Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Hope, help & tragedy in Faribault July 22, 2021

I photographed this woman’s shirt at a public event in Northfield. The message refers to struggles with mental illness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

IF YOU’VE FOLLOWED my writing long enough, you understand my dedication to increasing awareness on two important issues—domestic violence and mental health.

This week, both made headlines in my community. I can’t let this opportunity slide without sharing what’s happened/is happening in Faribault. We need to stay informed, to choose awareness over sticking our heads in the sand. Understanding leads to action and, perhaps, saving lives.

First the really good news for Faribault and the surrounding region (according to the Faribault Daily News): Our local hospital, District One, and Rice County Social Services are collaborating on new adult outpatient mental health services. The hospital, part of Allina Health, will offer a day treatment program and a partial hospitalization program for adults dealing with mental illnesses. Social services will provide referrals.

Photographed at the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

To say I am thrilled is an understatement. This is so needed in Rice County and the surrounding rural areas. Our access to mental health care, especially during or following a crisis, is limited. Waiting time to see a psychiatrist, if that doctor is even accepting new patients, can be up to six weeks. Can you imagine waiting six weeks if you were experiencing a heart attack? You would likely die. Individuals facing mental health issues—from depression to anxiety to bipolar to schizophrenia and more—deserve, and need, immediate access to local care. As do their families.

To get treatment and support locally, rather than traveling to the Twin Cities metro, will ease some of the stress during an already stressful situation. Even with this improvement in services, though, we really need more mental health professionals to alleviate the shortage and meet the area’s needs.

Stress, while a bit of a buzzword, is part of life. And this week my community feels especially stressed by a murder-suicide, which left a 32-year-old woman dead, allegedly shot by her 27-year-old boyfriend, who then killed himself. It’s devastating. Two young people dead in an apparent act of domestic violence.

A mosaic on the exterior of the Faribault Chamber of Commerce & Tourism office honors employee Barb Larson, murdered there on December 23, 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

My heart breaks every time I read of such murder-suicides, or any act of domestic violence. Shortly before Christmas 2016, Barb Larson was shot and killed by her ex-husband, who then took his own life, in a high profile case in Faribault. She worked for the local tourism office. He was a retired police officer. That crime shook Faribault to its core.

Likewise, I expect the murder of Amanda Schroeder on Monday evening is prompting similar angst. And increasing awareness of the ongoing crime of domestic violence. HOPE Center, which advocates for victims of domestic and sexual violence, is already reminding the community that advocates are available to listen, help and support. 24/7.

In both of these situations—domestic abuse/violence and mental health crises—people are here to help. I feel thankful to live in a community that cares. No one ever needs to feel alone, to face life’s challenges and stresses solo.

Warning signs of domestic abuse/violence from a previous community event on the topic. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I know Amanda tried. She called 911. To make that call took strength and courage. Still, she died. If Amanda’s death can save one life, can result in one person safely leaving an abusive partner, then something positive has come from this tragedy.

Where does all of this leave us as individuals? I encourage you to educate yourself on domestic abuse/violence and mental illness. Then take that knowledge and show your care and compassion to those who need it. To those experiencing challenges. And their families. Listen. Support. Encourage. Refer to professionals. Be that person who chooses not to ignore, but rather to be there. To engage. To understand. To uplift. To care.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Able to breathe again April 21, 2021

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A message chalked in Bridge Square in Northfield carries a repeated phrase as young Black people continue to die at the hands of police. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

WHEN MY ELDEST DAUGHTER texted at 2:31 pm Tuesday that a verdict had been reached in the Derek Chauvin trial, I replied with one simple word. What?

That the jury could reach a verdict in such a short time—about 10 hours—following weeks of testimony likely meant that the former Minneapolis police officer would be found guilty of killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis by pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

I immediately switched on the TV to await reading of the verdict by Judge Peter Cahill. As I waited and watched news coverage, I felt a sense of hope. Hope that this would end in a conviction. Hope that, finally, there would be accountability in the death of a Black man at the hands of police.

