comScore

Three lives that slipped through the cracks of gun control

Would tighter gun laws have saved them?

Would tighter gun laws have saved them?


Diane Sellgren had outlived two husbands by the time she was 30.

The first died in service while stationed in Guam. He was driving home in the middle of the night when his car tumbled off the road. Sellgren was pregnant at the time.

She was still in mourning when a longtime high school friend proposed eight months later. Single with three young children and not thinking clearly, she accepted.

She should have taken her time.

Husband II was a turbulent man, prone to stormy moods and outbursts. He once threatened to shoot himself. Police put him in the hospital on a 72-hour watch and confiscated his gun. He bought another.

It was on the heels of an argument that Sellgren walked out of the shower to find her husband pointing that gun at her head. The thought of him murdering her, then killing himself and the children, flared through her mind.

itemprop

Sellgren retreated, tore her kids out of bed, and hurried them to the car. A girlfriend found them on her doorstep at six in the morning, Sellgren swaddled in a bathrobe, her hair dripping wet.

Later that evening, Sellgren returned home with her friend's husband as escort. She found her husband motionless in their blood-splattered bed.

That was in 1985. Their daughter, Angela Frankenberry, was but five years old.

"Angela was at times the sweetest, most loving young woman," says Sellgren, now a stout, silver-haired woman of 60, whose measured voice hushes into a weary whisper when she recedes into memory.

Angela had her own rough trajectory early in life. Her first baby came at age 20. She would raise two more on piecemeal wages from Burger King and managing the kitchen of an eating disorder center in St. Louis Park.

When times were good, everything was an adventure. Angela and the kids would rescue turtles ambling across the street, etch chalk murals in Sellgren's driveway, and sled down her backyard hill. When the kids were upset, Angela would eye them gravely and warn, "Whatever you do... don't smile."

Sellgren and her third husband helped as much as they could, but Angela had inherited demons beyond their power to allay.

Angela's father, her uncle, and her great-grandfather had all killed themselves with guns. As a teenager, she would spend hours in therapy, curled up with a sweater pulled over her head, weeping. Over the years, her depression seemed implacable. She abused the anesthetic power of drugs and drink.

Once, Angela overdosed on her medication. From her hospital bed, she promised her mother that she hadn't done it on purpose. She couldn't leave the children.

The kids were Angela's truest source of happiness, Sellgren believes. But she eventually lost sight of this joy too. Her therapists called for ambulances four times in a single year to have her placed on suicide watch.

In 2011, Sellgren was at work, managing traffic for a news network, when she received a call from the coroner's office.

Angela was dead.

Twenty-six years to the day of her father's suicide, she checked into the Snelling Motel in Minneapolis and shot herself with a gun she'd purchased secretly months before.

Anglea may have chosen the hotel for a purpose. After her father's death, her mother had to scrub blood and brain residue from the bedroom walls. This time a stranger would handle the cleanup.

The Snelling was also located just across the street from the Veterans Hospital. Angela was an organ donor.

"When my daughter committed suicide, I called Chief [Timothy] Dolan and asked him to have the gun destroyed," Sellgren recalls. "I didn't want to know it was out there. It was something that ended my daughter's life. But I don't blame the gun."

Angela Frankenberry passed a background check to get a permit after being hospitalized for depression four times the year prior to her suicide.

Angela Frankenberry passed a background check to get a permit after being hospitalized for depression four times the year prior to her suicide.

Enough Gun Laws

Sellgren was surprised to later learn that Angela had successfully passed a background check. She bought the gun legally, along with lessons on how to use it, from Frontiersman in St. Louis Park, which is down the street from Sellgren's house.

Angela's four hospital stays the year before were not flagged. A doctor asked that she be institutionalized, and Angela voluntarily went. Had a judge ordered it instead, her permit would have been rejected.

"The pills that she took were more regulated than the bullets and the gun she purchased," Sellgren says. "We had to wait a certain amount of days between refills. We had to get a doctor's signature every month.... We had to jump through hoops to keep her healthy, and yet she could walk into any store and buy a gun."

Delicate distinctions in how mental illness presents itself in a background check have played a part in high-profile mass shootings — including the Virginia Tech Massacre, the single deadliest committed by a lone gunman.

In 2007, student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 before turning the gun on himself. Cho had been diagnosed with severe anxiety and was court-ordered to attend therapy after stalking two women. Still, he was able to legally purchase guns because he had been in out-patient, instead of in-patient, care.

Angela's funeral was a blur. A single detail stands out, one that distilled the gun control debate, even among the grieving. Unable to reconcile her daughter's effortless access to the gun, Sellgren ruminated, "This is wrong. She never should have been able to get a gun. There should be better gun laws."

Shelley Joseph-Kordell was afraid of the woman who would eventually murder her in Hennepin County court.

