Stepson: Bagley, Minn., murder-suicide caused by brain disease
BAGLEY, Minn. – Ben Vorderbruggen had plenty of time to process the suicide of his stepfather, but when he arrived in Bagley on Monday night, another tragedy stunned him.
“I was on my way from Bismarck when my mother called me and told me Jack (Gerbracht) shot himself. I spent the next three and a half hours on the road just kind of thinking about that, and then I get here and I found out that he had also killed my (step-)grandmother in the process,” Vorderbruggen said. “That was a whole other element to it, which I still don’t think I’ve completely, emotionally dealt with.”
Vorderbruggen’s step-grandmother, Darlene Gerbracht, 64, died after being shot by her son, Jack, 41. The two died in Darlene’s Bagley home Monday night, according to police. Jack, who lived less than two blocks from his mother, killed himself after shooting Darlene.
Jack and many in his family suffered from Pick’s disease, Vorderbruggen said. An obituary for Jack’s uncle, Gene Gerbracht, says he died in September at the age of 56 after a “long battle with Pick’s Disease.”
The Mayo Clinic classifies Pick’s as being among a set of diseases known as frontotemporal dementia, “an umbrella term for a diverse group of uncommon disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain – the areas generally associated with personality, behavior and language,” according to the clinic’s website.
Vorderbruggen wants his stepfather remembered not in the context of a tragic murder-suicide, but as a kind man who helped raise the now 28-year-old father.
“It’s really going to sound like an excuse, but Jack suffered from a rare brain disease. It severely inhibits your impulse control and there’s no real triggers for it. It just kind of happens,” Vorderbruggen said.
“The man that I know was a very gentle and caring individual. He wasn’t a physical person at all; he wasn’t an angry person at all.”
Police have not released any additional information other than the fact that Jack shot his mother in her home before turning the gun on himself. But according to Vorderbruggen, a motive, if there was one, may never be known.
“I never saw any of his episodes, personally,” Vorderbruggen said. “But the way I understand it is, it’s a schizophrenia type thing – where things would happen and he wouldn’t remember them, or even know that he did them.”
Darlene Gerbracht was remembered by her neighbor Curtis Lundell as a “lovely woman,” who without asking cleared Lundell’s driveway of snow over the winter.
According to Kyle Christopherson, a spokesman for the State Court Administrator’s Office, Darlene worked as a senior court clerk in Clearwater County from 1987 to 1994. That year, she became the court administrator. In 2005, she also became court administrator for Hubbard County, and worked both jobs until she retired in 2011.
Vorderbruggen said Jack had a strained relationship with Darlene, but that she was a part of Vorderbruggen’s family.
“I still kept an open line of communication with her and I cared about her,” he said. “And even with the rocky relationship that she had with Jack and my mother, I still kept in touch with her and stayed close. She was really caring for me and my family.”
Darlene’s former co-workers said they were still dealing with her loss and didn’t wish to comment, as did several family members in the Bagley area. But Vorderbruggen, standing in the kitchen of the home that his mother shared with Jack and their two daughters, wanted the community to know that his stepfather was not a heartless killer.
“It almost seems to me that the disease makes your personality turn a 180,” Vorderbruggen said. “For example, if you’re a really active person, all of a sudden you become inactive and want to be alone. But in Jack’s case, he was a very gentle, caring person. He loved his grandkids, his daughters very much. It seemed like when he’d lose his impulse control he’d get angry, which he (normally) didn’t do. But violence was a very small part of his episodes, a minute fraction.”
Vorderbruggen’s description of the effects the disease on his stepfather mirror that of the Mayo Clinic.
“Some people with frontotemporal dementia undergo dramatic changes in their personality and become socially inappropriate, impulsive or emotionally indifferent, while others lose the ability to use and understand language,” a description of the category of disease – dementia – in which Pick’s falls, read on the clinic’s website.
Vorderbruggen said Jack’s father, James, also suffered from the disease and died as result. James Gerbracht was 49 when he died in 1993.
“(Jack) came into this house when I was 12-years-old,” Vorderbruggen said. “I lived with him for 10, 11 years, and I never had a physical confrontation with him even once. And, you know, him being my stepfather that sometimes is rare – especially with an adolescent stepson.”
The Mayo Clinic lists the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration as the primary resource for those suffering from dementia-related diseases such as Pick’s.
“There’s not a lot known about this disease,” a grief-stricken Vorderbruggen said Wednesday. “Obviously, it’s a genetic disease, so they know how they get it, but they don’t know how to slow it down, how to stop it, how to deter it. I don’t want people to remember Jack as a murder-suicide. He was a very caring and gentle person. Violence was one one-millionth of his personality.”