Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

How Faribault is honoring Barb Larson with an outdoor art installation February 17, 2017

NEARLY TWO MONTHS have passed since Barb Larson was shot to death by her ex-husband at her work place, the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism office. Dick Larson, a retired Faribault police officer, then killed himself.

Today my community continues to heal, to create an awareness of domestic violence and to celebrate the life of this vivacious and vibrant woman. I feel a real sense of unity, a deepening compassion and a connectedness that I’ve not experienced before in Faribault.

And now that care is extending to a public art project that honors Barb’s life. The Chamber is seeking proposals from area artists for an outdoor sculptural installation on the very building where Barb was killed.

 

The words in this word cloud describe Barb Larson.

The words in this word cloud describe Barb Larson and are meant to inspire artists in proposing a public sculpture in her honor.

The concept the Chamber hopes to convey is depicted in descriptive words submitted by those who knew Barb. Words like friendly, welcoming, vivacious, energetic, caring, kind… I never knew Barb. But based on the words filling a word cloud on the request for proposals, I understand why she was much beloved. I think all of us would like to be remembered with such positive adjectives.

Artists’ proposals are being accepted through March 24. Click here for more information. What a great opportunity to propose artwork that represents all the positive qualities Barb embodied.

We are a community that continues to heal. And we are a community determined to focus on the spirit of goodness and light in the darkness of tragedy.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

2016 Femicide Report: The stories, the stats, the call for action in Minnesota January 31, 2017

The 2016 Femicide Report and

The 2016 Femicide Report and a guide from the Domestic Violence Homicide Memorial, both projects of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. Photo by Erica Staab, executive director of HOPE Center, Faribault.

FORTY-FOUR PAGES.

This information about Barb Larson's murder was displayed with a personalized t-shirt as part of The Clothesline Project exhibited during the MCBW Domestic Violence Homicide Memorial on Tuesday. Photo by and courtesty of Sandra Seelhammer, Rice County Blueprint for Safety Cooridnator.

This information about Barb Larson was displayed with a personalized shirt as part of The Clothesline Project exhibited during the MCBW Domestic Violence Homicide Memorial on Tuesday. Photo by Sandra Seelhammer, Rice County Blueprint for Safety Coordinator.

Names of 21 known domestic violence homicide victims, including that of Barbara Larson from my community, are printed within those pages. She was shot to death on December 23, 2016, by her ex-husband at her workplace, the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.

An index lists section titles like Homicide Statistics, Red Flags for Batterer Lethality, Findings & Recommendations, Our Charge to Minnesota Communities, Victim Stories

The 2016 Femicide Report was released at a press conference Tuesday morning. Here Maplewood Police Chief Paul takes the podium. Photo by Erica Staab, executive director of HOPE Center, Faribault.

The 2016 Femicide Report was released at a press conference Tuesday morning. Here Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell speaks. Schnell received a 2016 MCBW Inspire Award “as a community ally for improving law enforcement responses to victims of domestic and sexual violence.” Photo by Erica Staab.

This comprises the 2016 Femicide Report released Tuesday morning by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. It is a document packed with statistics, facts, names, stories, educational information and recommendations all related to domestic violence homicides in Minnesota in 2016.

I challenge each of you to read this document by clicking here. It matters not whether you live in Minnesota, half-way across the country or on the other side of the world. If you read this report, you will better understand domestic violence, how it affects all of us and how you can make a difference.

A photo of a graphic posted on the MCBW Facebook page shows photos of all 21 individuals who died as a result of domestic violence homicide in 2016 in Minnesota. Barb Larson

A photo of a graphic posted on the MCBW Facebook page shows photos of 21 known individuals who died as a result of domestic violence homicide in 2016 in Minnesota. Barb Larson is pictured on the left, second photo from the top.

Be forewarned that the victim stories, especially, are difficult to read. But those are necessary to put a face to this violence, to provide clarity, to effect change. This needs to be a collective effort.

HOPE Center staffers and Faribault Police Department Captain Neal Pederson stand united with Barb Larson in honoring her memory. The family is holding the personalized t-shirt designed in Barb's memory for The Clothesline Project.

HOPE Center staffers Erica, left, Olivia, Sandra and Nikki, right, along with Faribault Police Department Captain Neal Pederson stand united with Barb Larson’s family in honoring Barb during the Domestic Violence Homicide Memorial. The family holds the personalized shirt created in Barb’s memory for The Clothesline Project. Photo courtesy of Erica Staab.

