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Grand Forks woman made 'normal' gun purchase before killing family

Michael Stamper, manager of Super Pawn in Grand Forks, recalls selling a gun to Astra Volk who used the gun the next day to kill her three children and herself. She bought the gun legally in early May. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Nothing appeared out of the ordinary about Astra Volk when she walked into Grand Forks’ Super Pawn in early May with her son, store manager Michael Stamper said.

She said she wanted to buy a handgun for home defense and that she was concerned about the recent string of break-ins around town, Stamper said. She wasn’t fidgety or angry, and the background check came back within minutes saying it was all right for her to purchase a firearm.

“She was in here with her son, and they were kind of joking back and forth,” Stamper said. “While she was filling it out (the paperwork), I was kind of chatting with her kid, kind of joking back and forth. They were talking about going to CherryBerry afterwards, and he actually invited me.”

She decided on a SIG Sauer Mosquito, a small semi-automatic pistol, Stamper said. He showed her how to properly handle the gun, including how to take the magazine out of the gun and which ammunition it used.

The Grand Forks woman used the handgun the day after she bought it to kill her three children -- Arianna Talmage, 6, Aidan Talmage, 10, and Tyler Talmage, 14 -- before taking her own life with the weapon, Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel confirmed Thursday. Police found their bodies May 3 during a welfare check at their home.

The case remains under investigation, but the Grand Forks Police Department has ruled the case a murder-suicide. The handgun used in the killings was the only weapon recovered from the scene of the crime, Lt. Brett Johnson said. It doesn’t appear that Volk owned any other weapons.

Volk publicly discussed her struggles with mental illness before her death, and family members said she had attempted to kill herself in the past.

But legally, nothing prevented Volk from purchasing a weapon, Zimmel said. The pawnshop conducted a proper background check with the FBI, which told Stamper it was OK for him to sell the gun to Volk, according to police.

“Every indication was that was completed legally and to standard,” Zimmel said.

Background checks

A person who wants to buy a gun in North Dakota must present a state identification card, such as a driver’s license, be 21 years old and go through a federal background check.

Federal law requires gun sellers to conduct background checks. North Dakota law does not have any additional requirements for background checks when it comes to purchasing a weapon.

Pawnshops must follow the same regulations as any other gun shop, said Seth Dye, owner of Pawn Pros in Fargo. If a customer comes to retrieve a gun after pawning it, another background check must be conducted to make sure he is eligible to receive the firearm, he said.

“We’re all under the same umbrella,” he said. “If you are a Scheels or Cabela’s, it’s the same paperwork as a pawn shop.

A person must a fill out a form asking questions about eligibility to own a gun, including whether the person has been convicted of a felony, if the customer is using illegal drugs or if a court has ruled the buyer “mentally defective.” The information is then sent to the FBI, which cross-references the customer’s record using federal databases.

Background checks typically take several minutes to complete if a record is clear and the person has the proper identification, Stamper and Dye said. There are multiple reasons the database could advise someone to delay a gun sale, Dye said. More time may be needed to check on criminal history, or the name may be common enough that the database needs to further identify the person.

If that happens, the delay could last several days, Dye said. A person who is considered by federal law to be too dangerous to own a weapon likely will not be able to purchase a weapon.

“Most of the time if someone has a clean record … you’re pretty much proceeding in about five to 10 minutes,” he said.

Denials are rare at Super Pawn, Stamper said. Delays are more common, but the majority of customers can proceed immediately with the purchase of a firearm, he said.

In Volk’s case, there were no red flags that signaled Stamper not to sell her a gun, he said.

Stamper described the purchase as general and normal.

“When she came in, she just had general questions about handguns,” he said. “It sounded like she was not very used to guns, that she didn’t know much about them. So she was asking what’s a good starter caliber, what’s a good gun for someone who is not used to it.”

Volk had attempted suicide earlier this year, her mother, Beth Richards, told the Herald. In 2014, police spoke with Volk after her ex-husband reported she was sending text messages detailing plans to commit suicide, according to an incident report from the Grand Forks Police Department. She was taken to Altru Hospital.

About a week before the killings, Volk posted on the website GoFundMe and asked for financial help to cover living expenses while paying of medical expenses related to mental illness.

A person must be “adjudicated mentally deficient” or be admitted to a mental health facility before he or she is not allowed to purchase a weapon because of a mental illness, Zimmel said.

“When you think about mental health, I would say a very significant portion of the population, at one point in their life or another, has encountered some mental health difficulty,” he said.

Stamper said hearing about the death of the children and Volk hit him hard. Police came to the shop to ask for background check records following the shooting, saying the customer was involved in a high-profile case.

Stamper said he hoped the officers weren’t referring to the woman who had brought her son to his shop just a few days earlier.

“The whole thing was just super normal,” he said of Volk buying the gun. “She just seemed like a normal person.”

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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