Bonfire of the Insanities
Flames, a crossbow, bones, and blood. How a dispute between three Minnesota siblings turned deadly.
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EDWIN CHARLES HAWES was last seen at 6:45 the night of October 29, 2008, when he left the Life Time Fitness near his home. They were running a special, and he had left work early to take advantage of it. He was there for three hours getting a manicure, pedicure, and facial.
Around 7 p.m., a neighbor in Andover heard yelling and a loud thump he likened to “a basketball hitting the stomach” coming from Ed’s house. The man shooed his kids inside and listened for a little longer, but heard nothing.
It was midday the next day before anyone connected Ed’s disappearance to Andy and Elizabeth’s pre-dawn antics. Ed’s elderly roommate, who was mostly blind, opened the door to let his home health aide in. Did he realize, she asked, that there was a pool of blood in the driveway?
This time, when the police arrived at the house, they found lots of evidence that something awful had transpired—all more or less in plain sight. There were bloody clothes on the ground, an arrow lodged in the side of the house, and a crossbow and baseball bat, both amateurishly painted matte black, alongside the driveway. Someone had poured bleach on the concrete in a clumsy attempt to clean up. Police found the Passat in a parking lot in Golden Valley smeared with blood. There was a gun in the trunk.
Hours later, when Chief Wahl and his fellow officers finally succeeded in putting out the bonfire at the Westbrook farm, they found the last 42 pounds of Ed Hawes. Andy was quick to admit he built the fire and, with Elizabeth’s help, dumped his brother’s body in it. Ed, he said, had driven him crazy.
IN APRIL 2009, Andy went on trial in Anoka County District Court, charged with first-degree murder. The jury listened to two weeks of often-gruesome testimony, but exactly what happened during the brothers’ final confrontation remains shrouded in mystery.
Andy took the stand in his own defense, describing the killing as an attempt to repossess the Passat that went horribly awry. He said that and Elizabeth’s husband, Daniel Romig, had gone to Ed’s house and laid in wait. Then, when Ed pulled into the driveway and got out of his car, Romig emerged from the darkness and trained the crossbow on him while Andy leapt into the running car.
At first, Andy couldn’t believe the plan was working. “I was like, ‘This is a dream come true,’” he testified. “I’m like overgleed that I could just hop in the car and take off. And then all of a sudden, there’s a struggle going on.”
It was dark, but in Andy’s story the Passat’s headlights framed Romig advancing on Ed—“like I had a front-row view of the whole thing.” Ed staggered backward, then took hold of Romig, and the two fell out of sight into the shadows. Andy threw the Passat into drive, then into reverse, and as he tried to leave, he heard a thud: He had backed over Ed’s body. “It wasn’t really registering, like when I went ‘pa-doomp-a-doomp,’ I didn’t know it was my brother,” Andy later said. “I was just trying to leave.”
He didn’t stop. As he drove away, Andy claimed, he saw Romig dragging Ed’s body into the woods across the street.
But Romig was never called as a witness at Andy’s trial. Lawyers noted that he had been present at the scene—an admission he made before a grand jury—but for whatever reason, prosecutors chose not pursue a case against Romig.
Nor did they buy the notion that the murder was the tragic outgrowth of a carjacking gone bad. Andy and Elizabeth, they maintain, plotted for months to kill Ed. Ultimately, the jury believed the state, convicting Andy after two days of deliberations.
Four months earlier, Elizabeth had been convicted by a separate jury of aiding and abetting Ed’s murder. During her trial, Andy had refused to testify, invoking his fifth-amendment right to not incriminate himself. After Andy was convicted, she demanded a new trial on the grounds that, this time, Andy would be able to testify that she was not present during the killing. A judge denied her request. Both siblings have appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Even if the high court upholds the convictions, though, one last mystery remains. After they put out Andy and Elizabeth’s bonfire and pulled Ed’s remains from the ashes, investigators discovered an additional eye socket, part of another jaw, and a lower leg bone that belonged to someone else. The surplus bones are awaiting DNA testing at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul, and police searched the farmstead a second time in 2009 in the hopes of finding additional clues as to who the bones belonged to. If they found anything, they’re not saying. And neither is Andy or Elizabeth.
Beth Hawkins, a Minneapolis writer, covers crime and legal issues for the magazine. Her story on a Faribault nurse charged with encouraging online suicides appeared in December.