I’d watched the Chauvin trial off-and-on. I heard the words of the bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s death, who pleaded with police officers to give him medical attention. Who asked Chauvin to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck. Who chose to pause and care and document and attempt to save another human being’s life. They felt hopeless, helpless, traumatized, according to their sworn testimony. I listened, too, to police officers testify against one of their own. And I heard Floyd’s loved ones and medical experts speak. Listening to testimony left me at times feeling exhausted and heart-broken.

So when the guilty of all three counts—second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter—came down yesterday, I felt relief. Finally.

I watched Chauvin as the verdict was read. His eyes darted from side-to-side. I wondered what he was thinking in that moment and the moments following—when his bail was revoked, he was handcuffed and led away to wait in a Minnesota prison for his sentencing in eight weeks.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

But mostly, I wondered how the Floyd family felt. Later they would speak at a news conference led by Civil Rights activist Al Sharpton and Civil Rights attorney Ben Crump. Said Sharpton: “This gives us the energy to fight on.” And Crump: “America, let’s frame this moment as a moment where we are finally getting close to living up to our Declaration of Independence…that all men are created equally…with certain unalienable rights like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

My mind focused on this single word: life. George Floyd needlessly lost his life on May 25 at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, a place now known as George Floyd Square.

In the 11 months since, his family has focused on attaining justice in the death of their brother/cousin/uncle/father and on effecting change. They have done that with grace, poise, eloquence, prayer and passion. George’s brother, Philonise Floyd, has stepped up as the family spokesman. At Tuesday’s news conference, these words, especially, resonated with me: “Today we are able to breathe again.” That comment by Philonise linked directly to George Floyd’s plea to police officers as he lay face down on the pavement dying. “I can’t breathe.”

A photo and comment posted at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Much work remains to be done. Tuesday’s verdict marks an important step in accountability and a move toward justice and equality. It’s easy to type that. It’s harder to live it. To speak up. To take action. To care. And we need to care, whether we live along a rural gravel road, in a small town, in the heart of a big city or anywhere in between.

FYI: I’d encourage you to read posts by two Minnesota bloggers whom I respect and follow and who share their thoughts on the Derek Chauvin verdict. Click here to read Margit Johnson’s post, “Endings and Beginnings,” and Kathleen Cassen Mickelson’s “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.”

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Car slams into house in my Faribault neighborhood December 11, 2020

The scene mid-morning a block from my house shows a KIA Optima lodged in my neighbors’ house.

HOURS AFTER LAW ENFORCEMENT and first responders swarmed my Faribault neighborhood this morning, I called a neighbor to see if she knew what was happening. Up until that point, I’d only walked to the end of my driveway to, from afar, observe at least six police cars and other vehicles parked near a house on Tower Place, lights pulsating. Just minutes earlier, an ambulance turned the corner by my home, sirens blaring. That concerned me.

A child’s slide sits near the point of impact.

The neighbor in me wanted to run up the hill to assure everyone was OK. The journalist in me wanted to race up the hill with my camera. The you’re-not-a-reporter-anymore voice warned me to stay away, that emergency personnel didn’t need extra people roaming the scene.

Close-up you can really see the extent of the damage.

When I observed a tow truck and a flat bed tow truck driving up the street, I surmised that perhaps a vehicle hit the house. My neighbor confirmed that in our phone conversation.

I believe the tarped area is a fort where the boys who live here play.

At that point, with nearly all emergency personnel clearing the scene, I headed up Tower with my camera. I passed by an angled vehicle blocking the street and was greeted by a police officer who asked if I was from the Daily News. I told him I was a neighbor, but that I sometimes work with the local paper. He seemed OK with that. I asked if everyone inside the house—a couple with two elementary-aged boys—was alright. He assured me they were, but declined to give the condition of those in the vehicle. Media reports state both the driver and passenger were taken to the hospital with the passenger flown to the metro and that the incident involved a police pursuit which was called off.

This house is within a block of mine.

My first look at the blue KIA Optima lodged into the house at 128 Tower Place left me standing there in disbelief. The car apparently hit the house at a high rate of speed given the damage to both car and house and given the entire front of the KIA rested inside the home.