Shelley Joseph-Kordell was afraid of the woman who would eventually murder her in Hennepin County court.

A cousin's wife, whom she'd known since she was 15, sighed and replied, "There are enough gun laws."

Yet Sellgren began to help state legislators write more. In 2013, she pushed to give mental health patients the option of voluntarily placing a hold on their ability to buy guns — meant to prevent impulsive suicides in times of crisis. Even this was too much for the legislature. The bill never made it out of committee.

In 2014, Sellgren helped pass a law that prohibits those with domestic violence restraining orders from having firearms.

She still wants more. Namely, background checks on all gun sales.

Federal law mandates that people buying guns from licensed firearms dealers pass a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) check. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia require this for guns bought and sold by unlicensed citizens as well.

Minnesota is not one of them. Private sales — conducted at gun shows or on Armslist.com — are exempt.

According to a recent Star Tribune poll, there is overwhelming support for a change. Eighty-two percent of Minnesotans favor universal background checks, including 71 percent of Republicans. Support among gun owners is at 74 percent.

Bret Struck (left) with his girlfriend from International Falls.

Bret Struck (left) with his girlfriend from International Falls.

Yet translating public opinion into law faces a formidable opponent: the Legislature.

In January, state Reps. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis), Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester), and JoAnn Ward (DFL-Woodbury) introduced a bundle of bills that include universal background checks, safe storage, gun buyback programs, the creation of a gun court in Hennepin County, and purchase bans for people on the FBI terrorist watchlist.

They were roundly mocked by anti-gun control groups, who've long held the Capitol in a stranglehold, irrespective of voters' wishes.

They trot out the usual defenses: that criminals will circumvent background checks. That only law-abiding citizens will be inconvenienced. And that many mass shooters — including those behind Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, and Colorado Springs — passed checks to buy guns legally.

To that sentiment, Sellgren gently reminds herself: "There isn't a law in this country that saves everyone, so we can't look at it that way."

Shelley Joseph-Kordell and the courthouse trap

Shelley Joseph-Kordell's purpose in life was to comfort the elderly.

She began by managing her grandmother's health and finances during her final years, then founded Rent a Daughter. In the early 1980s, it was one of the only geriatric care firms in Minnesota. Shelley kept it contained to a handful of clients, whom she adored. But it would eventually evolve into Pathfinder, a renowned name in senior care.

In 2000, another member of Shelley's family asked for her help. Her grandmother's brother, Hyman Berkovitz, was weak with dementia.

Berkovitz held a modest job as a grocer. Mounting medical bills forced him to sell his home and move into a senior center in St. Paul. Hyman's wife, Anna, asked Shelley to be the conservator of his estate.

Shelley was reluctant. Turmoil on the Berkovitz side of the family was no secret. Susan Berkovitz, Hyman and Anna's daughter, had declared war against her parents over their small savings.

Susan lived the bulk of her life with her parents. When Hyman sold the house, it took a court order to get her to leave. She lived in motels until her money ran out, then moved from shelter to shelter.

Susan's fixation with her parents' money motivated a series of bizarre and bumbling attempts to wrangle control of their estate. She tried to sneak into her father's senior complex at odd hours of the night to trick him into handing her control. She attempted to put her own name on his bank accounts, and demanded that his doctor declare Hyman incompetent to manage his affairs.

By June 2001, Anna had a restraining order against Susan. It hardly made a difference. Susan continued to pester her mother in person and in court. Anna began to plan a cloak-and-dagger escape to Los Angeles.

In the midst of this chaos, Shelley agreed to step in. She helped Anna hire a geriatric care manager in California. She found a doctor for Hyman and worked with the Berkovitz children — with the exception of Susan — to transfer the conservatorship there.

Susan was furious. She sued to return her father to Minnesota and accused Shelley of gobbling money from the estate. Her legal filings were so overwhelming and frivolous that Susan was declared a nuisance litigant by Ramsey County.

By 2003, Susan was sending Shelley threatening letters and leaving screaming voicemails — all turned over to police. She smeared Shelley's business practices to the attorney general, the Better Business Bureau, and the state Department of Health.

One night, Susan showed up outside Shelley's house in Minnetonka. When dead animals appeared in the yard, Shelley asked her husband to hook up security lights and stop-motion cameras.

Then Susan filed a harassment petition against Shelley in Hennepin County. Shelley was deathly afraid of meeting her cousin in court. At the time, metal detectors guarded the entrance of the Ramsey County courthouse, but there were none in Hennepin.

"She was just afraid to be there," recalls Shelley's lawyer Richard Hendrickson. "There was no protection at all."

Hendrickson requested an escort for the harassment hearing on the morning of September 29, 2003. The two met security guard Michael Frost in the bustling lobby of the Hennepin County Government Center, where Susan waited nearby.

