Minnesotans' lives changed forever by hunting mistake

MINNEAPOLIS -- The call came about 10 that Sunday night. Kimberly Van Tassel, then 30, already had put her two kids, Janelle, 8, and Brandon, 4, to bed. This was on opening weekend of the 1989 Minnesota deer season.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The call came about 10 that Sunday night. Kimberly Van Tassel, then 30, already had put her two kids, Janelle, 8, and Brandon, 4, to bed. This was on opening weekend of the 1989 Minnesota deer season.

She had married her husband, Kim, 10 years earlier, and when she did, she knew only in the abstract what it meant to be a "hunter's widow." She hadn't grown up in a hunting family, and when she and Kim became high school sweethearts at a suburban Minneapolis high school, the notion that a boyfriend or husband would be gone for long periods during fall was foreign to her.

No longer. During their decade-long marriage, Kim, 31, had ventured far and wide in autumn to chase deer and elk, pheasants, ducks and bear. "He had warned me," Kimberly said. "He said he was a hunter, and there were certain things he would do in fall, and that I should know that before I married him"

Still, Kimberly was upset when the phone rang so late that Sunday night. Her husband had promised to call early enough to say good night to the kids. But 7 o'clock came and went. Then, 8 and 9.

Finally, Kimberly tucked the kids in.


Now, past 10 and the phone rang.

"How are you doing?" a voice on the other end said. It wasn't Kim, but a cousin of his who was with Kim far up north, in Roseau County, hunting deer.

"What do you mean, how am I doing?" Kimberly shot back. "Put Kim on the phone."

Just then the front door bell rang.

Kimberly didn't know it, but there had been a mixup. Her mother, father and brother were at the door. By now, they were supposed to have told Kimberly about the accident -- about how Kim had been killed a few hours earlier.

Mistaken for a deer by another hunter, perhaps after legal shooting hours, Kim had been riding his three-wheeler back to camp when shots rang out. One hit him under his right armpit.

Kimberly could tell immediately after she opened the door that her mom, dad and brother had been crying.

She said: "Just tell me. Is he dead?"


Flash forward 20 years. It's last week, and Kimberly Van Tassel -- now Kimberly Van Tassel Trapp -- sits in a coffee shop not far from the high school where she and Kim first met.

Remarried now, and happily so, she and her husband, Larry, have a daughter, Jordan, 16, in addition to Janelle, now 28, and Brandon, 24. So, on the eve of Minnesota's 2009 deer hunting season, everything's different.

Time, they say, heals everything.

Not really, Kimberly said.

"It's all still vivid in my mind," she said. "I still remember the phone call that night. And I remember removing all the guns from my house for many, many years. Brandon was too young to remember a lot about his dad. Janelle was older, and she remembers more. But she didn't understand everything. I remember having to tell her that her dad wouldn't be coming back. She didn't quite understand."

Now, these many years later, Kimberly still knows nothing about hunting. But she knows this:

"If you're a deer hunter and you're going hunting next weekend, you better think before you shoot. A shot you take might be just one moment in time for you. But for me, a shot changed my life forever. And not just my life, but the lives of my kids, my parents and family, Kim's parents and family, everyone who was in that hunting party, everyone Kim knew.

"One shot, and everything changes just like that. You never get over it."


Gerald Sizer is 64 and lives in Florida. He was 44 in 1989, living in Minnesota, and one of a dozen hunters in Kim Van Tassel's party.

"I've never forgotten that day," he said. "Other than Vietnam, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It changed all of our lives forever."

Sizer had climbed down from his deer hunting stand just before 5 p.m. Nov. 6, 1989, and hiked back to the group's shack. The hunting day for him had ended, and he and a few others in the group were standing around, waiting for everyone to show up, and waiting also to see if anyone had killed a deer.

Darkness descended. The air took on a chill.

"If I recall, it was about 5:20 when we heard the shots," Sizer said. "Someone said, 'What the hell was that? It can't be Kim. He wouldn't shoot that late.'"

Kim was known to be a good hunter, and he had taken particular pride in a Pope and Young buck he had arrowed a few years earlier that had landed him on the cover of a hunting magazine.

Fifteen minutes passed. Then, a neighboring hunter ran out of the woods, toward the group's shack.

"He was hysterical, saying he had shot Kim," Sizer said.


A search was begun. But the group's hunting area was large, there was no moon, and no one knew exactly where the shooting had occurred. "We looked and looked," Sizer said. "Then we went back to the camp, and I physically grabbed the guy and said, 'You're going to show us where this happened.'"

Gerald Sizer and some of the hunters who were with Kim Van Tassel on opening weekend 1989 tried a couple of years later to return to the same shack during whitetail season. By then, the man who had shot Kim had been convicted of second-degree manslaughter, a felony, and jailed.

But returning to their old hunting grounds proved a bad idea and wasn't repeated.

Sizer has since purchased 80 acres not far from Lake Mille Lacs, and he and his son and now grandsons hunt deer there, along with a few others.

"Deer hunting is a great sport," he said. "I love it. But we take it seriously. If someone's in camp who we think isn't a safe hunter, we don't invite him back. I love hunting with my son and now my grandsons. But if the year Kim was killed hadn't been my son's first year of hunting, it would have been my last year of hunting. I wouldn't have come back."

Kimberly Van Tassel Trapp sips from her coffee cup and opens a file a few inches thick. In it are mementoes of her former husband's life, and the long trail of paperwork that followed his death.

"Brandon is 24 now and has just started hunting this year," she said. "He's grown a beard and looks like his dad.

"I know I will never stop Brandon from hunting. He was 4 when his dad died and never really knew him. But now he wants to do the same things his dad did. I guess if it's in your blood, it's in your blood."

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