When Joseph “Joe” Bruce Sr. heard the news that his severely disabled son was suffering a medical emergency and being flown to a Minneapolis hospital, he told his family he was on his way. But he never made it.
“Right away, I knew something was wrong,” Joe’s longtime girlfriend Miranda Patnaude told Dateline. “Our son was his whole world. So when Joe didn’t show up that day, I knew deep down that something bad happened to him.”
Joe and Miranda had been together for 20 years and lived in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where they were raising their five children.
It was just before 10 a.m. on June 25, 2018, when Joe got the call from Miranda. He had been visiting his mother in Belcourt, North Dakota for a few days, about three hours away. That day, he traveled to nearby Devils Lake to see some friends.
“I didn’t even know he had planned to be in Devils Lake that day,” Miranda explained. “But when I told him about our son’s emergency, he said he was coming.”
But Joe never showed up at the hospital. And he was never seen or heard from again.
A few days later, Joe’s van, specially outfitted for their son's wheelchair, was located on a remote road near a marshy slough on the Spirit Lake Reservation, according to Devils Lake Police Detective Sue Schwab.
Searches were conducted throughout the 245,000-acre reservation, but the trail went cold. Joe’s family grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of information. Nearly a year passed and there were still no answers on Joe’s whereabouts. Until June 9, 2019.
That’s when, according to Det. Schwab, partial human remains were found by a passerby in a secluded area in between sloughs on the Spirit Lake Reservation. They were sent for testing and quickly determined to belong to Joseph Bruce. However, a cause of death was not released.
“We were crushed,” Joe’s girlfriend, Miranda, told Dateline. “I had a feeling something bad had happened, but you still never expect something as horrific as this.”
Miranda told Dateline that the human remains found were Joe’s skull and that it was found near where his van was located a year earlier. Detective Schwab wouldn’t confirm these details to Dateline due to the case being an active investigation.
The discovery of the remains was met with frustration by his family because for a year they dealt with rumors and stories that Joe had just run off without telling anyone.
“I know Joe and he would’ve never done that,” Miranda said. “He would never leave and not contact his kids or his mother. There’s no way.”
Joe’s mother, Myrna, still remembers the last time she saw her son. Just a day before he disappeared.
“He was folding clothes at my house… and he looked up at me with that big cheesy smile of his and just tilted his head and said, ‘I love ya, Ma,’” she recalled as she choked back tears. “I still remember that smile and his dimples.”
Joe was a big man, six-foot-two, 205 pounds and always wore his red "Native Pride" ball cap and was proud of his Native American heritage.
But he wasn’t always a big guy.
“When he was born, he was so small that he fit in the palm of your hand,” his mother told Dateline, adding that it earned him the nickname “Little Big Man,” which she believed still fit him as an adult.
“He was a big guy, but he had a soft, kind heart,” Myrna said. The mother of five, who is in her mid-60s, has been through a lot of tragedy in her life. In the late 1990s, she was struck by a car and had to learn to walk again. A few years later, in 2002, her 26-year-old son died in a house fire. Her husband passed away in 2017. And now, this.
“They say the good Lord gives you only what he knows you can handle,” Myrna told Dateline. “But I don’t know how much more I can take. My heart has just shattered too many times.”
Myrna, who had five sons, fondly remembers Joe as being the peacemaker among his brothers.
“Joe would break up a fight or an argument and say, ‘stop it, we’re all we’ve got,’” Myrna said. “He was like that… He’d help anyone who needed something. He’d give the shirt off his back. Even if he was the one in the fight, he never stayed mad. He wasn’t a saint by any means, but he was my boy. And he was a good man.”
Another year has passed, and Joe’s family feel they are no closer to finding out what happened to him.
“I fear we’ll never know the truth,” Myrna said. “The more time that passes, the harder it is to hold on to any hope that we’ll find out what happened. We’re Native American - they don’t care about us.”
Both Myrna and Miranda told Dateline that Joe’s death has been a struggle for the entire family, especially his children.
“All of our children were close to Joe,” Miranda said. “He was always there for them. He was such a good dad. Losing him was the worst thing to ever happen to them.”
On June 20, a year after Joe’s remains were found, his family suffered another loss. Joseph Jr., passed away from complications of his disability. He was only 14 years old.
“My only solace is that Joe is with his son now,” Myrna said. “And with his brother and his father. They’re all at peace now, I hope.”
Detective Schwab told Dateline the Devils Lake Police, along with the Bureau of Indian affairs, and the FBI continue to check out tips that come in, but are still waiting on that one piece that will break the case wide open.
In June of 2020, the FBI increased the reward to up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and indictment of the individual(s) responsible for Joe’s disappearance and/or death.
Detective Schwab would not release details about possible suspects in the case, but told Dateline they are continuing to interview people who may have information connected to the case.
“I believe this is solvable,” Det. Schwab said. “Joe’s case lines the walls of my office and I see it every day I come in. It’s a priority case. And every day, I hope we get the missing piece to this puzzle.”
Meanwhile, Joe’s family is also hoping to find out what happened and for those responsible to be brought to justice.
“Whoever did this didn’t just murder Joe, they murdered his entire family,” Myrna said. “Our family has never been the same after this tragedy.”
Anyone with information regarding Joe’s disappearance and/or death is asked to call the FBI's Minneapolis Field Office at (763) 569-6011 or the Devils Lake Police Department at (701) 662-0700.