Teri Lee's family says ADT misrepresented its alarm's capabilities. ADT says killer never should have been free.
Weeks before Teri Lee and Timothy Hawkinson were killed in her second-floor bedroom, she spent $2,405 on an intrusion alarm system to protect herself against the murderer.
But when Steven Van Keuren, a jealous and disturbed former boyfriend who had already violated several orders for protection that prohibited him from contacting Lee, cut the phone lines outside her Washington County house in the early morning darkness of Sept. 22, 2006, nothing happened.
When Van Keuren shattered a glass patio door with a crowbar, a sensor stayed silent because it had been installed too far away, alleges attorney Bill Harper of Woodbury, who represents Lee's sister, Vicki Seliger Swenson.
The deaths, Harper contends, raise questions for thousands of Minnesota homeowners who rely on their intrusion alarms to protect them.
ADT officials declined to discuss the case, but in court filings they criticized local police forces for failing to arrest Van Keuren before the attack.
When Van Keuren crept up the stairs to Lee's bedroom, two new motion detectors didn't respond. The screeching alarm finally activated, Harper said, when Lee's two daughters opened the front door to escape -- after their mother was dead.
In a legal battle in U.S. District Court, Lee's family seeks punitive damages from ADT, contending that the company salesman misrepresented the alarm system's capabilities to Lee and that it was improperly installed, with deadly results.
"I think they are entirely misled as to what they're getting," Harper said.
ADT won't comment on the case during "active litigation," said Ann Lindstrom, a spokeswoman at corporate headquarters in Florida. However, a March filing shows ADT is trying to implicate the Washington County Sheriff's Office and the St. Paul Park Police Department for allegedly failing to arrest Van Keuren when he violated court orders prohibiting him from contacting her.
"Teri Lee, the person harmed by the police departments' failure to arrest Van Keuren, was the very person the statute was designed to protect," according to an ADT court motion on March 24. "Sadly, if the police departments had acted properly ... Van Keuren would have been in jail ... rather than carrying out the murder of Lee and her boyfriend Hawkinson."
Neither Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton nor Police Chief Mike Monahan in St. Paul Park were aware of ADT's motion.
"It's an absurd motion," said attorney Jon Iverson, who represents Washington County in liability matters. "Seeking to blame law enforcement when a criminal commits a horrendous act is grasping at straws."
'Bit of a black eye'
Over the past three years, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) has fielded more than 2,300 customer complaints nationally against ADT. More than 2,000 of those complaints came in the category, "Agreeing to perform according to their contract."
Specific customer complaints listed on the BBB website include poor customer service, broken promises and failed equipment. ADT, owned by Tyco International, owns the greater share of the national intrusion alarm market.
In Minnesota, the state BBB office has received 16 complaints about ADT in three years. Most complaints involved contracts that didn't live up to sales promises, said Barb Grieman, a state BBB vice president.
"The industry does have a bit of a black eye," she said, but she also pointed out that some intrusion alarm companies "really do a good job" to meet customers' expectations.
Harper said the Lee case prompts a larger question of whether intrusion alarms will fail for other homeowners when they're needed most.
"This is one [case] that's exploding in their face because the consequences of their mistakes are so severe," he said.
Police under fire
Van Keuren, Teri Lee's murderer, befriended her and her four children after her husband, Ty, died in an automobile accident in 2001. He spent time in their West Lakeland Township house, helped with the kids' activities and was considered Lee's new boyfriend. But Van Keuren had a secret life with prostitutes and began to show disturbing behavior, Harper said. His relationship with Lee became increasingly strained.
Two months before the murders he burst into her house wielding two butcher knives and attempted to stab her. Criminal charges and a no-contact order resulted. So did Lee's desire to buy a burglar alarm system that would protect her family if Van Keuren struck again, because he was out of jail.
He soon sent an e-mail to Lee at her job at 3M in Maplewood. Two nights before the murder he appeared at a volleyball game in St. Paul Park where Lee's older daughter was playing. Had police arrested Van Keuren for these violations, ADT argues, he would have been in jail and therefore unable to commit the murders.
Harper alleges ADT sold her a standard "cookie-cutter" system despite knowing that she feared Van Keuren would kill her. Records show she set her new alarm as many as 22 times a day.
Van Keuren cut Lee's phone lines with red wire cutters, smashed the patio door and crept up the stairs to Lee's bedroom at 4 a.m. Within 40 seconds, Lee and Hawkinson were shot dead. Hawkinson, sleeping beside Lee to protect her, never got off a shot from a loaded handgun he carried for self defense.
Peeking from the clutter of the murder scene was a blue sales brochure: "ADT helps you protect the people and things you value most."
The motion that ADT filed recently asks that the company be relieved of liability and that a jury decide the percentage of fault Washington County and St. Paul Park should share in Lee's murder. Repeated attempts to seek comment from ADT attorneys and the company's corporate office were unsuccessful.
No trial date has been set.
Van Keuren is serving two consecutive life sentences.
Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432