Frost took Shelley and Hendrickson to their courtroom on the 17th floor. Susan taxied up separately.

Before the hearing, Shelley excused herself to the bathroom. She asked Frost to position himself outside the door. While Hendrickson rummaged in his briefcase for documents, Susan took a gun out of her small green purse, aimed it at the lawyer's head, and squeezed the trigger.

Frost heard the gunshot from a distance. A moment later, he heard a radio dispatch confirming shots fired, man down. That's when he saw a woman clutching a revolver emerge from the nearby elevator bank and turn toward him. The unarmed guard fled into an office and called police.

Susan cornered her cousin, shooting her four times. Police burst in and arrested Susan.

Shelley died two hours later. She was 56. Hendrickson made a miraculous recovery after being shot in the neck. He would become a primary witness in Susan's murder trial.

Rachael Joseph, Shelley's niece, attended every day of the proceedings. Susan had purchased an antique weapon at a gun show. She practiced target shooting over two months before luring Shelley to court and murdering her.

"Shelley did a really good job as far as keeping her fear hidden," Rachael says. "She told her husband, but as for the rest of the family, she didn't want us to be scared. This woman had a long history of harassment. When Shelley told the police about these things, there was nothing they could do."

Last year, Rep. Dan Shoen (DFL-Cottage Grove) proposed a restraining order bill that would let cops and families seek a court order to prevent relatives from possessing guns if they showed warning signs of imminent violence.

The National Rifle Association called it "the most misguided, rights-infringing attack on your Second Amendment rights in recent Minnesota history."

The bill failed.

Rachael doesn't know if a restraining order would have saved her aunt's life. She lived her final months in fear, "But it's hard to say after the fact."

Shelley was the heart of the family, says Rachael, the one who hosted every family dinner, every Thanksgiving and Passover. She left behind a daughter, who was pregnant at the time of the trial. There are now three kids who will never know their grandmother.

"It's just something my family will never get over, having her ripped out of our life like that," Rachael says. "There's a hole where she belongs."

Can we talk guns in Minnesota?

When Rep. Phyllis Kahn authored a bill to ban anyone on the FBI's terrorist watchlist from buying firearms in Minnesota, her inbox started pinging with unhinged emails.

"Skank, you fucking Jews from New York think you can fuck over law-abiding citizens because you are something special," read one. "Not! The reason the government black list is unconstitutional is there is no due process involved, dumb fuck. It won't become law and would never be enforceable, you ugly fucking bitch. But you bottom-feeding scum don't care about that! GO BACK TO NEW YORK WITH ALL THE OTHER KIKES!"

It's the kind of vitriol that oozes to the surface whenever gun control is raised. Kahn agrees the watchlist has problems. Innocent people have ended up there without warning and no real way to clear their names. But to simply do nothing, as we have for so long, doesn't seem a courageous alternative.

Other ideas may rally bipartisan support. Rep. JoAnn Ward wants to establish a gun court in Hennepin County, making way for intensive prosecution of illegal possession.

Rob Doar, political director of the MN Gun Owners Caucus, says his group might be an ally. "Go after the person instead of going after the tool. Anything that would target prosecution of criminals using guns, I expect we would support."

But the boldest measure this year will be Rep. Kim Norton's push for universal background checks on pistols and assault weapons.

Requiring background checks on all gun sales is something groups like the Minnesota chapter of Moms Demand Action, now a part of Everytown for Gun Safety, have been advocating for since they were founded in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. Both Sellgren and Rachael Joseph are members of its survivor network. 

The point is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, and background checks have proven effective.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the system has already intercepted the sale of some two million guns to people who should not have them. A tightening of Connecticut's checks and licensing laws produced a 40 percent decline in gun homicides.

Yet gun groups have consistently fought any reform, regardless of the data. They argue that criminals simply bypass the checks. They don't go to gun stores.

For proof, the National Rifle Association points to a 2013 University of Chicago survey of inmates in Cook County Jail. The majority confessed that they obtained their weapons through networks of friends, family, and gangs.

But according to researchers, the gun lobby missed the real takeaway.

Inmates' responses suggest a woefully meandering hustle to buy guns, since Illinois' strict laws narrowed their shopping options. Most who found it easy picked up black market guns trafficked from nearby Indiana, where the rules are lax.

A better example might be Missouri. In 2007, it repealed a 1920 law requiring permits — and thereby background checks — for all gun holders. Its gun homicide rate soared by 25 percent. Most agree Norton's bill won't work unless all loopholes are closed. That would mean that certain gun transfers — even loans of more than 12 hours — would have to be run through gun stores, which generally charge $20-$50 for a background check and paperwork.

