GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- All through the winter, a small group of relatives and a couple of bloodhounds have pushed through snowbanks and battled windchills of 20 below, looking for traces of college student Dru Sjodin.
Signs of spring are giving them new hope.
The 22-year-old University of North Dakota student was last seen Nov. 22. She disappeared from the parking lot outside a Grand Forks mall after leaving her job at Victoria's Secret.
Police have said Sjodin is probably dead. Her blood was found in the car of convicted rapist Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who is charged with kidnapping her, and a knife in the car's trunk matched a sheath found near Sjodin's car, left in the parking lot.
Sjodin's relatives and friends have kept up the search for her body. They began using compressors last week to force air through holes in an icy river, hoping it would help the dogs pick up a scent.
Her boyfriend, Chris Lang, has dropped knee-deep in snow while searching through ditches, and once fell through a thin layer of ice into freezing water. "We've just got to keep looking," he said. "There's no giving up."
Rodriguez, 51, faces a preliminary hearing tomorrow in Grand Forks. He has denied any involvement in Sjodin's disappearance.
Bob Heales, a family friend and private investigator, said family members hope the hearing will offer some clues to Sjodin's disappearance, though investigators are not expecting help from Rodriguez.
"I haven't heard anybody indicate that they think anything will come out of the hearing," said Grand Forks Sergeant Michael Hedlund.
There have been no organized law enforcement searches since mid-December, but as the spring thaw approaches, police are likely to get more involved, Hedlund said.
"Someone said it's kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack -- only right now the haystack is covered with snow," Hedlund said.
Lang was the last person known to have heard from Sjodin, when the young woman from Pequot Lakes, Minn., spoke to him by cellphone after leaving her job. He has been searching along with Sjodin's parents, Linda Walker and Allan Sjodin.
Last week, as the temperature climbed to 40 degrees, the small search party looked through fields and abandoned buildings near Rodriguez's hometown of Crookston, Minn.
"Compared to when it was 20 below, this is great," said Heales, who has been leading the daily searches. "It's ideal for the dogs, and it's ideal for humans."
One of the bloodhounds has shown interest in a spot near the Red Lake River, where police said they found one of Sjodin's shoes three days after her disappearance.
Heales said that searchers found something that they turned over to Grand Forks police, but he declined to say what it was. "I don't necessarily think it's anything, but it's something you just can't pass up," he said.
Earlier searches by volunteers and law enforcement agencies, including the North Dakota and Minnesota National Guard, in the Grand Forks area and parts of Minnesota came up empty. Divers and underwater cameras were used in the Red Lake River.