35 years later, this teenager’s crime still shocks Rochester
"It's a case with no easy answers," said Terry Walters, David Brom's trial attorney.
Editor's note: This story was originally published March 2, 2021.
ROCHESTER, Minn. -- A long-ago eruption of teen violence in Rochester is as stomach-turning, divisive and puzzling today as it was on Feb. 18, 1988.
The 35 years since the Brom family murders have done little, if anything, to answer the looming question: Why? Why did David Brom, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, take an ax in the middle of the night and kill his parents, his 13-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother?
We might never know.
Brom himself, now a 51-year-old inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, has done nothing to clear up the enduring mystery. He has declined numerous interview requests in the years since the murders, including a request in January 2021. Nor was he especially forthcoming about his motives to his trial attorney, Terry Walters.
"It's a case with no easy answers," said Walters, who went on from private practice in Rochester to spend 15 years as a Wabasha County judge. He was interviewed in 2018, on the 30th anniversary of the murders.
You might also ask: Did the adult-sized punishment — three consecutive life sentences — fit the juvenile Brom's crime? He will be in prison until he is at least 70 years old.
"Sending someone to prison for 70-some years for a crime he committed when he was 16 doesn't sound right," Walters said. "On the other hand, you look at what the crime was, and how do you fashion a fair sentence for a crime that horrendous? It was just an awful situation."
It's a situation that traumatized Rochester for 20 months in 1988 and 1989 — and at the heart of it stood a 16-year-old boy, courteous enough to hold the door for his jailers, yet capable of wielding merciless, intimate violence with his hands.
"I don't think Alfred Hitchcock could write the script to really describe what happened in that house. It must have been just incredibly terrifying," said Kevin Torgerson, the first deputy to respond to the Brom home after the murders. Today, he's the Olmsted County sheriff. He also was interviewed in 2018.
"I'll never, ever be able to completely understand the anger, the rage, whatever it was that he was feeling and doing at that time," he said.
A horror like no other
For many in Rochester, Friday, Feb. 19, 1988, dawned with a horror like the city has never known.
Residents woke to the news that the day before, in the quiet, snow-covered outskirts of town, four members of a respected, church-going family had been killed in the most brutal fashion, with an ax. And that the suspect being sought was the family's 16-year-old son.
People were afraid and jumpy. Tim Heroff, a retired police captain, then a 27-year-old patrol officer, recalled there were at least three police calls that morning reporting sightings of the suspect, David Brom. Heroff and his partner, Dave Thomson, on the morning shift since 7, responded to one, at the city's main post office on Valleyhigh Drive. It was 8:30 a.m.
Police were on the lookout for a teenager with dyed-black hair, wearing neon pink tennis shoes. Heroff and Thomson entered the post office with their guns drawn.
"We saw him right away, standing with his back to the door staring at (some) vending machines," Heroff said. The officers silently motioned to some customers standing in line at the counter to move away, and then Brom turned around.
"We effected the arrest at that point," Heroff said. Brom gave no resistance. He seemed "resigned," the officer recalls. "We handcuffed him and took him out to the squad car." So suddenly did it happen, Heroff can't recall who cuffed Brom and led him out. He remembers, though, that it was a very quiet drive back to the police station. Brom sat silently in the back of the car. A lull between two storms.
What teenager hasn't been upset with his or her parents? Adolescent angst is a virtual fact of life, a natural force as powerful and elemental as gravity; and David Brom, to judge from descriptions of him at the time, had it in spades.
He was the second-oldest of Bernard and Paulette Brom's four children, a sophomore at Lourdes High School. He had a part-time job as a cook at Henry Wellington restaurant in downtown Rochester with his older brother Joe, then 19.
Joe, who loved punk rock music and incorporated its aesthetic into his personal style — even wearing eye-liner — was out of the house, living with family friends. He had not left his childhood home on good terms.
Bernard and Paulette had resolved they would allow none of their other children to follow Joe's example. They tightened the rules at home. David would come to chafe against those rules.
