Update: 8-year-old girl’s body recovered from Minnesota River

A girl reported missing in the Minnesota River has been found deceased.

The body of Willow Rae Bense, 8, of rural Janesville, was discovered at 8:40 a.m. Friday on a sandbar in the river.  She was found by Cleveland Fire & Rescue about 5,000 feet from where she disappeared in the water.

Willow’s death appears to be consistent with drowning, according to Cpt Paul Barta with the Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Office, but he said the Ramsey County Medical Examiner will determine the official cause of death.

In a media briefing Friday morning, Barta said Willow and her family had returned to Sibley Park after a visit last week.  Her parents were identified as Kelly Neilsen, 31, and John Stephen Bense, 52.  Barta said the family had had a good time wading and exploring the area the previous week. The family came back so the children, ages 3, 8, 9, and 11, could enjoy the water.

The family was playing on a sandbar near the ballfields.  Barta said the children were initially wearing lifejackets but removed them when their play shifted mostly to the sandbar.  Eventually, the children began jumping off the sandbar into the water and encountered deeper water than they anticipated.

Barta said a female bystander was watching the events unfold when Willow and her 11-year-old sibling began to struggle.  The bystander was able to grab the 11-year-old to bring the child to safety, but Willow went underwater, prompting the 911 call.

Willow’s mother also jumped in the water and was swept approximately a half-mile downstream, according to Barta.  He said Neilsen was struggling in the water by the time first responders arrived.

Neither Neilsen nor the 11-year-old child required medical attention.

Barta said search efforts were scaled back overnight, but continued overnight.

Blue Earth County has the most miles of rivers of any other county in Minnesota.  Barta said rivers are unpredictable and dangerous and recommended exercising extreme caution and life jacket use.

The family has asked for privacy as they grieve.

The Mankato Department of Public Safety says Sibley Park has reopened to the public.

Three years ago, the Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Office headed a search for an 11-year-old Madelia boy who drowned in the Blue Earth River near Rapidan.


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