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Something snapped. That's all 68-year-old Roy Hagen can say about how he found himself standing over his bed in his pajamas, holding a smoking 12-gauge shotgun, looking at his wife Sheila, the person he loved more than anything else in the world, dead from a single wound to the head.
"I stood there for five minutes. And I said to myself, 'What in the world have you done? How could you do this?'" Hagen testified last month at the Sherburne County Courthouse in Elk River. "I just turned around and walked out of there and walked into the kitchen and ejected a shell out of the shotgun to see if there was another shell in it and there was, so I closed the chamber again. And I said, 'Well, there's only one thing for you to do and that's to go out to the garage and blow your brains out.'"
It was just after 6:30 in the morning on July 28, 1999. The midsummer heat wave that would lead news reports the next day was already thickening the air around the Hagens' spacious gray-brick rambler, nestled on a corner lot in a wooded area of Elk River, on the northwestern fringe of the Twin Cities metro. Still wearing his pajamas, Hagen raised the garage door to ensure that the discovery of his own body would prompt someone to investigate the house. "I didn't want Sheila to lay there dead for any length of time," he'd later explain in court. But as he sat on the steps that led from the garage into the kitchen, he discovered that no matter how deeply he inserted the barrel into his mouth, he couldn't reach the trigger of the long shotgun. Other positions worried him: The kick from the gun's discharge might skew his aim, leave him a vegetable, somebody's pathetic burden. So many other things in his life had been screwed up recently. Not this too.
He laid down the gun, lowered the garage door, and smoked a cigarette, then another and another. A notice from the Mayo Clinic about nodules on his lungs--cancer, he was certain--and Sheila's disapproval couldn't deter a 52-year habit. What difference did it make now anyway? He went into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot he'd made when he'd awakened at 5:30 to take Sheila's two miniature dachshunds for a walk. On a yellow legal pad, he scrawled a terse suicide note to his brother: DuWayne--I thank you for the living hell you have caused us for the last six years. Roy.
It went on like this for more than four hours, an intimate whirl of murder and suicide, cigarettes and coffee, pacing and positioning, the garage door going up and down. Hagen found a paintbrush he thought would help him reach the trigger, but the bristles were too soft and the handle too short. Later he came upon a plastic picnic fork that, with its two middle tines broken off, seemed sturdy enough to do the job. It almost worked, but the fork kept sliding down the trigger without exerting quite enough pressure. He wrote two more notes. One, added to the same page as the embittered farewell to his brother, was addressed to his daughter and grandchildren: Shanni--I love you and the kids but I just can't going [sic] living in this hell I have created for us. Love, Dad. The other, on a separate yellow pad, contained no salutation: Please have the dogs put to sleep they are so spoiled you could not find a good home for them. Roy.
In all, Hagen would later estimate, he sat on the garage steps and put the shotgun in his mouth 30 or 40 times. After the fork failed, he realized he wasn't going to be able to go through with it. He climbed into his maroon 1989 Lincoln Continental and drove the five miles to the Union Congregational Church near the center of Elk River, where he and Sheila had attended services every Sunday. The pastor, Trish Greeves, was in a meeting when she saw him coming up the back steps with a "crazed" look on his unshaven face, wearing his pajamas and slippers in the middle of the day. She quickly excused herself and went out to see him.
"Trish, I've killed Jill," he announced--though there has never been a meaningful Jill in his life. As Greeves scrambled to figure out what he was talking about, Hagen spoke Sheila's name. "Where's Sheila? Where is Sheila?" the pastor asked anxiously. "She's dead," Hagen replied.
Greeves led Hagen across the yard to her house and sat him down at her kitchen table. Holding his hand in hers, she asked him, "Roy, are you sure this has happened?" "Oh yes," Hagen answered, in a tone that spurred Greeves to call 911. In the few minutes it took for police to arrive, Hagen told her, "I've been sitting in the garage trying to get the courage to kill myself. I wish I could have finished the job." He had killed his wife, he said, because he couldn't stand to see her suffering anymore and couldn't see any other way out.
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