After a month, the tears are still close to the surface and come easily, none more so than when Danielle Jelinek's lilting and carefully preserved voice is heard in a digitally recorded storybook of "The Night Before Christmas," reading to her 4-year-old nephew.
"I love you, Cedar," it concludes, adding an affectionate pet name: "Love, Auntie Nunu."
The tears are Cory Jelinek's. She, her son and her 27-year-old sister lived together in Oakdale -- until Jelinek was reported missing on Dec. 9.
"A thousand things run through your head," Cory Jelinek said, describing the cruel dilemma of not wanting to extinguish flickering hope, yet trying to come to terms with a reality that is unknown.
"She's the last thing I think about when I go to bed, and the first thing I think about when I wake up," said Ed Jelinek, their father.
The person with whom Jelinek was last seen, Aaron Schnagl, 28, sits in the Anoka County jail, awaiting a court hearing next week in one of two drug cases in which he is now involved.
Tight-lipped investigators soldier on in their quest for clues, mostly around the lakes and wooded farmlands in Chisago Lake Township, where Schnagl lived. In their latest effort this past weekend, a dive-and-search training exercise by the Washington County Sheriff's Office was combined with a search in Bone Lake, with no results. Remote camera searches in Chisago County also have begun.
Volunteers, summoned by social media and brought by the busload, slogged through knee-deep snow for several days after Jelinek disappeared. They were called off because of dangerous conditions, but this week were distributing fliers around the area. A few, still feeling a need to somehow be of service, venture out on their own to look for clues.
For the close-knit Jelineks, frantic anguish and initial shock have given way over the past five weeks to a dull and constant ache. They remain convinced that Schnagl, who in official terms is described as a "person of interest" in Jelinek's disappearance, knows what happened to her.
"We're grieving, but it's very frustrating because we don't have any answers," said Cory Jelinek.
The Jelineks' view of Schnagl, they said, is shaped by past allegations of violent altercations with Danielle and his history as a convicted drug dealer.
The night before Jelinek disappeared, she told her sister she was meeting a girlfriend, but then met Schnagl. "We didn't think she was still talking to him," Cory Jelinek said.
Cory Jelinek rankles at the description of him as "boyfriend." "I don't think she would ever call him her boyfriend. They were on-and-off friends," Cory Jelinek said. "She had a boyfriend when this happened.
"She cared about him as a friend -- she cared about everybody. But I know she didn't love him."
Schnagl, however, was very much in love with her sister, she said. "I have to believe that, in a sick way, he cared for her -- how is this not eating him up?"
A different view
But the law deals in the realm of facts, even in the face of such powerful emotion, said Rachael Goldberger, Schnagl's attorney. Schnagl has not been charged in Jelinek's disappearance, she said, nor have investigators offered evidence that would support such charges.
More importantly, "my client is adamant that he had nothing to do with it," she said. The father of an 8-year-old girl, Schnagl and his family are grieving her disappearance as well. "He's having a very hard time. He loved her."
Goldberger also asserts that Schnagl has told police all he knows about the night she vanished, giving them a statement that took 2 1/2 hours.
"Just because he's not saying what they want him to say doesn't mean he's not cooperating," she said.
Schnagl faces two drug cases, and Jelinek's disappearance looms over them even though they are legally separate from the Jelinek investigation, Goldberger said.
First, Schnagl faces two counts in Chisago County: fifth-degree possession of marijuana and fifth-degree sale of marijuana, stemming from the discovery of about 12 pounds of the drug when his house was searched after Jelinek disappeared. Each charge carries a potential five-year prison term, but fifth-degree is the least-serious level of the felony drug charge.
Secondly, Schnagl faces a potentially more serious charge of violating his probation in a 2006 Anoka County case, in which he was sentenced to 86 months in jail after a raid on his apartment in Coon Rapids that turned up thousands in cash, cocaine and marijuana.
He pleaded guilty to first-degree possession of cocaine. The sentence was stayed provided he comply with the conditions of a 30-year probation.
And in Ramsey County, about a week after the investigation started, a search of a storage unit in Maplewood rented by Schnagl's mother yielded four plastic bins containing 10 bags of suspected marijuana. It's unclear what charges could result from that.
The Jelineks, meanwhile, say they draw comfort from a network of family and friends who drop by with meals, who send cards offering comfort. Jelinek loved running, and a race is being planned in June that will mark six months since her disappearance, Cory Jelinek said. And efforts to find answers will continue.
"We're never going to go away," she said. "Thousands of people care about her."
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson
HOW TO HELP
• An account has been set up at Think Mutual Bank to receive donations to support the Jelinek family. The Jelinek Family Benefit Fund should be specified when making a deposit and checks can be made payable to the same name.
• Anyone with information about the case should call the Chisago County Sheriff's Office at 651-257-4100.
DEC. 8: Danielle Jelinek last speaks to her sister, Cory, by cellphone. Danielle had left their home in Oakdale earlier, telling her sister she was meeting a girlfriend. Instead, she meets Aaron Schnagl and they go to his home in Chisago Lake Township.
DEC. 9: After drinking extensively, Schnagl would tell police, he and Jelinek went to bed. He said he didn't wake up until seven hours later. At 7:25 a.m., Jelinek's girlfriend receives a text message from Schnagl asking whether Jelinek had called her, adding "[Jelinek] took off on foot last night she was all messed up its snowing I'm worried."
AT 1:30 P.M. Chisago County deputies arrive at Schnagl's home to check on Jelinek's welfare. After Schnagl is questioned, they note inconsistencies in his account, detect an odor of marijuana in the house and begin an investigation.
Schnagl is subsequently arrested and charged with two counts of drug possession. He is then sent to the Anoka County jail on a probation violation stemming from a 2006 drug case.