Unimaginable Heartbreak

On December 19, 2007, a young woman’s lifeless body was found in a partially burned car in Minneaoplis, Minnesota. News reports would inform the public that this woman was brutally murdered. That young woman was my baby sister; she was only nineteen years old when she died. She left behind family and friends who would never be the same again, including an almost two-year-old son.

Following is the victim impact statement I read in court before the judge sentenced her ex-boyfriend, Zachery Matthews, to life without the possibility of parole:

I am Elle, Krsitine’s oldest sister.  When I sat down to write this statement, I realized the best thing to do was start at the beginning: December 20, 2007…

For a split second, when the alarm went off at 6:30 a.m., it was a normal day.  Then, I heard the phone ringing downstairs.  No one ever called me that early.  When I got downstairs a few minutes later, MusicMan (my fiancé at the time) told me that he had just missed the call, which was from my mom.  He said my mom and my middle sister had been calling since 4 a.m.  My stomach sank.  I knew something was very wrong.

I try to brace myself for what I’m expecting to hear—grandma’s in the hospital again or she’s passed away—as I dial my mom’s number.  My stomach is in my throat.  Mom answers the phone, and I can tell she’s been crying.

“Are you sitting down?” she asks.  My heartbeat quickens, “Should I be?” I ask as I move slowly towards the couch.  She tells me that I should and asks if MusicMan is with me.  I tell her he is.  She loses her composure, choking and sobbing at the same time, “Kristine is dead!  She was found murdered last night in Minneapolis.  It’s all over the news—a woman’s body found in a burning car...”  I’m stunned.  This can’t be right. I’m hearing things. I’m not really fully awake, am I?  What a horrible nightmare. (Wake up!!!  Why are you dreaming this?!?!?  Your baby sister is not DEAD!)

“What?” I stammer—my voice catches in my throat as I start to cry. I sound very far away from myself.  I don’t remember the exact words that follow as mom explains to me that Minneapolis PD Detectives showed up at her house at around 4 a.m.  I ask the same question that I’m sure anyone who has ever been through anything like this asks, Are you sure it’s her?  She tells me that they’ve identified my youngest sister’s body based on the fact that it was in her car, her purse and id were found with her, and they asked about the tattoo on her back.

This can’t be happening.  I can’t speak.  I can’t think.  I can’t move.  I can’t breathe.  I don’t understand.  Too many questions, thoughts, and emotions are rushing through my head all at once; I can’t focus on any of them.  I hear mom say that the family is gathering at her house if I want to come over.  I tell her that MusicMan and I will be there as soon as we can.

As I hang up the phone, I hear a primal, animalistic noise fill my living room; the start of a strangled sob. As I start shaking uncontrollably, the dog stares at me looking very alarmed with her front paws up on my lap, and I realize the sound is coming from me.  I hear MusicMan enter the house.  He runs to sit down next to me.  “What happened?!??!  What’s going on?!?!?!”  I am sobbing uncontrollably and cannot stop shaking.  “Kristine is…DEAD!!!  She was MURDERED!!!  They found her BODY… last night in Minneapolis…in her burning car,” I manage to choke out.  He is as stunned at this news as I was.  “NO!” He yells,  “NO…no….no.”  I am aware of his arms around me, and we’re hugging hard.  I am still sobbing and shaking.  I can’t hear MusicMan crying, but I know that he is; I saw it in his face before crumpling into a pile on his lap.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There’s a sudden feeling of calm and clarity (that I understand now was probably denial or shock).  I call work and leave my boss a disjointed voicemail message: “Hi, Boss Man, it’s Elle. I’m going to be out of the office for a while. My sister was murdered last night. I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I’ll be in touch.”

MusicMan is feeding the dog.  He’s called the dentist to cancel my appointment, called the vet to cancel Wiggly’s appointment, and called into work for himself.  I go to take a shower.  I adjust the water in the shower to be as hot as I can stand; I just can’t seem to get warm. The tears running down my face blend with the water from the shower head. I can’t distinguish between the two, but I feel as though my tears could probably overflow the tub, if the drain were closed.  I can’t get a grasp on my thoughts. I know where I am, but I don’t; I know what I’m doing, but not what I’m going to do; I know where I need to go, but not where I’ll go from there.

