"The art of life consists in making correct decisions on insufficient evidence." —Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
I. The Barbara Paciotti Story
On Friday, June 13, 1969, Barbara Jean Paciotti, a petite, twenty-year-old secretary at a Minneapolis investment firm, drove home to Hibbing to spend Fathers Day weekend with her family. Later that night, after a late dinner with her parents, she and her roommate, who’d come home with her, went out. Barbara was wearing a rust-colored jacket over a red plaid dress, loafers, and rings of jade and topaz. Even though she weighed less than a hundred pounds and wasn’t quite five feet tall, her friends called her “the Serbian-Italian dynamo.”
Driving around town was a popular pastime at the time. As they cruised Howard Street and First Avenue, Barbara (her friends and family called her “Barbie”) told her roommate that she was thinking about breaking up with the guy she was dating, Jeff Dolinich, and getting back together with a former boyfriend, whom she was watching for as they drove through the streets of Hibbing.
At one point early in the evening, they drove by Sammy’s Pizza and saw Dolinich hanging out in front. He waved, but Barbara pretended she didn’t see him and they drove by. She told her roommate that she didn’t want to speak to him tonight. Paciotti and Dolinich graduated from Hibbing High School and both were living and working in Minneapolis.
Much later that night, they were stopped at a red light at Howard and Second Avenue when, out of nowhere, Dolinich walked up to their car and asked Barbara to go for a ride with him; he said he needed to talk to her. It was 1:30 a.m.
Her roommate pulled over and Barbara got out. She and Dolinich walked toward his car, a green, 1964 Oldsmobile that belonged to his father. He opened the door for her, walked around the back of the car, and got in. Her roommate watched them drive away.
“Barbie” never came home.
Multiple witnesses reported seeing the green Oldsmobile with the lights on parked on the side of Highway 73 a few miles south of town in the early morning hours of June 14, 1969.
On the afternoon of June 14, Dolinich’s parents called the Minneapolis Police Department and asked them to do a “welfare check” on their son. It has never been revealed what prompted their call, but they were reportedly “distressed.” MPD officers went to investigate and encountered Jeff Dolinich a few blocks from his apartment. A short chase ensued. He was apprehended and returned to his apartment with the officers.
While being questioned, Dolinich told officers that he and Paciotti took a ride around 1:30 a.m. He said they had an argument and he exited the car. The specific location of the stop was not given. The Dolinich told officers that he recalled hitting Paciotti once and he was sure she was dead. He remembers waking up in Mora, Minnesota, but not where he left Paciotti.
Officers noticed muddied clothing and shoes lying on the apartment floor. Mud and grass stains covered a pair of pants that the suspect said he was wearing earlier that morning. The suspect's vehicle, the Oldsmobile that belonged to his father, was searched. Officers found a purse with one of its straps detached. Inside the purse was Paciotti’s identification. The officers left and no arrest was made.
On June 15, Paciotti family members went to the Minneapolis Homicide Unit to report that Jeffrey Dolinich had written a suicide note. They also told officers they had spoken to him about what may have occurred and that he said he didn’t remember much.
What follows is Dolinich’s so-called suicide note. The handwriting is hurriedly scribbled, more of a spontaneous note than a formal letter, and it’s all in one lump paragraph. I’ve separated it for easier reading.
“Something terrible happened to which I have no recall. Everything was fine the other night, except for the way I was driving. I drank too much and should have never considered driving. Barb got out of the car and so did I. The last thing I remember is falling and she tried to help me. Being too heavy, I knocked her down. The next morning I woke up near Mora. How I got back in the car and drove that distance, I don't know. I know I never could have driven that far without an accident, etc.
“I wouldn't hurt her for anything in the world. We were going to be married, so whatever happened I don't know the reason, why it happened or where, etc. I don't have a chance and can't even defend myself because I don't remember anything. By the time you see this letter, I will be dead and couldn't possibly face anybody, answer questions, etc. If the worst occurred, I would be condemned without a chance and being unable to explain what happened, where I was, etc., makes it even worse.
“We got along so well and happy together that it would break me completely if anything happened to her. I loved her more than anything in the world and anybody that knew us could easily verify that. I am so scared and frightened and completely lost with myself. I could run away but that solves nothing. Eventually I would be found and I still wouldn't have the answers. I couldn't live with myself if anything happened to her. She was my responsibility to watch and care for. I evidently failed. If I or someone (sic) did take a life, I will give my life although I don't see how I could because everything was fine with us. I loved her very much. This occurrence is too strange for me.
