Mark LaFlamme: More questions than answers in Auburn double homicide

·5 min read

Jun. 28—In the early part of the day Sunday, June 19, I began to hear faint rumblings about a pair of suspicious deaths in Auburn. Those rumblings grew louder as the day went on, and by the time night came down, plenty of people were saying aloud what hadn't yet been confirmed: Did you hear? Two people have been slain in a Fourth Street apartment.

There was little else to say about it. At first, anyway.

From the get-go, police were saying very little — almost nothing at all when you get right down to it.

Yes, two people are dead, they acknowledged. No, there's no threat to the public. Carry on, townsfolk. That is all.

Two days after the June 19 killings, state police held a news conference, and most of us thought, here it is at last. These guys are the lead investigators on the case, so we'll finally get some answers.

But, nope. It was, I believe, the shortest news conference I've ever attended on a matter as grave as this.

The deaths were confirmed as homicides, sure enough, but legally speaking, that's a vague term. It's not synonymous with murder, as some folks think.

No cause of death was provided. Police did not describe the relationship between the man and the woman found dead in a Fourth Street apartment.

Likewise, they said very little about the mystery involving their "person of interest" or the disappearance of the dead woman's 2018 Hyundai Tucson.

There's no threat to the public, the investigators repeated, an assurance that was comforting, I suppose, but which did nothing to illuminate the shadows in which these killings exist for the rest of us.

We get our share of crime here in the Twin Cities, sure enough. But double homicides are fairly rare in these parts, and with such skimpy information coming from official circles, there's nothing for an apprehensive public to do but speculate.

And that speculation has been vigorous.

"What are you hearing about the Auburn murders?" wrote an area woman, one of several to contact me about the killings.

This particular woman knew the family of one of the victims. She'd been hearing things. Quite a lot of things, actually.

By the time she and I were done comparing notes and consulting with other sources, we'd established quite a lot. We had discovered the manner of death, we believed, and established some pretty solid leads on why the atrocity had been committed.

By sifting through rumors and wee bits of fact, we even learned a little something about the enigmatic "person of interest" who somehow doesn't pose a threat to the pubic.

It was a fruitful conversation that lasted for days. And all across the area, countless others were engaged in the same kind of dialogues with folks in their own private circles: What have you heard? You don't say! That's what I heard, too. And wait till I tell you what I learned from my landlord, who knows somebody who knows somebody.

Make no mistake. In this age of social media, online public records, local Facebook groups and the phenomenon of "mutual friend" connections, your average Joe and Jane have become impressively proficient at sleuthing. Driven mainly by their own curiosity, these people will spend hours of their days scouring public records, news archives, Twitter feeds, Facebook histories, obituaries ... any source that might put them on the path to the facts.

They will weed through the surplus of rumors in an effort to separate fact from fiction, cross-checking their findings with friends, with friends of friends and with conveniently placed associates. I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect that some of these amateur sleuths tear down family photos from their living room walls to put up evidence boards, using string, pushpins and sticky notes to organize their investigative findings.

Some folks are so good at this brand of criminal investigations, it's a little unnerving.

When enough information is compiled — and at least loosely verified — many of these people will write to a local reporter to either share the information outright or to accuse said reporter of being part of a vast cover-up.

"Here's what I have learned," they will write in a huff, "and I demand to know why you haven't reported on any of this yet."

Those messages sting, because frankly, by that point, I will be aching to report on the tantalizing array of details that I, too, have learned through unofficial channels. But just like police have their reasons for withholding information from the public, newspapers are likewise obliged to refrain from trafficking in speculation and unattributed facts, no matter how zesty.

In our zeal to chase down facts in these matters, it's also important to consider the families of the victims; families who no doubt have questions of their own and who need the answers more urgently than the rest of us.

Sleuthing is fun in the beginning, when all you have to work with are blurry rumors and nameless victims. Then facts begin to emerge and suddenly those victims have names and faces and families. You start learning about the kids left behind; about grieving mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers and like that, it's not a game anymore but a, by God, quest for the truth.

In 27 years on this job, I don't know if I've ever encountered a case as serious as a double slaying where so little official information was unveiled. There's probably a valid reason for the investigative stinginess with the facts, sure. Sooner or later, after arrests are made, court hearings held and affidavits filed, we'll learn most of what there is to be learned about the whole, sad affair.

It's a good bet that when this happens, there will be a sizable number of local people nodding with complete familiarity at the news. The official narrative will line up squarely with the facts they unearthed during their own unofficial investigations, and that will be that.

Or maybe it won't line up at all. Maybe all these amateur sleuths, myself included, will be utterly stunned by the truth about this case we thought we had solved so precisely.

Until the official word comes down, we're all just grasping at puzzle pieces in the dark and at this moment, that puzzle remains incomplete.