Next to the side of the Richfield street where Jonathan O’Shaughnessy was shot and killed, his mother, Cynthia Kuntz, has erected a small plastic Christmas tree.
It’s alongside two white crosses and a figure of a cardinal on a wreath, near a few stuffed animals and a rose heart — all left by friends and strangers over the 18 months since he was the victim of a seemingly random shooting.
Kuntz, who stops by the site nearly every day, had vowed to keep the makeshift memorial there at least until the murder has been solved. Then Richfield city officials gave her until Jan. 7 to remove it, saying it didn’t belong in a public right of way.
“It’s like, are you kidding me?” Kuntz said. “It’s so unfathomable and so petty that they would ask us to do this. We’re trying to grieve and we’re trying to heal and they’re going to throw up obstacles?”
Following an outcry from friends and neighbors, Kuntz and city officials agreed on a compromise: After Jan. 7, any notes, flowers or other objects left at the site must fit on a park bench the family installed in O’Shaughnessy’s memory or on the concrete pad below it.
The city is trying to balance the family’s need to grieve with its duty to avoid distracting drivers, said Pam Dmytrenko, interim city manager. The memorial, on E. 64th Street a couple of blocks west of Portland Avenue, prompted city officials to decide to develop an ordinance that will regulate roadside memorials citywide.
“We’re glad we had the opportunity to sit down with them, and we just want to reiterate our support for the family,” Dmytrenko said.
Cities, counties and road departments around the state have struggled for years with how to regulate the improvised memorials that mourners place at the sites of tragedy.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation steps in to remove the crooked crosses and painted signs that often mark fatal crashes when they are too close to the road or too big, officials said. The major concern is the risk to people who stop, walk or stand along a busy road either to set up a memorial or visit one.
Dakota County allows “small in size” memorials placed near a death site for up to six months. The family can apply for a permit, free of charge, to keep the memorial longer than that, according to county rules.
Hennepin County and the city of Minneapolis don’t technically allow roadside memorials, but road crews typically leave them alone unless a complaint is filed or they are deemed unsafe, officials said.
Bikes, cards, flowers
For several years, people have been leaving white “ghost bikes” chained at sites around the metro area where cyclists were struck and killed. Memorials at the sites of shooting deaths typically are treated with even more deference.
People have been leaving notes, cards, hearts and flowers for more than two years at the site in Falcon Heights where Philando Castile was shot and killed in 2016 by a police officer.
City officials have said they have no intention of removing the memorial, deferring to the owner of the property, the Minnesota State Fair. Jerry Hammer, the fair’s executive vice president and general manager, said there have never been any conversations about removing or regulating the memorial.
In Minneapolis, family and friends of Jamar Clark for three years have kept up a memorial on Plymouth Avenue at the place where he was shot and killed by police in 2015. City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents the area, said he drives past the memorial most days and can’t imagine trying to remove it.
“People should be allowed to grieve without the city really interjecting too much,” Ellison said. “I would be unwilling to tell any family, especially when the loss is violent, that they can’t memorialize it in some way.”
O’Shaughnessy, 24, was walking home in July 2017 from an annual community dance he had attended for more than two decades when he was shot to death on Richfield’s north side. Police have made no arrests nor found a potential motive, though Kuntz believes the killer attacked her son randomly.
Kuntz said that his memorial is especially important because it directs people to a small storyboard she set up there, detailing what happened, offering a reward and urging anyone with information to call Crime Stoppers.
“Someone knows what happened that night,” she said.
Kuntz said she is glad she can keep memorial objects on the bench, but she remains upset that she had to fight with the city to do it. She’s worried about losing the Christmas tree, which neighbors have decorated since she put it up. Someone even placed cardinals on the tree’s branches.
“Everyone knows I love my cardinals,” Kuntz said. “Because they mean a loved one is near.”