When the hunter became the hunted: Behind the 2016 unsolved murder of a Minnesota man
The unsolved case leaves open the questions of who killed the husband and father of four and why they pulled the trigger. It was the first homicide under Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen’s leadership and the only unsolved murder under active investigation in the county. The lack of eyewitnesses is the biggest hurdle in the investigation, Larsen said, which has thus far resulted in circumstantial evidence and a list of possible suspects, some of whom have no clear alibi.
LITTLE FALLS, Minn. — The last day Virgil and Frances “Babe” Brisk saw their son alive, he helped load a giant, unusual boulder they wished to turn into a headstone for their own future graves. Terry Brisk didn’t know the massive stone would first be chiseled into monuments memorializing himself after his murder two days later.
Two striking slabs in marbled reddish-gray hues streaked with black veins bear Terry’s name — one marking his burial site in Belle Prairie Township’s Holy Family Parish Cemetery, and the other overlooking the small patch of forest where someone shot the 41-year-old deer hunter in broad daylight with his own rifle on Nov. 7, 2016.
“It’s hard. We miss the darn kid so much,” Babe, 74, said April 26 while seated at her kitchen table beside Virgil, 83. “It’s not that — I know he’s in a better place, as they say. But it’s — I’m just selfish. I want him back, if I could have him back.”
The unsolved case leaves open the questions of who killed the husband and father of four and why they pulled the trigger. It was the first homicide under Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen’s leadership and is the only unsolved murder under active investigation in the county. The lack of eyewitnesses is the biggest hurdle in the investigation, Larsen said, which has thus far resulted in circumstantial evidence and a list of possible suspects, some of whom have no clear alibi.
“There’s definitely a weight,” Larsen said during an interview in his office late last month. “You know, I want to get the answers for the family. I want to get the answers for Terry’s children, who don’t have a father anymore. We owe it to the Brisk family. We owe it to the community.”
But Larsen said while some may consider the nearly five-year-old file to be a “cold case,” it’s one he ponders on a daily basis and continues to assign resources toward. The sheriff’s office just retained a recently retired investigator with more than 20 years of experience on homicides who’s solved a number of high-profile cases. A fresh set of eyes, Larsen said, is leading to new approaches to evaluating the clues.
“So that’s what it means to us. We’re putting additional resources on this case, and we don’t want to give up, and we won’t give up,” Larsen said. “And that’s one of the things you know, as my job as a sheriff, I have to make sure the ball’s rolling, that we’re continuing to work on it. I can tell you faithfully that this case has been worked on and pursued.”
The day it happened
On a typical Monday, Terrence “Terry” Brisk would’ve been working as a diesel mechanic for Brainerd-based heavy equipment dealer Ziegler CAT, where he put to use his lifelong affinity for tinkering with engines of all kinds. This wasn’t the case on an unseasonably warm Nov. 7, 2016, however. Two days into the rifle deer hunting season, Terry called his foreman and asked for the day off, according to his parents.
Terry’s oldest brother Jay Brisk spoke to him early that morning and later reported Terry sounded tired after spending several hours overnight tracking a deer shot by his wife, Pam Brisk. At some point in the late morning or early afternoon, the avid hunter returned to the spot he’d elected to sit for the season: a stand of forest bordered by an agricultural field to the north, Jewel Road to the east, Hawthorn Road to the south and to the west, a private, gated road leading to the Brisk family-owned gravel pit.
Although it was the first year Terry hunted in this particular spot owned by Babe and Virgil, he knew the land intimately. He’d grown up working in the pit used to extract sand and gravel as part of Virgil’s road construction business, Kingsway Construction. It served as the site of his 2001 wedding and is less than a mile down a dirt road from the plot where the newlyweds would build a house and raise their family.
That same afternoon, Virgil and Babe drove from their home of 50 years north of Little Falls to an assisted living facility in nearby Pierz, where they visited Virgil’s sister and delivered some clothing appropriate for the impending Minnesota winter. On the way home, the couple stopped at the pit — a typical visit to ensure all was well. When they spotted Terry’s truck, they realized he must be hunting and cut their security round short for fear of spooking any nearby deer.
Headed west on 168th Street, the Brisks saw the school bus dropping off their grandchildren and pulled in for a quick visit. Terry and Pam’s oldest son, 15-year-old Johnathon Brisk, ran inside to change into his hunting clothes and would soon be dropped off by Pam to join his dad in the woods.
Johnathon said he took up residence in a ground blind and waited for conditions to become more favorable for spotting a deer. Meanwhile, he wasn’t sure where his dad was hunting. He sent him some text messages, letting Terry know where he was so if a deer were to appear in the nearby field, both Brisks wouldn’t be aiming for the same animal.
“I could hear his phone, figured he was in front of me just sitting down or whatever. Or he was coming closer. And then I kept hearing his phone,” Johnathon, now 20, said during an April 30 interview. “And so I got out of my blind. It wasn’t quite a good time yet to just sit, so I kind of just peeked around. And then I walked back to my blind and that’s when I seen him.”