I am especially grateful for places like HOPE Center, offering support to victims/survivors of violence (and those who love them) in Faribault and throughout Rice County. HOPE staffers participated in the MCBW’s Domestic Violence Homicide Memorial on Tuesday in St. Paul as did a captain from the Faribault Police Department.

This The Clothesline Project t-shirt honors Barb Larson. Photo by Sandra Seelhammer.

A closer look at The Clothesline Project shirt honoring Barb Larson. Photo by Sandra Seelhammer.

Rather than attempt to summarize more of the 2016 Femicide Report, I leave you with this strong statement published in the Foreword:

Victims deserve to be believed, to be heard, and to be safe in their homes and in public. We still need to invest in resources, effective interventions, and in accountability measures that are victim centered, including prevention efforts. We can also work to end these homicides by being a resource ourselves for victims; as their family members, friends, faith leaders, employers, teachers, and neighbors. Services provide necessary tools and support, but it takes a community to keep a victim safe.

Allow me to highlight what I perceive to be particularly important words in that paragraph: believe, accountability, victim centered and prevention.

And finally: …it takes a community to keep a victim safe.

TELL ME: How is your community tackling domestic violence? What are you doing to make a difference?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering those who died of domestic violence homicide in Minnesota January 30, 2017

Barb Larson. (Photo source: Boldt Funeral Home.)

Barb Larson. (Photo source: Boldt Funeral Home.)

TO THOSE WHO KNEW Barb Larson, she was classy, sassy, upbeat and kind, always smiling.

Tomorrow she will be among those remembered at the Domestic Violence Homicide Memorial at the St. Paul College Club in St. Paul. Barb was murdered on December 23, 2016, by her ex-husband at The Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism office where she worked. Richard Larson then turned the gun on himself.

Statistics on a The Clothesline Project t-shirt from the Minnesota Coaltition for Battered Women..

Statistics on a The Clothesline Project t-shirt from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Barb’s name, and that of Minnesota’s 20 other 2016 victims of domestic violence homicide, will be read during the 4 p.m. memorial program. The January 31 memorial also includes The Clothesline Project, a display of personalized t-shirts honoring victims. That visual makes a strong impact. I know. I viewed a previous The Clothesline Project at a July 2015 event in Owatonna.

A graphic from the MCBW Facebook page promoting release of the 2016 Femicide Report.

A photo of the graphic published on the MCBW Facebook page promoting release of the 2016 Femicide Report.

Prior to the Tuesday afternoon memorial, the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women releases its 2016 Femicide Report, a compilation of information on intimate partner homicides in Minnesota. Erica Staab, executive director of HOPE Center in Faribault, is serving as the MCBW member program rep during that morning release to the media. She will also attend the afternoon memorial along with Rice County Blueprint for Safety Coordinator Sandra Seelhammer and, I expect, others from the Faribault community. Family and friends of all 21 victims were specifically invited to the public event.

Margie Brown Holland and her unborn daughter, Olivia, were honored at The Clothesline Project display this summer in Owatonna. The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women coordinates the project to honor victims of domestic violence. Redeemer Lutheran Church brought the project to Owatonna this past summer.

Margie Brown Holland and her unborn daughter, Olivia, were honored at The Clothesline Project display in July 2015. Redeemer Lutheran Church brought the project to Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

I wish events like this were not needed, that domestic violence did not exist. But it does. And it affects all of us, directly or indirectly. My community understands that all too well with the death of Barb Larson in December and the murder of Faribault native Margie Brown Holland and her unborn baby, Olivia, in March 2013.

Clothesline Project, in her honor

Words on a t-shirt at a The Clothesline Project display in Owatonna in July 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

We all need to care—enough to educate ourselves so that we understand domestic violence. We need to stop blaming victims. We need to support victims/survivors and those who love them. We need a system that holds offenders accountable. We need to take a stand against domestic violence. We need to speak up, to end the silence.

A comment on the MCBW Facebook page from the daughter of a

A photo of a comment on the MCBW Facebook page honors Barbara Ann Wilson, murdered in April 2016 in Mankato.

FYI: The Tuesday, January 31, Domestic Violence Homicide Memorial runs from 3:30 – 5 p.m. at the St. Paul College Club, 990 Summit Avenue, St. Paul.

Please check back for information on the 2016 Femicide Report, which I will review upon its release.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering Senicha & her unborn baby January 26, 2017

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Senicha Lessman. Photo credit: Eagan Police Department

Senicha Lessman. Photo credit: Eagan Police Department

HER BROWN EYES HOLD a certain soulfulness. I can see that in Senicha Lessman’s photo released by the Eagan Police Department. She died Tuesday afternoon of homicidal trauma to her face and neck. As did her unborn baby; Senicha was 32 weeks pregnant.