What’s happening?!?!?  Life is different, and it’s not mine; this is not my life, or I am not me. This happens to people on the news all the time; we aren’t—she isn’t—the people on the news.  When am I going to wake up?!?

I wonder about Kristine’s final moments. Was she scared?  Did she know what was happening?  Does she know who did this to her?  I don’t want to think this; I don’t want to picture her lifeless body. But, I do; I can’t stop. Did she die quickly and without pain? (Oh please let the answer to that question be yes.)  Did she know she was dying?  What was she thinking about if she did?  (Probably Li’l D.)  Did she cry?  I hear her crying, picture her face contorted in sobs, tears streaking her cheeks. I picture her begging for her life. (Oh please; turn it off!!) Did she scream for help?  Did she even get the chance?  Her body—she’s a body now—is it burned?  How badly?  Would we even be able to recognize her?  Oh no; her beautiful hair! Is it singed black?  Is it gone altogether?  What was she doing in Minneapolis?  She doesn’t go there; it’s scary to her.  Did someone take her there before or after she died?  Was she lost and it was an attempted carjacking?  Was it a random act of violence?  Oh god, how did this happen?  Too many questions. Too many thoughts…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror. My hair is damp and hanging crazily all over; it needs to be brushed.  I stare at myself.  I only kind of recognize the person staring back.  I brush my hair and pull it back.  I still look like me.  I close my eyes. I open them again.  Nothing has changed. I’m turned away from the mirror as I apply my facial lotion.  I turn to the mirror.  Yep; still look like me.  Why don’t I feel like me?  Will I ever feel like me again?  NO!!  How can I?  I’ll never be me again; I’m broken life is broken, my family is broken. I can’t fix this—any of it.  No one can fix this.  I can’t do this; I don’t want to do this. WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?!?!?!?  I stare at the me in the mirror. I want to shake her, scream at her to wake up. “STOP THIS!  Why are you torturing yourself with such horrible nightmarish thoughts!?!?”  I see tears run down my face at the same time as I feel them. This is real…

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We’re in my car; MusicMan’s driving.  A thought occurs to me.  “I wonder if my twin brother knows?”  A call to mom confirms that he doesn’t; no one’s been able to get a hold of him.  Since it’s on our way, we’ll stop at his house to see if we can find him. My stomach is in knots as I try to think of the words I’ll use to tell him the horrible news.  I don’t want to be the messenger, but I have to.

We see my brother's car parked in front of his house when we arrive.  As we walk to the door, MusicMan asks if I want him to be the one to tell my twin the news.  “No.  I have to.”  My brother opens the door a few seconds after we knock on it.  As we enter the house, he returns to the couch and picks up his video game controller.  I loudly whisper his name (it’s all I can manage) and gesture for him to come back over to us.  He looks concerned that I’m asking this of him, which is not surprising considering that I’ve started to cry.  He walks over slowly.

I grab both of his hands in mine.  I look up into his face and say, “We got some really bad news this morning...”  I take a deep breath.  I’m shaking again. My voice comes out as a loud, raspy whisper, “Kristine is dead. She was found murdered in Minneapolis last night.”  I will never forget the look on my twin brother’s face as he hears me say these words and registers what I am telling him.  His mouth drops open and he stares at me in shock and horror.  I’m crying harder now.  My brother hugs me hard, and I feel MusicMan rubbing my arm.  The three of us sob as we cling together; trying to prevent our bodies from doing what our hearts already were: splitting into a million pieces.

I look up at my twin and say, “We’re going over to mom’s right now.  Are you going to come with us?”  I shake my head yes at the same time, perhaps telling him how to answer.  Soon, we’re off again; on our way to mom’s.

When we get there, Kristine’s 22-month-old son, Li’l D, runs to the top of the steps to greet me.  He has the biggest smile on his face.  I grab him and hug him to me tightly.  “Hi, little man,” I whisper as the tears start to flow again (did they ever stop?).  He rests his head on my shoulder and pats my back; he seems to know that I’m upset.  This makes me cry harder.  He’s too young to understand what’s going on—why everyone’s so sad and that he’s never going to see his mommy again.  My heart just keeps breaking.  It physically hurts.

