‘Without Sgt. Laurie, we might still be wondering,’ says family of missing St. Paul woman found slain in storage unit

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Sgt. Laurie M. Finnegan, right, is honored as Detective of the Year for her leadership on the Human Trafficking Task Force and Missing Persons Unit by St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry at the department’s Officer of the Year Ceremony in St. Paul on June 6, 2024. Finnegan worked on multiple cases in 2023, including the Mani Starren case. (Devanie Andre / Pioneer Press)

As St. Paul’s police chief named Sgt. Laurie Finnegan the department’s Detective of The Year, the family of Manijeh “Mani” Starren was sitting behind her.

They traveled from Texas and Roseau, Minn., to attend Thursday’s ceremony. “She’s our angel on earth that found our daughter,” said Ricki Starren, Mani’s mother, who wrote a letter in support of recognition for Finnegan and her coworkers

Last year, Finnegan received a report that Starren, 34, was missing from St. Paul and it ended in a “really horrific” case, said Police Chief Axel Henry.

The work of Finnegan, who was the lead investigator, and others led them to find Starren’s dismembered body in a Woodbury storage unit last June. Starren’s boyfriend, Joseph Steven Jorgenson, is charged with murder.

Manijeh “Mani” Starren, left, and Fanta Xayavong (Courtesy photos)

Law enforcement learned about another missing woman — Fanta Xayavong, 33, who was also connected to Jorgenson. They discovered Xayavong’s remains in a Coon Rapids storage unit.

Speaking at Thursday’s ceremony, Finnegan said the persistence of Starren’s family and friends kept her “motivated and determined to help find Mani, along with Fanta.”

The “real heroes” in the case are Starren and Xayavong, said Finnegan: “They did not deserve what happened to them.”

Homicide investigators also recognized

St. Paul Police Sgts. Jennifer O’Donnell and Jeremy Ryan were recognized with honorable mentions for Detective of the Year. They’re homicide investigators who also worked on the Starren and Xayavong cases.

Finnegan works in the police department’s missing persons unit and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension human trafficking task force.

“It soon became very apparent in this case that the women that were missing were likely murdered and the homicide investigators were going to be needed to help assist with that investigation,” Henry said.

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O’Donnell and Ryan worked “diligently” with Finnegan by searching an apartment where one of the victims lived, reviewing surveillance video, investigating tips, and reviewing cellphone records and financial statements of the suspect, according to the chief.

“After several weeks, their exemplary work and tenacity found that the suspect had a storage unit in Woodbury,” which is where Starren’s remains were found, Henry said. “… They kept looking deeper into the past of the suspect, and found that he had access to another storage unit in the city of Coon Rapids,” which is where they recovered Xayavong’s remains.

The case was high-profile and intense and the nature of it was “something most law enforcement people never have to deal with, thankfully, in their entire careers,” Henry said. “… Their investigative work demonstrated the outstanding level that they bring to all cases.”

Parents’ nightmare

Finnegan thanked the team of people who worked with her on the case. She also expressed appreciation to her family for “putting up with some long days and nights.”

Finnegan, a mother of two, said her children also motivated her in the case: “As a parent, I cannot imagine having to go through this nightmare, and I would want investigators to stop at nothing.”

Starren’s family invited Finnegan to the celebration of life service last fall in Roseau. “They treated me like family and it reminded me exactly why we all do the job that we do,” she said.

An uncle of Starren, Richard Baehr, remembered Starren as kind hearted. “She loved her children, so so much, and it’s been a big loss for them,” he said.

St. Paul Police Sgt. Laurie M. Finnegan hugs Mani Starren’s uncle Richard Baehr as Starren’s mother, Ricki Starren, left, and other family members look on. (Devanie Andre / Pioneer Press)

Baehr said he, his partner and Starren’s parents attended Thursday’s ceremony because Finnegan “supported us so much, we wanted to be here to support her and her teammates that helped solve this crime. … Without the team and without Sgt. Laurie, we might still be wondering.”

The police department recognized members of the St. Paul police SWAT team Wednesday for their work in carrying out a search warrant at Jorgenson’s Maplewood apartment last June. Jorgenson is charged with barricading himself in a bedroom and setting a fire, along with attempting to disarm an officer.

Jorgenson, 40, has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Starren and in the apartment arson, and his court cases are ongoing. The investigation into Xayavong’s death continues, and no one has been charged.

Honors for other workers

At Thursday’s ceremony, Henry also named Keng Her the department’s 2023 Police Officer of the Year for his work as a mentor, recruiter and lead field training officer. Jeffrey Whitbeck took honorable mention for Officer of the Year for his work as the department’s firearms rangemaster for a dozen years.

Alyssa Arcand was recognized as Professional Employee of the Year, an award for civilian employees, and Derek Peterson received honorable mention. Both are intelligence analysts.

Domestic violence help

Violence Free Minnesota remembered Manijeh “Mani” Starren in their memorial to victims of intimate partner homicide. Domestic violence help is available 24/7 through the Day One hotline by calling 866-223-1111 or texting 612-399-9995.

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