Montevideo, Minn. – As Sandra Albrecht turned 50, she moved out of town and dropped out of sight. Twenty-five years later, she died.
During the quarter-century in between, she lived with her husband and most of their 11 children on a secluded farm amid corn and alfalfa fields outside this city of 5,200 residents some 140 miles west of the Twin Cities.
It was an isolated existence ruled by fear. The patriarch, John W. Albrecht, forbade anyone from leaving the 80-acre farm and cut off communication with the outside, according to court records. He preached to his wife and children from the Book of Revelation, warning them of the evils of the world, telling them they’d perish in an eternal lake of fire if they tried to leave his compound.
After Sandra Albrecht’s death from brain cancer in 2016 at age 74, John W. Albrecht stole the simple stone that her children had placed on her grave and brought it to the farm, hiding it under a pile of brush and branches. He replaced it with a large monument of his own design that cited apocalyptic verses from Revelation.
In doing so, he finally crossed a line that at least four of his children couldn’t accept. They sued their father in Chippewa County District Court — vowing, they said, to prevent him from controlling their mother’s memory as he had controlled her life.
Last month, District Judge Thomas Van Hon delivered a verdict in favor of the children. John W. Albrecht, the judge wrote in his decision, “was physically, verbally and spiritually abusive to his children and his wife.” Sandra Albrecht was “controlled, isolated and estranged” from her children as, one by one, they found the courage to leave the farm and lead normal lives.
Sandra Albrecht never left the farm; she never met her 12 grandchildren. She “was too afraid to ever leave,” Van Hon wrote, and died there of central nervous system lymphoma, receiving no medical care or comfort measures before her death.
Now, with their father ordered to return the gravestone he took, many of Sandra Albrecht’s children are restoring her place in their memories, even though some didn’t see or speak to her for decades before her death.
“We didn’t look at it as win or lose,” 54-year-old Debra Grussing, the oldest child, said of the legal fight with their father. “We looked on it as a necessary thing to do to honor our mother and be supportive of our siblings.
“We don’t hate,” she said. “We just felt there should be consequences. It’s gone on too long without consequences.”
‘The only source of peace’
Lane Albrecht can still pick out the bench in Windom Park where he sat with his mother. As a kindergartner, he’d hop on her bike and she’d pedal them to the park, where they’d sit and have a sandwich made with her homemade bread.
Now 37, Lane Albrecht said he was pulled out of public school after the fifth grade when his father moved the family to the farm in 1991. He was home-schooled by his sister Joy, who had a ninth-grade education and is the only Albrecht child still living with their father on the farm.
“I had friends,” he said of his life before the move. “I went to the park, I played ball.” On the farm, he watched his father grow more domineering and violent. Lane Albrecht said he learned to retreat into himself as his father raged.
“I learned not to say anything, just hide inside,” he said. “Just sit there and daydream, just hope he doesn’t do anything and eventually he’d calm down.”
Lane Albrecht left the farm when he was 16, walking five miles on country roads through knee-deep snow to a gas station in Montevideo, where he called his oldest sister. In the nearly 20 years after, he never saw or spoke with his mother. He now owns a mattress store in the St. Cloud area.
Every Friday, he returns to Montevideo and takes a “prayer walk” to his father’s farm, often leaving wildflowers by the chained-off entrance in memory of his mother, who loved them.
In the years since he left, he’s studied cults and cult behavior. He said he believes his father fits the description of a cult leader.
“They all have basic similarities,” he said. “Information control, time control, relationship control, shunning. And those basic criteria match what my dad did and is still doing.”
Like his siblings, Lane Albrecht is focused on healing. Rather than dwell on his father, he prefers to remember his mother.
“She was always kind and caring,” he said. “She was the only source of stability we had. At times it was so depressing and so isolated and alone, but we all cared about Mom and we know Mom cared about us.
“She was the only source of peace.”
Bees were his escape
Jasen Albrecht left the farm in 1999, when he was 26. His mother encouraged him to go.
After a swarm of bees made their home on the farm, Jasen Albrecht became interested in beekeeping. His father allowed him to buy 20 hives from a local beekeeper. He’d gotten hold of a beekeeping magazine, and his mother noticed a help-wanted ad for a bee operation in western Canada. She pointed it out to her son and urged him on.
When he left, his father chased him across the alfalfa fields, waving a shotgun, according to court testimony.
But Sandra Albrecht stayed.
“She was kind of sacrificially staying in a marriage that she wasn’t obligated to,” said Jasen Albrecht, now 46 and owner of a honey business based in Huron, S.D. “She had grounds to move on long before that.”
In hindsight, he wishes he’d intervened for his mother at the time, “but I wasn’t able to stand on my own at that point,” he said.
“Our mother was never able to have a relationship with her grandchildren,” he added. “That’s the worst crime in our lives.”
A living memorial
John W. Albrecht, 76, didn’t respond to repeated phone messages seeking comment.
Earlier this summer, he acted as his own attorney at the two-day trial, where, in the judge’s words, he was “argumentative, condescending, sarcastic and disparaging.”
In his decision, Judge Van Hon called Albrecht’s actions after his wife’s death “extreme and outrageous.”
The judge found that the father intentionally inflicted emotional distress on his children by denying them the opportunity to properly grieve their mother. The scriptural verses on the new gravestone, the judge wrote, were chosen to “remind the Plaintiffs of past sufferings.
“The facts reveal a pattern of abuse and intimidation that is continued by the removal of the tombstone from Sandra Albrecht’s grave,” the judge added.
John W. Albrecht was ordered to pay the four children who sued him a total of $44,783.
Earlier this month, the original stone was restored to Sandra Albrecht’s grave. And with the court battle ended, there are signs of a thaw in the Albrecht children’s relationship with their father.
In recent weeks, John W. Albrecht has come out to his gate several times to meet Lane on his prayer walks, once bringing him some apples from the farm.
“We’ve talked,” Lane Albrecht said. “I just try to talk to him as another human being.”
Despite the seeds of reconciliation with their father, the Albrecht children are focused on restoring memories of the woman who was lost to them long ago.
“For so many decades, people didn’t want to talk about it because it was a sore subject,” Lane Albrecht said. “Now it’s all an open book.”
Grussing remembers her mother as “kind, loving, patient, gentle and creative. She cooked from scratch and we loved her homemade bread for a snack after school.
“She had a quiet sense of humor with a sparkle in her eye. She always encouraged us to build and follow our hopes and dreams. She guided us to live by the Golden Rule.”
The real monument to his mother, Jasen Albrecht said, “is written in emotion and candlelight in the eyes of my daughters. I don’t need a judge’s ruling to acknowledge that.
“I’ve seen that in my children and that’s her real memorial. A living one.”