Two lives lost. Senicha, 25, will never see her son, due March 19. Her son will never see his mother. Their senseless and violent deaths are sad and tragic and maddening.

Family and friends and co-workers grieve the loss of this young woman, this mother-to-be. She was excited about becoming a mom, was registered online for baby gifts. A swing. Diapers. Bottles. Burp cloths. She held hopes and dreams. No more. This baby who would become a boy who would become a teen who would become a man lost his future in an act of violence.

Police arrested a 23-year-old man as a person of interest in the murders. He was in a relationship with Senicha. If he proves to be the perpetrator, then this makes Senicha and her baby victims of domestic violence.

When will it end? When? There is never an excuse for violence against women. Fatal or otherwise.

 

UPDATE: Thursday, January 26, 3:36 PM

Vern Mouelle, 23, of Brooklyn Park has been charged with one count of second degree murder (with intent) and with one count of murder of an unborn child in the second degree (with intent) in the deaths of Senicha and her baby. He has been identified as the father of the unborn baby boy by Senicha’s mother. Click here to read the news release from the Dakota County Attorney, including details of the investigation and the criminal complaint.

 

FYI: If you are in an abusive relationship and in immediate danger, call 911. If not, but you are in a physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially or technologically abusive relationship, please seek support from a local women’s shelter and/or advocacy group, a trusted friend or family member, someone. You are not alone. You deserve to live free of abuse. You are so worth it.

NOTE: These double murders remind me of the deaths nearly four years ago of Faribault native Margie Brown Holland and her unborn daughter, Olivia. Margie’s husband was convicted of first-degree murder for both deaths. That hit close to home. Margie’s father once lived across the street from me.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Shining the light of hope in Faribault following Barb Larson’s murder January 7, 2017

Barb Larson. (Photo source: Boldt Funeral Home.)

Barb Larson. (Photo source: Boldt Funeral Home.)

MORE THAN TWO WEEKS have passed since the murder of Barb Larson, shot to death by her ex-husband at the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office where she worked. Richard Larson, a retired Faribault police officer, then killed himself.

This act of domestic violence has rocked my community. We are grieving, asking why, wondering how we can heal and effect change. I wonder myself.

But already positive things are happening. Earlier this week, the Chamber remembered Barb on what would have been her 60th birthday by celebrating Happy Barb Day. Community members were encouraged to share memories of Barb online and at a Business Before Hours event.

When the Chamber office reopened a day prior, Chamber members and others gathered there to show their support for staff. Professionals are also offering in-kind services to update the Chamber lobby. I can only imagine the mental challenge of walking into that building every day with the knowledge that your friend and co-worker was murdered in your workplace.

Faribault’s faith community is also reaching out with Our Savior’s Lutheran Church taking the lead by focusing on shining light in the physical darkness of winter and in the emotional darkness of grief. At the 9:30 a.m. worship service this Sunday, battery-operated candles will be offered to attendees. The idea is to place those candles in the windows of Faribault homes as a strong visual symbol that we can be a light for each other.

That theme of being here for one another threads through a mass mailing letter I received from HOPE Center, a local organization with a mission “to create zero tolerance for sexual and domestic violence through Healing, Outreach, Prevention and Education.” Executive Director Erica Staab-Absher writes of the personal grief in losing her friend Barb. But she also writes with a renewed determination:

We must change things, and we can start here in our community. I do not want to write yet another letter sharing news like this (about Barb’s murder). We as a community must stand together and say NO More.

Powerful words.

We have the power to make a difference—to care for one another, to show others that they are not alone, to listen, to shine the light of hope.

My community is talking, creating awareness, taking action. Domestic violence/abuse is a hard issue to face. It would be easy just to look the other way, to plunge our heads into the sand of “this isn’t my problem” and then go on with our lives. But we can’t. We mustn’t.

My great niece Kiera painted this stone, which I got at a recent family reunion.

The HOPE stone that sits on my office desk was painted by my great niece Kiera. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

TELL ME: Please share with me any specific ways you, your community, your church or organization has worked toward healing, outreach, prevention and education in the area of domestic abuse/violence. Perhaps something you’ve done would help us here in Faribault.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Holding onto hope in the sadness of Jacob Wetterling’s death September 8, 2016

MY FINGERTIPS REST ON THE KEYBOARD. I stare at my computer screen, attempting to pull my thoughts in to words.