I’ve been in this house, when the previous owner lived there. If I remember correctly, the section hit is the kitchen. This incident happened around breakfast time, well before 9 a.m. That the family inside was not injured and that no gas explosion occurred are truly reasons to feel grateful.

Tracks and paint mark the path the car followed as it shot across the road and flew over a fence before landing inside the house.

Once I took my focus off the house and car, I looked for signs of how the KIA got into the yard without demolishing the chain link fence. Tire marks and paint sprayed by investigators show that the car failed to negotiate a turn and then launched from a hill, over the fence, across the yard and into the house.

Hours after the crash, police and State Patrol remained on-scene. This is located near Bethlehem Academy, to the left.

As I photographed the tire marks, the police officer standing guard advised me that I was walking in an investigation scene. I apologized. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I overheard him tell to young people that the Minnesota State Patrol would wrap up its investigation within an hour. He was tight-lipped, and rightly so. He suggested that I’d taken enough pictures. He extended only kindness to me at my misstep. I got the hint, apologized again, and started back home, shaken.

This isn’t the first time a car hit a house in my neighborhood. Decades ago, a parked car rolled down another steep hillside street and slammed into the front of our next-door neighbors’ house. And a tire once came off a vehicle, rolled down the hill and slammed into our house, nearly hitting the gas line/meter. The tire mark is still there on the siding. Yet, that’s nothing compared to what happened this morning at 128 Tower Place.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Faribault: Challenged to talk about domestic violence, to end the silence January 13, 2020

A snippet of a domestic violence poster published by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, several years ago.

 

STATISTICS IMPRESS. But stories impress more. And what we do after we hear those numbers and those stories matters. Profoundly.

Take a story shared by Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen on Friday evening during a meeting on domestic violence. Sponsored by HOPE Center, the event aimed to get men in the community talking, caring about and speaking up on the issue. I was among the women, outnumbered by men, in the audience.

In 2001, before he joined the Faribault force, Bohlen was called to the scene of a murder. A “domestic,” in which a 4-year-old boy was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend. No one called the police when they heard the boy screaming. Previously or on the day of the murder. Every adult failed that 4-year-old, the chief said. The child’s horrific death profoundly affected Bohlen.

“We (police department) never try to fail a kid or a family,” he said, also praising HOPE Center, its Blueprint for Safety plan (a collaborative county-wide effort to address domestic violence) and local social workers. He praised, too, those gathered at South Central College for Friday’s event. “It’s the right thing to do, to get involved.”

 

A plaque honors Barb Larson, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism employee, who was shot to death by her ex-husband in the tourism office on December 23, 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As I listened to the chief, to HOPE Executive Director Erica Staab-Absher, Prosecuting Attorney and HOPE Board Chair Wendy Murphy, guest speaker Scott Miller of Duluth’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs and audience members, I considered that we likely each brought stories of domestic abuse to the room. I expect that every one of you reading this post has, in some way, been affected by domestic violence. Directly or indirectly. For example, in December 2016, two high profile murder-suicides within weeks rocked Faribault, forever changing my southern Minnesota community. We are much more aware. People are talking. Men (and women) of Courage.

We can take our experiences and hold them or we can, as HOPE Director Staab-Absher encouraged, start having those difficult conversations to end the shame and silence of domestic violence, to show compassion to survivors and those who love them, and to hold abusers accountable. She challenged attendees to begin thinking of ways they can accomplish that.

 

Information from a previous meeting on domestic violence in my community.

 

Miller, himself a childhood victim of abuse and bullying, works in Duluth with men who batter. To end the silence. To make a difference. He offered insights on abusers, saying they see themselves as better than women—controlling a woman’s space and winning. I found that word choice, “winning,” especially unsettling. Miller also explained that an abusive personality uses whatever his victim values (ie. car, faith, family) as leverage to punish or gain submission.

In his work with abusers, Miller strives to listen, not to tell. To hear the men’s stories. To encourage these men to think about emotions, to express feelings, to work on changing.

 

Among the inspirational words honoring Barb Larson in a memorial mosaic at the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Office. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As I listened to Miller and the others, I experienced a mix of emotions. Hope. Despair. Sadness. Empowerment. Anger.

