Jeffrey Stremcha was supposed to be doing so many other things Tuesday rather than telling a judge what it's like to feel the agony of a grief so overwhelming it brings him to his knees.
He should've been planning a motorcycle trip and discussing the latest financial news with his son Shea, an analyst for Ameriprise. By now, he would've been ribbing Shea about when he was going to make him a grandfather again.
He ought to be anywhere, he said, but a Minneapolis courtroom for the murder sentencings of the three men responsible for a break-in that ended with his youngest son bleeding to death on the hardwood floor he had just refinished.
"We teach our children not to be afraid, that there isn't a monster hiding in the closet, under the bed, or outside the bedroom door," he told Hennepin County District Judge Marilyn Kaman. "We shouldn't have taught Shea to believe that."
The three men he called "monsters" were each sentenced Tuesday to 35 to 40 years in prison for killing Stremcha, who was 25. During three separate hearings, his family and friends talked about the loss not only to those who loved him, but to a society he served as productive, responsible citizen.
Stremcha, a 2008 graduate of St. John's University, died in the Longfellow neighborhood house he bought the year before with his fiancée, Ashley Faeth. He'd been saving for it since high school.
Killed confronting intruders
Stremcha and Faeth were in bed at about 3 a.m. on July 20, 2011, when he confronted three intruders who had broken into his home and was shot once in the heart. He died at the scene.
Semaj Williams, 23; Robert Emmanuel Shelby, 28, and the triggerman, Xavier Demia Walker, 25, all pleaded guilty to second-degree intentional murder in exchange for the sentences. Shelby received 35 years, Williams received 38 years and Walker received 40 years. Walker and Shelby declined to address the court, while Williams expressed regret for Stremcha's death. All three had criminal records, ranging from robbery to drunken-driving convictions.
"I ain't kill nobody; I ain't no murderer. I wasn't planning for nobody to die," Williams said. "It ain't what I wanted, man. I can't really say nothing else about it."
According to charges, Faeth told police they were asleep when she was awakened by breaking glass. She woke Stremcha, who grabbed a knife from a table next to the bed and went to investigate. She told police that she heard a loud gunshot and a yell from Stremcha and called 911. The defendants, who were arrested later, admitted to planning a break-in and robbery at the nearby home of a drug dealer near Lake Street and 45th Avenue S. to steal money and drugs. But they broke into the wrong house.
Neighborhood in fear
The crime sent waves of fear through the neighborhood. Community members submitted 35 victim impact statements to Judge Kaman. One from a resident, identified only as "V-Man," said Stremcha's death created a fear that never before existed.
"Why that house and not my house?" he wrote. "I now wonder whether it's safe to open the doors or windows and let the breeze blow through, even when I am home."
Stremcha's mother, Leann Stremcha, said that although their son is gone, they try to keep his passions alive.
They've continued to work on the house, put in a sidewalk, and remodeled the kitchen and bathroom. Still, she said, those acts, along with creating the Shea Stremcha Legacy Fund to improve financial literacy and community arts, have done little to ease a pain that increasingly leaves his family feeling isolated.
"Tell me what my life means now," she said. "I wish you could tell me, because I don't know. And I don't know when I will."