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Waiting for answers: Family of slain Bemidji woman wonders why no arrests, charges in her death

Tuesdae Collopy (left) poses with her cousin Melissa Norby. Norby was found dead at the scene of a Bemidji mobile home fire last June, from which a 5-year-old girl was also kidnapped. (Submitted photo)

BEMIDJI—One morning in May 2015, Tuesdae Collopy heard from her cousin Melissa Norby. The two women usually talked multiple times a day, often about Norby's love life.

That morning, Norby wanted to talk about her boyfriend, Jacob Kinn.

"She contacted me in the morning and said they had been arguing outside of her house, and he punched her and then raped her on the back of the car," Collopy said. "She sent me pictures on Facebook of the bruises and I told her, I was like, 'You have to stay away from this guy.'"

The couple did break up, Collopy said. But a year later Norby was dead.

Fatal fire

At 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 22, the Bemidji Fire Department responded to a fire at the Hillcrest Manor mobile home park. Norby's trailer home, where she lived with her teenage son, was "fully engulfed" in flames.

Firefighters quickly located Norby's body inside the burned-out mobile home. Her arms were bound, and she was found underneath a mattress. Her son had been staying in the Twin Cities with Collopy and had avoided the fire.

Norby's body was sent to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner's office for an autopsy and her identity was confirmed by friends and family. But her death was quickly overshadowed as the Bemidji community was gripped by the search for a 5-year-old girl who had been staying in the trailer at the time of the fire, and who was not found after firefighters gained control of the blaze.

The 5-year-old was the daughter of one of Norby's close friends, and Norby often babysat her. Police located the child alive about 24 hours after the fire in a pop-up camper near Bigfork, Minn. Jacob Kinn was arrested and charged with kidnapping, then, months later, with criminal sexual conduct. He has not been charged with any crimes related to Norby's death or the mobile home fire.

Homicidal violence

There never was a news conference or even a press release officially confirming Norby was the person found in the burned-out mobile home. Search warrants obtained by the Pioneer state that the adult found dead at the scene was Norby, and another warrant stated that she died of "homicidal violence." But neither the Pioneer nor Collopy have been able to obtain more information about the details surrounding Norby's death. In fact, most information about Norby was gleaned through warrants alleging that she helped plan the child's kidnapping.

"They gave us certification of death, but they did not give us a cause, and will not," said Collopy, who told the Pioneer she has been instructed by police not to talk to the media. "The cops did tell me that (Norby died of homicidal violence) and so that at least eased some of the nightmares, because I would never want her to burn alive."

Minnesota state law—particularly the Minnesota Data Practices Act—states that even non-public autopsy data is accessible to family members of the deceased, including their surviving spouse, parents, children and siblings.

The Pioneer has requested autopsy data deemed public; Beltrami County Attorney Annie Claesson-Huseby declined to provide the information, saying the investigation is ongoing. She also declined to comment, citing rules that bar prosecutors from giving statements regarding ongoing cases.

But Norby's family—particularly her son—still have questions. Collopy is the 14-year-old's temporary legal guardian and says the boy is staying in an inpatient facility in the Twin Cities. He is struggling with the fact that no one has been charged with his mother's death and the destruction of his home.

"He's lost everything," Collopy said. "And he's like, he's read the reports, he's not stupid, he's 14 years old. He knows they found a gas can in Kinn's possession, he knows that Kinn reeked of gas. He knows that man burned down his house with his mother in it, and how can there be no charges? It's crazy."

A search warrant seeking access to Facebook data regarding Norby states that investigators believe an accelerant was used to set the fire. Another warrant says that while searching a cabin where Kinn lived, officers found several gas cans nearby with a "void spot the size of another gas can."

Kinn's attorney Symon Schindler-Syme, a public defender, said he couldn't comment on the case.

'It wasn't a good relationship'

Kinn, who is currently being held in the Beltrami County Jail, has a history of targeting children for sex. He was convicted of four counts of child porn possession in 2013. And while those cases were making their way through the court system, Kinn allegedly posted an ad on Craigslist looking for a young girl to pose in outfits while he photographed her.

In the online ad, Kinn said he would pay $150 per hour for a minimum of one hour. He wanted the girl to wear "skimpy outfits."

Kinn was sentenced to five years in prison, but the prison time was stayed as long as he served 65 days in the Beltrami County Jail and did not violate the terms of probation.

Norby knew about Kinn's previous convictions when she began dating him, according to Collopy and Norby's aunt Kristal Combs, who spoke with the Pioneer in November.

"She said, 'Oh, well he did something really bad, but he didn't do it and he got in trouble, so I can't really have him around the kids,'" Collopy said.

Combs and Collopy both say the Norby tried to stay away from Kinn.

"It wasn't a good relationship, and of course she had a child so he wasn't even supposed to be around there," Combs said. "Then she broke it off, I know that...She did things like, she hung this protective kind of wreath kind of thing on her front door to help remind her (to) stay away, you know, stuff like that...I think she did for a while, but I think he kept bugging her."

Collopy also remembers Norby telling her that Kinn had begun contacting her again, though she didn't know that the couple had resumed seeing each other.

Court documents show that Kinn and Norby had not only rekindled their relationship; they had begun to plan the kidnapping.

According to one search warrant, Kinn told officers that the 5-year-old girl had previously been present when he and Norby had sex, and that the incident occurred more than a year before the fire. Investigators also found explicit text messages on Kinn's phone in which he and Norby referred to the child.

The warrant also revealed text messages sent between Kinn and Norby planning to "acquire the child for the purpose of sexually assaulting her." The pair allegedly planned for Kinn to abduct the child. Then Norby would tell police she had been assaulted by an unknown person before the girl was kidnapped.

Collopy was even shown photos of the child by the FBI and confirmed that the images were taken on Melissa's bedspread.

Norby's relatives say she had low self esteem and was eager to please; Collopy and Combs both referred to a traumatic childhood event and said she wasn't believed when she came forward.

"She didn't have much self-esteem, but she really wanted people to like her," Combs said. "She would go way overboard, in fact...She so wanted to be liked."

Norby was also desperate for love. She was married to a man named Joshua Ellingson, who was convicted of indecent exposure shortly before their divorce in 2010. Her son's father, Justin Epp, is not in the picture and is registered as a sex offender in Nebraska, according to Collopy. The Nebraska Sex Offender Registry lists a Justin Ray Epp who was convicted of third-degree sexual assault in 2002.

"She spent the majority of her life looking for love," Collopy said. "She decided to have ... her son, because she knew that that would happen, and then after she had (him) everything kind of basically became about him ... It was a very co-dependent relationship."

Collopy doesn't know what's next for Norby's son, and the case against Kinn has stalled pending a competency hearing scheduled for Monday, April 24. Collopy just wants to see the case move forward.

"I'm just getting frustrated," Collopy said. "The police had said, you know, not to talk to anyone and this and that, 'cause it wouldn't help the case. Well, the case isn't really moving forward."

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or gpastoor@bemidjipioneer.com

(218) 333-9796
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