Bonfire of the Insanities

Flames, a crossbow, bones, and blood. How a dispute between three Minnesota siblings turned deadly.

LATE THE NIGHT of October 30, 2008, Alan Wahl, the police chief of Westbrook, Minnesota, was driving his squad car along a pitch-black road a few miles outside town, when he saw a light in the distance. As he got closer, he realized the glow must be coming from a fire—and a big one, at that, judging from the light radiating up over a grove of mature trees. ¶ Wahl pulled into the driveway nearest the glow and stopped to note the number on the mailbox. He had planned to continue on to what looked like a farmstead some 400 feet to the east, but paused to make an entry in his logbook first. When he looked up again, a dark-haired man with an angular face was getting out of a pickup that had come up the gravel drive.

His name was Andy Hawes, and he was clearly agitated. In reply to Wahl’s questions, Hawes said he owned the farm and he was burning trash. No, he did not have a permit for the fire. As he talked, he shifted his weight from foot to foot, his eyes trained on the ground.

The bonfire certainly was big, the chief remarked. It would be best if Hawes stayed at the farm to make sure it didn’t get out of control while Wahl went to talk to the Cottonwood County Sheriff about how best to proceed about the permit.

When Wahl came back about 15 minutes later with a sheriff’s deputy and a state patrolman, it was past midnight—officially Halloween. As they made their way up the driveway, the officers finally had a clear view of the blaze, which appeared to be roughly 10 feet across, with flames arcing six feet into the air.

Andy was gone, but a woman with wavy auburn hair standing near the fire introduced herself as his sister, Elizabeth Hawes. The generator they used for heat was about out of fuel, she said, and she was trying to keep warm. Unlike her brother, Elizabeth seemed subdued.

Wahl took a few steps toward the conflagration and, to his surprise, thought he glimpsed a couple of bones. He walked around the fire to look from another angle and saw something that at first appeared to be a rock. He peered more closely, and realized he was looking at an eye socket and a jawbone. The chief said nothing, however, just stepped back to wait for a fire truck he’d called earlier.

State trooper Matthew Smith had already seen the same thing and was quietly placing some old pots lying around the farmyard over splotches on the ground to be examined later. He believed they might be blood.

They could all hear something sizzling in the fire, causing Elizabeth, finally, to lose her cool. “That’s not a horse in there,” she said.

She turned to Smith. “That’s not my brother in there.”

“Ma’ am,” the trooper replied, “why would you say that?”

Elizabeth didn’t have an answer.

TRUTH BE TOLD, Chief Wahl didn’t just stumble across the bonfire while out on a midnight drive. In fact, he had gone to the Hawes family farm at the request of sheriff’s deputies 180 miles away in Anoka County. Officers there had a mystery on their hands, and they hoped Wahl might help solve it.

Early the previous morning, around 2:30 a.m. on October 30, Anoka County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Pierson was on patrol when he noticed a white truck pulled up next to the clubhouse of the Woodland Creek Golf Course in Andover. No one ever parked there at night, so he stopped to investigate. When he realized one of the clubhouse’s doors was unlocked, he worried there might be a robbery in progress and called for backup. Another deputy arrived shortly thereafter, and they went inside but found nothing amiss.

The two deputies were waiting for someone to come lock the door when a woman walked up. She identified herself as Elizabeth Hawes, 46, and explained that she had been at a friend’s house nearby helping to plan an event to benefit a brain-cancer sufferer. She didn’t think she could park on the street, and now that she was back at her truck, she realized she had misplaced her keys. Would the officers let her use a cell phone to call her husband?

The deputies lent her a phone, but they didn’t believe her story. While Elizabeth completed her call, they ran her name through their computer system and found a restraining order preventing her from coming near the home of her brother Ed Hawes, who, by the looks of things, lived just a few blocks away. They asked Elizabeth what she was really doing in the neighborhood, but she stuck to her story. While his partner waited with Elizabeth, Pierson went to check on Ed.

He didn’t get far before he came upon a man staggering up the center of the street waving frantically, trying to get his attention. The man identified himself as Andy Hawes, 37. Gasping, he said he was having a diabetic reaction. He pleaded to be taken back to his vehicle, a pickup parked at the golf course, where he had some Jujubes that might revive him. Pierson retrieved the candy from the truck, but kept the siblings separated while they waited for an ambulance.

His blood sugar restored, Andy explained that he and his sister were in the neighborhood looking for his brother, who was “a worthless piece of shit” who “owed him a lot of money.” In the process, he had gotten in a fight with Elizabeth and run off. Confronted with Andy’s statement, Elizabeth admitted that the two had gone to Ed’s house. They went there to repossess a car that belonged to a family business, she explained, pulling the keys to the car from her sock.

Pierson again set out for Ed’s address, a house located on a leafy, sparsely populated suburban road. He parked at the head of a U-shaped drive and banged on the door for quite a while. Eventually, the homeowner answered. Ed wasn’t there, nor was his car in the attached garage. Pierson drove back to the golf course and placed Elizabeth under arrest for violating the restraining order. They had no grounds to hold Andy, though, and let him go at about 5 a.m., after the paramedics finished treating him.