The rest of the morning is a blur of waiting for answers, of people coming and going, hugs, crying, speculating.  When the medical examiner calls to tell us the cause of death, I feel as though I’ve been kicked in the gut.  She was strangled.  That means someone meant for this to happen; someone actually killed her on purpose.  The thought is too overwhelming.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The following days and weeks are a blur.  I’m the family spokesperson for the media.  I’m “one of those people on the news” now.  There are things from those weeks that I will never forget, though I’d like to: gathering with my siblings and parents at the funeral home to plan Kristine's funeral, Zachery (her ex-boyfriend) hugging me and crying with me—pretending for days to grieve with my family before his arrest on December 23, having to pretend that I didn’t suspect him even though I knew deep down inside that he did this, standing in my mom’s driveway doing news interviews on Christmas Eve, attending my sister’s funeral two days after Christmas (one of her favorite holidays).

One that really stands out is going shopping with my fiancé and my other sister to find a sweater for my baby sister to wear at her funeral. She never wore anything that covered her neck, and the strangulation has left marks we need to conceal so that we can see her as we say goodbye forever.  MusicMan pays for the sweater my sister and I have selected; our last Christmas gift to her.

A couple weeks later, when MusicMan and I go out to dinner, I have a panic attack and need to leave the restaurant; I think everyone is staring at me and recognizes me as “the girl on the news,” and they’ll want to ask me questions about my sister.  I eventually get used to these moments where I lose my breath and the world spins; it happens increasingly more often when I return to work about a month after my sister’s death. What if people want to talk to me about it?  Why are people staring at me?  Why are people ignoring me; some even going out of their way to avoid me?  I don’t know if I can work here anymore.

I can’t concentrate and have trouble focusing some days.  I get caught up thinking about her, and missing her, and wondering what she would’ve accomplished if given the chance.  I get migraines increasingly more often.  My doctor has given me medication for them in the hopes that I will no longer lose full days of my life to debilitating headaches.  I’ve also been put on an anti depressant.  Based on my extreme lack of energy, mood swings, and sleeping and eating issues, my doctor has diagnosed me with depression.  The diagnosis makes sense to me, considering all that’s happened over this past year.

A couple months after losing my sister, MusicMan and I lived in a hotel for a month as a result of a dryer fire in our townhouse; a few months after that, my grandma passed away.  It was bittersweet, because I’d yet again lost someone close to me who I will miss terribly, but I was also happy that Kris has her now; shopping buddies have been reunited.

MusicMan and I were in the middle of planning our wedding, and now I had to decide whether to delay it or to push myself through the planning.  Kristine threw our engagement party. She was so excited about our wedding and being a bridesmaid.  I knew she’d want me to continue with the plans we had.  So, I tried very hard to move forward.  Somehow I managed to, but not without bumps along the way.  I’ll never forget crying for hours the day I got home from shopping for bridesmaid dresses.  She should’ve been there!  I’ll never forget ordering her bouquet and bursting into tears as I explained to the confused florist that the reason I was ordering an extra bouquet was that my sister was now a “bridesmaid in spirit.”

MusicMan and I were married on August 23.  It was one of the happiest days of my life, but I’ll never forget the hole created from my sister’s absence.  It was the first time, of many to come I’m sure, that I couldn’t reconcile my happy thoughts with my extreme sadness and feelings of loss.  I felt Kris there with me in spirit, but I wanted her there in body.  It is moments like these that I try not to think about the long life ahead of me. I will never get used to her being gone, and when I think of how many years I have ahead of me without her here, I literally cannot breathe.

I think of Li’l D every day.  I think about the responsibility we all have to let him know how much his mommy loved him, what she was like, and how much we all love him and support him and always will.  I wonder what he saw that day, and I worry about what he’ll remember and how that will affect him.  Sometimes I have horrible panic attacks over the thought that something really bad has happened, or will happen, to him.  I don’t know why these thoughts come—there is no rhyme or reason to them—I just know that I can’t lose him like I’ve lost his mommy.