In the past five years, Faribault police have responded to 630 verbal and physical domestic violence calls and 190 sexual assault calls, Police Chief Bohlen said, adding that the actual number of cases (because so many go unreported) can be conservatively doubled.

Attorney Murphy stated that getting a conviction in Rice County is “extremely hard.” I wanted to stand up and ask, “Why?” I had too many questions.
But I held my questions, choosing instead to simply listen. To a pastor, among four in attendance. He shared about a woman who called him. A woman hiding in her room, dresser shoved against the door, as her partner rushed up the stairs in pursuit of her. The pastor called the police. She was angry. At him. The pastor. He recognized the seriousness of the situation, of the need to call police to protect this woman. “Don’t call me. Call the police,” he told those attending Friday’s gathering.

Guest speaker Miller earlier brought clergy into the conversation, terming them, and not the police, as the 911 for many people. Abusers, he said, may claim to “find Jesus in prison,” then manipulate unknowing pastors. I felt gratitude in that moment for Miller bringing that component into the conversation and for the four pastors in attendance, men of faith learning and standing up and refusing to remain silent about domestic violence.

 

Photographed on the inside of a women’s bathroom stall at Lark Toys in Kellogg five years ago, this powerful message. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

It takes all of us. Men. Women. Communities. Individually and collectively. Personally and professionally. To think and talk about ways to end domestic violence and sexual assault. To end the silence. To act. To make a difference.

FYI: If you are in an abusive relationship, please seek help from a place like HOPE Center. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. You deserve to live a life free of abuse and violence. If you know someone in an abusive relationship, seek the advice of advocates to learn how you can best support and help victims and survivors of domestic abuse.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The unlucky leprechaun April 17, 2019

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2015.

 

NEARLY 40 YEARS after I left my first newspaper reporting job, I still receive The Gaylord Hub each week. The third-generation family-owned Hub holds a special spot in my heart. Here I initially put my journalism education to work, covering the southern Minnesota town of Gaylord and surrounding areas in Sibley County.

Part of my job included checking reports at the Sibley County Sheriff’s office where I sometimes had to push to access public records. Being young, a woman and the first full-time staff writer (outside of family) put me in the occasional challenging position of not being taken seriously. Locals quickly learned, though, that I would stand my ground and intimidation didn’t work with me. Jim Deis, the editor and publisher, always backed me up and for that I was grateful.

All that serious talk aside, I met plenty of wonderful folks who embraced my writing and photography. The diversity of my job ranged from writing a feature about current WCCO TV sports director Mike Max and his brother Marc’s sizable baseball card collection to covering massive church, school and chicken barn fires to filing through initial complaint reports.

But I don’t ever recall anything quite as unique or humorous as the story I read in the April 4 issue of The Hub under a column labeled Sibley County District Court. As I read the story aloud to my husband, I couldn’t stop laughing. Here’s the line that prompted my laughter:

According to court documents, the Sibley County Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to Westgate Apartments in Gaylord at 3:55 a.m. on March 25 for a complaint of a man dressed as a leprechaun running up and down the halls and creating a disturbance.

My first questions: Why would a man dress as a leprechaun? It wasn’t St. Patrick’s Day. And what exactly does a leprechaun wear? Green clothes, hat, pointy shoes?

I read on that the responding deputy spotted a man “with something red on his head” driving a vehicle out of the parking lot. The driver took off but was eventually stopped, admitted to drinking and also driving with a canceled license. He’s now been charged with multiple crimes.

Randy listened without interruption. Then he offered this assessment: “Sounds like his luck ran out.” And that would be right.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering Barb Larson December 23, 2018

A mosaic on the exterior of the Faribault Chamber office honors employee Barb Larson, murdered there on December 23, 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I WISH I WASN’T WRITING this post. But I must. Today marks two years since Barb Larson was shot and killed by her ex-husband at the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office. Richard Larson then turned the gun on, and killed, himself.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This high-profile crime rocked my community. And raised awareness of domestic violence. Barb was a victim even before her death. A harassment restraining order was served on her ex the week he killed her. A piece of paper is just that, a piece of paper.

