Months after the slayings, fear rattles area residents. Yet they have rallied to help the Krugers.
WASECA, MINN. -- Around 4 a.m., the night clerk at the Waseca Inn picked up the telephone. The caller was a reporter for a television station in the Cities. Had she heard about the killings south of town? From then on, the motel staff would lock the lobby door at night. A shotgun blast. Then another, and another. Seven months later, the gunshots still echo. From farm to farm, from Waseca to Hartland to Hope, the crime left fear in its wake. But it also left people galvanized. "This guy didn't just violate them," said Hilary Kruger's boss, Dale DeRaad. "He violated the whole area."
There have been about a dozen murders here in the last 30 years. Perhaps the saddest and most horrifying, up until now, was the slaying of Cally Jo Larson. She was just 12 years old in 1999 when she was raped, stabbed and hanged by a burglar who broke into the house when she was alone.
The Kruger killings were far too reminiscent -- family members accosted in their home by a stranger in the middle of the night. The randomness and brutality horrified the community.
The killings affected nearly everyone in Waseca; the connections in this town are wide. The stepdaughter of the sheriff's chief deputy is also Tracy Kruger's niece. The pastor at Grace Lutheran Church counsels Tracy Kruger's brother, Tony, as well as the hog farmer who employed Michael Zabawa. Mayor Roy Srp's son was one of the volunteer firefighters who responded to the scene.
Two of the best customers at a local auto parts store were Tracy Kruger and Michael Zabawa, the victim and the accused.
On and on, the ripples of a small town murder.
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The first reaction was fear.
In the two months after the killings, 63 people in Waseca County walked up the concrete steps of the old brick-and-limestone courthouse to fill out applications for gun permits -- more than half of the number you'd see in a typical year.
The mayor was not reassured by the fact that so many citizens were preparing to arm themselves. "I'm sensing a lot of tension in the rural areas," Srp said then. "I'm afraid someone is going to get shot."
People who had been friendly with Zabawa were suddenly poison. Eric Fisher, who was with him at Katie O'Leary's bar that night, left his job at the hog farm and was later arrested again on another DWI.
Zabawa's girlfriend also left her job. His younger sister complained of harassment at school.
In the days following, Zabawa's employer, Peter Zimmerman, a fifth- generation hog farmer, talked to reporters. He spoke frankly -- he said that Zabawa was a reliable worker and that it was hard to believe he would do something like this.
The next day he picked up the phone to hear anger.
How dare you say nice things about that monster?
And Zimmerman set the phone back down and decided not to speak out anymore.
A few years back, when Zimmerman was expanding his hog farm, some of his neighbors had sued. They argued that a larger hog farm would pollute the ground and air, and they wanted the expansion stopped. They questioned what kind of person would want to work at a hog farm -- a loud, messy place, running with excrement and blood. They worried it would draw workers with troubled pasts.
The neighbors lost the suit, and Zimmerman thought he had gotten past all that. But the killings brought back scrutiny, brought back suspicion.