To the left, outside my home office, I hear the steady thrum of traffic splashing across a rain-slicked roadway. Rain drips from a Minnesota sky as grey as my mood.

I watched a live news conference and TV newscasts Tuesday afternoon on the Jacob Wetterling case. Here's the Jacob we all remember, a sweet 11-year-old boy abducted nearly 27 years ago.

I watched a live news conference and TV newscasts Tuesday on the Jacob Wetterling case. Here’s the Jacob we all remember, a sweet 11-year-old boy abducted nearly 27 years ago.

How do I write about the deep sadness I feel after Jacob Wetterling’s murderer confessed earlier this week to abducting, molesting and then shooting the 11-year-old on October 22, 1989? For 27 years the killer held his secret, revealing the truth Tuesday in court as part of a plea deal. (Danny Heinrich will never be charged for the murder of Jacob as part of the agreement, instead serving a possible maximum 20 years in prison on a single federal charge of possession of child pornography.) Last week Heinrich led investigators to Jacob’s remains next to a pasture of grazing cattle in Central Minnesota.

Surrounded by family, Patty Wetterling addresses the media and others during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. Behind Patty stands Trevor

Surrounded by family, Patty Wetterling addresses the media and others during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. Behind Patty stands Trevor to her right, overwhelmed by grief.

How do I write about the deep sadness I feel for Jacob’s family, who, along with so many Minnesotans, held onto hope that Jacob would be found alive? Watching Jacob’s brother, Trevor, during a recent news conference brings me to tears. He was biking home with Jacob and a friend on that October evening when a masked gunman took his brother at gunpoint. Trevor’s grief is visible in his closed eyes, bowed head, leaking tears and the way he leans in to his father, Jerry Wetterling.

How do I write about the deep sadness I feel as part of the sisterhood of mothers? Jacob’s mom, Patty Wetterling, has remained rock strong through all of this, advocating for children while she continued to hope. For 27 years. I cannot imagine the pain and the devastating grief. As Patty noted, until Jacob’s remains were found, he was alive. Now she knows with certainty that her little boy is gone.

As Minnesotans, how do we cope? We must grieve. Collectively. Privately.

But we must also hold onto the hope Patty inspired in us. Hope for a safer world for our children and grandchildren. We must claim hope. Because of Jacob.

TELL ME: How have you been impacted by the abduction of Jacob Wetterling and, now, by the discovery of his remains and by the killer’s confession?

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FYI: Click here to read a timeline of events posted by Minnesota Public Radio in the Jacob Wetterling case.

Click here to read specifics on how you can help keep kids safe and how you can support the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center.

Click here to read the writing of freelance writer and blogger Joy Baker, who, along with Jared Scheierl, was key in helping to solve the mystery of Jacob’s disappearance. Patty Wetterling in Tuesday’s news conference thanked them both for “stirring the pot.” Jacob’s killer admitted Tuesday in court to abducting and sexually assaulting Scheierl nine months before he took Jacob. A DNA match confirmed that assault against the then 12-year-old in Cold Spring. The statute of limitations has expired in that case, thus Heinrich cannot be prosecuted for that crime.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Insights into domestic violence & a Minnesota father’s mission after his daughter’s murder February 2, 2016

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Local clergy, representatives from crisis centers and many others gathered to hear Dan Kasper's powerful message on domestic violence.

Local clergy, representatives from crisis centers and many others gathered to hear Dan Kasper’s powerful message on domestic violence.

IN A NEARLY TWO-HOUR presentation Sunday afternoon to a crowd of around 50 gathered at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Owatonna, Dan Kasper of Northfield spoke from the heart—of losing a daughter to domestic violence.

In April 2013, Becky Kasper, a 19-year-old marketing major at Arizona State University, was murdered by her former boyfriend, Luis Soltero. He is currently serving 25 years in an Arizona prison for second-degree murder, plus an additional five for kidnapping, followed by a lifetime of probation with mental health terms.

Dan Kasper delivered a powerful message that personalizes domestic violence. With a portrait of Becky to his left, Dan remembered his daughter—with the beautiful brown eyes of her mother, Sheryl—as determined, a go-getter, a leader, a problem solver. Friends described her as strong, bold, brave, independent and a loyal friend.

“Becky did everything right in life,” her father said, dispelling preconceived notions about victims of domestic violence. “No one could see this coming. Doing everything right got her killed.”

He explained: Becky was trying to help Luis deal with drug and alcohol abuse. But his daughter, he said, “didn’t know what she was up against.” Luis was dealing with mental health issues and had previously attempted suicide, as recently as six weeks before Becky’s murder. “Trying to help puts you in a vulnerable spot…we are losing a lot of young women.”

