Families of victims push for improved domestic violence laws
They spoke in clear, firm voices. They were never loud or did any yelling. They never became upset or choked up, unable to continue.
Yet, the words they spoke were so powerful that the audience – mainly composed of 70-plus Faribault County law enforcement officers – hung on their every word.
Leslie Johnson and Anna Gronewold each had a message to deliver to law enforcement – and the general public, for that matter.
It is time to do whatever it takes to end domestic violence. And to take steps to protect victims, and families of victims.
Johnson is the sister of James Nibbe, who was shot to death last year while he slept in his Lake Crystal home. Gronewold is the mother of Ashley Sullivan, and wife of Chet Gronewold, both of whom were killed in her rural Lewisville home while she was asleep upstairs.
The two women were in Blue Earth on Thursday, March 24, telling their stories. It was part of a domestic violence training session put on by CADA of Faribault County.
Both women told their stories in great detail.
Johnson spoke of leaving for work on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010, “a beautiful fall day.”
She had not driven very far when she received a call from her father telling her there were squad cars at her brother Jim’s home.
She didn’t think it was possible something had happened to her brother, and felt he must be alright, that it must be something else.
But, she was wrong. Eventually the officers told her Jim was dead – that he had been murdered.
Ten days later, Jim Nibbe’s wife was arrested and charged for the murder and is awaiting trial in Mankato at this time.
Johnson told in detail how this act of domestic violence has forever changed her and her family.
“It has torn a hole in my heart,” she told the audience. “I am trying to do what I can to help my family, and help Jim, but honestly I am unable to even help myself. My anger against this person is relentless.”
Johnson says her family is the actual victim in the case, but has no rights.
“Jim’s wife has all the rights, even though she is accused of his murder,” Johnson explains. “We, as his family have none. We can’t go into his house or have access to his personal items; we can’t even remove our own property that is in the house.”
Johnson is working toward having the legislature enact laws to protect the victims’ families’ rights in domestic violence cases like this.
Johnson also expressed frustration with the slow legal process, and the fact that her family is not able to be involved – or know much about what is being done.
“Court hearings and legal jargon have now become a way of life for me,” she says. “On television, crimes are solved and justice is done in an hour. In real life, it drags on and on.”
In order to honor her brother Jim’s memory, Johnson and her other brothers want to sponsor an annual golf tournament in his name. Plus, they are raising money to fund a scholarship at Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial High School. They plan to give an annual $1,000 scholarship to a senior who reflects outstanding character traits, like James Nibbe did.
“He was more than my brother, he was my best friend,” Johnson says. “He was a beautiful person, and his life has been stolen from us. I will never, ever, feel better again – even if his murderer is put in prison, even if she is put to death. I will never have my brother back. I think of him every day.”
Gronewold started her speech with a detailed version of the events of the morning when her life changed forever.
Her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, Shawn Haugen, broke into Gronewold’s home, shot and killed her daughter Ashley Sullivan while she was asleep in bed with her son, then he beat Gronewold’s husband Chet to death with the gun when he went to protect his stepdaughter. Then Haugen took his own life.
“They were the first two people killed in Minnesota in 2010 due to domestic violence,” she says.
Gronewold’s talk also included many details of the problems and issues which led up to that fateful January day.
It included the fact that Haugen repeatedly violated ‘do not contact’ orders. That included making numerous phone calls while he was in the Blue Earth County jail.
“Within minutes, one violent person changed the fate of my entire family,” Gronewold said. “He was a person who the criminal justice system knew was dangerous and out of control, but the system couldn’t do anything about it. They couldn’t protect my family.”
She described her life before the murders, and her life after.
“Prior to domestic violence, our lives were simple, she says. “Now I am a widow and the care giver for my two young grandchildren.“
Grone-wold says the criminal justice system failed Ashley and Chet.
“Their killer was repeatedly able to get out of jail on low bails, even though there was a history of violence,” she says. “Even an assault with a deadly weapon just years previously.“
During the 14 months since the murders, Gronewold has worked with domestic violence agencies in getting legislation passed called the Domestic Violence Omnibus Law.
“It is also called ‘Ashley and Chet’s Law,’” she says. “It provides more tools for the criminal justice system to use to protect victims of domestic violence and the community as a whole.“
Gronewold says she and Leslie have a common bond, because part of their family is gone, due to domestic violence. She also notes that James Nibbe and Ashley Sullivan were once classmates.
Dozens of T-shirts with victims names on them were on display on either side of the speaker’s stand in the meeting room at Trinity Lutheran Church, where the training seminar was held.
“We brought these here from the Twin Cities,” Deb Wiederhoft, victims abuse advocate for Faribault County says. “There is a shirt for every person killed by domestic violence in the state.“
A shirt for James Nibbe, Ashley Sullivan and Chet Gronewold were in front.
“I hold this seminar every two years,” Wiederhoft says. “We have law enforcement officers from the county here, and they learn about the new laws dealing with handling cases of domestic violence.”
Cases like those explained in detail by Leslie Johnson and Anna Gronewold.
Both women say they were never able to speak in public before, but now feel driven to talk about domestic violence and how it can destroy families.
Their words are powerful, because they come from the heart.