VADNAIS HEIGHTS, Minn. (AP) — Vadnais Heights Mayor Susan Banovetz never met Bilha Omare and her children Kinley and Ivyn.
She now considers them family.
Banovetz cried at the scene of their murders. She helped pick out their caskets. She spoke at their funeral.
“I will forever be linked to that family,” Banovetz said.
The murders prompted Banovetz to step out of the typical mayoral role — wrangling with budgets and even campaigning for re-election — to become a caretaker to a family she knew little about.
“It’s not out of her character,” said Janelle Hickson, a friend of Banovetz’s from high school.
Omare was a nursing student, months from graduation, when her husband hit her over the head with a golf club and strangled her. He then drugged their two older children before drowning 12-year-old Kinley and suffocating 9-year-old Ivyn in her bed.
Banovetz remembers the 3 a.m. wakeup she got Oct. 14. A Ramsey County deputy called to tell her about the three murders in her city.
“Knowing that a mother and two children had been killed was horrendous, and I felt physically sick,” she said “There was no way I could get back to sleep. It was too upsetting.”
The next call from the sheriff’s office came around 8:30 a.m., informing her of the news conference and asking her to be there. That’s when Banovetz’s involvement started.
She acknowledges the work she has done for Omare’s family. But she is quick to point to the many others who have helped, including those in Vadnais Heights as well as leaders of Minnesota’s Kenyan-American community.
“Mayor Susan Banovetz was instrumental in mobilizing the Vadnais community during that time, and her help is well appreciated,” wrote Danvas Omare, Bilha’s brother, in an e-mail.
Throughout the funeral planning, Banovetz, along with her husband and Bilha Omare’s friend Kelli Harris, have supported Danvas Omare and his family, providing them with information and comfort.
“They actually became part of our family,” Danvas Omare said.
And family they will remain. The Omares, who live in New Jersey, have named Banovetz, her husband and Harris as godparents to Bilha Omare’s surviving 4-year-old daughter.
“To me, it’s an honor,” Banovetz said.
In 2008, Bilha Omare called police after her husband, Justus Ogendi Kebabe, beat her. She told officers she feared him. He even threatened to kill her, she said.
He also verbally abused her. Harris said she would sometimes hear the abuse over the phone when talking with Omare. But she never saw physical signs.
Harris last heard from her friend in an e-mail Oct. 6.
Omare hadn’t been at work that week. Kinley and Ivyn had stayed home sick from school. When police arrived at their apartment Oct. 13, they found the three dead.
Kebabe, 43, and the couple’s third child were not at the apartment. Police later arrested him for erratic behavior along Interstate 35 south of the Twin Cities. The child was found unharmed with two women who had helped Kebabe when his car stalled.
Since his arrest, Kebabe has tried to kill himself twice by choking himself with wads of toilet paper.
He is being held in the St. Cloud correctional facility after pleading guilty of three counts of second-degree murder. He will be sentenced Jan. 14 in Ramsey County District Court.
A benefit is planned in memory of Omare and her children just days after the sentencing.
The casket options were limited when Banovetz and leaders in the local Kenyan community went to the Bradshaw Funeral Home.
The budget was tight, but they needed to choose something appropriate for Omare and her two children. They settled on warm-colored metal caskets they felt would be comforting.
Throughout the process Banovetz thought about the “horribleness” and “cruelty” of the situation. Thinking about it still makes her sick, she said.
There is no handbook for a mayor about how to respond to such a tragedy; she was simply doing what needed to be done, she said. And when the phone calls came from those who knew Omare, she couldn’t say no.
“I think it is the humane thing to do,” Banovetz said. “Because of my position and people I know in the community, I am in a position to mobilize people to help.”
Banovetz helped plan the memorial service in Vadnais Heights. She spoke at the Nov. 14 funeral in New Jersey with Omare’s family. She helped the Kenyan community raise the money to cover the memorial costs.
And she was a shoulder for the family to lean on.
“Sue was instrumental in helping the local people to help get the ball rolling. They were kind of struggling with what to do next,” said David Haroldson, funeral service team leader at Bradshaw Funeral Homes. “Through Sue’s efforts they were able to get (things done).”
Though such tasks typically do not fall under their official responsibilities, mayors often serve as ceremonial and public figureheads, said Kevin Frazell, director of member services for the League of Minnesota Cities.
Noting that Banovetz spent her own personal time and money on the memorial planning, Frazell called her efforts “a noble thing to do.”
Banovetz, who grew up on St. Paul’s East Side, remembers a neighbor who was abused.
She recalls sitting at her family’s picture window with her siblings waiting for the woman’s husband to show up at the home. Would this be the time they needed to call the police?
Banovetz’s mother made a point to help the neighbor when she could — even providing shelter.
Those memories came rushing back when Banovetz heard about Omare’s death.
Banovetz graduated from the University of Minnesota and took a job with the American Red Cross. As the head of public relations and marketing for disaster response, she saw how a mayor’s actions could help a city cope in a crisis.
She said that the communities whose mayors and leaders were out in front, showing leadership and compassion, coped better than cities whose mayors stayed in the background.
Those who know her say she looks at her job not just politically but also on a humanitarian level. Lori Humble, a friend of Banovetz’s, said the mayor takes her job personally.
“It was just incredible flying out to attend the funeral,” Humble said. “(It was) beyond the call of duty.”
Though the surviving 4-year-old won’t grow up with her mother and siblings, she will know where they are buried, in New Jersey. And that there is a community in Minnesota that will love her.
Banovetz hopes that one day her own children will be able to meet Omare’s family.
“I want to do my part in seeing that she (the surviving daughter) accomplishes in her lifetime what her mother, brother and sister won’t be able to,” Banovetz said.
Banovetz and other community members continue to remember the family and wish to help the survivors.
Ivyn was on her mind when lighting the city’s Christmas tree. She wore her purple scarf, Ivyn’s favorite color, as she placed butterfly lights in the tree in her memory.
The tragedy, Banovetz says, is shared by the entire community. She is encouraged by how others have stepped forward to help.
Kinley’s classmates organized a tribute to their friend on Facebook. This stirred Mandy Maietta to become involved.
After meeting Banovetz at the community gathering in October, the two women began working on a benefit concert. Support quickly grew, with people from inside and outside the community reaching out to help.
Banovetz wrote in an editorial that a stranger in Newark airport gave her $50 for the memorial fund after overhearing her phone conversation with a local news station.
The benefit for Omare, Kinley and Ivyn is scheduled for Jan. 16.
“What I learned from this whole is experience was what wonderful people they were,” Banovetz said. “And how much potential they all had.”
By EMILY CUTTS
St. Paul Pioneer Press
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