“May you find forgiveness in your hearts.”
The note was signed, “Jeff.”
The letter was sent from Minneapolis with a return address that matched the address of Dolinich's apartment.
Minneapolis officers executed a search warrant on June 19, 1969. The suspect's roommate told them that the suspect’s mother took the muddied pants and shoes away. The shoes were located some time later but the pants never were. Officers attempted to question the suspect about his involvement with Paciotti on June 20, but Dolinich was reportedly suicidal and was admitted to Glenwood Hills Hospital “with police assistance.”
At the same time, several massive ground searches were mobilized in the Hibbing area, but turned up no leads. Three people called the Hibbing Police to report they saw a vehicle matching that description on Highway 73 with its headlights on in the early hours of the morning on June 14. The reports placed the vehicle about one mile south of the Maple Hill overpass. It was unknown whether the vehicle was occupied at the time.
Editor’s note regarding the route Dolinich took that night: Although the preferred route is much different now, in that day most people traveling to Minneapolis from Hibbing took State Highway 73south and connected toState Highway 65 the rest of the way into the Twin Cities. If you were driving from Hibbing to Minneapolis on that route, Mora was right on the way, 159 miles from Hibbing and seventy miles from Minneapolis.
II. The Cold Case Investigations
After those days in June, there was no more evidence. Nothing. And he wasn’t talking. Local and state investigators were stumped, and in those days you didn’t take a murder case to trial without a body or a confession. Years passed, and authorities tried repeatedly to turn up something—anything, to no avail.
• 1999: Hibbing Police reopen the cold case but make no public announcements until 2005.
• 2005: The Hibbing Police Department announced it had resumed its investigation into the disappearance of the twenty-year-old Hibbingite Barbara Paciotti. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department were assisting in the case.
Former Hibbing resident Jeffrey Dolinich, 62, of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, was formally identified as the last person to see Paciotti alive on the night of June 14, 1969.
“As of now, we have no other suspects,” Hibbing Police Chief Barbara Mitchell said at the time. “He was cooperating with law enforcement but has since retained an attorney.”
Lead investigator Dale Wright, said the case has been under review for a long time. “We felt there was more that we could do,” said Wright. “We had more leads and more people to talk to. We mainly tried to talk to different parties to see what they recall of that time period.”
Investigation teams were deployed to follow up the leads and conduct interviews. Among those questioned were family members and friends of Dolinich, including his employer and co-workers. Surviving members of the Paciotti family were also involved.
“There was more that could be done with this case as far as investigation materials and new kinds of investigative technologies, such as DNA testing,” said Chief Mitchell. “We are hopeful that with the evidence we have in the case and these types of new technologies, we can bring this case to a close.”
• 2006: In May 2006, a pair of bloodhounds that had been involved in several high-profile searches was brought in to look for clues. Bloodhounds Molly and Ranger combed a thirty-nine acre parcel of land near the eastern edge of Hibbing, an old farm that had been owned by the suspect’s grandmother, Katherine Dolinich. It was the first time the property had been searched since the original investigation. The farm had been abandoned before 1969.
“Although he (Dolinich) never lived here, he visited here often and was familiar with the grounds,” said Lead Investigator Dale Wright. “Our officers have identified this property through talking with the subject who said her brought her here the night of the disturbance.” Investigators hoped, after all these years, to find traces of Paciotti, or possibly her clothing or jewelry, Wright said.
At the time, brother Greg Paciotti was “very optimistic. They're working at it. They're doing the best they can and are hitting it hard.”
The search was called off after several hours of rain but was due to resume again soon.
“After this case became visible again in 2005, people called in and made us aware that this property had been in the Dolinich family,” Wright said. He added that several other properties in the Hibbing area would also be looked into.
The next day, a wooded and swampy area near South Leighton Road was also searched. Investigators had permission of property owners in the area, whereas a search warrant was required for the Dolinich farm.
Later, in July 2006, investigators excavated a suspected grave site. Local police and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension dug up and sifted through mounds of dirt at Carey Lake Recreation Area. Nothing of interest was found.
• 2007: The renewed interest in the case of Barbara Paciotti apparently turned up nothing new. “Everything right now is stagnant, cold,” said her brother, Greg. “There hasn’t been any recent movement in the case. Nothing seems to be moving forward. It’s cold again. I expected us to be in court by now.”
The cold case of Barbara’s disappearance was revived six years earlier by the Hibbing Police Department about the same time the case gained statewide attention with the addition of reward money.