Yet history suggests that if legal gun owners are inconvenienced, the outrage skyrockets. It isn't just about protecting hobbyists, says Andrew Rothman, president of the Gun Owners Civil Rights Alliance. There's also the matter of privacy infringement.

Every gun transfer means a permanent record created for the feds. While this may be a part of modern life for everything from car ownership to banking, Rothman calls it "totalitarian" when it comes to guns.

He's against background checks in any form. He thinks buying and selling weapons should be as easy as trading paperbacks.

There's also no shortage of tinfoil hat theories among pro-gun groups. One of the most popular asserts that universal checks will allow Minnesota to compile a list of all gun owners, which will be used to eventually seize them in a hostile usurping of the U.S. Constitution.

With such bizarre ideas pervasive, even modest efforts are stripped of their teeth. There are an estimated 300 million guns in America, one for every man, woman, and child. But thanks to the gun lobby, federal law prohibits creating a national database to track ownership. The FBI must destroy successful background check records within 24 hours.

Though sales records are saved by licensed dealers, they cannot be centralized, and are only accessible to police in pursuit of information on a crime gun. That trace data cannot be released for gun violence studies or to help police analyze illegal firearms trafficking.

Despite popular will, few politicians have the bravery to take even the smallest step. And that means people like Bret Struck will continue to die.

The ex-girlfriend from hell

At 41, Bret Struck was just entering the prime of his life. He'd meandered down different career paths before finally landing a job he loved, managing the mail room at a law firm. He bought a house and became serious with a Canadian woman who lived in International Falls. They spoke French over the phone, hoping that one day she would join him in Brooklyn Center.

Things hadn't always been so good. In 2001, he met Rochelle Inselman in an online book club. Inselman cheated throughout the two years they dated, Bret once confessed to his siblings. But he stayed in part because Inselman's two children had come to rely on him as a father figure.

When they finally broke up in 2004, Inselman began to stalk him.

"He was holding them together, and when he left, her life went downhill," his brother Don says. "She lost parental rights. I think that's why she blamed him."

Bret trusted Inselman with his credit cards while they were together. When they broke up, she emptied his bank account and demolished his credit. She applied for more credit cards in Bret's name and staked out his mailbox to retrieve them.

Inselman sent one letter to Bret's family claiming that he had driven her to suicide. She sent emails accusing him of rape to his co-workers and even his young nieces and nephews. She'd actually filed a police report against a different man, whose name she whited out and replaced with Bret's.

Then Inselman vanished. Or so it seemed. Bret quit looking over his shoulder. Eight years passed.

On February 12, 2012, he was alone at home baking Valentine's Day cookies to bring to work. Over the years he'd built a reputation as an accomplished cook, a maestro of blueberry cobblers, stuffed olives, and gourmet peppers, becoming a benefactor of office treats.

Inselman slipped into his home that night. She ambushed Bret in the kitchen and opened fire.

When he was a no-show the following day, a co-worker dropped by his house. Bret could be seen through a window lying on the kitchen floor.

With six older brothers and sisters, he was the baby of the family. Their memories of Bret paint a vigorous man who tumbled freely with nieces and nephews, a steadfast friend who once took in a buddy in rehab for alcoholism, no questions asked.

Yet Bret's relationship with Inselman left him with an unshakable unease, the depths of which he never shared with his siblings. It showed in the way he kept only a handful of close friends, and in how reluctant he was to date.

Only when the Strucks cleaned out Bret's house did they discover he'd gone to the Richfield police, where he'd lived eight years prior. Inselman had been sending him chilling letters. But they'd advised him to move on, to avoid inflaming her even more.

Police were able to trace her cell phone to his mother's Richfield neighborhood just a few days before Bret's murder. Inselman had called his mother out of the blue, but she hadn't answered because she didn't recognize the number.

One agent trawled Inselman's phone records and discovered that she had called a man in Duluth. He told police that another cop had already questioned him about "the gun." Apparently, the State Patrol had gotten a report of a woman disposing of a gun case in a Clearwater rest stop dumpster. That case was traced to the private seller in Duluth, who revealed that he'd sold a pistol to Inselman within a month of the crime.

Inselman had applied to buy a gun but was denied. The fathers of her two children had separate restraining orders against her, which she'd violated casually. So she turned to Armslist.com, telling the Duluth man she needed it to protect herself against an ex-boyfriend.

Rochelle Inselman, 39, was arrested three months after Bret's murder. She was ultimately sentenced to 40 years.

The Struck siblings are sympathetic to gun owners. They hunt, and have no desire to insert themselves into the madness of the gun debate. Still, their hearts tell them that law-abiding gun owners should get background checks.

"It can't be illegal here and legal there," sister Lori says, summarizing the family's feeling. "It should all be the same, one way or the other."