Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

From Minneapolis neighborhood to prison, one inmate’s life story June 13, 2017

 

NOT ALL THAT FAR from my home, across the historic viaduct spanning the Straight River, past the hospital and down the road a bit, razor wire tops fences surrounding the Minnesota Correctional Facility, Faribault.

Among the men incarcerated there is Zeke Caligiuri, prisoner and author.

I recently read his book, This Is Where I Am, a memoir that takes the reader from Caligiuri’s growing up years in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of south Minneapolis to a prison cell. His urban life was marked by school truancy, drug use and dealing, crime, violence, and a lack of purpose. All this despite loving parents and a grandmother who never gave up on him, who wanted and expected so much more. He doesn’t blame them for the choices he made.

I’ve never read a book like this because, well, I’ve never read a book written by an inmate. His story is both revealing and yet not so. I kept waiting for Caligiuri to share information on the crime that landed him a 34-year prison sentence in 1999. He never did. To me, the absence of that presents a gaping hole in an otherwise revealing read. For the record, he is in prison for robbery and second-degree murder with a scheduled release in 2022.

A threading theme throughout Caligiuri’s story seems to be an innate desire to change. Yet, the pull of environment, the pull of long-time friends, the pull of drugs, the pull of darkness overwhelmed him. Depression defined that darkness. Given the recent public shift toward addressing mental health issues, this particular part of the story is especially enlightening in its in-depth details. My heart hurt for the young adult overcome by an illness that is too often not addressed by society (although that seems to be changing).

Caligiuri doesn’t write about daily prison life as much as he writes about his feelings and his struggles to maintain his sanity within the confines of a penal institution. When he throws food out of his cell and when he hides a banned something (which he fails to identify) in his cell during a lockdown, I feel no sympathy for the rebellion, defiance and anger he holds. Perhaps I should. But then my thoughts trace back to his crime.

How you view this book depends, I think, on your experiences. If you have been personally affected by violent crime either directly or indirectly through a family member or friend as I have been, you will probably react differently than a reader who has never been victimized.

I appreciate, though, this honesty in Caligiuri’s book: I looked around and everyone had a story about getting f****d by the system, or by their best friend, or the mother of their kids.

Blame, blame, blame…anyone but themselves for their incarceration. That this inmate-writer recognizes that lack of responsibility and accountability is noteworthy.

The author considers himself a much different person than the young adult who entered prison nearly two decades ago. That is evident through the telling of his story. He’s clearly proven himself as an author with a unique voice. He can write. He’s educated himself. He’s matured. In five years he’ll leave prison, trying to determine his new role in the world away from the men who have become his family and away from the place that’s been home for so long.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Set in central Minnesota, a psychological thriller draws my personal interest May 5, 2017

 

I BLAME IT ALL on Nancy Drew. She is the reason I read mysteries more than any genre. The series was especially popular when I was growing up.

So it’s no surprise that, after reading a review of a debut mystery written by Minnesotan Frank F. Weber, I simply had to get my hands on Murder Book. His publicist obliged.

 

Frank F. Weber grew up in Pierz, Minnesota.

Frank F. Weber grew up in Pierz, Minnesota.

 

But there’s more to this I need to read this book than its mystery classification. The author grew up in Pierz. My husband likewise is from the area and knew the Weber family. Frank’s mom was Randy’s teacher, a brother a classmate.

The book is set primarily in and around Pierz. I was curious to see how the setting would weave into the plot. We writers are often advised to “write what you know.” The author’s familiarity with rural Morrison County and its people and his knowledge as a forensic psychologist are deeply imprinted throughout this fictional story.

Murder Book held my interest from beginning to end as I tried to determine what happened to 16-year-old Mandy Baker who vanished, followed by the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl some 10 years later.

The story narration switches between the main character, Jon Frederick, key suspect in Mandy’s disappearance and now a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator; Serena Bell, Jon’s long ago love interest; and the perpetrator, Panthera. This method of storytelling offers in-depth character insights that define this book as a psychological thriller. Jon, for example, exhibits obsessive traits in his fixation on numbers and more. Panthera’s narcissism shows in his thought process and horrific crimes.

This is much more than simply a whodunit story of crimes, resolution of those crimes and a look at minds of criminals, the accused and victims. The author, raised in a Catholic family of 10 children, incorporates the region’s strong Catholicism and faith base into his book. I would expect that in a story set in Pierz.

Throughout the story, Weber also includes powerful statements that are especially credible in the context of his extensive experience as a forensic psychologist. According to his back book cover blurb, he has completed assessments for homicide, sexual assault and physical assault cases. In particular, I took note of these statements written into this work of fiction:

The perfect victim is the one who never goes to the police.

You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.

Narcissists…can’t stand being denied.

No family member comes out of a bad situation unscathed…

Our most powerful drive is a desire for affirmation—to be heard, understood, comforted, and soothed.

