ANOKA, Minn. (FOX 9) - Forest Hill Cemetery in Anoka is a place where most stories come to an end. But for two women, it marked the beginning of a friendship born out of tragedy and mutual grief.
Four years ago, Sandy Anderson was visiting her son Robbie’s grave. The 19-year-old’s mysterious death in December 2009 was ruled a ‘Sudden Unexplained Death’ by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner.
But that day in the cemetery Robbie’s mother spotted a grave marker, a few rows away, with a name she recognized.
"I saw Antonio DeMeules," Anderson said during a recent walk through the cemetery.
She had recalled a FOX 9 INVESTIGATORS story in 2015 about DeMeules, a 15-year-old boy killed by a hit-and-run driver in Isanti County.
She remembered how the boy’s aunt, Sheila Potocnik, had uncovered new evidence in the case leading to a criminal conviction against the driver.
Anderson left a note for Potocnik on DeMeules grave, asking if she could investigate her son’s case.
Months later, Potocnik contacted Anderson, and their journey began.
An ‘unexplained death’
Robbie Anderson died December 4, 2009. The circumstances were suspicious.
It began with a confusing 911 call to a Maple Grove home, where Robbie had been partying in the basement with two friends he had known since middle school. The young men had been doing shots of vodka.
"My friends not breathing," said one of Robbie’s friends to the 911 dispatch operator. He then said he was bringing Robbie’s body outside and down the street to paramedics, so he wouldn’t wake his parents who were sleeping upstairs.
The friend told the dispatch operator Robbie had fallen out of a chair and hit his head.
"I was told at one point you probably don’t want to listen to the 911 call and if it wasn’t for Shelia, I probably wouldn’t have," said Sandy Anderson.
"The 911 call was big," Potocnik said, because it was the only time "they claim that rob fell off a chair. That was the only time you heard that in the whole case and after that, it was rob was in the bed."
There was also video, from the back seat of the squad car, where one of Robbie’s friends, thinking he’s alone, makes a startling admission.
"Oh God, Oh god. I killed Rob. I killed him," his friend screams in anguish.
During interviews with Maple Grove Police detectives the friends offered conflicting accounts of what happened: Robbie fell off the bed, they dropped him on a concrete floor in a utility room, they covered him with clothes to "tease him," and finally, they repeatedly punched him.
During a recorded police interview, a detective asks one of Robbie’s friends, "Okay, can you explain how there’s blood on the sheets then?"
The friend replies, "I was trying to wake him up."
"Punching him like pretty hard?" The detective asks.
"I was just trying to wake him up," replies the friend.
Sandy Anderson said she believes police made assumptions about what may have happened.
"I do think they stereotype," Anderson said. "I think they assumed my son was a drug addict with the company he kept."
The toxicology told a different story.
Robbie’s blood alcohol was .15. He was acutely intoxicated, but there were no drugs in his system.
There were signs, however, of blunt force injuries to his head.
Potocnik said Dr. Owen Middleton, who performed the autopsy, was unaware Robbie was repeatedly punched. Both the cause and manner of death (accident, homicide, suicide) were undetermined. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled it was a "sudden unexplained death."
In a statement to FOX 9, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office said they stand behind their findings in 2009, but are "always open to considering new, actionable evidence that could change the cause or manner of death opinions."
Based on the undetermined cause and manner of death, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office declined to file manslaughter charges in 2009.
A Grim Puzzle, A Case Reopened
"I start putting things together like a puzzle, from the beginning to the end. And you see these pieces missing everywhere," Potocnik said.
Each agency had a piece of the puzzle, but it was Potocnik who put it all together, by meticulously going through the case file and highlighting discrepancies.
Maple Grove Police agreed to re-open the cold case after the FOX 9 INVESTIGATORS began reporting on it.
In April, an Anoka County Judge ordered the exhumation of Robbie Anderson based on the affidavits of three independent medical examiners who cited "too many unanswered questions" in the case and believe it should be reclassified as a homicide.
No Stone Unturned
On Friday, in a somber scene, Robbie Anderson’s body was exhumed from its final resting place at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Anoka.
An independent autopsy was performed Saturday by Dr. Allecia Wilson, who performed the second autopsy on George Floyd.
Potocnik was there for all of it, barely leaving Robbie’s side.
"The journey’s been frustrating," Potocnik said. "Kind of every entity involved here someone dropped the ball in each."
Potocnik is now running the ball herself, as a cold case consultant. Setting up her own business, Crime Victim Services in Minnesota.
Potocnik is not a licensed police officer or private detective, but she has a degree in law enforcement, and multiple certifications in death investigations and digital forensics.
"I need to help families"
Potocnik’s work on cold cases is also deeply personal.
Her sister, Laura DeMeules, was murdered 17 years ago, strangled by Antonio Medina, who was a high on crack. Laura’s body was dumped in a farmer’s field in Rice County.
Potocnik says the detectives who handled her sister’s case kept her family informed every step of the way and left no stone unturned.
The case was eventually solved by a DNA match two years after her sister’s murder. Medina is scheduled for release in May 2025.
"I need to help families who had no help. Never did I think it would be like this, so overwhelming as what it’s become," she said.
Potocnik now gets hundreds of calls from families looking for answers. They are cases police can’t solve, and stories the media is often too busy to cover.
Potocnik recently solved the case of a 30-year-old man who died after taking counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl.
Potocnik examined the victim’s phone and discovered a text thread about buying "some blues."
She then tied the text to GPS data, a cash withdrawal, and a phone number, that led police right to the suspect, who is now charged with third degree murder.
The detectives were chagrined.
"They admitted we don’t know how to do what you did," Potocnik said.
Potocnik said she told them: "This is a teaching moment for you."
According to the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board, there is no mandatory learning objectives for homicide investigators, only basic crime scene preservation.
Larger agencies might have a major crimes division with their own requirements, but smaller departments may not.
Potocnik said especially when it comes to handling and processing electronic evidence, many departments are lacking continuing education.
"Just because someone is promoted to detective doesn’t mean they should be investigating these types of cases, or investigating at all," she said.
It may be weeks before diagnostic tests on Robbie Anderson’s remains are complete.
"I thank God for this lady if it wasn’t for her, I’d have no idea what was in those files," Sandy Anderson said.
At Forest Lawn Cemetery, where their loved ones are separated by a mere 30 feet, two women found each other, and an ending they hope to chart together.
"I feel like she is family," Potocnik said.