When the unthinkable happens, one woman learns ‘evil can’t take everything’

| Liz Kelly | September 14, 2020 | 0 Comments

Joanne Grimsrud stands on the bank of the St. Croix River near Osceola, Wis., Sept. 4. It was during a walk along this river a little over a year after her two sons were murdered that she felt “this clear sense of, ‘You need to make a choice here. You need to choose to live.’” DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

A choice to live

They’d been expecting a big snowstorm that day. But in the early morning hours of March 3, 1985, brothers Tom and Joe Fournelle, 13 and 15 respectively, began their Sunday like they always did: with a paper route.

“I had a big van,” said the boys’ mother, Joanne Grimsrud. “They used to love tossing the papers out of the back of that thing.”

Later that morning, she would head to a friend’s house with plans to meet her boys at a hockey banquet in the afternoon. Her estranged husband, Robert, who was also the boys’ hockey coach, would spend the day with their sons in their quiet Highland Park home in St. Paul, and then they’d all meet up at the banquet.

Grimsrud, a secretary and dog-handler, was just 17 when she married, and the marriage had been difficult and abusive. By this time, divorce proceedings had been filed and Robert had moved out. At one point, Grimsrud had a restraining order against her husband, so to avoid any turmoil during times of visitation, she would leave the house before her soon-to-be-ex-husband arrived. For all anyone knew, the veteran of Vietnam was a good father who loved his children. He coached their hockey teams, took them hunting and fishing. Co-workers said he was “a nice guy.” Only the night before, he had joined the whole family at their home to celebrate Joe’s birthday.

As she drove away that morning, Grimsrud saw her ex-husband’s car approaching. He was early. She wondered why. That moment — passing by his car — haunts her to this day.

Sometime soon after, on that terrible snowy Sunday, Robert Fournelle entered the home, shot and killed three family dogs, his two sons, and later, himself.

Grimsrud, 71, a member with her second husband, David, of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, said she always wanted to tell her story. A priest-friend had encouraged her that maybe now was the time.

“It seems these days, all you hear about is evil,” said Grimsrud, “and it just sucks the life out of you.” But she knows better: Evil will not have the last word.

The unthinkable unfolds

As the snowstorm grew stronger that day in 1985, Grimsrud called home to let her boys know she might be a few minutes late to the hockey banquet, but not to worry, she’d be there. She got no answer. She called a neighbor who had a key to the house and asked him to deliver the message in person. He knocked and got no answer. It was strange that the dogs didn’t bark, so he entered the home.

A few steps in, he saw one of the dogs, shot, lying dead. He immediately backed out, shut the door, and called the police.

The next hours were like something out of a horror movie. The police called Joanne and told her to lock the doors and windows at her friend’s home and to keep a careful watch. They didn’t know if there was someone still in the house or if someone was on their way to find and kill Joanne. So, she had to wait in helpless terror at her friend’s house about 30 minutes away.

Meanwhile, a SWAT team arrived at her home. They shot canisters of tear gas inside, breaking every single window. After several hours, when there was still no response, they finally entered the home. It had been badly vandalized with strange, nonsensical messages spray painted on the walls.

The story was eventually pieced together this way: Robert Fournelle entered the back of the home, where he shot two of the family dogs. The boys had been downstairs watching television when their father approached them, and another family dog, with a gun. Joe never knew what happened; he was shot in the head. The third dog attacked Robert but was shot and killed. Tom, the younger boy, had defensive wounds. He was also shot in the head.

It was the most devastating detail of all. Grimsrud remembered, “My younger boy knew what was happening.”

Robert was found upstairs in her bed with the covers pulled up around him. He’d shot himself.

Early in the investigation, Grimsrud was considered a suspect.

“All my assets were frozen, I had nothing,” she remembered. “(Only) the clothes on my back. All of my other things were in the house, teargassed, all my documents, everything.” The devastation washed over her like a flood.

“I had to shop for clothes for my boys to be buried in,” she recalled. “I had to shop for clothes to wear to the funeral. Where do you bury your children? I’d never thought about burying my children. All those decisions. How do you even make those choices? It was overwhelming.”

A veritable army rose up to surround her with help and support. Her father and best friend put on gas masks to enter the house and retrieve her insurance and other documents and try to salvage a few clothes. A friend with means paid for the funerals. Another, a businessman, walked her through the insurance nightmare — it stretched out for years.

