FARGO — Around 1:30 p.m. on July 12, 2018, Brenda Kartes left the halfway house in Fargo where she was staying.
She walked away alone. Then, she vanished.
Friends and family were left to wonder and worry about her fate until Aug. 29, 2019, when police announced that skeletal remains had been found the previous week near the Red River in Fargo. A medical examiner linked the remains to Kartes through dental records.
Police say evidence found where the remains were discovered leads them to believe Kartes' death is suspicious, but the medical examiner was not able to determine her manner of death. Fargo police treat all suspicious deaths as homicides until definitive information becomes available.
In the case of Kartes' death, police have said they have "persons of interest," but they have not publicly named them.
Lt. Chris Helmick with the Fargo Police Department's criminal investigations unit said recently that Kartes' death is still being investigated.
"We continue to actively work this case including interviews of individuals, having evidence examined by the FBI lab, and following up on tips. We still think this is a suspicious death, but we can’t go beyond that classification," Helmick said.
Laura Vraa grew up two doors down from Kartes in Mapleton, N.D., and the two remained friends into their adult years.
Vraa said it will be hard for her to rest until what happened to her friend is made clear. "Somebody knows something," Vraa said, adding that she would like to see an arrest made in the case.
"I do believe they have an idea. I genuinely believe that," Vraa said, referring to investigators.
At the time of her death, Kartes was staying at a halfway house and living clean and sober, Vraa said.
"She had made bad decisions, but she was doing her best to get her life back when it was taken from her," Vraa said.
"She was kind. She was loving. She had a good heart," Vraa said, describing her friend.
Court documents: Kartes felt she was in danger
Before Kartes' disappearance, she told an acquaintance that she feared that a man she knew would kill her if he ever found out Kartes had said something about him, according to search warrant documents filed in Cass County District Court in September 2019.
Police have interviewed that man, who operated an adult entertainment and exotic dancer business at the time Kartes disappeared. The same man said in a 2019 interview with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead that he hired Kartes to work for him and for a time the two dated.
Police have said they know that Kartes worked for the business, though a detective previously declined to say whether police considered the business owner a person of interest.
The business owner said in his 2019 interview that he had nothing to do with Kartes' disappearance and death, and he suggested she may have overdosed or killed herself because of their breakup. The business owner has not been arrested or charged in connection with Kartes' disappearance.
The search warrant documents quote an official with the halfway house where Kartes was staying as stating that when Kartes signed herself out of the facility on July 12, 2018, she said she was going to the Red Carpet car wash near 34th Street and 13th Avenue South in Fargo, which according to the documents was a business people sometimes visited to make phone calls if they didn't have their own phone.
According to court documents, Kartes was considered a vulnerable adult needing medication for schizophrenia.
She was known to post things about her personal life on social media, and she wrote openly about her mental health issues and run-ins with the law.
In a Facebook post July 2, 2018 — 10 days before her disappearance — Kartes wrote: "I used to break the law twenty times a day. I got 2 reckless driving a dui and busted with drugs four times in 3 weeks. Now i am clean and have a career in retail. Im sorry but i think thats beautiful and im fabulous."
Kartes was 31 years old when she was last seen July 12, leaving a Fargo halfway house, Centre Inc. She was supposed to return by 4:30 p.m., but never did.
Investigators determined there was no activity on Kartes’ financial or social media accounts after July 12, 2018.
Kartes' family has said that when she disappeared Kartes left behind her belongings, including her vehicle, IDs and money.
Her family has said they feared she might have been a victim of human trafficking because of her vulnerability and mental health issues.