Suspect in Waseca deaths struggled with alcohol
MATAWAN, Minn. — The man charged with murdering two people at a farmhouse in southern Minnesota led a life of contrasts that included crime but also caring for younger family members, his sister and former neighbors said in a report published Sunday.
Michael Zabawa was a Boy Scout who later drifted into crime, struggled with alcohol and bounced from job to job. But he eventually became a reliable worker at a hog farm and took care of his teenaged sister and another sister’s children.
"Shy, quiet kid. Just came to school and went about his business," said Paul Sparby, principal of New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva High, where Zabawa graduated in 2000.
Zabawa, 24, is charged with killing Tracy Kruger and his 13-year-old son, Alec, and accused of critically wounding the boy’s mother, Hilary Kruger, near Waseca last weekend after his car broke down in a ditch near the family’s home.
Others who talked to the Star Tribune of Minneapolis remember tough times in the Zabawa household.
Zabawa’s father, Don Zabawa, always seemed to have Mike, his only son, doing "tasks much too demanding for a kid his age," recalled Barbara Crumb, 66, a former neighbor.
The family’s farmhouse burned to the ground when Zabawa was a child, and his parents divorced when Michael was in grade school, said his sister, Jennifer Hullett. His father died in 1998 from pneumonia.
"We don’t talk about my father," said Hullett, 28. "Dad had a lot of drinking problems. He was a hard person to live with."
Crumb recalled: "He was harsh on that boy. He was militant, and I think it got to the boy."
Crumb’s daughter, Gina Crumb, 28, recalled how, as children, she and Michael Zabawa once entered the porch leading to the Zabawas’ farmhouse and found a possum blocking the door. Startled and scared, they called for help.
Don Zabawa arrived with a bow and arrows, she said. In separate interviews, Hullett and Crumb recalled how Don Zabawa fired at least nine arrows before removing the dead possum.
"I can’t imagine the impression it made on Mike to watch his father do that," said Crumb, who now lives in Colorado.
After the fire destroyed their home, the family moved to the Twin Cities for three years before returning to Matawan. Don and Andrea’s marriage fell apart, and Andrea and the kids moved into a trailer.
Michael helped care for his younger sister, Felicia, now 15. This was a side of him that only his family and close friends knew, Hullett said.
After Hullett was divorced and moved into a second trailer on the property, Zabawa helped with her four children, too. Neighbors said they’d see him giving the kids rides on a riding mower for hours.
Hullett said she’s not aware of her brother ever taking drugs. But, she added, "when Mike drank, there were consequences."
Zabawa was convicted of shoplifting in 2001 in Freeborn County, of drunken driving in 2004 in Steele County and again in December in Waseca County, and of theft in 2004 in Lake County.
According to his sister, Zabawa would stay with friends for long periods and went through a series of jobs. Most recently, he worked for Woodville Pork, a hog farm near Waseca. Owner Peter Zimmerman said he "didn’t know anything" about Zabawa, other than "that he showed up on Monday and left Friday afternoon."
A week ago, Zabawa and a co-worker left the farm after their shifts to work on a car, Hullett said. That’s when, according to police, his pickup got stuck in a snowy ditch in front of the Kruger home.
Zabawa told police Kruger confronted him with a shotgun, that a struggle ensued and that the gun went off three times accidentally, killing the father and son and wounding the mother. Investigators, however, said the father and son died of multiple gunshot wounds.
Hullett said there were no guns in the house growing up and that her brother never learned to shoot one.
"This just isn’t Mike," said Zabawa’s mother, Andrea Bialczak. "He’s a good kid. He has manners. We’re so sad for that family."