After Redwood Falls native Stephanie Roller-Bruner was murdered, her siblings jumped in to take care of her children.
For the past two years, the world of three children with ties to the Redwood area has been turned upside down, but through the love and support of family, they not only have survived but are thriving.
It was Nov. 22, 2010 when tragedy struck the family. Stephanie Roller-Bruner, the sister of Winthrop’s Cari (Roller) Panitzke, a graduate of Redwood Falls, “went for a walk” and didn’t return home. The following day her husband, Dale Bruner, reported her missing.
Cari traveled to Silverthorne, Colo., Nov. 26 and her brother, Aaron, arrived earlier on the 23rd.
On Nov. 26 after several days of searching, Stephanie’s body was found in the Blue River – a mountain stream that runs close to the Bruner home.
Parents Cathy and Ernie Roller, brother Chris Roller of Redwood Falls, sister Ramona Roller of Atlanta, Ga. and Cari’s husband Duane and children arrived a few days later to help plan the memorial service. Many friends and family members, both far and near, gathered in her honor.
Stephanie’s children Ellie, now 11, Jack, 8, and Lillie, 7, remained with their father until after the memorial service which was held in early December.
A day later, investigators ruled Stephanie’s death a homicide, and that’s when social services came in and removed the children from the home as Dale had become the primary suspect. The children were placed in the custody of the State of Colorado via the Roller family.
“It was really abrupt for them,” Cari said. “We were actually swimming with the kids at the time and were told not to let the kids go home.”
From December into February, Aaron Roller stayed with the children in the Silverthorne area.
It was prime skiing time in Summit County, and many of the residents rent out their condos and homes to visitors. Aaron, Carol and the children stayed in several of these places, complimentary, anywhere from a week to a month, so the children could remain in school.
“Everybody involved was so amazing and generous,” Cari said. “They opened their homes and brought food. The residents of the town and the area were so supportive of the kids, and the school’s staff were so awesome and understanding.”
In early February, the children moved with Aaron and Carol to their home in Sausalito, Calif., where they have stayed for the past one-and-a-half years.
There they attended Willow Creek Academy. It was much different than their previous school. Colorado schools are much like those in Minnesota. The Academy was more like a college campus with separate buildings, but the enrollment was small with a very diverse population and was filled with much structure and many activities.
They all were involved in Kung Fu, while Ellie took some dance, Lillie took a cooking class and Jack enjoyed the after school tutoring program, Bridge the Gap. All of the children participated in play therapy and have received help from many professionals.
When they found out Stephanie’s death was not accidental, the Roller family began discussing what would be best for the kids – to go to Minnesota or California. Their original plan was to have the kids finish school that year and then spend Summer 2011 in Minnesota. This way a better family decision could be made together. That couldn’t happen, though, because of social services.
“Families don’t always get what they want,” Cari said. “We understand that social services is there to protect the kids, and they wanted the kids to have stability.”
Aaron also owns a home with several other couples in Truckee, Calif., which is near Lake Tahoe. They spent the first summer there, and the children were involved in an enrichment program where they were able to go on field trips nearly every day.
The kids would go back to Sausalito for the next school year.
After the school year was complete in June, Aaron, Carol and the kids took a European vacation to countries that included Germany, Holland, Sweden and Denmark.
One of Jack’s best friends from school, Linus, is from Sweden, and they were able to visit him on the trip.
That portion of the trip lasted three weeks, and then Cari and her mother, Cathy, met the crew in Madrid, Spain, at the train station.
They had about 20 minutes to talk and get all the kids’ baggage and headed to the northwest coast of Spain for four days before traveling to Barcelona for another four days.
Then it was back to Minnesota where the kids lived with Cari, Duane, Logan and Hannah for the next five weeks.
“I really think they enjoyed it,” Cari said of their time spent in Min-nesota. “Neither Silver-thorne nor Sausalito is very hot, so they liked being able to swim outside, and they got to see their Minnesota cousins again.”
The time spent in Minnesota was a trial run in the Roller’s minds. Social services had finally allowed the Rollers to go ahead with their plan. Cari and Duane are adopting Jack, while Aaron and Carol are adopting Ellie and Lillie.
“As much as you never want to split them, three has been a lot for them (Aaron and Carol), and all five would have done us in,” Cari said. “Could we raise five kids? Yes, but who suffers?
“My kids would suffer, the three kids who need extra attention would suffer and Duane and I would start to suffer.
“This way we are adding one child to an already existing routine, and he should be able to fall right into it.
“And for once in his life, Jack isn’t outnumbered by girls.”
Cari said the girls are really close to Aaron and Carol, and it wasn’t an option for them to be separated.
The kids found out about the adoption plans two weeks ago.
“They handled it really well,” Cari said. “The first thing Jack said was ‘Am I ever going to see my sisters again?’ Of course the answer was ‘yes.’”
The girls have already started school, but they are going to be moving to Switzerland later in October.
Carol has a career opportunity she had planned for prior to Stephanie’s death.
The girls have already, unknowingly, toured the school they are going to be attending when they were in Europe this summer.
They are excited to learn German and French in school.
Jack, who is a third grader this year, visited GFW Elementary School recently and is happy to already know his teacher Kristin Hentges and has made several friends.
Over Labor Day, Cari and Jack went to California to visit his sisters, the school and see his three best friends. This is going to be part of his closure.
“Aaron and Carol did a lot of good things to get the kids on track during a rough time,” Cari said. “They provided a lot of structure in their life that they needed.”
The kids have been through a lot in the past two years to say the least, and this new transition is going to be another challenge that they will face. Yet, if history is any indication, the children are going to do just fine.
“I believe Stephanie is in a better place,” Cari said. “She is watching her kids grow.
“She’s looking down, and I’m sure she is proud of them and how they are doing.
“I want everyone to know, the kids are alright. No, they’re awesome.”