail of evidence that might explain what happened to a man who went missing 10 months ago this week, a man who went out one night and never came home, may be as cold as ice that coats the lake in winter time.
The investigation into the death of Matthew James Pulis remains open. An autopsy performed May 24 revealed the cause of death to be fresh water drowning. No evidence of trauma was found on the body, Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said, and few clues have emerged that explain how Pulis ended up in the lake after leaving a downtown bar on Oct. 20, 2012.
"That remains the great mystery of this whole thing," Mastin said.
The leads came from near and far. Someone from Texas offered one. Hundreds of them over the span between disappearance and discovery. Still, nothing.
"It is tremendously frustrating," Mastin said. "You never want something like this to happen in your community. With all the modern methods we have and with all the time -- we've got well over 40 reports into this and we still can't figure out exactly what happened."
Despite their best efforts, the answer to Pulis' disappearance and death may never be solved. His mother, Betty Pulis, said Bemidji police are a "wonderful, dedicated, compassionate group of people." "They are heroes," she said. The comments came one day after her son's body was spotted by a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter, enlisted by authorities in their search effort.
"There is a certain amount of surprise that we did find him," Mastin said, adding that the case is far from "cold." "It's not that it's a closed case by any means, but at this point we've exhausted all the information we do have."
Pulis, unfortunately for his family and police who toiled on the case, joins a short list of unsolved major crimes in Beltrami County. The other two -- the 1982 disappearance of 3-year-old Kevin James Ayotte, and the 1987 murder of 22-year-old Anita Carlson -- are both Beltrami County Sheriff's Office cases.
And the leads still come.
"You get a ton of them right when the case happens," said Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp, who was with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension when Carlson disappeared. "We've had the BCA cold case unit take the (Carlson) case at least twice, I think three times, based on new evolutions in DNA science. The leads that we get are usually out of the jail or out of the prison system."
In a cruel tease, Ayotte's social security number, tagged in a national database and marked for notification to police anytime it's used, has popped up at least once, Hodapp said. Unsolved cases provide feelings of regret not only to the cops who originally worked them, but younger officers as well.
"As time goes on, like in the Anita Carlson case and the Ayotte case, it frustrates not only family and officers in the beginning, but also the generation of officers that come behind that that look into and follow up on all the leads that come over the course of the time," Hodapp said. "The frustration is not being able to solve the riddle and bring a resolution."
Without any new tips, without a witness or a friend, and enemy or a rival, the cases of Carlson, Ayotte and now Pulis, may remain unresolved.
"Ultimately it might be that he walked away alone, and no one saw him and he walked into the lake," Mastin said. "That we can't provide an answer to the family, that's the most frustrating."