Thomas Sonnenberg's eight grandchildren lost their innocence on Jan. 31, 2014, when their "Grandpa Sunshine" made the mistake of helping a young man who claimed to be in need.
When Devon Parker pounded on Sonnenberg's door in the 3700 block of Aldrich Avenue N. claiming someone was threatening to kill him, the 69-year-old retired technician let him in and called 911. But before police arrived, Parker grabbed Sonnenberg's handgun and fatally shot him in the head.
Parker, 22, of Minneapolis, who was convicted last month of intentional second-degree murder, was sentenced Thursday in Hennepin County District Court to 40 years in prison, the maximum allowed under state guidelines.
At Thursday's sentencing hearing, Sonnenberg's relatives recalled the horrific task of having to clean up a family home turned into a crime scene, including sorting through blood-soaked legal documents. Although the sympathy and support they received came from strangers as well as friends, a few people also said Sonnenberg "got what he deserved" for opening his door to a stranger, they said.
As he had during his trial, Parker told Hennepin County Judge Dan Mabley that he killed Sonnenberg in self-defense. But Mabley rejected that, countering that Sonnenberg had placed a special trust in Parker in allowing him into his home, and then ended up dying at his hands.
Parker's family and friends gasped when Mabley gave him the 40-year sentence. County Attorney Mike Freeman said Parker deserves every second of that sentence in prison.
"The last time I heard my father's voice was the 911 call he made for his murderer," said Raina Baldwin, Sonnenberg's daughter. "I would give anything for one more hug from him."
'A cruel, thoughtless act'
Sonnenberg was sitting in his favorite chair, drinking coffee, when Parker knocked on the back door of his home late on the morning he was shot. Sonnenberg let him inside, locked the door and called 911. As his wife, Elaine, cowered in another room, the good Samaritan was shot dead.
Authorities said Parker had been acting paranoid and delusional. On that same January day, Parker was supposed to be sentenced to nearly three years in prison for a previous assault on police officers. It was the latest in a string of other violent offenses, including a 2011 conviction for third-degree assault.
Elaine Sonnenberg, who was choked and dragged upstairs by Parker at gunpoint after her husband's killing, declined to give a victim impact statement during the sentencing hearing. But Baldwin offered the court a tearful summary of the family's pain since her father's death.
There was the agony of telling her father's sister about his violent demise, she said. The questions about a man with a good heart who unknowingly let a killer into a house he had taken extra precautions to keep safe.
Her voice cracking with emotion, Assistant County Attorney Therese Galatowitsch read a lengthy statement by Sonnenberg's son-in-law, Tim Baufield.
Baufield said Sonnenberg had never stopped growing inside and was a firm believer in accountability. He wrote that when his 10-year-old son Nick asked why a man had to kill Grandpa, Baufield reminded him there are good people in the world.
"Tom is gone. It's over," Galatowitsch read from Baufield's statement. "All because of a cruel, thoughtless act. It's just not right."
In her statement, Rachel Baufield, another daughter of Sonnenberg, wrote that her father was "the security blanket that made us all feel safe." But next time somebody asks for help, "I will remember what happened to my dad," she said in the statement, which was read by a victim advocate.
A husband and home lost
Parker made frequent eye contact with his relatives in the courtroom gallery. When given his chance to speak, he said he felt terrible about what happened to Sonnenberg. "I had real fears. He was making quick motions," he said. "There was a good enough amount of evidence [to show] I was telling the truth."
Parker said he saw other guns in the house. A motion for acquittal filed last week said 182 firearms were in Sonnenberg's home. It also said the homeowner pointed the gun at Parker.
Parker's family declined to comment after the hearing. Elaine Sonnenberg said she was too emotional to talk about her husband and the case, other than saying that Parker was lying about being threatened inside the house.
A house, the tearful widow added, that she no longer owns.