A Twin Cities mother staged a yearlong courtroom vigil more than 4,000 miles from home to honor the life of her exuberant and talented daughter, who was stabbed to death by her roommate in the Netherlands.
Donee Odegard attended every preliminary hearing, the entire trial and was there for Wednesday’s sentencing of the man who killed her daughter, 21-year-old Sarah Papenheim.
“I never missed being here for my daughter,” she said Thursday, one day after 24-year-old Joel Schelling learned his punishment.
A judge in Rotterdam sentenced Schelling to six years in prison followed by indefinite detention in a psychiatric facility, rejecting a longer time behind bars in the manslaughter case because the suspect can “not be fully blamed” for the death.
“I’m disgusted with the six-year sentence, then a mental institute with an undetermined length,” Odegard said Thursday from the Netherlands.
Papenheim, a blues drummer from Andover who was beloved by many notable musicians around the Twin Cities, was an Erasmus University student when she was killed Dec. 12, 2018, in her Rotterdam apartment about a mile from campus.
Odegard, who lost a 20-year-old son to suicide in 2016, said she seized on the opportunity to speak during the trial and emphasized that Schelling “took the most precious thing in the world from me. Why? Just because she wouldn’t talk to him. He took all her dreams and goals away, and all she did was try to be his friend.”
Odegard said she is troubled that Schelling could be set free from psychiatric detention in as little as two years if “he shows [he’s] all better. … So, how am I to trust a country that gives a six-year sentence to someone that stabs someone to death 27 times?”
Witnesses heard arguing and screams in her third-floor room before the stabbing, according to police. Schelling was arrested not long after at a rail station trying to flee.
Upon sentencing, the court released a detailed statement explaining that “considering the severity and unpredictability of the crime, as well as the serious psychological disorders of the suspect, the court deems recidivism of a violent crime very likely. The suspect suffers from chronic disorders that require prolonged treatment and guidance in a clinical setting.”
It characterized the psychiatric detention as “a punitive measure” for Schelling, who has said he’s willing to participate in treatment for depression and other disorders. He will remain held under treatment until the court, which will review his status every two years, determines he is well enough to be released.
Schelling, who otherwise had no criminal history, testified at trial that he failed to remember much of what went on the day he killed Papenheim.
He recalled having a knife but not what happened as they argued or the stabbing. He did remember seeing her bloodied in her room, leaving him to conclude that he killed her.
Cindy Papenheim, an aunt of Papenheim’s who lives in White Bear Lake, said in reaction to the sentence, “Of course, no amount of incarceration, whether in a prison or a mental health facility, or even if her assailant were put to death, could make this better.”
“The only thing that would make it better is to have her back. I would give anything to make that happen if I could,” she said. “Learning to truly accept the reality of this is one of the hardest things of all.”
The court went on to explain that it rejected the prosecution’s argument for 10 years in prison because of the suspect’s relatively young age and “his extreme diminished capacity when he took the victim’s life. The suspect can therefore not be fully blamed for the proven fact.”
In Rotterdam, there are about 12 homicides a year in the city of roughly 620,000 people. The court’s statement pointed out that the killing “caused feelings of insecurity and unrest in society.”
Sarah Papenheim was a blues-drumming prodigy who often joined in with bands whose members were many years her senior, according to her mother. Sarah Papenheim was planning to return to the United States soon and had a gig booked with local musician Brian Naughton at the Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis.
She was in the Netherlands studying psychology with an emphasis in suicide, which took the life of big brother Josh nearly three years before her death.
Cindy Papenheim said she and other family members are now choosing to “channel our grief into honoring both Sarah and Josh by focusing on improving the state of mental health treatments and on suicide prevention/awareness.”
She said the first recipient of a $10,000 Josh and Sarah Papenheim Memorial Psychology Scholarship will be announced in January. Loved ones have also started “You Matter” on Facebook in support of mental health and suicide awareness.
“It is mental illness that claimed the lives of both of them,” Cindy Papenheim said, adding, “Sarah wanted to make a difference in the mental health field.”