 

Inspirational and honoring words are embedded in the mosaic tile. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The anniversary of Barb’s murder is a sobering reminder of domestic violence. But it is also a time to remember that we can all step up and do something about it. We can support, encourage and love those who are in abusive relationships. That includes all types of abuse, not just physical. We can direct them to professionals for help. In Faribault, HOPE Center offers help and hope. We can be there, listening. We can be a voice for victims. We can refuse to look the other way.

 

A portrait of Barb Larson by Faribault artist Dana Hanson. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

We can do this. For Barb. And for all the other Barbs who need us to care.

If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call 911. Have a safety plan in place to leave your abuser. Please seek help. It is there. Locally or by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Enough August 24, 2018

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I EXPECTED IT. As soon as I read that the suspect in the murder of small town Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts is an alleged illegal immigrant, I knew this would become a political issue. I knew, too, that the venom of hatred in this country would strike like a coiled snake.

From the President to too many politicians (including right here in Minnesota) to everyday Americans, the poison is spreading. A young woman is dead and that seems to have been lost in the spewing of anger and hatred and pushing an agenda for immigration reform.

Enough.

Beyond that, the family which operates Yarrabee Farms, where the suspect was employed, is receiving death threats, threats to burn down their buildings, even threats to kill their dog.

Enough.

What has happened to common decency in this country? What has happened to respect for a grieving family? What has happened to the ability to see crime as crime and not something linked to an individual’s skin color or residency status?

I know there are those who will disagree with me, who will jump all over this post and argue. But, because this is my personal blog, I will not give hatred a platform. I choose to honor Mollie.

In the words of Yarrabee Farms co-owner Craig Lang, also a Republican candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture this summer: “…now is not the time to discuss immigration.”

Now is the time to respect a family and community which are grieving. They, and Mollie, deserve more than the politicization of her death.

#

NOTE: I moderate all comments. I decide what publishes here.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From the perspective of a former reporter: Thoughts after The Capital Gazette shootings June 30, 2018

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I’M A FORMER NEWSPAPER reporter and photographer. As such, the killings of five employees in The Capital Gazette newsroom just days ago affects me in a way it may not non-journalists.

The single phrase that repeated through my mind: He (the suspect) really did kill the messengers (newspaper employees). The alleged shooter apparently held a grudge against the Gazette for writing about his conviction for stalking a woman.

Too often I’ve heard people attack and criticize reporters for doing their jobs of reporting the news. Journalists are blamed for whatever is negative. It’s an unfair accusation. Do not kill the messenger. The reporter did not cause the bad thing that now banners the newspaper.

If journalists report only the good news or whatever is spun to them, then they are nothing more than pawns, propaganda tools, mouthpieces. These are difficult times to be a journalist with the constant spewing of the words “fake news” and open hostility and name-calling at the highest levels of government. Democracy needs a free and open press. The press is not the enemy.

I experienced firsthand efforts to suppress my reporting while working in the profession decades ago. In small town Minnesota. How dare I attend a school board meeting and quote a teacher who didn’t want his comment, made at an open, public meeting, printed. My editor backed me up. But I had to endure the ire of that teacher and his superintendent for the rest of my stay in that rural community.

Likewise, a prominent businessman in the same county seat town harassed me for quoting him at a city planning meeting. When I moved to another job with a regional daily working in a satellite news bureau, I encountered the same hostility from a superintendent who didn’t like my story on a student walk-out. He treated me with absolute contempt, behavior which I found (and still find) totally unprofessional for an educator.

Then there was the sheriff’s department employee who wanted to withhold public information from me when I was gathering facts in a drug case.

There are those who will argue that the media deserve the contempt and criticism heaped on them. There are those who will say media people are nothing but a bunch of biased liberals. There are those who will blame journalists for anything and everything. Everyone is entitled to an opinion in a free country. Not all journalists are fair or balanced in their reporting. I agree with that.

But I also come from that perspective of working in the news profession. I know how hard I worked (long and odd hours with low pay) to accurately and fairly gather and report the news. I cared that I got the story right. I think most journalists do.

