Theft of mother's tombstone worsens split as family enters court battle in western Minnesota

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MONTEVIDEO, Minn. — For the first time in more years than any of them can remember, nine of the 11 Albrecht children were together with their father, John Wendell Albrecht.

They were together Thursday, July 19, in a Chippewa County courtroom in Montevideo, where four of the siblings are facing off against their father in a civil lawsuit. Deb Grussing and brothers Cal, Jasen and Lane Albrecht charge that their 75-year-old father and 49-year-old brother, John Darron, breached a contract when they removed and hid a granite monument the four siblings had placed on their mother's gravesite in the Sunset Memorial Cemetery in Montevideo.

The four also allege that their father knowingly made false statements defaming them to the court and in letters to the editor, interfered with their rights to grieve their mother, and took their personal property in taking the gravestone.

They also charged in testimony Thursday that their father had been physically, emotionally and spiritually abusive to them, "shunning'' those who had left the farm north of Montevideo where he moved the family in the late 1980s. Lane Albrecht and Deb Grussing testified that their father had isolated their mother, allowing her contact only with one daughter, who continues to live on the farm with their father and brother, John Darron.

Grussing likened it all to the story and movie "I Can Only Imagine,'' in which an abused son writes a Christian rock song expressing his joy of a better afterlife in heaven. "I know without a doubt mom is experiencing that now,'' said Grussing in her testimony.

Her mother, Sandra Albrecht, died on the farm July 24, 2017, at age 74. Chippewa County Sheriff Stacy Tufto delivered the news to Grussing the next day.

Her mother's body was interred on July 26, on instructions from her father that the remains be buried immediately after their return from the Ramsey County Medical Examiner, according to testimony Thursday by family members and Everett Bain, funeral director for Wing-Bain Funeral Homes.

In 44 years of professional work, Bain testified, he had never experienced a situation in which a next of kin was so hurried to have the remains interred. He also testified that he had instructions from John Wendell Albrecht to not inform his other children about the burial plans.

The siblings watched the cemetery and Grussing said some of them were present of their own accord for the burial. They also held a graveside memorial that evening.

She testified that they discovered later by obtaining the medical examiner's report that their mother had died of a rare brain cancer known as central nervous system lymphoma. Andrew Hodny, attorney for the plaintiffs, told the court in his opening statement that Sandra Albrecht had received no medical attention or comfort care for her illness.

Lane Albrecht and Deb Grussing said they believe their mother may have been exhibiting the first stroke-like systems of the disease as early as May 2013. That's when, they alleged in testimony and papers filed in court, their mother was compelled by a "controlling" John Wendell Albrecht to sign the first of handwritten papers stating she wanted no medical care, granting her husband power of attorney, and directing all of her assets to him.

The family members testified it was during their graveside vigil for their mother that they decided to join and pay for the burial costs as well as purchase a monument for the grave. They conveyed that desire to Bain, and he informed their father, according to Bain's testimony.

Bain spent hours on the stand, mostly responding to questions by John Wendell Albrecht, who is serving as his own attorney, as is his son, John Darron.

The funeral director repeatedly made it clear that he had informed John Wendell of the offer to pay for the burial costs as well as purchase a stone monument. "Praise the Lord," Bain said was the response to the offer. Bain said their father was "very positive" and "ecstatic" about their offer to pay the burial costs, as well as provide a monument.

A foundation stone was placed on Sandra Albrecht's gravesite, and in March of 2017, when the engraved monument was completed, it was set on the foundation. Brad Weckwerth, sexton for the cemetery, discovered the monument missing on April 12, 2017, and reported the matter to the Montevideo Police Department.

Police Chief Adam Christopher testified that he and other officers recovered the monument at a remote corner of John Wendell Albrecht's farm, heavily covered with branches and leaves on April 17.

He and his son John Darron were both subsequently charged with felony theft, and entered Alford pleas to the charges in which they admitted no guilt but agreed there was sufficient evidence for a conviction.

The gravestone purchased by the siblings is currently held by the Wing-Bain Funeral Home. The siblings filed the civil lawsuit against their father on Oct. 27, 2017. On Nov. 30, 2017, their father purchased a monument for the gravesite from a South Dakota company and it was engraved and brought to the cemetery nine working days later. The gravestone he purchased remains on the gravesite today.

The division in the family remains as well. In his own words in court, John Wendell Albrecht referred to nine of the 11 children as "estranged'' members of the family, as well as "the others" and "them.''

In turn, Lane Albrecht described their upbringing on the farm as a "cult'' and told the court their father purposely isolated those who left its gates.

Grussing said their mother was a "kind, self-sacrificing" woman who had been controlled and manipulated by their father, who allowed her no contact with the children who left. She said the siblings' hope is that their mother can be remembered for her kindness

"We would not be here today if you wouldn't have taken that tombstone,'' said Lane Albrecht.

The case resumes this morning before District Judge Thomas Van Hon.