hilary kruger

Hilary Kruger maintained her composure thoughout the lengthy trial.

All 12 guilty verdicts were in and several moving victim statements read when District Court Judge Joseph Bueltel looked Michael Zabawa in the eye and did something judges don’t often do.

He became emotional.

His voice cracking, the judge rebuked Zabawa for the crimes he committed against a rural Waseca family.

“Mr. Zabawa, somewhere in your journey through your young life, you lost your moral compass,” Bueltel said.

After about five hours of deliberation Thursday and Friday, an Olmsted County jury found Zabawa, 26, guilty of murdering two people and attempting to kill a third two years ago in their home.

He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for shooting Hilary Kruger while she slept, and almost killing her. When that sentence is finished, he will serve a life sentence for killing Hilary’s husband, Tracy, who was shot after the shotgun blast and her screams woke him. Another consecutive life sentence was added for killing Alec Kruger, the couple’s 13-year-old son, who was calling 911 for help when Zabawa returned and shot him three times.

Hilary Kruger told the court during her victim impact statement that Zabawa deserved the harshest sentence possible because he made the choice to kill her family members.

“For more than 20 years, Tracy and I chose to live a good life,” she said. “We built a life together and we chose right over wrong. We had two wonderful boys and we were all very much part of each other’s life.

“We enjoyed life as a family of four. There really wasn’t much that could tear the four of us apart. Not until Feb. 3, 2007, when Michael Zabawa chose to tear the four of us in half. My family of four suddenly and tragically became a family of two.”

Zabawa was given an opportunity to speak before being sentenced. He sat still and said nothing.

The courtroom was packed full with more than 60 people, including about a dozen law enforcement officers. Four of them stood near Zabawa during the sentencing phase of the trial.

Zabawa attempted to turn the shootings into a “murder mystery,” but 43 witnesses and more than 200 pieces of evidence made it clear to the jury that he was the killer, Bueltel said. “Why?” was the only remaining question, he added.

Zabawa, after drinking at a Waseca bar, crashed his pickup truck into a snow-filled ditch near the Krugers’ home Feb. 3, 2007. The hog barn worker had been in court for a drunken-driving charge about a month earlier and a judge told him he couldn’t drink or drive.

The Kruger house is about six miles south of Waseca and on a back road to Matawan, where Zabawa was living.

Prosecutors said Zabawa went into the Krugers’ house and shot everyone inside because he didn’t want law enforcement officers to find out he violated the judge’s order. So he shot them before taking a Ford Explorer parked in the driveway.

“I don’t know why you couldn’t just knock on the door or use your cell phone to call for help,” Bueltel said. “My sense is, if you would have knocked on the door and asked for help, you would have gotten help.”

Bueltel became the most emotional when he talked about Zak, the Krugers’ second son who had been staying at a friend’s house that night. It must have been “horrible,” Bueltel said, for the boy to learn his father and only brother had been killed and his mother was clinging to life.

“This sentencing is very mechanical,” Bueltel said. “There’s nothing to decide but whether the sentences will be consecutive.

“Mr. Zabawa, you don’t get a two-for-one on this one. I think I need to capture the fact that three individuals were hurt horribly — two were killed and one was almost killed.”

Bueltel said it was difficult to listen to the victim-impact statements, which ended with Hilary Kruger addressing the court.

Kruger said she wanted to remind everyone there were two “very kind and gentle faces” behind those “horrific, murderous pictures” that had been shown in the courtroom during two weeks of testimony. They were “wonderful” people and should be remembered that way, she said.

“Tracy, Alec and I were not given a chance to fight for our lives against Michael Zabawa,” Kruger said. “It was an unfair fight. Tracy and Alec lost that battle and I am here today to fight for them, to fight for justice and to fight for the maximum sentence for Michael Zabawa.”

Michael Gaytko was one of six of Alec’s friends who told Bueltel about the impact the murders have had on young people in Waseca. Gaytko said he was playing in a hockey tournament in Wisconsin when Zabawa decided to become a “monster” from a “child’s nightmare.”

By the time Gaytko returned to Waseca, the town had been invaded by strangers. Law enforcement investigators and news reporters were asking questions.

It was hard to understand how the “old farmhouse” where Alec and his friends used to play could become a murder scene, Gaytko said. It was more difficult to imagine how their friend could have breathed his last breaths in his parents’ bed, “the safest place a child should ever know.”

After issuing his sentences, which resulted in no chance for parole, Bueltel told Zabawa that he hopes he spends the rest of his life thinking about what the victims had said.

“I’m glad I live in a society where a person like you can be placed in prison for the rest of your life,” the

judge said.

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