"Talk about her mom? I don't think she's ready for it yet," Lauri Koskinen, Kari's father, says of his granddaughter, Chess, 16. "There are some things you don't want to rush."
Chess, a Coon Rapids High School sophomore, knows that her mother disappeared from her New Brighton apartment and was fatally stabbed in 1994. She knows there is a state law named after her mom -- the Kari Koskinen Manager Background Check Act -- that requires background checks on prospective building managers, an effort to keep other tenants from becoming victims.
Otherwise, Chess says, "I never ask. I don't know much. I know enough to stay normal."
An only child, she's never known her father, meeting him only once, when she was 4, she says. But her smile -- brimming with the impish glow of a child who was awarded a modeling contract when she was a year old -- defies the hand she has been dealt and gives hope to anyone who has wondered what happens to the families of victims long after the headlines fade.
"I'm not real religious, but I think my faith was restored because of Kari's death," says Luanne Koskinen, Kari's mother. "You know that trust thing that you do? Fall back in somebody's arms? I knew I could fall anywhere and somebody would catch me."
But who could have imagined that, after all this family has been through, that Lauri and Luanne's safety net would be carried by a teenager whose world is consumed by cheerleading practices, weekend sleepovers with classmates, choir and dreams of a new cell phone or iPod? Or by a kid whose world revolves around fast-food hangouts, movies, hopes of one day becoming a forensic psychiatrist, talk about boys and constant arguments with her grandmother -- the first person Chess embraced when she earned her driver's license, on the third try?
Her grandparents, Lauri, 75, and Luanne, 67, a former legislator, are Chess' legal guardians. But Lauri -- who says half-kiddingly, "I'm just trying to stay vertical" -- recently has had numerous doctors' appointments and multiple surgeries, details of which the family prefers to keep private.
Yet, with childlike innocence, Chess turns an awkward moment into a playful tease.
"Look how little he is," Chess says of her grandfather. "He weighs less than I do."
"She really is a normal kid," Lauri says later.
There is no hint of emotional hardship in their home -- sections of which resemble a shrine to the Democratic Party. There is a photo of Sen. John Kerry with Luanne and Chess and photos of Luanne with former Vice President Walter Mondale, Tipper Gore, Patty Wetterling and former state Auditor Judi Dutcher.
Behind those photos in the family room is a black-and-white United States map handdrawn and autographed with a personal message to Luanne from Al Franken. Clinton-Gore campaign buttons are displayed on the wall and four green "Wellstone!" bumper stickers brighten the kitchen.
Call from Wellstone
"Paul and Sheila Wellstone were my heroes," says Luanne, who met Paul Wellstone in 1990 while working on his first senatorial campaign. The morning after Kari disappeared, Paul Wellstone left a message on Luanne's answering machine asking whether there was anything he could do to help.
That was in June 1994. Kari, 33, a receptionist at an Arden Hills company, left her parents' Coon Rapids home at 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 25, with 2 1/2-year-old Chessie, a basket of laundered clothes and a plate of food.
When Kari failed to arrive at church Sunday morning, a friend called her apartment. Chessie answered the phone, screaming and crying. Investigators found Kari's purse and keys inside the apartment, her car just outside.
Two months later, a man whom police suspected but never charged in Kari's slaying killed himself in his Oak Park Heights prison cell. Wayne Richardson Peterson, caretaker of Kari's apartment building when she disappeared, had been charged with sexual assault in another case.
Chess has never asked for details, Luanne says. Photos of Kari -- blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and a big, contagious smile -- are scattered about the house. A favorite of Lauri and Luanne's shows Kari with a 2-year-old Chessie at day care.
Chess downplays the photos of Kari in her room -- in a drawer, on the wall, on a shelf -- saying, "They're just there," and immediately changes the subject to the second time she took her driver's test.
Never questions the past
She verbally spars with Luanne, who throws playful barbs Chess' way. Luanne reminds Chess that she could be an A student if she applied herself and that pursuing her dream of becoming a forensic psychiatrist will take work. But she also reminds Chess that her mother adored her, that "I've never seen anybody who loved her kid as much."
"Aside from feeling sad that she doesn't know her mom, my only concern is she be healthy, happy, a productive member of society," says Luanne, still a tireless advocate for countless causes. As for wanting to know more about Kari, Luanne says of Chess: "She's never questioned it. She may talk about it with her friends, but never with us."
No, Chess says, she rarely, if ever, talks about her mom with friends. Occasionally she places flowers on Kari's grave -- on special days like Kari's birthday, Feb. 16, or Mother's Day.
Like most teenagers, she lives in the present. Her grandfather is a former band teacher from Hibbing, with a gentle soul and Iron Range toughness. When Lauri is too weary to drive his truck, Chess frets, "I don't know what I can do for him."
Her world -- one more easily understood by a 16-year-old than a grandparent -- is incredibly full, thanks, in part to the grandparents who have served as parents.
"I think she's lucky," Lauri says. "One of us is always home. The house is never empty."
When Chess failed her driver's test, she allowed her grandmother to hug her. When she finally passed the test a few weeks ago, it was Chess who embraced Luanne.
"She actually gave me a hug," Luanne says, beaming. "And for a moment, I don't think either of us wanted to let go."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419