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From the ashes, hope can rise -- Stories of loss, pain by crime victims

There was a lot of pain in the eyes of crime victims as they told their stories, but also a lot of support from audience members Tuesday at a victims' forum sponsored by the Lakes Crisis and Resource Center.

Some 30-40 people attended the forum in Detroit Lakes, including a half-dozen teenage girls who clearly emphasized with two teenage victims of incest.

Kayla, a sophomore, and Kirsten, a senior, were abused for years by the man who was supposed to protect them from bad things -- their father and stepfather.

Kayla, now 15 and a strong Christian, said the abuse left her suicidal.

"Sometimes bad things are what make you see the good things in life," she said. "I was 12 years old, confused, depressed, suicidal, abused. My personality had been destroyed. I had no need to live after my father molested me. I kept it a secret -- only the angels and God knew the pain I felt."

But it all got to be too much, the secrets, the stress, trying to keep her grades up at school, being home alone too much, with parents working and siblings gone with friends.

"One night I thought way too much," she said. "I wanted to die, I wanted to commit suicide. I thought my dad was the devil -- he hurt me so much. He said things about my family, he said he'd hurt me if I told anybody what was going on..."

Even after she and her sister told a counselor at Frazee High School and ended the abuse (Kayla said her father is now serving a 12-year prison term) the pain didn't end.

After counseling and some time at Prairie St. John's in Fargo, she "felt broken ... I didn't think anybody really understood," she said. That changed after she became involved with the First Assembly of God Church in Detroit Lakes.

"I went to church, I became addicted to Jesus," she said. "I have no suicidal thoughts anymore, I do everything for Him. The good thing that came out of it is I met God, and my strength and my faith have totally been overturned. I'm closer to my family, I'm able to understand things, and I don't take life for granted anymore."

Kids that are being abused need to speak up, she said.

"No matter how scared you are, you need to say it -- there is always something good that comes out of something bad."

Her sister, Kirsten, is understandably angry with the man who molested her from fourth grade through ninth grade. She is enrolling in the law enforcement program at Alexandria in part because she wants to help people that were in her situation.

Her stepfather told her what he was doing was OK, because they weren't biologically related.

"I was threatened with all sorts of things, losing my brother and sister, seeing my mother killed, now I have a big trust wall in front of me..." she faltered.

Young people need to support each other, especially those who aren't popular or seem different, she said.

"People are picking on kids in school when all they need is a friend," she said. "You don't know what these kids are going through -- they may be going home and getting abused."

Jackie, the girls' mother, said her husband was "a very good manipulator -- he made it seem that everything was in my mind or that I was crazy."

She wanted to believe her husband of 16 years, but "it all changed at his trial."

She urged parents to believe their kids about allegations of abuse.

"If you ever see or hear that things are going on -- listen, and look for signs, because they could be threatened and not talking."

It has been a nightmare for the family, she said.

"I would not want anybody to go though this -- we lost his family. His parents, the kids' grandparents, will not have anything to do with us."

She would have been lost without support from the Lakes Crisis Center, she said.

Other speakers included Norma Smith, whose father was murdered in North Dakota in 1999.

Her father, a township supervisor, was murdered by a constituent angry about flooding that he blamed on an incorrectly installed culvert.

The murder happened in sparsely populated LaMoure County, and it took years for charges to be brought.

"We were frustrated with how long the case took, frustrated that no one would talk -- the mother (of the suspect) went to prison for perjury and the son let her."

It took five years to collect enough evidence to file charges.

Those years were especially hard on her mother, Smith said.

"My mother was so isolated -- no one talked about this to her, not even her pastor."

Eventually, the suspect, Steve Thomas, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the shooting death of his 82-year-old neighbor, Norman Limesand -- who was Smith's father.

He was sentenced in February, 2007, and Smith said she expects him to be out in 2014.

Her father's body was never found. Under a plea agreement, Thomas was supposed to help find Limesand's body in return for a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

But Thomas says he can't remember where he dumped the body. He is imprisoned at the James River Correctional facility in Jamestown.

Brenda Houts started off the evening by talking about the loss of her youngest son, Zach.

Zachary Ronning and Matthew Schons, both 17, died in an automobile accident in May of 2002. Another boy in the back seat survived. Zach was driving and they had been drinking.

His parents divorced, Houts said Zach had always walked a tightrope between their two very different attitudes about alcohol.

And he learned about death too early: His eldest brother committed suicide when Zach was 5.

"He could not understand why his older brother would take his life and not wait for his sixth birthday in two days," she said.

His other brother was left impaired as the result of a swimming accident that left him critically injured.

"After six weeks in the trauma center, we were told that Caleb would never come home," she said.

The next two years were spent at the nursing home to see Caleb. "Zach was a pet to everyone -- he was 9-11 (years old) and his friends were in their 80s and 90s."

One woman in her 80s would race him down the hall, both of them in wheelchairs. Older and wiser, she would duck into a room before being seen. Zach always got caught.

When the time came to make a decision about Caleb's future, Zach was involved in the decision to let him go peacefully.

"He missed a lot of school," Houts said. "He was mature beyond his years -- he knew things that connected him to adults that even other adults don't know -- a lot about death."

"In junior high -- seventh, eighth, ninth grade -- you start making decisions about life, about who you're going to hang around with," Houts said.

Some of Zach's choices weren't so good. In his sophomore year, he quit the football team so he could keep his job, which paid for his car.

Those choices started to get better after he spent time working in Iowa and fell in love with a girl there.

"She had her head on straight," Houts said. "She'd say 'you're not going to school? You're crazy -- get over there and get your degree.'"

Whenever the opportunity arose, Houts would take Zach to Iowa to visit her.

"Spending nine hours in a car with a 16- or 17-year-old child is unbelievable," she said. "Eventually, they have to talk to you. They get bored enough to talk to you."

They had wonderful conversations about his life and hopes for the future.

He was able to take her to prom in Iowa.

"We stayed two days -- on the way home he thanked me a zillion times for the greatest time of his life. He was blossoming into a new life. But he was still walking two roads -- a family saying whatever you want to do is OK, and a mom saying absolutely not -- we have rules, we have curfews."

The fatal crash happened around prom time in Detroit Lakes.

"They had been at a party -- somebody had bought the boys a case of beer. Zach was driving too fast, they were laughing very hard, they came around the curve and missed the curve," she said.

"With all he had to offer people, to know he died because there was too much going on in the car is just sad, just wrong ... it's wrong to drink and get behind the wheel -- it hurts everybody. It hurts people you don't even know."

The sharing session was followed by questions from the audience and a candlelight ceremony.