Why would anyone shoot a sleeping family?

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2009 - 9:21 PM

The question that remains in Waseca, the question that probably can never be fully answered, is why.

Why would a young man with nothing more remarkable on his record than a string of petty crimes walk into a farmhouse in the lonely countryside and shoot a sleeping family?

Shoot the mother, who had spent the night reading a book. Shoot the husband, a doting father who had passed the evening tinkering with his snowmobile. Shoot a 13-year-old boy, a boy with the face of an angel and the disposition of a clown, from 7 feet away.

The prosecution in the murder trial of Michael Zabawa, convicted Friday for murdering Tracy and Alec Kruger and wounding Hilary Kruger, provided a motive but not an answer. Zabawa shot them because he had been drinking in violation of parole, got his truck stuck in a ditch nearby and did not want to get into trouble for taking their vehicle.

So he shot them.

It makes no sense. Everyone in town would tell you the Krugers would have helped the kid, pulled him out of the ditch or driven him home. That's who the Krugers were.

But who is Michael Zabawa? How did he become someone who would load a shotgun and open fire on people he never met while they slept?

A look at Zabawa's life can't explain everything, but it might help us understand how he became a person capable of such a heinous crime.

After the murders in 2007, I spent several months driving around southern Minnesota asking about Zabawa. Few wanted to talk on the record. I did background checks on his friends, family and neighbors. Most of them had criminal records -- DWIs, domestic abuse, drug dealing, burglary.

But the most disturbing details were the ones concerning Zabawa's father, Donald Zabawa.

From the time Michael was just a toddler, his father was a member of the Posse Comitatus and other violent anti-government groups. He even spent time in the same compound as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He traveled around the Midwest, moved covertly by the posse as he conspired with others to kill authorities. Federal agents tracked him the entire time, and FBI documents paint a scary picture of a man capable of anything.

"Zabawa carries a semi-automatic rifle in the back of his pickup truck," said one report to a Kansas sheriff. "He should be approached with caution."

In the mid-1980s, Donald was arrested after he beat a G.I. with nunchaku sticks in a bar. He later shot up a police car from the back of a pickup, a crime for which he served jail time. For a time, he was committed for psychological problems.

During a chilling interview with the FBI, he outlined his association with the Christian Patriots Defense League. Of one associate, the elder Zabawa said, "They have two fully automatic converted AR-15s and a couple of cases of baseball grenades. I have seen an ammo can full of booby trap mechanisms with blasting caps. [A friend] wants to kill Jews, cops, judges, lawyers and everyone who doesn't agree with him."

At one point, authorities documented that he had bought weapons for various groups. Some of Donald Zabawa's friends were later convicted of murder and conspiracy. I found a former sheriff in Kansas who had arrested Zabawa. When I told him that Zabawa's son had been arrested for murder, he said, "I'm not surprised one bit."

Donald Zabawa bragged of his friendship with James Wickstrom, the leader of the Christian Identity movement of the 1980s.

"He said to arm myself and prepare for the war between the Posse and the system," Zabawa told the FBI. "He said the movement is going to overthrow the government by force."

Donald Zabawa died after choking on his own vomit after a night of drinking at the Sheep Shedd Inn in Olivia, Minn., in 1998, when Michael was 15.

Michael Zabawa's mother later married Larry Bialczak, whose name appears in court files across southern Minnesota and in Illinois, where he was convicted of armed robbery. Records show he sold drugs out of the home where Michael Zabawa grew up.

None of that history excuses anything Zabawa has done. But it might help explain it, just a little.

Because on the night of Feb. 3, 2007, Michael Zabawa made 30 decisions, all of them bad.

Twenty-two times, on each step of the way to the Krugers' bedroom, he made a decision. Eight times, as he pumped the shotgun and fired, he made a decision, a decision to ruin a family and devastate a town.

The Rev. Roger Haug of Grace Lutheran Church in Waseca has ministered to many through this ordeal. I asked him how he explained the murders, and he gave me the only answer that has made any sense:

"Evil visited this town," he said.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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