In a journal entry marked 5:45 a.m. Saturday, March 9, 1985, she wrote: “It’s been almost a week. I still can’t believe or understand. So many things to decide and do. So many people. So much evil yet so much love. I’ve asked God to pray for me now because I can’t. I’ve asked him to give me the right answer I think he has. So much I don’t understand or know yet. Little bits keep coming out. How they died, when, where, how long. I need to know all of it yet don’t want to know.”

At the time, she would have referred to herself as a “casual Catholic.” She had a strong belief in God, it was important to her that her children were receiving a Catholic education, and she attended church, though not regularly. She didn’t know it then, but the very tragedy that could easily have turned her away from God would instead turn her toward him and a life of service.

A walk along the river

In the months following the murders, she lived with her parents. Emotionally, it was impossible for her to return to her home, so she built a new one. She bought a piece of land in a rural area in Wisconsin and rented a trailer to live in while the house was being built. The location proved healing. She’d always felt God’s presence in nature, and in that quiet countryside, she began to have many conversations with him in prayer.

She also returned to Mass, attending Assumption Church in Farmington, Wisconsin, where she met a priest with whom she became close friends.

Grimsrud remembers, “He’d say to me, ‘You’re Mary. You lost sons. She lost her son. Pray to Mary.’”

“It was good for me there,” she said, “because it was a little country church. People were very kind and quiet. … I became much more religious than I ever had been.”

And she needed her faith to fight the self-pity, darkness and depression that would threaten to cripple her in the days and years ahead.

A little over a year after the murders, she remembers taking a walk along the St. Croix River. It was a moment that she would revisit many times in her mind and heart.

“I had this clear sense of, ‘You need to make a choice here. You need to choose to live.’”

She prayed for the strength to get up one more day, to somehow find a way forward. In the meantime, friends had taken up a collection to buy her a Labrador puppy, Skeet.

“I didn’t think I would ever laugh again until she came into my life,” said Grimsrud. “But there she was, this little roly-poly furball.”

Some solid counseling, Skeet and lots of long walks along the river acted like a very gentle, steady healing rain after the most wicked, prolonged drought. After some years had passed, Grimsrud got other dogs and began working with them in pet therapy. She served in numerous hospitals and schools, quietly letting her dogs do the heavy lifting of reaching the unreachable who were trapped in trauma, illness and grief.

By far, the most intuitive dog she worked with was her yellow Labrador, Trip.

“There was a doctor who hated the dogs in the hospital, and one day his nurse came running to find me,” Grimsrud recalled. “(He told me,) ‘I’ve got a patient and he won’t talk to any of us, he won’t answer any questions, he won’t tell us anything. One thing we do know is that he had a dog. Would you go in the room with him?’”

Grimsrud and Trip went to work.

The patient was an elderly man, and when Grimsrud walked into the hospital room with Trip, he would not acknowledge her or the dog. So, she pushed a big recliner next to the bed and put Trip in it.

“There’s somebody here that really wants to see you,” she announced to the patient. “You better roll over.”

He did, and there sat the 86-pound Trip.

“The nurses started whispering different questions to be asked,” said Grimsrud, “and I would say, ‘Trip wants to know this’ or ‘Trip wants to know that,’ and he would talk to the dog. Everything they wanted to know he told the dog.”

For eight years, Grimsrud toted Trip around the metro, visiting the sick and the traumatized.

“I’ve never seen an animal who knew so exactly what you needed,” Grimsrud said.

Joanne Grimsrud works with Mary Tyson and her dog, Tori, during a dog training class for adults called Winners at Animal Inn in Lake Elmo Sept. 8. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

God’s closet

Many describe grief as coming in waves, and in fact, grief has visited Grimsrud in strong and unpredictable waves over the past 35 years. Even years after the death of her boys, there was a particularly challenging period throughout which she feared she might have a nervous breakdown. So, in her imagination she built a closet, and she filled it with the things she couldn’t face.

“It had a big black door and a gold doorknob,” she recalled. A psychologist encouraged her to lock the door, saying “You never have to open it again. If you want to go in some time and take something out to look at it, you can.”

“It’s one of those pieces that you have to let go,” said Grimsrud. “There’s no way to reconcile it, there’s no way to take that pain away. I believe that God gave me the ability to put it where I needed to put it, that he gave me the mind to create (that) closet and … I don’t need to worry about it, he’s taking care of it. It’s in his hands.”

There were other things she turned over to God as well, like the extraordinary act of forgiveness.

“If the forgiveness piece was up to me, I don’t know if I could do it,” she said. “I had to let that be God’s responsibility. I tell people it’s not my job to forgive (Robert); that’s God’s job. I have to let go of the anger. That’s my job.”

