Wendy Stepanchak knew in her gut that her daughter’s boyfriend was bad news.
She pleaded endlessly for Vanessa Danielson to leave the man who had abused her throughout their 2½-year relationship. When that didn’t work, Stepanchak tried anger and threats. That didn’t work either.
“I wanted her to be happy,” Stepanchak said. “I wanted her to have a nice relationship. But not with that. I warned her, ‘Vanessa, he’s trying to kill you.’ I loved her dearly but I would get furious and I would yell at her. She dug her heels in and wouldn’t listen to me,” Stepanchak said.
Danielson, 36, died Thursday, hours after the boyfriend allegedly went to her home in northeast Minneapolis, poured an accelerant on her and set her on fire.
Wyndale Fayson, 32, was found a few blocks away from the house, screaming in pain from severe burns. He had been out of jail less than a month on $1,000 bond while waiting to be sentenced for a July 27 incident in which he beat and strangled Danielson.
Fayson is still at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. He has been charged with second-degree murder. A grand jury will meet to consider upgrading the charges to first-degree murder.
On Sunday morning, Stepanchak, 55, and her boyfriend, Phil Cotterill, sat at the dining room table in her home in Mounds View for an interview in the hope that someone else who is being abused might listen and learn.
Danielson is the 14th person to die of domestic violence in Minnesota this year, according to the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
“I hope it makes a difference to one person,” Stepanchak said about telling her daughter’s story. “If that one person had been her, maybe she’d be alive.”
There were certain things she and Cotterill didn’t want to talk about. It’s still too raw; still too much grieving to do.
“These things, they’re so unspeakable,” Cotterill said. “Not the ultimate event, but things unspeakably evil, cruel.”
Stepanchak doesn’t blame herself but speaks honestly. She says she left an abusive relationship with her children’s father when Vanessa was 6 and raised her three children as a single, working mom.
Danielson was a tiny, sweet, stubborn child, her mother said. She was the oldest; she and her sister, Natalie, were 13 months apart and were inseparable. Brother Matthew came later.
In her teens, Danielson began experiencing mysterious symptoms — bouncing off walls, trouble with her gait, vertigo that made even eating and getting dressed difficult. When she was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis at 17, she initially refused to accept it, her mother said.
After graduating high school, she went to the Aveda Institute to learn to be an aesthetician and later to a school in Bloomington to learn hairdressing.
But troubled and abusive relationships disrupted her schooling and her spirit. Danielson lost custody of three children and, three years ago, her mother adopted her son from another relationship. The boy is almost 6 now.
Stepanchak said she doesn’t remember exactly when or where she met Fayson. But, she said, she disliked him immediately.
“She would say to me, ‘But mom, he can be delivered,’ ” Stepanchak said. “I’d say, ‘But he’s not. And you are not safe.’ ”
Danielson would tell her mom that Fayson did nice things for her and that her son liked him. Stepanchak, though, saw it as manipulation, not love.
“Vanessa, in her way, was very childlike,” her mother said. “Part of that came from the MS effect on her brain. She was quite easy to prey upon. Very trusting, very giving, easily manipulated.”
After the July 27 incident, Fayson was charged with felony domestic abuse. He pleaded guilty on Aug. 29 and was released that same day. The conditions for his bail included a no-contact order. He was scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 19.
Although it violated the no-contact order, Danielson took him back, and the cycle started anew.
When Fayson wasn’t in the picture, friends and neighbors said, Danielson seemed to come out of her shell. When he returned, she retreated from everyone.
“She knew that I would get really upset with her for taking him back,” her mother said. “She tried to keep a lot of that from me. ‘Don’t tell mom, don’t tell mom.’ But I always knew because her behavior changed.”
Stepanchak was at work when police called, saying there had been a fire and her daughter was in the hospital.
“Is she alive?” Stepanchak asked the officer.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The whole family was at her bedside when Danielson died.
Stepanchak takes some comfort in hearing that her daughter wasn’t hurting. A paramedic came to her hospital room and told her that; a neighbor who held Danielson’s hands after she stumbled outside said she was in too much shock to feel the pain.
Nor does Stepanchak want revenge. She has a strong faith in God’s justice.
“I’m not the type that seeks revenge,” she said. “Justice will be served even if it isn’t a fair justice within our laws, because God is ultimately the person he has to answer to. You can’t escape that.
“I also believe she’s in good hands with him right now,” she said. “She believed that, too.”
Funeral arrangements have not yet been made. A GoFundMe page has been set up for the family at gofundme.com/vanessa-danielsons-family.