At the pit
The discovery of his dad’s body and the rest of the night that followed is somewhat hazy for Johnathon, who said he’s tried to push those memories from his mind. After slowly approaching the shock of blaze orange on the ground and realizing it was his father, Johnathon said there was no question he was dead. He called his mother, who called 911 and a neighbor who once worked as a first responder.
In those moments before the authorities arrived, Johnathon said he tried to work through what might have happened.
“I was just in shock. And the rifle that he used, it had a hair-trigger on it. I mean, you bumped it wrong and, you know, it could go off,” he said. “ … Maybe he’s walking through the brush and you get the trigger stuck in a branch or something. That’s just what was going on through my mind at that point.”
When the sheriff’s office responded, they took Johnathon aside and began questioning him. They stripped him of his bloodied hunting clothes — from the deer he’d shot two days earlier, his father’s wounds or both — and confiscated his gun.
Meanwhile, at the Morrison County Courthouse in Little Falls, Babe, an election judge for the following day’s presidential election, was picking up ballots and supplies when Virgil called and told her to call Terry’s daughter Frances Brisk, who was upset.
“She says, ‘Grandma, something terrible’s happened. Nobody will tell me what’s going on, I just know it’s something terrible. Somebody got hurt,’” Babe recalled.
She left the courthouse and drove to the pit, where she said sheriff’s deputies tried to stop her from getting closer as she explained she and her husband owned the property.
“I could hear my grandson John crying, and so I just got out of my car and started running toward him and more or less pushed the deputy out of my way,” Babe said.
She would soon learn the reason for Johnathon’s tears — her son was dead. Babe pleaded with the chaplain to allow her to go into the woods to see Terry’s body, but the sheriff’s office wouldn’t allow anyone but a priest from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Pierz.
“Then they started moving the body out of there and it was in like a long station wagon. Finally, they let me just walk to look into the windows, and I could see him — lying with his boots up in the air,” Babe said, her voice trembling as she remembered the moment.
What members of the Brisk family did not yet know as the sky darkened above them was a detail that would quickly transform the event in the eyes of law enforcement from a possible hunting accident to a probable murder. Terry’s hunting rifle, an older Winchester Model AE 30-30 lever action, was nowhere to be found.
Searching the scene
Sheriff Larsen said he called the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FBI about the death and as soon as it became clear Terry’s rifle was missing, Larsen and his deputies locked down the scene.
“We brought in some K-9s to do a weapons search, like an article search. And then of course, we followed up with fire departments and volunteers and we pushed the property to try and look for that weapon,” Larsen said. “So we knew it was significant because you know, there’s not very many hunters that go out on a property during deer hunting season without a weapon. So that was a big red flag for us.”
Nearly a year later, Larsen would announce to the public they’d found the rifle — what he described as the needle in the haystack — and they believed it was the weapon used to shoot Terry. Where they found the gun and how many times Brisk was shot are two details the sheriff’s office continues to keep under wraps.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Larsen said. “ … In order to complete the puzzle, you need all the right pieces. Right now we’re missing an eyewitness. You know, we have the woods. If animals could talk, this would be great. But we have no witness that came forward. So we’re missing that piece.”
“We talked to every single neighbor. We talked to multiple deer hunters that were out in that area. And then we, of course, asked for any information that they could provide us, and that’s included the public as well,” Larsen said. “Like, did you see a vehicle in the area parked on the property? Parked near the property? Did you see somebody that may be unfamiliar, or even someone familiar that you’re aware of that was seen leaving the property and/or near the property?”
One site of particular interest is a cell tower located on the eastern edge of the wooded area at the end of a short gravel approach. Larsen said it’s possible the suspect parked here, hidden away from the county highway. He wants people in the area to reach back into their memories and try to recall anything they saw throughout the entire day of Nov. 7, 2016 — whether it seemed suspicious to them or not.
“Is it possible there may have been a vehicle, you know, at that approach? Did they see a vehicle that was driving really slow and at the time they didn’t call us because, you know, maybe they knew who it was and they figured, well, you know, this has no value to the sheriff’s office. Those are the types of things we want to know about,” Larsen said.
Evidence gathered by law enforcement coupled with information from Terry’s autopsy by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office, which determined he died of blood loss, indicated whoever shot Terry did so at close range.
“We believe that there was probably some interaction between Terry and the suspect. We believe that Terry … saw this person clearly. And there was probably a conversation that took place prior,” Larsen said. “ … The evidence points that this was close proximity, and this was close and personal.”
Who pulled the trigger?
Larsen said there are two possible suspect theories that hold the most sway: either Terry got into a confrontation with a trespasser, or the suspect was known by Terry, and he didn’t think twice about leaving his weapon unattended. In each scenario, Larsen said they believe the suspect was alone.
It wasn’t unusual for Terry to confront trespassers — something that happened frequently at the gravel pit. Both Johnathon and his grandparents mentioned the regularity with which people would trespass on the property, often to go rock picking.
