The shots that killed Tracy Kruger and his son Alec -- and gravely injured his wife, Hilary -- still reverberate in Waseca, six months later.
WASECA - Across this flat countryside, on kitchen tables and at bedsides, police scanners crackle in the night. They bring word of lost dogs, rolled cars and petty break-ins for miles around. It's how many rural residents keep up with the local news. Friday night, Feb. 2, brought more of the usual: A theft at the Kwik Trip. A drinking party out at the lake. It was 2 degrees below zero, with a stinging wind that pushed the windchill to minus 22. When a woman saw someone walking along the highway wearing only a windbreaker and jeans, she phoned police to ask if they could give him a lift. Waseca is that kind of town. Then, at 3:20 a.m., scanner lights flashed and frenzied squawks broke the silence inside darkened farm houses. Squad cars from the Waseca Police Department, the county sheriff's office, paramedics and volunteer firefighters raced to the big white house outside of town, sirens screaming. Intruder. Shots fired. The Kruger place.
The cold didn't stop Hilary Earle Kruger from taking her older son, Alec, out for dinner, as promised. She had put in a hard day at DeRaad & Goetz, an accounting firm where she'd been office manager for 21 years. The phone rang incessantly as the pre-tax rush began, but Hilary took the chaos in stride. She answered calls and ushered clients in for their appointments. Her resonant laugh kept people smiling.
Around 6:30 p.m., she and Alec arrived at Olde Towne Eatery downtown. The walls of the homey steak and ribs place are hung with antique tandem bicycles and old signs for livestock companies. Her boss, Dale DeRaad, was eating there, too, as were a couple of her other work colleagues. They waved at her from across the room.
Hilary's husband, Tracy, had been busy all week preparing for the annual Sleigh and Cutter Days vintage snowmobile race, which he had co-founded with his good friend Travis Boesch. He and Boesch talked on the phone almost nightly, usually while Tracy was out in the workshop tuning his Rupp Magnum snowmobile -- his "pride and joy" -- for the race.
Tracy, Hilary and their two sons were fixtures around Waseca -- well-known and well-liked, a portrait of a quintessential family in a small Minnesota town. When someone compared them to "The Waltons," it was only half in jest.
Both Alec and his younger brother, Zak, were supposed to take part Saturday in a wrestling meet, which normally meant an early bedtime. But a herpes scare had canceled the meet. Zak asked if he could spend Friday night with a friend, and his folks said sure.
Friday nights were often game night at the Krugers', when they'd gather around a Yahtzee board. Hilary would laugh, and the boys would mimic her. On bitter cold nights like this one, Tracy kept the wood-burning stove stoked. The house felt cozy and safe.
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At about the same time, Michael Zabawa and his co-worker, Eric Fisher, pulled up to an apartment building at 906 State St., a few blocks away. They were in town for some drinking, maybe to shoot a little pool.
The two worked together at Woodville Pork, a hog farm east of town that had stirred unease among the locals, who worried about a big farm like that bringing in a bad element.
Desiree Ronquist and Steve Erens lived in the apartment. They didn't know Zabawa, but they knew Fisher from Austin, where they had all grown up, and they sometimes let him crash on an air mattress on the living room floor.
Fisher had gotten a DWI and a theft conviction in 2002, the same year he pleaded guilty to being under the influence of amphetamines and methamphetamine. But his job at the hog farm was steady, full-time work.
He and Zabawa parked in the back lot, then walked down the hall to the first-floor apartment. Zabawa peeled off his Adidas jacket, plunked down in a plush chair and popped open a Budweiser. Posters of John Lennon and Yoko Ono hung on the wall. Peach crates held National Geographic magazines.
Zabawa downed one beer, then another. He was lean and muscled from years of labor, with a square jaw that gave him a hard, country-boy look. He was from Matawan, a hardscrabble town of trailers, grain bins and abandoned businesses where horses now graze.
He talked about working on his truck, bought from a friend for $300, and about a recent DWI he'd gotten -- a "dooey," as they called them around here. His license had been revoked, but he was still driving. But he didn't want to get caught.
Like he always did after a night at the bars, he said, he planned to take the back roads home.
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Waseca is a clean, prosperous town of 9,000. It is far enough away from Minneapolis to retain its small-town charm, but close enough that its residents can hop up to the Twin Cities for a night. After high school, young people often move away, to college or jobs in the Cities, but many come back when it's time to settle down and have kids.