Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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.

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A fitting quote as we heal from the baseball field shootings June 15, 2017

This plaque marks a baseball player sculpture at Memorial Park in Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

THREE YEARS AGO I photographed a plaque at Memorial Park Baseball Field in Dundas. It marks a woodcarving of a Dundas Dukes baseball player.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Today, the day after the shooting of House Republican leader Steve Scalise, four others and a gunman on a baseball field near our nation’s capitol, these words by John Thorn seem especially fitting. Thorn is the official historian for major league baseball.

 

My great niece Kiera painted this stone, which sits on my office desk as a constant reminder to hold onto hope. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Now, more than ever, as attacks and tragedies like this continue in the U.S. and throughout the world, we need our spirits replenished, our hope restored, our losses repaired, our journeys blessed.

 

Batter up for the Faribault Lakers. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

We must continue to play ball. Violence can change us. But it cannot steal away the freedom we hold dear.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 

From Faribault: Any “domestic” is one too many June 2, 2017

 

SEVEN DOMESTIC CALLS in four days…and one call for violation of a restraining order.

The stats, published on the May 31 Matters of Record page in the Faribault Daily News, shocked me. That’s a lot of domestic-related calls handled by the Faribault Police Department from May 26-29 in a community of some 23,000.

I’ve been especially cognizant of local domestic situations since the late December 2016 high profile murder of Barb Larson by Richard Larson. The former Faribault police officer committed suicide after killing his ex-wife at her workplace, the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism office. She had a restraining order against him, granted within days of her murder.

Just weeks prior to the Larson murder-suicide, Ryan Perizzo murdered 8-year-old Lynnaya Stoddard-Espinoza before killing himself in their Faribault home.

Those crimes shook my community. And they should have.

But the reports I am reading of nearly daily domestic calls within Faribault should shake all of us, too. Four in one day. To all different parts of my community. Domestic abuse and violence can happen to anyone in any neighborhood. And it does. I’ve witnessed such abuse and called police.

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

 

I recall my Uncle Bob, a retired Minneapolis police officer, telling me domestic calls are the most dangerous. Why? Emotions and passions are running high. Perpetrators of abuse often fail to accept responsibility for their actions and blame others. They desire power and control. All of those factors put victims, and law enforcement, at great risk.

What can we, the public, do? We can educate ourselves (and our kids) so that we understand domestic abuse and violence. We can refuse to remain silent. We can listen to and support victims and connect them with resources to help them escape abusive situations. We can encourage the judicial and probation systems to hold offenders accountable. Too often these abusers walk away with little or no punishment, only to reoffend.

Frankly, I am tired of it.

Consider, too, for a moment how many cases of domestic abuse go unreported. Compare it to the motorist who drives drunk many many times before he is finally stopped for driving while under the influence. Or maybe he’s never caught.

Be aware that domestic abuse is not just physical. It’s emotional, too. That abuse can also be psychological, mental, spiritual, financial and technological. Abusers are often narcissistic. They manipulate and twist and exert their power. They are the center of the world, in their eyes, and you better not challenge that.

I wish I could wave a magical wand and end domestic abuse and violence. But because I can’t, I can at least spread awareness. And there is power in using my voice.

 

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

NOTE: My insights into domestic abuse and violence are not specific to the cases cited within this post. Also note that if you are in an abusive relationship or know someone who is, leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time for a victim. Seek professional help to make a safe exit. Know, too, that a restraining order is just that, an order, with no guarantee of protection. 

 

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.

 

An “end of innocence” & my thoughts after a deadly shooting in Wisconsin May 4, 2015

UPDATE THREE, May 6: A Facebook page, Hands Over the Fox, has been set up to unite the people of the Fox Valley in the aftermath of the tragic shootings. A National Day of Prayer Trestle Trail event is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the site of the tragedy. Click here to learn more about this community gathering to remember, demonstrate compassion and show strength. Attendees will gather on the Trestle Trail Bridge for 15 minutes of prayer. A potluck meal will follow at Fritse Park.

UPDATE TWO, May 5: A Go Fund Me website has now been established for the family of shooting victim Adam Bentdahl to help them deal with the financial burdens related to his death. Click here to support this family. I just learned of Minnesota connections. Adam was born on August 21, 1983, in Mankato, Minnesota, which is 40 miles from my community of Faribault. He has family (a grandmother in Hanska and a brother in White Bear Lake) in Minnesota.  Click here to read Adam’s obituary.

