Albert Loehlein made wine from grapes grown in his backyard in Anoka, logged his own trees for the fireplace and made rugs with his mother’s loom set up in the basement.
At 95, he could barely see or hear, but wished to live independently in the home he bought in 1945. It was there that he and his wife, Hannah, raised six children. Loehlein cared for Hannah there as she succumbed to cancer several years ago.
“He didn’t want to be anywhere else,” his son, Timothy Loehlein, said in Anoka County District Court on Monday. “He loved being there.”
Isaiah M. Thomas lived six blocks away. Over Thanksgiving weekend in 2016, Thomas crept into the WWII veteran’s home, beat him to death with a flashlight and a clock that he pawned for $22.50. On Monday, he was sentenced to life in prison, with a chance of parole after 30 years.
Loehlein’s children urged the court to lock Thomas away for life. Thomas and his attorney, Caroline Durham, argued that prejudice had unfairly burdened Thomas his whole life. Thomas is black. Loehlein was white.
“I apologize in all honesty and sincerity,” Thomas said before launching into a five-minute speech about poverty and discrimination.
Thomas, 28, pleaded guilty in March to first-degree murder with intent for killing Loehlein. As part of the plea agreement, one count of premeditated first-degree murder was dismissed, sparing him a mandatory sentence of life without the chance of parole. One count of second-degree murder also was dismissed.
Thomas said Monday that his behavior was not coldblooded, but rather an act of “warm-blooded, long, deep misplaced anger” directed toward a man who represented other men who had victimized him and his peers.
“I’m a product of my environment,” said Thomas, who was shackled while in court.
In handing down the sentence, District Judge Barry Sullivan reflected on the crime’s effect on the community.
“If a nice old guy like Albert Loehlein isn’t safe in his own home, who is?” he said.
Loehlein lived in his home in the 1200 block of 5th Avenue S. alone with help from family members, who said they honored his wishes after his wife died.
He was last seen alive on Thanksgiving Day, when relatives dropped him off at home. His oldest child, Linda Fenwick, found his body the following Monday while delivering groceries.
Thomas wrote in his guilty plea petition that the crime occurred on or about Nov. 25, 2016 — the day after Thanksgiving.
“He was a gentle soul who worked hard,” Fenwick said of her father.
Loehlein was in “good spirits” on Thanksgiving, she said. He was looking forward to making maple syrup in the spring, planting his garden and spending time at the family cabin he and Hannah had built in northern Minnesota.
Thomas, she said, was the “scum of the earth,” and shouldn’t be allowed to “walk the earth again.”
Loehlein’s son, Raymond Loehlein, told the court that his father was the oldest of 10 children, and spent his life working.
As a child, Albert Loehlein’s father would drop him off on the banks of the Sauk River on the way to work and pick him up after work. It was Albert Loehlein’s job to spend the day catching fish to feed the family.
“He didn’t deserve this ending,” Raymond Loehlein said. “He was always working, building, taking responsibility for his life and trying to make good decisions.”
Loehlein worked for decades for WCCO Radio (830 AM), tending to the transmitter in Coon Rapids. His family said he loved to hunt, talk to people from all over the world on his ham radio and teach others the many skills he had mastered over his lifetime.
When given an opportunity to speak, Durham asked the court and those in attendance to reflect on Thomas’ experience as a black man.
“Did they think, ‘There’s one of my neighbors?’ ” she said of Thomas’ life in Anoka. “If we as a society fail to embrace the day-to-day that he has lived, then we have failed as a society.”
Thomas said he grew up in poverty, and has been in trouble with the law since he was 10.
“I didn’t steal because it was fun,” he said. “I stole because I couldn’t afford those things.”
Thomas said he has watched people get “gunned down” and witnessed blacks suffer at the hands of police.
“At the end of the day, these are my peers,” he said, adding that he plans to mentor youth while incarcerated.
Regarding Thomas’ statements, Raymond Loehlein said, “It’s between him and his creator.”
Thomas’ mother and sister, who were in court, said they extended their condolences to the Loehlein family. They declined to be identified.
“We had everything we needed,” Thomas’ sister said of their upbringing.
Thomas’ criminal history includes four burglary convictions. Assistant Anoka County Attorney Wade Kish said in a court filing that Thomas had allegedly assaulted three correctional officers and three inmates while in custody.
He has not been charged in those incidents.