ADT settles with family of woman slain in bed

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 2, 2011 - 7:43 AM

Teri Lee and her boyfriend were shot after alarm failed during ex's 2006 break-in.

This one, from 2006, is of murder victim Teri Lee and her four children.

Four children who survived a middle-of-the-night double murder in Washington County five years ago will receive a financial settlement that will provide for them for life after a bruising lawsuit over a failed home intrusion alarm.

The case involving the estate of Teri Lee, shot dead in her bed in West Lakeland Township in 2006, could hold implications for homeowners trusting intrusion alarms to protect them and for alarm companies relying on contract language to insulate them from liability.

"We always believed since the minute my sister was killed, there's a greater story to tell," Vicki Seliger Swenson said Saturday. "We're very relieved. We knew there was a lot to gain from settling out of court."

Just how much money ADT Security Services Inc. will pay the family to care for Lee's four children remains sealed in federal court under the confidential agreement reached Friday. But Swenson's attorney, Bill Harper of Woodbury, said the amount was "substantial" and will provide for the children for the rest of their lives.

"There's never enough money when you've been through the kind of ordeal these kids have been through," he said. "I think this settlement will help them as they hit the bumps in the road and grow up with this vision branded in their minds."

Inquiries to ADT seeking comment Saturday were unreturned. The large national company, which has headquarters in Florida, never admitted in court filings any responsibility for the shooting deaths of Lee, 38, and her boyfriend, Timothy Hawkinson, 47.

Lines cut, door shattered

The two were killed in a second-floor bedroom on Sept. 22, 2006, just weeks after Lee spent $2,405 on an intrusion alarm system to protect herself against the man who would murder them both.

But when Steven Van Keuren, a jealous and disturbed former boyfriend who had violated several court orders that prohibited him from contacting Lee, cut the phone lines outside her house in the early morning darkness, nothing happened. When he shattered a glass patio door with a crowbar, a sensor failed to sound.

Van Keuren crept up the stairs to Lee's bedroom with a handgun, but two new motion detectors didn't respond. The screeching alarm finally activated when Lee's two daughters opened the front door to escape -- after their mother and Hawkinson were dead.

Hawkinson's family reached an undisclosed settlement with ADT years ago, Harper said.

Lee's family, contending that the ADT salesman misrepresented the alarm system's capabilities and that it was improperly installed, had sought damages in U.S. District Court. A trial was scheduled before U.S. Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis on Monday.

"Was I surprised? A little bit," Harper said. "I thought they were going to maintain their denials and pretended defense right into trial, and I think they realized the failures that were accompanying their argument."

ADT initiated legal action soon after Lee's death to argue that a clause in the contract she had signed declared the company's maximum liability at $500. That led to a volley of legal briefs that Harper said filled 10 filing cabinets.

In the broader picture, Harper said, the case creates a legal precedent in Minnesota in that an alarm company's attempt to limit liability in fine print isn't absolute. Such a warning wouldn't cover a "known peril" such as Van Keuren when a homeowner installs alarms to protect against a specific threat, he said.

Nonetheless, Harper said, ADT is testing components of its alarm systems to make sure they function as promised.

"I'm still worried about their salesmanship, their puffery, not telling the truth," he said. "They're afraid to admit the horrendous mistakes they made in their case because they could be used against them."

'Forever their story'

Van Keuren knew Lee from 3M, where they both worked. He spent time in her house and helped with the kids' activities. But he also had a secret life with prostitutes and began to show disturbing behavior, Harper said. His relationship with Lee became strained, leading to several threatening encounters before the murders.

Van Keuren is serving two consecutive life sentences without parole at Oak Park Heights prison.

Swenson said the settlement brings honor to her sister and shows she didn't die in vain. But of ADT, she said, "even with this lawsuit, it's clear they didn't admit any wrongdoing."

Lee's four children live with Swenson and her husband, Erik in the west metro area, miles from the house where their mother died. Their father, Ty, died in an automobile accident in 2001.

The older daughter, Taylor, had posted on her Facebook page on what would have been her mother's 42nd birthday: "There is a point where remembrance collides with forgotten, but when the forgotten are still being remembered, the stars in the sky shine a little less and the moon sinks a little lower, in honor of our beloved."

Swenson said the children are doing well overall, but "there is still that trauma. Erik and I have to stay one step ahead of it because we really don't know when it will be exposed. That will forever be their story."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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