When Wendy Poulsen’s teenage daughter, Dani, began acting out — running with the wrong crowd, using marijuana and dropping out of high school — the worried mom began to secretly monitor her whereabouts.
The office manager invested in a tracking device and hid it in the trunk of the 18-year-old’s car. As she told The Post: “It gave me a bit of peace of mind.”
She had more reason than most to resort to such a measure – Poulsen’s younger brother, Scott, suddenly vanished at the age of 25. It took police more than two years to find some remains of his body. The investigation is now a cold case.
Tragically, despite Poulsen’s best efforts to rein in her daughter, Dani’s life also came to a distressing, premature end. She died of a fentanyl overdose on Sept. 1, 2019, shortly before her 19th birthday.
“She was my everything,” the mom of Minneapolis, Minn., said, adding, “There are times when I can’t figure out how to keep living.”
But she is comforted by the fact that she was able to track down her daughter’s body quickly — and later identify her killer — with the device.
“Otherwise,” she said, “We’d have had to search for her and it could have taken years, like it did with my brother.”
Poulsen adopted Dani from Kazakhstan with her now ex-husband, Gerald Sommerfeld, 61, when she was six months old. She said their longed-for child had a happy upbringing, earned A grades at school and practiced sports like snowboarding, karate and rugby.
“She had such huge hopes and dreams for the future,” Poulsen added. “At first, she wanted to be an architect and then she thought about being [an agent] in the FBI.”
However, Dani’s personality started to unravel once a friend introduced her to marijuana – a substance Poulsen labeled her “gateway drug” – and she became troubled and anxious. Dani confessed that she felt “abandoned” by her biological parents.
Her education deteriorated and she lost interest in her usual activities, though she still developed a talent for tattoo design. Dani had her Muslim name, Aruzhan, which translates as “beautiful soul,” etched in Arabic on her body together with the coordinates of her birthplace in Central Asia. In her final years, the promising artist planned to open her own tattoo salon.
But after Dani was busted for DUI in 2017, Poulsen became desperately worried something terrible would happen to her. She tried to install location apps such as Life360 on the teen’s phone, but her daughter kept deleting them. So, in the early summer of 2019, Poulsen tried a new trick. She stashed a 3-inch-by-2-inch SafeTrack device, which could monitor her location and driving speed, under the carpet in the trunk of Dani’s vehicle. Every so often, she covertly recharged the battery and put it back in the car.
Sadly, less than three months after taking such drastic action, Poulsen’s worst nightmare came true. She was visiting her family’s remote cabin for the weekend when she became anxious because Dani wasn’t answering calls or texts. She’d assured her mom that she would mostly be staying at home to look after their five dogs. Something was up.
“I got sicker in my stomach as the hours went by,” the mom said. She checked the tracker which showed Dani’s car was parked in a suburb of the Twin Cities. In a panic, she asked her daughter’s best friend, Skylar, to try and find the SUV. Skylar spotted the vehicle but saw nobody inside.
The next morning, she received the shocking news from Katti’s husband, Dustin, that Dani had been found dead in the passenger seat of her Ford Edge. It had been too dark for Skylar to have seen her body slumped in the seat eight hours earlier.
“Dustin told me: ‘She’s gone,’” recalled Poulsen, who’d left the cabin to frantically drive the four hours back to Minneapolis. “I barely remember what I said or did.”
The police arrived at the scene of the crime and used data from the tracker to establish where Dani had gone in her final hours. They identified the address she had last visited as the home of Calvonzo Burnett. He was known as a crook with a prior record including the battery of his pregnant girlfriend in 2011. Later, it was established that Burnett had supplied the fatal fentanyl, a Class A narcotic that is 50 times stronger than heroin.
In December 2019, Jordan Knudson, another 18-year-old from another Minneapolis suburb, died after Burnett also supplied him with fentanyl. After a manhunt, Burnett was arrested and charged with the killing of both Jordan and Dani in early February 2020.
Data from Poulsen’s tracking gadget was presented as evidence in Burnett’s October 2020 conviction for causing the deaths of Dani and Jordan. His lawyers negotiated a plea deal and he was sentenced to five years — to run concurrently — on two counts of third-degree murder.
Burnett’s sentence gave a small amount of solace to Poulsen and Jordan’s mom, Susan Kundson-Walker. “The tracker couldn’t help me control Dani’s behavior and I knew it wasn’t going to stop her from doing something [risky],” said Poulsen, who’d paid an annual subscription fee of around $240 for its use. “But it showed the most value in the end game.”
Burnett maintained his innocence at earlier hearings and insulted Dani’s memory by calling her “that stupid bitch.” But, before the judge determined his punishment, Poulsen read her impact statement in court. As he was escorted out by guards, Burnett, now 30, looked her in the eye, pulled down his [COVID] mask and said: “I’m really, really sorry.”
“[The apology] was the most healing thing in the entire process,” Poulsen said. “Dani made a choice and he didn’t do this alone, but having him take some responsibility for [her death] made a difference to me.”
Sadly, Poulsen’s 77-year-old mother, Susan, has received no explanation or closure regarding the loss of her son, Scott. Nobody knows what happened to him after he disappeared from Susan’s house in Racine, Wisc., in July 1991. It wasn’t until September 1993 that moose hunters in the Canadian province of Manitoba (at least 1,000 miles from Racine) stumbled across a few of his belongings and a leg bone. DNA tests proved the femur was Scott’s, and the Mounties haven’t ruled out foul play, Poulsen said.
“For years, Mom said ‘I will never be able to love someone [as much as Scott] again,” Poulsen recalled. “But that was before she met Dani.”
Now, two-and-a-half years after her daughter died, the divorcee has become an advocate for parents — whose trust in their kids might be misplaced like hers once was — by urging them to keep a close eye on their children, even if it means using tracking equipment.
Poulsen, who now has a replica of her daughter’s “beautiful soul” tattoo on her forearm, concluded: “I hope other families may be helped by my story and be spared the pain and heartache that we’re going through.”