But from friends' accounts, the Brom home in Cascade Township, just north of Rochester's city limits, was also a loving abode. The family was active in their church, Pax Christi. Friends said Bernard took up running to spend time with David, and also was working with him to fix up an old car. Both of David's younger siblings, Diane, 13, and Ricky, 11, were happy and active. The first sheriff's deputy to arrive at the Brom home, responding to a call, described its appearance as comfortably disheveled, the lived-in kind of place that bears testament to a busy family's comings and goings.
Family friends described David as "dependable and cheerful." He was a babysitter for one neighbor's family, helped shovel a neighbor's driveway and generously refused to accept payment for it. He had many friends.
Later events would show there were darker currents beneath the surface. David tried to commit suicide two times in 1987, in June and September, said a Minneapolis psychiatrist who performed a court-ordered evaluation of David about a month after the murders. David suffered from progressive depression that built up over a period of years. He suffered a sense of loss because two close friends had moved away, and because Joe had left. He had a sense of feeling oppressed at home.
He told friends many times he was going to kill his parents. He told one friend the night of the murders he was going to do it that night. He told another one the morning after that he had done it. Yet, it was hard for friends to believe David would actually do it. It was hard, later, to come to grips with the fact that he'd actually done it.
Today, Kevin Torgerson is Olmsted County's sheriff. In 1988, he was a 29-year-old sheriff's deputy in his second year on the force. He got the call at 5:23 p.m. Feb. 18, to depart from his scheduled rounds in Stewartville and check out a house on the other end of Rochester, where Lourdes school officials, who had overheard some disturbing rumors from students, said they were concerned a family was in trouble.
Torgerson was the first to arrive, parking on the road out front of the Brom home. There was fresh snow on the ground, and Torgerson noticed sets of tire tracks up and down the driveway as he chatted with a neighbor at the scene and waited for a second deputy, Mike Braley, to arrive.
They walked up the driveway and followed footprints to and into the garage service door. The garage light was on, and the deputies could see from wet tracks that a vehicle had been in and out of the garage recently. They entered the house, calling out their presence to whomever was inside.
Slowly, they made their way through the first floor. Nothing, other than a mess in the bathroom that later was determined to be from David returning home to shave the sides of his head and dye his hair black. The deputies called again; again nothing.
Now they were in "full search mode," Torgerson recalls. No longer announcing their presence, they drew weapons and expanded their search.
"I turned to start to go up the steps to the second floor," he said. "I got up maybe three, four, five steps, I forget how high up I got, but just high enough where I saw the upper landing area, and that's where I saw two sets of bare feet. They were obviously pale and not moving, so I turned and whispered back to Mike that it looks like they had two people down on the top floor.
"The stairway was real narrow, so it wasn't like a situation where Mike could get past me to see what I was seeing," Torgerson said. "We didn't know at that point if we were interrupting something or if there was still someone in the home.
"I got up to nearly the top step then, enough to where I could do a couple of quick sneak peeks to the right and the left. Of course, I saw the feet would turn out to be the two females, and their bodies were laying towards the left, so I went that way first. I could see they were obviously deceased. The blood was dried and everything. The injuries were just horrendous. Most of the injuries were about their arms, face and neck areas, and heads."
Torgerson doubled back to the right, finding Bernard in the master bedroom. "He was really in kind of a weird position, kind of squatting on his knees next to the bed with his right arm up on the bed, and his head kind of slumped over in front of him. Obviously, he was deceased as well," he said.
Down the hall he went to Ricky's bedroom. There, Torgerson found Ricky in his bed, lying in the fetal position. "He had, again, some real serious wounds to his head," Torgerson said. "Right around that time, it was time to get out of there. I was on overload at that point. … I said (to Mike), 'Let's get out of here and get some help.' … We were both pretty much in some form of shock at that point."
That shock would find its way out to the community. David's friends were in disbelief. "It wasn't Dave who did this. He wasn't the type," one told the Rochester Post Bulletin in a Feb. 20, 1988 article.