A reporter at the Gazette tweeted after the shootings: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” That tweet shows remarkable strength when a man with a gun has just killed the messengers in a Maryland newsroom.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Missing in Minnesota May 7, 2018

 

 

DURING A RECENT RESTROOM stop at a Redwood Falls convenience store, I paused to read notices tacked onto a bulletin board. There I saw a missing persons bulletin for Mato Dow. The 26-year-old was last seen in the early morning hours of October 13, 2017, in this southwestern Minnesota community. A quick online search showed he remains missing. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

That led me to wonder how many other Minnesotans are missing. The number shocked me. Eight-three. That’s according to information published on the Minnesota Department of Public Safety website. In the Minnesota Missing and Unidentified Persons Clearinghouse section, the missing are snapshot profiled via photos, places and dates of disappearances, and current ages. (Click on individual names for more details.) Dow, for whatever reason, is not among those listed.

But familiar names from high profile missing persons cases are on that list. Cases I remember.

  • Corrine Erstad, missing from Inver Grove Heights in June 1992, current age 31
  • Georgia Smith, missing from Champlin in June 1999, current age 95
  • Josh Guimond, missing from Collegeville in November 2002, current age 35
  • Leanna Warner, missing from Chisholm in June 2003, current age 20
  • Brandon Swanson, missing from Marshall in May 2008, current age 29.

The body of Jacob Wetterling, Minnesota’s most high profile missing person, was found in September 2016, his killer then apprehended and imprisoned. Jacob’s case did much to raise awareness. I am thankful the Wetterling family finally got answers about their son. I only wish the results had been different.

But for 83 other missing persons, family and friends still don’t have those answers. That includes the oldest case listed, that of brothers Daniel, David and Kenneth Klein. The three left their home on November 10, 1951, for Fairview Park in Minneapolis, never to be seen again. Can you imagine? I can’t. Those “boys” would now be in their seventies.

The most recent entry (as of Friday, May 4) is for Tawhna Pringle, 31, who disappeared from the Babbitt area on January 11, 2018.

From every corner of Minnesota—from Worthington to Winona to Warren to Chisholm and places in between—people have vanished. Disappeared. Gone. The list also includes several gone missing in other states.

Eighty-three. Kids. Teens. Adults.

To not know what happened to your loved one has to be the most unimaginable pain. I’d encourage you to take the time today to click here and scroll through those 83 missing persons profiles. Even if you live outside Minnesota. All it takes is one person somewhere to share information that could help solve a case and provide answers for loved ones.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A look back at an unfathomable act of domestic violence in rural Minnesota & more March 24, 2018

WHAT CAUSED A MINNESOTA farmer to kill his entire family—his wife and four young children—with an ax in a horrific act of domestic violence?

We likely will never know the truth behind the murders-suicide which happened on March 24, 1917, in rural Redwood County, my home county in the fertile farmland of southwestern Minnesota.

 

 

Up until the release of a book of historical fiction, Sundown at Sunrise by former Minnesota state legislator Marty Seifert in late 2016, I’d never heard of this crime. I recently read the book published by Beaver’s Pond Press. Therein I found familiar names, including the maiden surname of my maternal grandmother and other known names from Redwood County.

 

The murder occurred in Section 16 of Three Lakes Township in the area noted by the pointing hand. This is a photo of a Digitized State of Minnesota Plat Book map from 1916. I found this through the Minnesota History Center, Gale Family Library, Borchert Map Library. The author grew up in the northeastern corner of Sundown Township.

 

Seifert grew up in Sundown Township within miles of the murders. In a farmhouse in Section 16 of Three Lakes Township north of Clements, William Kleeman, 31, raised an ax and killed his wife, Maud, and their children ranging in age from six weeks to five years. He then hung himself. Many times I’ve passed that former farm place at the intersection of Minnesota State Highway 68 and Redwood County Road 1 west of Morgan and near the site of Farm Fest. I had no idea of the violence that occurred there.

But the author grew up hearing the story of the Kleeman ax murders. That and his interest in history—he’s a former history teacher—prompted Seifert to research and pen this book rooted in fact.

 

From the Minneapolis Morning Tribune dated March 27, 1917. This is a photo of the article found in the Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.