On April 9, Becky and Luis ended their relationship. On Saturday, April 20, within the two-week time frame that is most dangerous for any domestic abuse victim leaving a relationship, Luis killed Becky with a 10-pound dumbbell. The following Tuesday Luis turned himself into police, after using Becky’s bank card, going to a movie within hours of her murder and attempting suicide. His plan was murder-suicide.

We need to get rid of the “he snapped” notion, Dan said, accepting that a process leads an abuser, like Luis, to domestic violence.

Dan Kasper spoke with passion and purpose.

Dan Kasper speaks with passion and purpose.

The Kaspers’ mission and the warning signs

Dan and Sheryl Kasper are on a mission now to honor their daughter. Specifically, Dan encourages parents to educate their children about and mentor healthy relationships. He emphasizes the need to increase communication and to maintain that communication, especially if a daughter is in an abusive relationship. It is up to parents, he said, to fight the battle against domestic violence because they have the most to lose.

For the Kaspers, living 1,600 miles away from Becky, there was no reason to suspect anything was amiss in Becky and Luis’ relationship. The pair spent a Christmas with the Kaspers in Minnesota and Dan drove back with the couple to Arizona in a car he’d purchased for Becky. All seemed well between them. Dan would next see Luis 1 ½ years later in an Arizona courtroom.

In hindsight, the Kaspers now recognize Becky’s calls for help. Literal calls. In one phone conversation, Becky told her mother about bruises on her arm, explaining that she’d bruised herself while pulling pans from the oven in the coffee shop where she worked. On another occasion, she told them about two black eyes caused by an air bag deploying when a friend’s car, in which she was a passenger, crashed.

“Why would we think she was lying?” Dan asked. “She was always truthful before.”

The Kaspers would learn later that, in Arizona, “people were seeing these warning signs.” They learned that “Becky was roughed up,” that people “heard screaming and stuff flying around” and even the foreboding scream, “Stop it, I can’t breathe!”

“No one told us,” Dan said. “We never had the chance to help.”

Becky Kasper's portrait.

Becky Kasper’s portrait.

Honoring their daughter

But now, despite his frustrations with “the system,” despite this tragedy that has left him existing rather than living, despite no longer feeling emotions but only thinking logically in survival mode, Dan is determined to make a difference. He quoted the words inscribed on a plaque in Becky’s honor at Arizona State University: This is not where it ends.

Sunday marked his first public speaking engagement to educate, to begin to effect changes in laws and in policies on college campuses, to fight the battle against evil. “Domestic violence is under the umbrella of evil,” Dan said, encouraging audience members to be persistent, relentless, never changing the course in being good people. “By being good people, we are fighting domestic violence.” He likened that to putting “a little grain of sand in the devil’s shoe.”

As the murder case worked through the judicial system—which Dan says is all about the abuser—the Kaspers begin to ask themselves, “What will best reflect and honor Becky’s life?” Their top priority, they determined, was assuring Luis gets the mental health help he needs and to also protect the public. That was accomplished with the 30-year prison sentence and lifetime probation with mental health terms.

Dan Kasper next to a portrait of Becky.

Dan Kasper listens to audience questions.

Meeting the murderer in prison

In November 2014, Dan met face-to-face with his daughter’s killer. Luis walked into the prison visiting room unshackled with a bounce in his step, a smile and as happy as could be, like they were old buddies, Dan said. This father didn’t get the answer to his question, “Where is the mental illness I didn’t see?” Nor did he get an apology. Nor an explanation other than Luis “got in his head that Becky needed to die.”

Luis accepted responsibility for the crime, not blaming it on mental illness. He also talked about dedicating his life to Christ and repentance and said he some day wants to speak about domestic violence.

During that prison conversation, when Dan revealed that he would have helped Luis had he known of his problems, Luis shared that he would have called him.

“The abuser is a victim, too…he has a family,” Dan told audience members on Sunday. His wife, he noted, “would rather be Becky’s mother than Luis’ mother.”

In the final hours before her death, Becky and Luis’ mother were texting each other about Luis. In her last text late in the afternoon of April 20, 2013, Becky wrote, “He seems relatively OK.”

That day, Luis murdered Becky.

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FYI: If you are in an abusive relationship, seek help. You are so worth it. Contact a local crisis resource center or women’s shelter for help and support. If you are in immediate danger, call 911. Leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time; have a plan to leave safely. Additional information is available, for abuse victims, family, friends and survivors by clicking on any of these links:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women
NO MORE

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling