November 18, 2019 | By Zoe Smolios
“If you would have met her, you would have loved her,” Terri Gagne said of her sister Kristin Sandberg.
Kristin was murdered on October 3, 1997, and her body was found in a field in Apopka, Florida. While it was determined that her cause of death was from stab wounds, the question of who murdered her remains unanswered.
Kristin was the youngest of five children. Gagne, her eldest sister, and Julie Sandberg, her second eldest sister, said that they knew the baby of the family was special from a very young age. Elsie Sandberg, Kristin’s mother, said that her youngest daughter was always wise beyond her years.
“She was one of those kids that just got bored really easily in school,” Gagne said. “We believe she was one of those gifted students.”
Larry Sandberg, Kristin’s father, was in the Navy, so the family moved around a lot. Hawaii was Kristin’s favorite of all of the places, and the family now lives in Orlando, Florida, where Kristin went missing from. When they lived in California, Elsie remembers Kristin had to be the classroom helper.
“She ended up teaching all of the kids how to use the computers at school,” the mother said.
The family said that Kristin was also very creative, writing poetry, teaching herself how to play the piano and eventually playing flute in the high school band.
Her sisters remember that their youngest sibling was someone who would do anything for others. When Kristin reached adolescence, they said she was dedicated to trying to give to the less fortunate.
“She would steal from all of us to give to the poor,” Gagne said. “The only problem with it was that she was stealing from her own family members.”
In high school, the family says Kristin took a wrong turn and ended up hanging out with the wrong crowd. She got into drugs and alcohol and eventually dropped out of school, but her family was determined to help her down the right path and helped her get her GED.
The family also tried to help her out, taking her to the doctors to get tested for a chemical imbalance. The results that came back were surprising.
“They came back and told my parents that she wasn’t the one with the problems, but rather they were,” Gagne said. “That was Kristin. She was really good at manipulating people.”
Even with her turns down the wrong paths, the family said she always kept them a priority.
Julie remembers that, when she was in her thirties, she ended up moving back home to live with her parents and Kristin after a breakup. She and Kristin shared the same room.
“We shared a day bed and we would just lay there and read Ellen DeGeneres’s book together,” Julie said.
Julie said that the main thing she remembers about her sister is that they shared a lot of the same personality traits and were very similar, regardless of the eleven-year age-gap between them.
Gagne also had a son, Sean, who was born when Kristin was 12-years-old. Elsie and Larry watched their grandson a lot, and Gagne said that Kristin and Sean grew close, having somewhat of a brother-sister relationship.
“I ended up splitting from my husband when Sean was young, so it was just me and him most of the time,” Gagne said, “Anytime we did something, though, we made sure we invited Kristin.”
Sean was the last person in the family to see Kristin alive after she surprised him at school on his birthday to give him money.
Her mother was the last one to talk to her on the phone.
“No matter what she did, she always kept in touch,” Elsie said.
The fact that the Sandbergs hadn’t heard from Kristin in a few days wasn’t too strange, but once it started to turn into weeks and months, the family filed the missing persons report. Gagne said that they really started to worry when Kristin started missing big family events, like their father undergoing multiple surgeries.
At the time that Kristin went missing, the police station in Apopka, Florida, about 20 miles from Orlando, was dealing with a case of a body found in an empty lot. The station posted a sketch of what they believed the person looked like in the Orlando Sentinel, and when Gagne saw it, she said that, even though the sketch did not match her sister, she had a gut feeling it was Kristin.
The station told her she was wrong and swore that the woman was Hispanic and 5’6,” which Gagne said her sister was 5’2” at most.
“Everything fit the bill except the description,” said Gagne.
The family sent in dental records in 1998 and waited for eight years until the station finally got around to comparing the records with the body.
The news came in 2006, and the sisters said the news hit everyone hard. They say that they have multiple theories of who could’ve murdered their sister. Gagne said that one of the people they suspected was questioned via a phone interview by the police station and never brought in for questioning, and the other is serving time for other murders he committed, but still was never questioned about Kristin.
The case has since been left cold, with no detective working it in Apopka. The family said that they were last told that the case got moved to the Orlando Police Station because Kristin was reported missing out of Orlando.
When Kristin was alive, she met three of her nephews and one of her nieces. Since her passing, the family has expanded to eventually what would be Kristin’s great-nieces and great-nephews.
The sisters said that all of the children ask and know about their late aunt. The Sandbergs continue to ensure that Kristin’s memory still lives on.
Project: Cold Case reached out to law enforcement for a statement. We will update this story with any updates of a response.
If you have any information on the unsolved murder of Kristin Sandberg, please call the Apopka Police Department at 407-703-1771.
Research and Impact
The process of identifying a body can cause additional stress and trauma for a family waiting for answers, as seen with the Sandburg family.
While there are laws which require investigative agencies to identify bodies found murdered and listed as John or Jane Doe, the process to ensure a more accurate and expedited system has been the focus of varying research and development studies.
The Sandberg family is not alone, as multiple Project: Cold Case families have reported exceedingly long periods of wait for positive identification of a loved one. For many, that means an extended period of grief and emotional halt as they grapple with the process. While identifying deceased bodies is the primary task, the need to figure case of death is vitally important for law enforcement as well. This ultimately determines the direction of the investigation.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) helps in aiding identification of body’s in the United States.
A 2014 study revealed that law enforcement took an average of 10 to 15 days to process and positively identify bodies while working toward publishing daily reports. Factors which hindered their efforts are overall decompensation of a body, mutilation, or bodies having become skeletonized.
Some unidentified bodies are intentionally targeted by criminals in effort to deter positive identification by altering a victims distinguishing features or areas normally used to identity – hands, head, and teeth.
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