Parents, too, were at a loss. Nearly 200 Rochester parents met at Lourdes on Feb. 28 to discuss their feelings in a group setting. "People are trying to make sense of it," said Dennis Gannon, a local psychologist who led the meeting.
The sheriff's investigation was wrapped up in less than three weeks. "As far as we are concerned, our investigation is complete and we are preparing for court activity," Sheriff Charles Von Wald said in a March 7 Post Bulletin article.
Still, it was almost impossible to reconcile the image of the slightly built, polite boy, weighing maybe 130 pounds, with the frenzied killer who felled his parents and two siblings with nearly 60 blows from a hefty ax — including his youngest brother as he lay curled up in his bed, clinging to his security blanket.
Rick Dahl, a former Rochester Post Bulletin staff artist whose observant eye was put to work sketching scenes from the trial, recalled the incongruity of seeing David hold the door for one of the security guards bringing him into the courtroom.
"It kind of struck me that, here's this kid who murdered his family, and he's polite. It struck me as odd," Dahl said.
David's attorney, Terry Walters, was similarly affected by his first meeting with his new client.
"He looks like he's about 14," Walters said. "He was 16 at the time. … My first impression was the incongruity of this horrendous crime and this gangly kid."
Walters was a 38-year-old attorney in private practice in Rochester.
The Brom case was not his first — or his last — or even the case that stands as most significant to him now as he looks back on his legal career. But it was, for that time, a highly demanding case, one that would utterly consume him for the next year and a half.
The trial began on April 5, 1989 with hearings to determine if David should be tried as a juvenile or an adult. The stakes of that decision would be huge — a juvenile conviction would have David free by his 19th birthday. An adult conviction would carry a much longer sentence.
Judge Gerald Ring's April 22 decision to try David in the juvenile system produced public outrage. The judge received threats. Ring himself disagreed personally with his own ruling; but he said his hand was forced by the strictures of state law. Ring's decision ultimately was overturned by the state appeals court, and, after Walter's appeal, by the state Supreme Court. David Brom was to be tried as an adult.
The trial would take place in two phases — one to determine if David had committed the murders, then one to determine if mental illness was a mitigating defense.
In trial, Walters was essentially forced to concede Phase 1: Too much direct evidence and testimony implicated David — there was no other plausible explanation for the killings. That phase of the trial was over in just a week; the 12-member jury deliberated just four hours to find David guilty of first-degree murder.
Phase 2 enlisted three psychiatrists — one for the prosecution, one for the defense and one for the court — to testify on Brom's mental state. That testimony would be held up against a 140-year-old standard, the M'Naghten Rule, which holds that a criminal defendant can't be held responsible for a crime if he did not know the nature of his act or that it was morally wrong.
"Clearly there were mental illness overtones," said Ray Schmitz, the retired Olmsted County attorney, who prosecuted the crime opposite Walters. But, Schmitz said, "There wasn't a huge amount of disagreement among the professionals on whether he (David Brom) was M'Naghten insane."
Seven of the eight mental health professionals who evaluated David — including two of the three who testified — found him to be mentally competent.
The remaining professional, a forensic psychologist, testified that David had been suffering from visual hallucinations for a period of years, and that he had alter egos — three distinct personalities. He attributed the murders to a psychotic episode. The other professionals — and the prosecution, and judge — were skeptical of that analysis.
In the end, the jury found him guilty, but only after 2-1/2 days of deliberation.
There would be appeals – and those would fail — but first, and for perhaps the first time since Feb. 18, 1988, there'd be a respite, a moment of peace.
"I feel drained," Walters told a reporter after the closing arguments. "Completely drained. Mentally, emotionally and physically."
'A national story'
It inspired a punk-rock song. It inspired a bogus media stunt .
And today, the David Brom murder story continues to inspire the morbidly curious, in some cases to visit Rochester to see the way points of one of the more notorious and enigmatic crimes of the 20th century.