There’s one more nuance of setting that I appreciate about Weber’s book. He writes about rocks pocking the landscape of Morrison County. I have seen many a rock pile in this central Minnesota region and heard many a story about rock picking from my husband. And now I’ve heard another, this time associated with a fictional crime.

FYI: Murder Book, the title of Weber’s mystery, is defined as follows: the twenty-first century term for a cold case where a homicide is suspected.

His book, published by North Star Press of St. Cloud, releases May 9. For more information, click here.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Images and my review copy are courtesy of Krista Rolfzen Soukup at Blue Cottage Agency.

 

Beyond violence, two artists show that hope rises March 7, 2017

A portrait of Barb Larson by Faribault artist Dana Hanson.

A portrait of Barb Larson by Faribault artist Dana Hanson.

TUCKED INTO TWO CORNERS in two galleries are two tributes by two artists.

Both honor Barb Larson, murdered on December 23, 2016, in an act of domestic violence. She was a long-time friend to artist Judy Saye-Willis and an acquaintance to artist Dana Hanson. Both chose to remember Barb in their exhibits currently showing at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault.

Dana painted an oil on canvas portrait of Barb, the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism employee who stopped occasionally to place orders at the bakery where Dana works. “I just wanted to do something positive to remember…she was genuine and very nice,” Dana said. The result is her “In Memory of Barb Larson” painting, based on a photo.

This series of fiber art pieces by Northfield artist Judy Saye-Willis also honors Barb Larson. The pieces, from left to right, are titled "Darkness of Death 1", "Darkness of Death 2", "Destruction", "Hope", "Hope Rising" and "The Light of Hope".

This series of fiber art pieces by Northfield artist Judy Saye-Willis focuses on death and hope. The pieces, from left to right, are titled “Darkness of Death 1,” “Darkness of Death 2,” “Destruction,” “Hope,” “Hope Rising” and “The Light of Hope.”

Judy’s artwork themed on death and hope spans half a wall and includes six pieces. Three framed works were already completed prior to Barb’s murder. They are an expression of “what’s happening in our culture today,” she said, specifically citing ISIS and the violence in Aleppo, Syria, as inspiring the art. But, once the events of December 23 unfolded locally, Judy created three more related fiber art pieces using natural dye materials. The result is a compelling series of framed art and panels focusing on death and hope.

I angled my camera up to photograph "Darkness of Death 2."

I angled my camera up to photograph “Darkness of Death 2.” When Judy created this scene with blood dripping and an executioner’s mask, she was thinking of ISIS and the violence/situation in Aleppo.

“…I was feeling raw, emotional with nowhere to go with it,” Judy said. “It (Barb’s murder) was senseless. I went to my studio and started the first piece. I tried three times to dye the piece black, unsuccessfully. I called it “The Darkness of Death 1.”

Simply titled: "Hope."

Madonna and child, simply titled: “Hope.”

Once she finished the black panel, Judy transitioned into the theme of hope. That was prompted by a Catholic church official she heard talking about faith and hope on the morning of December 23 (the day of Barb’s murder) on CBS This Morning. The result is two more hope-inspired fiber art panels.

As I viewed both artists’ tributes to Barb Larson, I could see the emotion within the artwork. Dana succeeds, through the strokes of her brush and the paint colors she chose, to portray the woman described as vivacious and friendly by those who knew her. Genuine warmth glows in Dana’s painting of Barb. I can see Barb’s personality in that portrait.

Judy’s art differs significantly, leaving more open to interpretation, more room for the viewer to insert his/her experiences, emotions and reactions. In the first three darker pieces, beginning with the length of black-dyed cloth, there is no ignoring the darkness of a violent death. That Judy chose to confront and share that in her work makes a powerful visual public statement whether considering the violence in Aleppo or the violence in Faribault.

"Hope Rising," says Judy Saye-Willis, "is about moving forward from tragedy."

“Hope Rising,” says Judy Saye-Willis, “is about moving forward from tragedy.”

Equally as important are the three hope-inspired pieces that follow. Those, too, make a powerful visual public statement.

A close-up of "The Light of Hope," which Judy calls her strongest piece.

A close-up of “The Light of Hope,” which Judy calls the strongest piece in this series.

Through their art, Judy and Dana have opened the conversation about domestic and other violence in a deeply personal, emotional and introspective way.

Dana’s exhibit includes a trio of horse paintings titled MESSENGERS OF HOPE. They are, left to right, subtitled “Light,” “Passion Fire” and “Grace”

And any time we begin to think and talk about these difficult issues, hope rises.

FYI: At noon today, HOPE Center and the Faribault Chamber are rallying at the Chamber office (where Barb Larson was murdered) as part of a statewide effort, “It Happens Here: A Statewide Day to End Domestic Violence.”

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Artwork photographed with permission of the artists.

 

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