And miraculously, she has. “I really don’t hate him anymore,” she said. “I feel sadness, I feel pity, I often wonder what it was that could make someone do that. … But I don’t harbor any anger toward him anymore.”

Getting there was a long and painstaking process full of lessons she is happy to share with others.

“I don’t allow people to use the word (hate) in my house,” said Grimsrud. “It’s the worst four-letter word on the planet. It’s like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. That’s all you’re doing (when you hate) — you’re poisoning yourself.”

Still, Grimsrud has no illusions of a perfectly complete healing this side of heaven.

“I don’t think you ever feel like you make it through,” she said. “It’s like a wound. Today you have this gaping wound, and it’s all you can think about. But pretty soon you see it starts to close, and you think about it, but it doesn’t take your whole day. And pretty soon it’s a scar and you remember everything about it, but you don’t think about it all the time. It’s there, it’s always there, it will always be a part of me, and I have to accept that.”

Grimsrud eventually remarried and has two grown step-children and three step-grandchildren. She’s survived three serious bouts with cancer. She starts each day with her Bible and rosary. The Book of Job and Psalm 23 are favorites, as are the simple Hail Mary and Our Father. She prays constantly these days, and on their birthdays every year, she asks the Blessed Mother to give her boys a kiss.

“My two boys were so different,” Grimsrud said, smiling. “My older boy was more like me, quiet and more prone to stand back and watch things. My younger son was good looking, all the girls loved him! … Funny, outgoing, bubbly … I often wonder what they would be like and what kind of kids they would have had.”

Joanne Grimsrud works with one of her students in a dog training class called Junior Showmanship at Animal Inn in Lake Elmo Sept. 8. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

These days, Grimsrud works at the Animal Inn in Lake Elmo with adults and kids 8 to 18 who want to train and show dogs. There, she is clearly beloved by the dogs and students both; students consistently refer to her as “the best instructor I’ve ever had.”

Smiling, she said, “These kids are wonderful. … I just love those kids. You see them change. They grow in confidence, they look you in the eye, they become self-confident. … It’s pure joy.”

She also worked as a secretary for many years in an elementary school. “It was the perfect job for me,” she said, “Instead of having two children, I ended up with 731.”

When people who know her story ask her how she keeps going, she will say, “How do you not? It’s just this strong belief that there is a purpose and something I was put here to do or accomplish.

“I want to remind people that evil can’t take everything.”

‘The splendor of dogs’

Joanne Grimsrud was instrumental in initiating volunteer pet therapy programs in multiple hospitals and schools in the Twin Cities area, including Regions Hospital in St. Paul and Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater. And Trip, an 86-pound, award-winning, purebred yellow Labrador was a chief factor in winning over even the most skeptical administrators. His hospital volunteer ID said it all: “Rated #1 in the Twin Cities for Patient Satisfaction.”

In the beginning, Grimsrud would suggest to administrators, “Why don’t you meet Trip before you make up your mind?” Trip, with his charm and personality, always passed his “interviews.”

“Truly good therapy dogs have an intuition,” said Grimsrud. “They know.”

Grimsrud recalls visiting a father and his young son, about 8 years old. They’d been in a car accident and had adjoining rooms at the hospital.

She and Trip first entered the father’s room, but he quickly begged Grimsrud to head next door to his son. “My son needs this dog,” he said.

And once the charge nurse approved it, Trip got into the boy’s bed.

Grimsrud remembers, “(The boy) had his arms around him the whole time like he was just a big stuffed dog, and Trip never moved.”

Some of Trip’s most notable work, however, was accomplished in schools when there had been a suicide. Trip would absorb the grief and trauma of the students most affected like a sponge.

In one instance, a high school boy whose friend had committed suicide had become hysterical. He was taken to a private room where they sent in Trip.

“Trip sat next to him,” said Grimsrud, “and pretty soon he put his hand on Trip, and he was still crying very hard, but you could see him start to calm down. He was able to start talking about his friend.” When the boy’s emotions escalated once again, Trip put himself in the boy’s lap.

“He just draped in his lap,” Grimsrud recalled, “and the boy just grabbed ahold of him and he calmed back down and he talked some more.”

“The more I watched that dog work,” she said, “the more amazed I was. You can teach a dog manners, but you cannot teach what he knew.”

As Trip got older, he and Grimsrud adopted a new mission field — adults with disabilities who lived in a group home behind Grimsrud’s house on Cathedral Hill.

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