UPDATE, May 5: Calvary Bible Church in Neenah, Wisconsin, has set up a Stoffel Family Love Offering. Click here to see how you can support and donate to this family as they deal with the tragic deaths of Jon and Olivia. 

An edited image of a Wisconsin lake, used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

An edited image of a Wisconsin lake, used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

I AWOKE TO A NIGHTMARE so vivid this morning that I can still feel the icy waters of the black lake suffocating, pulling my second daughter and me into her deep, dark depths. We are dropping farther and farther from the surface, sinking to our deaths while I cry for my daughter to let go because it is the only way I can save her. Even though I cannot swim, I am determined to reach the surface.

But she won’t release me, no matter how I plead and scream. I gasp for air. My wool pea coat weighs and tightens around me like a straightjacket. My girl still clings to me. There is nothing I can do. And then I awaken, feeling the need to suck in air. I am so shaken by this dream that I don’t even tell my husband about my nightmare.

Hours later my phone bings with a text from my daughter: “There was a shooting in Menasha last night.” She lives in nearby Appleton, works in the medical field in the Fox Valley region of eastern Wisconsin with her office based in Menasha. I text and ask if I can call. She calls me.

Four are dead including gunman Sergio Daniel Valencia del Toro, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran and college student, who reportedly randomly opened fire Sunday evening on people crossing the Fox Cities Trestle Trail bridge. A 33-year-old father, Jonathan Stoffel of Neenah, and his 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, are dead. Their wife/mother was shot multiple times and remains hospitalized in critical condition. Two other children in the family were unharmed.  Adam Bentdahl, 31, from Appleton was also killed. The shooter shot himself. There were 75-100 people in the park/trail area at the time of the shooting.

This is the type of tragedy that stuns you, that hits especially hard when your daughter tells you she has used this very trail, when you’ve dreamed only hours earlier of drowning with that dear daughter in a cold, dark lake. There is no logical connection, of course, between my nightmare and the tragic shooting in Menasha. Still, the coincidence raises goosebumps.

Today I feel a profound sense of sadness that a young family and a young man simply out for a Sunday evening walk should suffer such loss at the hands of a man who’d reportedly just argued with his ex-fiancee. I don’t understand this type of unprovoked violence. Why?

At a news conference on Monday, Dr. Ray Georgen, director of trauma services at Neenah Theda Clark Medical Center and on duty Sunday evening, spoke of young mother Erin Stoffel’s arrival with three gunshot wounds, life-threatening injuries that required immediate emergency surgery. But I was struck most by Dr. Georgen’s statement that the random shootings mark “the end of innocence” for the Fox Valley region. Menasha Police Chief Tim Styka later concurred, saying that “Times have kind of caught up to us in the Fox Valley.” Violence like this can happen anywhere, he explained. Now it’s happened in his community in eastern Wisconsin.

The two also emphasized the heroism of Erin Stoffel. Despite three gunshot wounds, she got herself and her two surviving children, ages five and seven, off the bridge. That act, Dr. Georgen says, shows the power of the human spirit, of a mother determined to protect and save her children. What strength. What courage. What love.

FYI: A Go Fund Me fundraising site has been set up for the Stoffel family as Erin, Ezra and Selah deal with the deaths of their loved ones.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What is this world coming to? July 20, 2012

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THE QUESTION LINGERS on the edge of my brain, nearly tumbling in words onto my tongue, over my lips and out my mouth.

What is this world coming to?

Do you ever ponder that very same question, asking today why a 24-year-old would open fire in a Colorado movie theater killing a dozen and injuring some 60 more? Why? What drives a person to such violence, to take the lives of other human beings who are simply out for an evening of entertainment?

Why, on July 10, did a father in River Falls, Wisconsin, kill his three young daughters? To get back at/punish/hurt his ex-wife?

Why do two young girls vanish, poof, just like that, while riding their bikes in a small Iowa town?

What is this world coming to?

About two blocks away from this anniversary party in south Minneapolis, a crime scene was unfolding late last Sunday morning.

