Investigators: Someone in Spooner, Wisconsin Knows What Happened to Sara Bushland

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Spooner is a scenic community in western Wisconsin where a lot of people from the Twin Cities have cabins.

Spooner is also where a missing person’s investigation has been ongoing for nearly 21 years. Fifteen-year-old Sara Bushland was last seen getting off her school bus in 1996.

There have been many twists and turns in the case over the years, but now after all this time, investigators feel they are closer than ever.

Sara’s sister, Lesley Bushland Small, and her father, Mike, believe someone in Spooner knows what happened to her.

Mike and his two daughters lived in Chippewa Falls after he and his wife divorced. Sara later chose to move in with her mom and stepfamily in rural Spooner. She disappeared after getting off a school bus outside their home on April 3, 1996.

"Nobody really knows for sure what happened," Mike said.

“There are many people that say there was a pick-up truck but we’re not sure she even got in it," Lesley added.

She doesn’t think Sara went far.

"So we really need people to stand up and do what’s right," Lesly said. "There are people that know what happened."

"I believe that’s accurate. I believe there may be more than one person” Chief Deputy Mike Richter of the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office said.

Richter admits more could have been done when Sara disappeared. But in 1996, law enforcement wasn’t trained to react to missing children as quickly as they are today. Sara was first labeled a runaway and then endangered.

"It’s a case that’s 20, almost 21 years old," Richter said. “With that said, it’s not a cold case, it’s not a dead case, and it’s not in a file cabinet somewhere."

Over the years, the case has made headlines. In 1997, a friend of Sara’s was found dead outside an adult bookstore in Beloit, Wisconsin.

"We have no reason to believe there’s a connection between those two incidents," Richter said.

Later, an extensive search was done on the property in rural Spooner were Sara was living with her mom and stepfamily. It didn’t turn up any evidence.

They have also closely monitored Sara’s personal information. There’s been no activity with somebody stealing her identity.

And after all this time, Mike has kept the same phone number hoping his daughter will call. Lesley still uses her maiden name. She has also created a Facebook page for Sara in case she’s searching.

"And the waiting game is just painful. I mean it is just painful," Lesley said.

Sadly, the family and police have come to the same conclusion.

"I believe she’s dead” Mike said. “I hope not, but I believe she is."

"We have at this time no reason to believe that Sara is still alive," Richter said.

But Richter said that motivates the sheriff’s office even more. They are working with the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to find out what happened to Sara. They are convinced she didn’t go far and they’ll find answers close to home in Spooner.

"We just honestly are at a roadblock because no one will come forward," Lesley said. “We’re just asking for everyone, anyone who might have any idea to come forward so that we can move on."

"In 30 years, we’ve got no open homicides for the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office, and this isn’t officially a homicide case.," Richter said. "But for all practical purposes that’s the way we see it. So, if we could get a little bit more help it might be just what we need."

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information that helps the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office solve the mystery of what happened to Sara.

If you have information on Sara’s disappearance, please call Chief Deputy Mike Richter of the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office at 715-468-4700, or the National Center for Missing And Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.

There are resources available to provide assistance to families with missing loved ones.

You can find out more information about the Jacob Wetterling Resources Center here.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children works to help find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation, and prevent child victimization. You can find out more about the organization here.