 

I decided to check out for myself newspaper accounts of the murders. That led me to the Minnesota Digitized Newspaper Hub and sensationalized layered headlines followed by detailed stories. I expect Seifert used the same sources, and more, to research for his book. But he goes beyond those stories to suggest the real reason behind the crime discovered by a young teacher (her name is fictionalized in the book) who boarded with the Kleemans. I won’t share more. You need to read the book.

 

The story about the murders published in the New Ulm Review on March 28, 1917.

 

In reading Sundown at Sunrise, I noted specific red flags pointing to future domestic violence and an awareness of that potential. A hired hand, for example, tells Maud’s father upon her engagement to William Kleeman that, “I think Miss Petrie done deserve better.” Henry Petrie agrees.

The author also describes William Kleeman “from a young age parlaying his handsome looks and confident demeanor as ways to manipulate his mother.” That manipulative charm threads throughout the story. I appreciate that the author understands the characteristics of an abuser and writes that into this work of fiction based on fact.

And then, after the murders, the hired hand sees the Kleemans’ marriage certificate nailed above the bed where Maud and her baby lie in pools of blood. Frank Schottenbauer notes that “he’d rather look at a bloody corpse than view the license William Kleeman had used to violate Maud Petrie.”

The author many times works the appearance of garter snakes and William Kleeman’s aversion to religion into the storyline, alluding to evil.

 

The Pine Island Record printed this story on March 29, 1917.

 

You can surmise what you will from this book of historical fiction. But nothing changes the fact that Maud died at the hands of her husband and Gladys, Lois, Gordon and Rosadell died at the hands of their father in an unfathomable act of domestic violence in Redwood County, Minnesota.

Today I honor the memories of that young mother and her beloved children. They deserved to live full lives on the prairie, to love and to be loved.

 

A plat of Three Lakes Township from a 1963 Atlas of Redwood County Minnesota shows the section (16) in which the crime occurred. You’ll find some of the surnames here included in Sundown at Sunrise.

 

FYI: The ax used in the murders is stored in the archives of the Redwood County Historical Society in Redwood Falls. For years, it was kept as evidence by the sheriff’s department before its donation to the county museum.

 

 

 

TODAY, AS YOUNG PEOPLE and others gather in Washington, DC, and around the world (including right here in Minnesota) for the “March For Our Lives” anti-gun-violence rally, I honor those I knew (via personal connections) who have been murdered in acts of domestic violence. Not just by gun violence, although several were shot.

Violence, whether in our schools, our homes, on the street, needs to stop. We need to take a stand, to act when we can, to say, “Enough is enough.” We need to care, to speak up, to listen, to educate ourselves, to push for change. I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I have witnessed and experienced the pain and grief of those who have lost loved ones through acts of violence. If you haven’t, consider yourself fortunate.

I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to comfort a friend whose father was murdered. I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to comfort parents whose daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. I’ve had to reach deep inside myself to write about the murder of a beloved community member by her ex-husband at our local tourism office.

I’ve watched a SWAT team sweep through my neighborhood searching for a knife used in a murder within blocks of my home. I’ve talked to police many years ago about a drive by shooting involving big city gang members. A gang member purchased a car from us, failed to change the title, used the car in a shooting and then stashed the gun in the trunk. Investigators started with us, owners of the car.

Yes, I’ve been touched many times by violence. Gun and other.

Enough is enough. To those young people and others who are speaking up today, thank you for using your voice to effect change.

 

 

 

IMPORTANT: If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call or text (if that option is available in your area) 911. If you are leaving (or thinking of leaving) your abuser, please seek help and have a safety plan in place. Talk to someone you trust like a family member, friend, c0-worker, clergy, advocate…  Immediate help is available. Reach out to a local women’s shelter or advocacy center for professional help. You are not alone. You deserve to live a life free of any type of abuse whether physical, mental, emotional, psychological, financial, spiritual or technological.

Please know that you are in greatest danger when you are about to leave, are leaving or have left your abuser. Abuse is about power, control and manipulation. When abusers lose that control, they often become violent. Be safe and know that you are loved.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Quoted passages are copyright of Marty Seifert and used here for review purposes only.