Woman went from witness in Moorhead shooting to homeless
MOORHEAD - His blood had soaked the little girl's bed, her stuffed animals, the cloth-covered bench of her antique beauty set.
Sara Graham knew she and her daughters couldn't stay there anymore after what had happened.
"I just didn't feel safe," she said.
But life away from the apartment where 17-year-old Joel LaFromboise had lain intoxicated and bleeding from a shotgun wound didn't bring much comfort.
Graham soon found herself homeless with two daughters, ages 8 and 10. She and the girls would have to live apart until she could find another apartment, which wouldn't be easy for several reasons.
As local media focused on Joel's death and whether Graham's neighbor was justified in shooting the teen, Graham felt like the forgotten witness, left to deal with the traumatic experience on her own - though she knew the others were dealt a far worse hand.
Ralph LaFromboise, Joel's father, said he continues to visit his son's grave in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery about once a week. Pictures of Joel adorn the walls and entertainment center in his south Moorhead apartment. Joel's guitar sits in a bedroom closet, played only once since his death.
"I wanted to move after all that," LaFromboise said. "But since my son's buried here, I'll probably never leave this town."
For Graham, an unlikely meeting with a Fargo city official would prove to be the ticket to getting her life back on track.
"He was just such a shining light in the middle of so much darkness," she said.
'It was awful'
Graham was in the bathroom when she heard her front door close around midnight on June 19, 2009.
She thought it might be a friend, she said, recalling how the night unfolded.
But when she walked into the living room, she saw what she initially thought was a grown man standing there, shaking his head from side to side. He said nothing, uttering only an "uhhh" sound.
Graham asked him what he was doing there, but he didn't respond.
"I said, 'Get out. You get out of my house right now,' " she recalled.
The intruder fled. Graham thought she heard him run upstairs to the apartment above hers, in a fourplex in Moorhead's Romkey Park neighborhood. She put on a pair of jeans and chased after him, but didn't see him at the top of the stairs.
She ran outside to chase him and had just reached the end of the driveway when she heard a bang.
At first, Graham thought it was a door slamming. As she headed back toward the building, she saw the corner of a sleeve slipping into her apartment.
The beads hanging over her daughter's bedroom door were still swaying as she chased the intruder into the room. There, she saw the teen: He had collapsed between her daughter's bed and the wall.
"He was just crying, just kind of a screaming cry. It's unexplainable. It was awful," she said.
The mother's first instinct was to try to calm him down. She ran to her neighbors and told them to call police, even though she had her cell phone in her hand. She hadn't yet noticed the blood spattered in her apartment.
"I really wasn't thinking," she said.
Graham grabbed a towel to try to stop the bleeding. First responders and police soon arrived and ordered her to leave the apartment, which was now potentially a crime scene. She stood outside her front door and was still standing there when they took Joel out.
Police questioned her for about 30 minutes and let her go, she said.
Graham and her daughters spent the rest of the night at her mother's condominium.
The next morning, her boss from the Holiday gas station picked her up and informed her that the intruder had died. But Graham still didn't know who had shot him.
"I thought that I'd sent this child out who was fleeing from maybe a gang member or something," she said. "I didn't know, because it was so bad at Romkey that I thought I'd got him killed."
She was allowed to return to the apartment later that day.
"I just kind of stood there for a moment. It was so absolutely overwhelming with media right away," she said.
Emergency crews hadn't cleaned up the scene, she said. After media interviews, Graham drove back to her mom's condo, where her daughters would live for the next several weeks while she stayed at her best friend's place.
Graham never took the girls back to the apartment, but she eventually explained to them what had happened there.
"I told them that his name was Joel, that he was a person, that he needs to be remembered, that this is a good opportunity for you to look at yourself and what decisions you want to make when you become teenagers," she said. "... I explained to them that life is precious and it moves on, including for us, and everybody's going to be OK, and that Joel was with Jesus."
The tenant who shot Joel, Vernon Allen, told police that when the teen came into his apartment and tried to take the shotgun away from him, "I had only one choice - shoot him." Authorities declined to press charges, citing state laws allowing self-defense and defense of one's home. Allen could not be reached for comment for this article.
When Graham returned to her job at Holiday, she found it hard to concentrate as the events of the shooting kept running through her mind. Customers who knew her or recognized her face from the newspaper and TV didn't help matters.
"It was always, 'Hey, aren't you that lady?' or 'Hey, I've got a bunch of questions or a bunch of opinions for you,' " she said. "It didn't make it very easy to forget."
Help found in Fargo
Meanwhile, her mother, Mona, was calling around trying to find housing assistance for her daughter and granddaughters. That's when Dan Mahli's phone rang at Fargo City Hall.
"Her mom heard that I help homeless people, I guess," said Mahli, Fargo's senior planner for community development.
Mahli said he had read about Graham and remembered thinking that her part in the shooting story faded quickly.
He set up a lunch meeting with Graham and her daughters, and a friendship evolved.
"I just thought to have all the hard work of this mother wasted because of things that happened that she had no control over just didn't seem fair," Mahli said.
Finding an apartment for the family wasn't easy.
Graham's landlord was upset she'd broken her lease and wouldn't give her a good recommendation, Mahli said. Mahli tried to obtain housing vouchers for victims of domestic violence, but the program required the recipient to stay in counseling, and Graham wouldn't. A bad check she had written eight years earlier in North Dakota had to be cleared up, and her credit score was so-so, Mahli said.
He eventually found a landlord willing to work with Graham. She secured an apartment in south Moorhead, where she continues to live today.
Graham, who said she's been abandoned by men throughout her life, said she is grateful for Mahli's assistance.
"He really just came out of nowhere. I don't know how to say that," she said, starting to cry. "He just protected me and really helped us and educated me and gave me a lot of good ideas ... just became an angel."
Now 34 years old, Graham works full time as a supervisor at Burger Time in Moorhead. The former certified nursing assistant recently had gastric bypass surgery and has lost 115 pounds - "definitely another bright light in a dark tunnel," she said.
She said she hopes to own a house someday.
"I want my kids to have a place to always call home," she said.
Mahli, who has three small children of his own, said he's "really proud" of Graham.
"She'll be the first to let you know that being a mom is her most important job," he said. "I can't imagine how hard some of those nights must have been."
Family still coping
Members of Joel's family continue to cope with his death, his father said.
"I chased a lot of family away and stuff," Ralph LaFromboise said. "I didn't want to be bothered by anybody."
He said there initially was some family feuding, but, "We've worked a lot of it out as time passed by."
LaFromboise not only bears emotional scars from the loss of his son but also carries a visible reminder: a large tattoo on his back depicting Joel in front of the Minneapolis skyline. Joel had lived there before his family moved him to Fargo-Moorhead to try to keep him out of trouble, his father said.
"We're dealing with it, and now it's just moving on but remembering," he said. "It's something you never forget."