“We’ve had people come on our property all the time. You know, we’ve had our deer stand stolen, we’ve had people coming to pick agates all the time and some sketchy people out there picking agates,” Johnathon said. “And you’ve got to kick them out of there because if they get hurt, they can sue us and we can’t do anything about it.
“… That’s what I’m thinking happened out there. Just somebody was there when they weren’t supposed to be. They got confronted, they got angry, and then stuff just happened.”
The other theory — the murderer was someone close enough to Terry that his guard was down — is a less comfortable topic for family members. When asked if that possibility had ever crossed his mind, Johnathon said, “No, it hasn’t. I don’t see why.” Babe and Virgil said they have suspicions, but without proof, would prefer to keep them to themselves.
Larsen said with any suspects mentioned over the years, his office has gone so far as to conduct multiple searches at residences, on properties, in vehicles and of electronics. They’ve pulled records to see whose phone pinged at the cell tower in that location on the date of the murder, and have identified repeat trespassing offenders to question in the investigation. The evidence led to crossing some people off the suspect list, while others remain, without a solid alibi to remove suspicion.
“Normally something like this, if someone followed through with this — a normal person, it would tear ‘em up. How could you live with yourself when you just took the father, took the husband, took somebody’s son away from ‘em? How could you live with yourself?” Larsen said. “ … If we wanted to put a case together, it’s really not rock solid enough. So that’s where we need the public’s assistance. Our theory has to be backed up with the evidence and with the public’s help.”
With a new investigator on the team and advances in technology to assist in analyzing evidence already in the sheriff’s office’s possession, including DNA, Larsen said he’s cautiously optimistic there could be a break in the case.
“We comb through the information we already have, because a lot of the answers are probably there,” Larsen said. “And we continue to move forward.”
‘I just don’t think I’ll ever find out’
When Babe hears the frogs begin their spring symphony, she thinks of her son. For Virgil, it’s the moments he wishes Terry’s quick mechanical mind were still there.
“I really miss him, because he always helped me to do the repair on our equipment,” Virgil said. “ … It’s even getting worse now that he’s gone. If I have any questions, if I have a problem with a piece of machinery, I could ask him. And there’s no more Terry.”
Johnathon said the day he found his dad dead was the day his life and the lives of his family changed forever, including his younger siblings Nicholas, Frances and Michael, who were 14, 11 and 7 years old at the time. He grew up in an instant, he said, but he takes comfort in imagining what Terry is seeing as he watches his children grow up.
“He’s looking down at us right now and why wouldn’t he be proud of us? You know, we’re out there, we’re living on with our lives. We still think about him,” Johnathon said. “I mean, some of the stuff that I do today, the person I am is shaped from him. And there’s nothing better that I can do, you know, to make him happier. I mean, part of my life is from him.”
When he imagines the kind of dad he’ll be someday, Johnathon said he’ll emulate the father-son relationship he was lucky to have.
“Just be there for them, you know,” he said. “They get picked up from school or they need to be dropped off somewhere, they want to go hunting and fishing, it’s something that — I’m willing to always be there. And you know, learn how to fix a tire or something. Just be there to do it. Help them. Give them the same experience that I had.”
There are regrets and worries the family might never know the answers to what happened to Terry. Babe thinks about the moments they pulled into the gravel pit the day Terry died. Was he alive? Could they have stopped the murder from happening?
“The thing that bothers me the worst is, did he die instantly? Or did he lay there and suffer?” Babe said. “ … Maybe whoever was there, we would have found them having an argument or whatever, and we could’ve stopped something. But that’s something we’ll never know.”
The longer time stretches on, the more unlikely it seems to Babe and Virgil they’ll find out who killed their son.
“It’s getting worse every year because we’re getting older, and if we could just have some kind of peace of mind of who done this and they’d get punished for it,” Babe said. “ … I’ve just got my doubts that I ever will. I just don’t think I’ll ever find out. Not until maybe I see Terry again someday.”
Peace may be hard to come by for Terry’s loved ones, but it can be found. The 40-acre parcel where Terry died became a sanctuary of sorts — for animals and humans alike, closed to hunting and a place for meditation. Visitors to the site on Hawthorn Road can sit on a bench made from the same stone as Terry’s monuments and gaze up at an imposing steel cross and an American flag, two symbols that meant a lot to Terry. Babe and Virgil feel their son’s presence in the wind through the trees, an eagle soaring overhead, a deer stopping for a drink. And when the time comes, they’ll rest beside him for eternity.
Members of the public who think they might know something about the Terry Brisk case are asked to contact the Morrison County Sheriff’s Office at 320-632-9233. They may stay anonymous by contacting Crime Stoppers of Minnesota at its website at CrimeStoppersMn.org ; calling 800-222-8477 (TIPS) from anywhere in Minnesota; installing the “Submit a Tip” app on any smartphone; or by sending a text message beginning with TIP674 to CRIMES (274637).
All contact with Crime Stoppers is anonymous. Larsen said there is an undetermined monetary reward for anyone who provides information that leads to an arrest in this case.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .