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Judge sides with children in tombstone theft case

The gravestone purchased by John W. Albrecht remains on the gravesite of his late wife, Sandra. The gravestone purchased by some of the Albrecht siblings is stored by a local funeral home after their father and oldest brother had allegedly removed it and hid it on the family farm, where law officers recovered it. Forum News Service file photo

MONTEVIDEO, Minn. — Just six days shy of the second anniversary of the day the body of Sandra Albrecht was buried, a judge's ruling ends her family's legal dispute over what happened at her gravesite — but not the family's division.

District Judge Thomas Van Hon found in favor of four of the children of John Wendell and the late Sandra Albrecht in their civil lawsuit claiming that their father breached a contract when he removed and hid a gravestone they had placed on their mother's grave in the Sunset Memorial Cemetery in Montevideo. Before announcing his decision on Friday, July 20, Judge Van Hon told the family he could only address the legal issues before him, and that it was up to them whether the trial could bring closure or resolve their division.

Von Hon's finding that the contract was breached came after a second day of testimony in the case brought by siblings Deb Grussing and brothers Cal, Jasen and Lane Albrecht against their father, John Wendell Albrecht, 75, and oldest brother, John Darron Albrecht, 49.

The four are among 11 children in the Albrecht family. Nine of the children were referred to as the "estranged'' by the defendant throughout the trial.

Judge Van Hon said he found there was a contract in place when the four siblings told funeral director Everett Bain of Wing-Bain Funeral Homes they would pay for the costs of their mother's burial as well as provide a monument. John Wendell Albrecht had expressed relief and approval when Bain told him of the offer, according to Bain's testimony, and Albrecht's doing so meant acceptance of the contract, the judge noted.

The judge ordered John Wendell Albrecht to pay the defendants $1,566.78 for liability in taking the monument. He also ordered him to pay the same amount for conveying the monument when he hid it on the farm.

In addition, the judge ordered John Wendell Albrecht pay each of the four plaintiffs $10,000 for the emotional distress caused them by the removal of the gravestone. He ordered John Darron Albrecht, as co-defendant, to pay each plaintiff $1,000 for his role in assisting his father.

Both defendants in this civil case had previously been charged with felony theft for taking the monument and hiding it on the farm place. The monument was discovered missing in April of 2017, no more than a few weeks after it had been placed there. The two entered Alford pleas to the theft charges, in which they did not admit guilt but acknowledged the evidence was sufficient for conviction.

The judge found that letters to the editor John Wendell wrote after being charged for the tombstone theft were defamatory, but awarded no damages, however, because the plaintiffs testified the letters had not harmed their reputations.

The judge did not award punitive damages to the plaintiffs and dismissed with prejudice counterclaims by John Wendell and John Darron Albrecht claiming emotional distress and seeking $1 million each in damages.

The judge said he would issue a written ruling on a possible award for damages for interfering with the siblings' sepulture and concomitant rights to grieve their mother's loss in taking the gravestone.

He said he will also issue a written decision on the plaintiffs' demand that the gravestone they purchased be placed back on the gravesite. Currently, a gravestone purchased by their father is placed there.

Before announcing his decision and findings of fact in the case, the judge noted that much of his decision had to be based on the credibility of the witnesses. John Wendell and John Darron Albrecht had acted as their own attorneys. The judge described the testimony by John Wendell Albrecht as largely "argumentative" and often "rambling,'' and he raised questions about its truthfulness.

In his findings, Judge Van Hon agreed that John Wendell Albrecht used what the siblings had termed "spiritual abuse'' to control them.

The siblings described their mother as "kind, loving and self-sacrificing." In a statement, they said: "Dad inflicted so much pain and heartache on our mother during her life and continues to do so with us in her death. His deplorable behavior requires stringent consequences and accountability.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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