Arthur Anthony Torgesen's Columbia Heights neighbors recalled Friday how the Vietnam veteran would come home drunk, lie in the street in the middle of the night, screaming at his wife, Sherrill Harnden, who would try to usher him in the house.
Torgesen, 63, made little secret of the depression that he told neighbors had engulfed him after he was shot in Vietnam. But when neighbors saw smoke billowing from his house Friday morning, they were ill-prepared for what was inside.
Harnden, 59, was in the bedroom, apparently having been stabbed to death by her husband before he set their home on fire.
Minutes before Columbia Heights police received a call at 9:18 a.m. from a man who said he had stabbed his wife and that his house was on fire, neighbor Reed Sprung went across the street to the Torgesen-Harnden home to see where the smoke was coming from.
Sprung said he saw Torgesen sitting on the couch, naked, as the room was filling with smoke and said Harnden's body was in the bedroom. Sprung said he yelled at Torgesen to get out of the house because of the fire.
Authorities would only confirm that charred human remains were found inside the burned home. Lt. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office confirmed the victim's name, but was awaiting the medical examiner's report before making an official statement. Neighbors confirmed that Harnden was Torgesen's wife.
Torgesen was in police custody at an area hospital Friday morning, having been taken there by ambulance with burns on his chest, arms and back.
The case will be under review this weekend, and prosecutors will decide Monday whether they will file charges
He would 'rage'
Few neighbors knew the victim or Torgesen well, saying that she had become something of a recluse the past five years and that he had kept to himself far longer. But police were familiar with Torgesen, having arrested him at least 13 times for drunken driving, Sommer said. Torgesen had also been arrested for fleeing the police. Columbia Heights police were frequent visitors to Torgesen's home, Sommer and neighbors said.
Theresa Sprung, Reed Sprung's wife, said Harnden occasionally came to visit, usually to return the Sprungs' small dog, which would wander in the street.
"When she'd take in my dog, sometimes I'd go to their home and Artie would sit on the couch and order her around," Theresa Sprung said.
"Part of it was that he was always drunk," Sprung said. "At 2 or 3 in the morning, squad cars or cabs would take him home. Then he'd just lay in the middle of the street screaming at her."
Stephanie Johnson, Sprung's daughter, said Torgesen would "rage, he would go out in the street screaming. He was not right in his head; and when he was drinking, it got worse."
Greg Reiner, another neighbor and a fellow Vietnam veteran, was one of the few people in the neighborhood Friday who said he'd had several conversations with Torgesen. Reiner said that Torgesen had recently helped install a hardwood floor at another neighborhood home. Otherwise, Reiner said, he wasn't sure if Torgesen worked, was retired, or received government disability checks.
Torgesen limped noticeably and walked with a cane, neighbors said.
"Every time we spoke, he was depressed and told me so," Reiner said. "He was really depressed about how Vietnam left him.
"About the only thing that didn't seem to depress him was his wife. When he mentioned her to me, he spoke highly of her."
But, in recent years, Torgesen stopped speaking to Reiner and, apparently, other neighbors. Reiner said they had a falling out one winter day, after he found Torgesen wandering the neighborhood streets. When Torgesen learned that Reiner was headed to the liquor store, Torgesen asked for a lift, saying he needed to buy a bottle of vodka, Reiner said.
After making his purchase, Torgesen opened his backpack, which contained five other bottles, Reiner said.
"It told him that's enough, to get out" of his car, Reiner said. He said it was the last real conversation they had.
The Sprungs once asked Torgesen to leave their home, Theresa Sprung said. But Harnden was always a welcome visitor. Those visits became rare in recent years, though.
"She was in a living hell," Theresa Sprung said. "She was the ultimate caretaker, a very warm person who was just worn down by abuse.
"She was so sweet, and you could see she was so hurt. You didn't have to hear him shout at her. All you had to do was watch what was going on. Finally, it got to the point where she just didn't talk about the way he verbally abused her. She became a recluse."
Sprung said Harnden would never challenge her husband. She was passive by nature, so passive that Sprung called her "Terry" for nearly 15 years, not realizing her name was "Sherry."
"She never corrected me once," Sprung said. "That's how passive she was."
Friday, as police and fire department officials gathered around the charred brick-faced home, neighbors gazed from afar behind yellow tape. Most of them had viewed Torgesen and Harnden from afar for years.
Johnson was one of the few who had gotten a glimpse of what appeared to be a troubled relationship.
"It's sad, but I was not surprised," she said. "He was slowly going downhill."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419