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Missing in Minnesota: The strange case of Toni Bachman

In 1997, Toni Bachman went missing, failing to show at her Hamline University job without a word.

In 1997, Toni Bachman went missing, failing to show at her Hamline University job without a word. Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Ramsey County Sheriff's Office

Prosecutor Andy Johnson remembers standing near a lake in northern Minnesota, watching a flurry of investigators from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension do their work. It was 2015. They’d brought cadaver dogs and ground penetrating radar, but neither would be as instrumental to the search as the man standing nearby: Norman Bachman.

Johnson says Norman had told him “about 20 times” he could take investigators to the exact spot where he’d buried his wife, Toni, nearly 20 years earlier -- after dismembering her and stuffing her into several plastic bags in his White Bear Township house. In return, he was promised a sliver shaved off his sentence.

Johnson had been excited at the start, certain he’d have this case wrapped up and have a body to return to Toni’s grieving family. But the day was stretching on, and his spirits were starting to fade.

Norman kept looking around and remarking on how everything looked different now, with the taller trees and new houses and driveways. He’d take them to spot after spot, telling them each time that he’d figured it out, all while smoking the pack of cigarettes Johnson had promised him and getting more and more worried.

Finally, there came a time when the Bureau investigators told Johnson and Norman that they were done looking. They simply couldn’t find Toni, and they weren’t going to waste any more time on it.

Johnson remembers Norman uttering a single word: “Damn.”

The case began years earlier -- on Monday, April 28, 1997 -- when Toni Bachman didn’t show up for work at Hamline University’s HR department.

Her supervisor called her house. Norman, her husband, broke the news: Toni had left him and his three boys Sunday afternoon, he said. She’d been pretty open with her coworkers, so they knew she frequently complained about her marriage and had been chatting online with a sweetheart in West Virginia. It was, Norman later said, probably for the best she’d left.

But her coworkers were still taken by surprise. They hadn’t heard she was going to leave. In fact, one coworker had distinctly heard her saying on Friday that she wanted to leave, but couldn’t. She had to settle some “financial worries” first. And why had she so recently ordered a new calendar, keyboard, and bulletin board for her desk?

By May, she still hadn’t appeared. She hadn’t even called. That’s when one of her workmates called the cops.

Norman wasn’t arrested for Toni’s murder until 2015. That was after investigators found blood and tissue in the root cellar, on a wadded-up bedsheet, on the side of Norman’s truck. It was after he assaulted another woman with a knife in 1998 and was sentenced to 86 months in prison. It was after years of questioning the boys about what they knew – or what they thought they knew -- and after 18 years of Bachman’s family holding out hope she was out there somewhere, alive.

Norman eventually admitted he’d choked the life out of her, dragged her to a cold room in the cellar, and later used a filet knife to take her body apart. He buried her, he told police, in “a location from [his] childhood” up north. Ramsey County Judge Salvador Rosas promised him 40 months off his 13-year sentence if he could help investigators find her – for her family’s sake.

Norman never did find Toni, nor did anyone else. She’s still considered a missing person. That’s because investigators never found her remains.

Nobody’s sure if it’s because Norman is holding out, or because he simply can’t remember a random spot in the woods he chose nearly 20 years earlier. Johnson, personally, thinks it’s the latter.

“I believe he really was trying to help,” he says. It just wasn’t enough.

Brenda Brozik, who worked the Bachman case from 2012 to the end, isn't so sure. She went up to that spot 11 times, she says. There are thousands of holes in the dirt where they probed for her body. If Toni was there, she says, they would have found her.

"Either [Norman] was lying, or wildlife intervened, or she was excavated out," she says. "It's hard to say." 

The day before Norman pleaded guilty, Johnson went up again with a medical examiner for an old-fashioned ground search. Defense attorneys were shoveling away, working up a sweat. Still, nothing. If she were alive today, she would be 59. 

A body is arguably the most important single piece of evidence in a murder trial. “No-body” cases are few and far between. Only a handful exist in the history of Minnesota.

Of course, people vanish into thin air all the time. Plenty of the souls listed on the Minnesota Missing and Unidentified Persons Clearinghouse website have been gone for decades, and they’re “probably dead,” Johnson says. But a real no-body case requires proof of death and intent to kill, all without examining a corpse.

Johnson had gone into Toni’s case thinking unintentional homicide may be the best verdict he was going to get, but he’s proud he managed to extract a guilty plea from Norman. He’d written the detailed complaint for an audience of one – Norman himself – to let him know Johnson was on to him and to rattle him into confessing. Brozik recalls wheeling in a cart carrying nothing but thick binders of evidence into Norman's cell, just to let him know what the score was.

"We always promised we wouldn't give up," she says. "We put our heart and soul into this case."

In fact, for those three and a half years, Brozik has trouble recalling what else, exactly, went on in her life. The Bachman case utterly consumed her. 

Toni’s family, Johnson says, was “extremely grateful.” It had been hard, gratifying work. There’s a framed picture in his office of all those evidence binders laid out on the floor, roughly in the shape of a stick person. They’d gone through enough data, he says, to practically fill the space Toni’s missing body left behind.

Prosecutor Andy Johnson still keeps a photo of the evidence relevant to Toni Bachman's disappearance in his office.

Prosecutor Andy Johnson still keeps a photo of the evidence relevant to Toni Bachman's disappearance in his office. Andy Johnson

But there is still a void that can’t be filled. Johnson “can’t tell you” how often he’s stared at Google Maps, trying to find the spot that best matched the crude map Norman drew of Toni’s burial site. He’s pretty sure she’s in the first place they stopped – Norman’s best guess.

One day, when Norman’s sentence is up, Johnson plans to take a probe up north and core the ground around the area, hoping to find a patch of disturbed earth or a shred of a plastic bag.