I see him, and I see her.  He has her cheeks and her nose.  He has a smile that almost seems too big for his face at times; just like his mommy.  I try to make him laugh as often as I can so that I can hear her laugh.  I wonder all the time what she’d think of him if she were here. She’d be so proud of how well he talks, of his kind caring manner, of his sense of humor, and of how smart he is.  Will he have the same kind of life she would’ve given him??  We’ll never know.  We all just have to do the best we can.  We have to try to think about what Kris would’ve done.

After the verdict was read last week, I felt as though I could breathe again (for the first time in months).  Justice has been served for my sister.  I believe life in prison with no possibility of release is the perfect sentence for Zachery.  He’s given all of us a life sentence.  As a result of his callous, cruel, heartless actions, none of us who knew and loved Kristine will ever be the same.

I still have mornings when I cry in my car on the way to work because I miss her and it hurts so badly.  There are still nights I can’t sleep because I’m trying to remember what it was like the last time I hugged her, what her hair felt like, how she smelled, her different laughs, her voice.  I don’t ever want to forget her, and yet I fear that I will. All I have left now are my memories, the final pictures of her forever frozen at the age of 19, and my silver-plated heart pendant with a small bit of her cremains.

I hope that Zachery spends every day for the rest of his life thinking about what her face looked like before and after what he did. I want him to see her face as he squeezed the life out of her.  Only he knows what their son witnessed that day, and I want him to think about that.

I want him to think about what their son’s life will be like without his mommy. His first day of school, when he graduates high school, when he gets married; she won’t be there for any of that or for any of those smaller moments, such as when he loses his first tooth.  He will never again hear his mommy say, “I love you,” or “I’m proud of you,” or “I’m here for you.”  He won’t feel the hugs that can only come from a mother.  He won’t hear her amazing laugh, so he won’t realize when he hears himself laugh that he’s hearing her too.  He’ll always wonder what of her is in him.  We will tell him these things, but it won’t be the same.

Someday, Zachery may have to face his son and answer the unexplainable questions:  Why did you do this?  How could you do this?  He might have to hear from his son that he cannot be forgiven.  I hope he lives on pins and needles wondering when, and if, that day will come.

At least our lives can move forward now.  I feel peace now that justice has been served for my sister.  The voice that Zachery thought he stifled—her voice—was heard throughout the trial in the form of witnesses and evidence.  She smiled on us the day the verdict was read as the sun shone brightly when we left the courthouse.  I smiled too; knowing that she’s at peace, that she’ll always be with us, and that Zachery will never again have the chance to hurt another family as much as he hurt ours.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story Elle. Very painful and powerful. I too understand tragedy - the way it changes your life forever. It's true that they stay with you - forever. Death does not separate us. And tragedy is an opportunity for growth. Deep, profound growth. It's not easy and its not fair, but we have a choice to fall victim to it, or learn from it. My life has changed drastically since the suicide of my son, Kerry. He is why I write, he is with me always.

    Love and Light to you and your family.

    Shannon aka Green Monkey
    my "day my life changed forever" is on my blog under "WHY GREEN MONKEY"

  2. Losing a loved one is pain and sadness forever. We can never understand why this happened just embrace the moments we shared with them. My sister and I thought my bothers accident was set up and people were paying the driver to crash that day. There are so many things that happened that are unanswered and I can't even begin to tell you how much I feel your pain. It's like a never ending nightmare and we're expecting them to walk through that door some day. I cannot grasp it. I often ask what is the point. Why are we put here. I don't know. Pain and sadness shouldn't be a part of life but they are. We can only hope one day that we will see their faces again. I don't understand people murdering people-I just don't get it. I'm sorry for your loss-she is a beautiful sister, mother, daughter, friend! And she left behind a gorgeous little man who you'll forever see her face through:) xoxoxo

  3. I had to take a few breaks from reading this because it was so moving I was crying. I am so sorry for your loss...I can't begin to imagine how hard this is for you and your family. You are all in my thoughts.

  4. I had to come back and let you know that I watched on 48hours and was heart broken all over again for you! i seen them show her photos and knew i had read about your pretty sister here on this blog! i couldn't stop thinking about you and wanted you to know that i'm always here to chat lady! xoxoxoxox

  5. Such a moving story. I'm sorry for your loss. I can't even begin to imagine what something like this must feel like. Sending love your way.


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