Why, last Sunday, when my family drove to south Minneapolis for a 50th wedding anniversary party, did we turn off Lyndale Avenue and a block away encounter a multitude of police cars and yellow crime scene tape and a TV news crew arriving? We continued on our way wondering what was unfolding as we greeted family, sipped lemonade and slipped into folding chairs in the festive, fenced in backyard just down the street and around the corner.

When my middle brother arrived a bit later, he noted that officers were posed with weapons drawn. Were any of us in danger as we drove past the scene?

What is this world coming to?

Why are children, the most innocent of victims, being shot and killed in Minneapolis on such a regular basis that this horrible crime no longer surprises us?

Have we become immune to violence and the essence of evil which drives it?

What is this world coming to?

When will the killing stop?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From a small Minnesota town: “My dad got shot” August 10, 2011

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WEEKS LATER, I STILL can’t shake her haunting words. “My dad got shot,” the darling pixie of a 6-year-old with brown eyes and long, spaghetti-straight auburn hair tells me.

I don’t want to believe her and even question the truthfulness of her statement.

But she is too quick to respond, to say that her dad, Bill, is dead, “buried in the ground.” The father who stole a car and went to jail was shot by someone who came to the house when she was only one, she says. I don’t know if she has her story spot-on correct, but I figure she’s heard it too many times to mess up the truth.

Recently, the police stopped by her house—the one across from the park with the boxspring leaning outside the front door and the stockade of a fence enclosing the back yard. “I don’t know why they came,” she says. I can see the hint of fear in her eyes.

I don’t pry. But I want to swoop her up, hug her, take her away from the bad memories and the stories of the violent death of her father, away from a life that seems not all that stable even now.

Yet, I’ve only met her as my husband and I are in a southern Minnesota small-town city park on a Sunday afternoon. I want to advise her and the boy, who isn’t her brother but lives with her because her mom and his dad “are in love,” that they shouldn’t talk to strangers in the park.

But she has already told me the dead father story and rolled her eyes at the living arrangement between parents. I can’t just tell her and the little boy to go home. Be safe. Don’t talk to strangers or accept food from them. She’s already caused my heart to ache.

So instead, we offer them food. She refuses any. But the boy, about four, gobbles up the potato chips and grapes we give him. It is 1:00 and they have not eaten lunch, although the six-year-old says they ate a late breakfast.

I’m not so sure. Maybe she’s heeding advice she once heard about not accepting food from strangers. Yet, she’s the one who approached Randy when we first arrived, when I was using the porta potty, and told him he looked like her friend Emma’s grandpa.

They seem hungry, not only for food, but for someone who cares.

“I have a dad,” the boy shares between mouthfuls of chips. And that’s when the mite of a girl tells us about her dead father.

Soon the boy’s older sister, by a few years, arrives at the park, apparently sent over to check on the other two.

“Do you want some potato chips?” I ask. She accepts a handful.

“She stole a peach,” the redhead accuses.

“From the grocery store?” I ask, thinking I may now need to teach them right from wrong.

No. The peach was stolen at home.

“I stole pop tarts,” the talkative six-year-old confesses. “She told me to.” She looks directly at the other girl, the one who may someday become her sister if the two in-love parents marry.

I don’t understand her word choice—“stole.”

“We’re supposed to ask (for food),” she explains or “get in trouble.”

Now I am worried. “You don’t get hit for taking food, do you?”

They say “no” and I inwardly breathe a sigh of relief.

Then, after we give cheese slices to the little boy and his sister, with the pixie girl still refusing food, she obeys a summons to come home. The boy is still standing near the picnic table, his sister a short distance away. He struggles to unwrap the single cheese slice.

“Here, let me help you,” I say. He hands me the cheese and I unwrap it. He shoves the slice into his mouth and runs home. His sister declines my offer to remove the cheese wrapping, determined to do it on her own. She does.

I leave the small-town park unsettled and worried about the future of these three children. Already they’ve experienced so much in their young lives: Violent death. Police knocking on the door. Food they feel they must steal.

My heart aches for these children. Will they grow up tough, hardened by the life they’ve already lived? Will they overcome the pain they’ve already experienced? Will they continue to approach strangers in the park…to talk about the dad who was shot, the food they must “steal?”

I wonder. I worry.  Should I have done something more?

THE NAMES IN THIS STORY have been changed to protect these children who thought nothing of walking up to strangers in a park. That also is the reason I am not revealing the Minnesota town where I met them. The rest of the story, sadly, is true.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling