ZIMMERMAN – Christmas lights still hang from the tree in front of the barn-red house on Fifth Avenue South on the west side of Zimmerman. A rubber kickball sits in the front yard, and a boat rests on a trailer in front of the double garage.
On Monday, the wind was gently blowing the swings on a swing set in the yard. Cherubs looked over the yard from the landscaping near the front of the house, and a statue of the Virgin Mary stood among the bushes.
By all accounts, the house at 13309 Fifth Ave. South is a normal suburban home that sits at the entrance to a cul-de-sac.
Normal, that is, except for the yellow crime tape that surrounds the home and signals that something went terribly wrong.
Stephanie Shields, 35, and her children Nolan Shields, 7, and Josephine Shields, 6, were found dead in the home on Easter Sunday. Stephanie Shields drowned her children before killing herself, according to the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department.
The first sign that something was wrong at the residence came at about 10 a.m. on Sunday, March 31. Deputies were called to the home after a neighbor phoned 911 and reported that three unresponsive bodies were in the home, the Sheriff’s Department stated. Deputies responded to the home and confirmed that Shields and her children were dead.
Investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department processed the scene. The evidence, along with autopsy results from the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office, revealed horrific news: The death of the Shields children was ruled a homicide due to drowning. Stephanie Shields’ death was preliminarily ruled a suicide.
Mark Shields, the father of the children and Stephanie Shields’ husband, recently moved out of the home when the couple separated, according to the Sheriff’s Department. The children attended Zimmerman Elementary School, where Nolan was a second-grade student and Josephine was in kindergarten.
“I saw them walk their kids past my driveway all the time, on their way to the park,” said LeAnne Bye, who lives one house down from the Shields’ home.
“It’s just so hard to believe they’re gone,” she said.
Zimmerman Mayor Dave Earenfight said in all his 40 years of calling the community home, no tragedy like this had ever happened.
“Our community is country,” he said. “We live together, we work together, we pray together and today, we’re mourning together for members of our family as a community.”
The Elk River Area School District’s crisis response team was called into action to help Zimmerman Elementary School students deal with the tragedy.
“Josephine Shields and her brother Nolan were part of our Zimmerman Elementary School family, and we are deeply saddened,” Principal Susan Johnston said.
“This is unbelievable,” Elk River School District Superintendent Mark Bezek said. “I have tears coming out of my eyes. When you see the pictures of these kids, your heart breaks.”
Jim Boyle and Nathan Warner of the Elk River Star News contributed to this story.