The reward announcement was made during a press conference that included law enforcement, state officials, and Paciotti family members at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) office in St. Paul. The $50,000 is still available through Spotlight on Crime, a nonprofit organization fund that focuses on unsolved crimes.
• 2008: “We’ve taken an additional twenty-nine leads,” said Lead Investigator Dale Wright of the Hibbing Police Department. “Prior to last January, we had received 134 leads. We have a total of 163 leads as of right now, and we’ve gone through the leads we feel should be worked.”
Wright said leads came from a variety of sources, including a few who had contact with law enforcement when Barbara’s disappearance first made headlines in 1969. “Some of the leads were reviewed and had been worked already. We spent time on the more substantial ones,” he said. “The leads we really focused on were the ones that were more likely to lead us to Barbara’s body or where it may have been disposed of.”
Wright said he believes Paciotti was trying to break-up with Dolinich when the two got into an argument.
Foot searches began at the old Dolinich farm, located off Antonelli Road in rural Hibbing. There, several searches were conducted with the assistance of BCA officials, members of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad, deputies of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department, officers of the Hibbing Police Department, and cadets of the Law Enforcement Program at Hibbing Community College.
Investigators performed similar searches on south Highway 73 near South Leighton Road and North Leighton Road. “From the leads we got then and now, we knew that Jeff Dolinich’s vehicle was seen stopped along Highway 73,” said Wright. “After the Spotlight announcement, we received more leads verifying that it was a place of interest. It became significant because we know he pulled along side the road for a reason—either to dispose of a body or to go home. He must have contemplated what to do, and ultimately decided to go home.”
Another tip led investigators to dig up a suspected grave site off Herman Road, a heavily wooded area less than a mile from the Dolinich farm. The last search was a scanning of Carey Lake (also known as Dupont Lake) with the use of sonar. The small body of water became a point of interest after a former lifeguard shared a vague memory of a man often visiting the beach and speaking of his girlfriend.
While an item or two of interest was found during the searches, there was nothing that could be connected to the case.
“The current status of the case, I would have to say, is inactive,” said Wright. “Because of the number of active cases coming in, we haven’t had a lot of chances to focus on it. Active cases are what we work first. It’s not only me that’s swamped, but everybody else as well. Once things quiet down, I expect to go back and decide what our next steps are.”
Even though the case is not at the forefront, Wright thinks of the case every day while at work. Barbara’s high school photo is his screen saver. “When you actively work a case, you have more energy. When you have promising leads, you’re anxious to work them and have a more positive reaction,” he said. “It makes you want to be more involved and work as hard as you can. But as leads dissipate, you get frustrated. It’s been thirty-seven years, and to find her will be very difficult to do.”
Wright admitted that it’s easy to become discouraged, but the support of the Paciotti family keeps him going. “I won’t walk away from this until someone tells me it’s done,” he said. “I’m determined to continue working the case and finding closure for the family. That’s our goal.”
The Hibbing Police Department has never solved a cold case. Bringing this one to a close would be significant. “Unfortunately we don’t have the ability to throw things aside,” said Wright. “I can understand if the family is frustrated.”
To say Greg Paciotti is frustrated would be an accurate statement. A few other choice words, he admitted, could also describe his demeanor.
“I don’t understand why he (Dolinich) hasn’t fessed up yet or why this isn’t in court yet,” said Paciotti. He said he’s aware of the police department’s case volume and need for immediate action, but added that he hoped investigators were being on the level. “I’m just hoping no one is holding back on this,” he said. “My gut instinct, to be honest with you, is that it won’t be going forward. I hope I’m not getting a sugar-coated version.”
• 2009: Investigators hope a deck of Cold Case Playing Cards will bring some answers in a Hibbing murder mystery. Last October, Barbara Paciotti’s case was included in the deck that summarizes fifty-two different unsolved cases. Her card is the four of clubs. They were handed out to Minnesota state inmates because, “Pretty much everyone incarcerated is looking for a way to reduce their time and inmates do talk,” said Dave Bjerga, assistant superintendent for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, which produced the cards.
• 2013: “There aren’t any active leads coming in on the case,” said Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Special Agent Paul Gheradi. “There are areas that need to be searched, but that’s as far as the case goes.”
III. The Jeffrey Dolinich Story
Jeffrey J. Dolinich never faced charges. He never spent a day in jail. He lived in Coon Rapids (MN), married in the Eighties, had children and grandchildren, and died in September, 2013, of natural causes, at the age of seventy.
Editors note: Sources for this article include news and online reports and private conversations.