One such person is Landum Calfee, a landscape company owner in Iowa Falls, Iowa, who visited Rochester in 2017, taking video footage outside the Brom family home in rural Rochester and at the family gravesite in Calvary Cemetery, then posting it to his YouTube page, LandumC goes there . The page chronicles Calfee's visits to dozens of historic sites including the hometown of the gruesome Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, the United 232 crash site in Mason City, Iowa, and the location of a train robbery perpetrated by the outlaw Jesse James.
Calfee's purpose in coming to Rochester was to find the gravesite of the ballplayer Moonlight Graham, memorialized in the film "Field of Dreams." But during that visit, Calfee realized that the Brom murders happened in Rochester, too.
"I was living in Texas when this (the murders) happened," Calfee said when he was interviewed for this story in 2018. "I remember this being a national story."
Calfee adjusted his itinerary. He drove to the rural road where the Broms lived; there he bumped into a neighbor who knew the family.
"As I drove up, there was a guy standing out there watering the lawn," Calfee said. "He looked at me like, 'Here goes another one.'"
But the neighbor shared stories with Calfee about the Brom family, including the fact that David Brom had been the family's babysitter. "He almost defended David," Calfee said. "He said he was a nice kid, he just snapped."
Another whose fascination with the Brom murders has found an outlet online is Mike Kinney. In 2014, he posted a blog entry about his visit to Rochester and to the street outside the Brom residence on his blog, "The Adventures of Blogger Mike." It's one of the most-visited entries on his site.
"Even though I grew up near Rochester, I didn't hear about the murders until around 2008," said Kinney, a 35-year-old sales support supervisor for UPS in Minneapolis. He is an Austin native.
"A friend of mine knew I liked to document different locations, and knowing such a heinous crime happened so close to home, I had to go see for myself," he said.
Over the years, Kinney has visited sites of other famous crimes, including John Wayne Gacy's home in Chicago and, like Calfee, Gein's home in Wisconsin. At such sites, he said, he has a "personal code": "I never trespass, I never linger, and I always show respect to the locations I visit and the possible owners of those locations today."
"Visiting those sites, specifically true crime locations, is almost like visiting a grave," Kinney said. "It's a bit surreal to be standing in a location that such an intense crime has happened. It's almost meditative. One-hundred percent of the time I think about the victims. It's a very emotional moment — very hard to explain."
Pondering the unanswered questions at a crime site such as Brom's has a powerful effect, he said.
"When thinking about these kinds of murders, I think about 'why,'" Kinney said. "Why did this have to happen? What could possibly drive someone to act in that manner and do they have remorse after their crimes?"
The Brom family members
- Worked as an advisory engineer at IBM. He joined the company in July 1968.
- With Paulette, served at Pax Christi Catholic Church as a eucharistic minister. They were leaders in a marriage counseling program and the church's "Renew" program.
- Friends said he took up jogging to spend time with David, and was working with David on repairing an old car.
- Born Aug. 13, 1946.
- Served many years as director of Pax Christi preschool.
- She quit in 1985 or 1986 to spend more time with her family.
- Described by friends as "a compulsive giver of time, love, talent, food, money and herself."
- Born Sept. 12, 1946.
- Eighth grader at St. Pius school. She was registered to attend Lourdes High School in the fall of 1988.
- Had a love of sewing, basketball, cheerleading and piano.
- Described by friends as having "beautiful red hair, freckles and a shy smile."
- Born April 10, 1974.
- Fifth grader at St. Pius school.
- Loved football (especially watching games with his grandfather), biking and computer games.
- Born July 25, 1976.
- Oldest child, worked as a cook at Henry Wellington's restaurant.
- Lived with a friend's family and wasn't there the night of the murders.
- As an adult, was an assistant professor of economics and philosophy at Eastern Gateway Community College, in Wintersville, Ohio, for 15 years.
- Avid bicyclist and enjoyed the outdoors.
- He died of cancer on Jan. 5, 2016 at age 46.
- Born June 24, 1969.