What happened next was a total coincidence. Four hours later, a third deputy, this one off-duty and wholly unaware of the pre-dawn drama, was driving past the residence where Ed Hawes lived when he saw a wallet on the road. He pulled over, picked it up, and retrieved its contents, which were littered over 20 or 30 feet. There was money, some business cards, and a little girl’s photo.

The officer realized he was standing in front of the address on the driver’s license he’d found on the ground. Answering the door, Ed Hawes’s elderly roommate said that Ed wasn’t at home. So the deputy took the wallet to a nearby sheriff’s station for safekeeping.

On his way to and from the front door, the deputy walked around what appeared to be a large pool of blood. Bow-hunting season had just started. He reasoned that someone had probably just taken a deer that morning. He mentioned as much to his supervisor when he dropped off the wallet before heading home.

 

AS A CHILD, Andy Hawes worshipped his big brother. Ten years older, Ed seemed to stride confidently through life. He was successful at everything he tried—at least in Andy’s adoring eyes. Ed’s role in Andy’s boyhood in Golden Valley had a romantic, Norman Rockwell sheen. “He taught me how to throw a football, took me fishing,” Andy would later testify. “We had in-depth conversations every day about everything.”

When Andy was 11, the lady across the street hired him to mow her lawn. He did such a good job that her neighbor hired him, too. Pretty soon, Andy was mowing lawns all over the neighborhood. When he turned 12, he figured out how to tow his mower behind his 10-speed on a little trailer—and his territory grew.

And grew and grew. Before he could even drive a car, Andy had employees, flyers, business cards, mowers, blowers, weed whips, and a dedicated business line that rang in his mother’s basement. Andy learned most of what he knew about managing a business, though, from Ed, who had had a cleaning company for years. Eventually, it became clear Andy couldn’t both finish school and manage his growing list of accounts. He could only forge so many notes to get himself excused from class to tend to the business. The brothers realized Andy’s business was on track to do far better than Ed’s. So Ed sold his company to Elizabeth, who was three years younger, and joined Hawes Lawn Service.

Ed’s golden touch turned Andy’s baby into a $1 million-a-year concern. Over the next 18 years, the brothers hired telemarketers, bought a more established competitor that had commercial accounts, and eventually acquired a warehouse in Minneapolis.

It was as if everywhere Ed turned his attention money blossomed. His mother and grandmother asked him to manage their considerable investments. “It was his expertise,” Andy would testify. “He’s a genius. I felt lucky to have him there, helping me do this. It was a match made in heaven as far as I thought.”

At least until 2005, when Andy got sick. Diabetes and a thyroid problem forced him to take an 18-month leave of absence. Andy wasn’t worried, though. Ed was minding the shop.

In the spring of 2007, soon after he went back to work, Andy and his girlfriend went looking for some records that were stored on a computer that was rarely used. They turned on the machine and immediately concluded Ed had been running his personal expenses through the business. Next, Andy found checking accounts at banks the company didn’t do business with, as well as a maxed-out line of credit. 

At the time, Ed was out at an appointment. As Andy started asking employees questions, someone must have called his brother, because Ed never came back to work. “He just didn’t show up the next day, he didn’t show up the day after that,” Andy later testified. “He didn’t return phone calls. There was no contact, period.”

Money wasn’t the only problem. There were contracts signed by Ed on the letterhead of Hawes Lawn Service’s biggest competitor. There were receipts for landscaping equipment paid for and insured by Hawes but being used by the other company, which was owned by a close friend of Ed’s.

Even as they were still assessing the losses to the business, the Haweses discovered that Ed had used his power of attorney over their 100-year-old grandmother’s affairs to sell $600,000 worth of her stocks and empty her burial fund. He had also drained his mother’s retirement account. “I was stunned,” his mother, Demetria Hawes, said later. “I could not believe it at first…. He took advantage of us, of his family.”

And then Ed just vanished. “He went into hiding,” Andy recalled. “I got the bill on our credit cards…. He was bouncing around from motel to motel.”

 

 

 

DURING THE TWO YEARS that followed, Andy and Elizabeth tried everything they could think of to recoup their losses. Andy hired investigators, who at first found hundreds of thousands of dollars missing and then, later, after they’d reviewed tax statements for the last 25 years, millions of dollars. Both men hired lawyers, but Ed didn’t show up for the mediation they scheduled.

In addition to trying to figure out what happened, the family was trying to keep Hawes Lawn Service running. Demetria Hawes invested $23,000 in the business, and Elizabeth cashed out her IRA. Their grandmother, Elizabeth Rettke, pumped in more than $100,000, only to watch account after account go to a competing business that Ed had joined before he even left the family company.

All three siblings excelled at pushing one another’s buttons in ways only brothers and sisters can. At one point, Ed sent Andy a letter saying he loved him and wanted “a peaceful resolution.” Andy read it as his onetime mentor and best friend thumbing his nose at the rest of the family.

Six months after the initial discovery, in October 2007, Andy and Elizabeth filed a complaint with police in Robbinsdale, where their grandmother lived, alleging Ed had stolen money from her. They supplied police a thick binder of papers their own forensic accountants had produced. The department turned the materials over to the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, which is staffed by officers and accountants with special training.

The agent who examined the Haweses’ documents, Glen Bona, would later testify that it certainly looked possible that Ed had taken money from his grandmother. But it was going to be a tough case to make for several reasons. Ed had power of attorney to move his grandmother’s money at will if he thought it was in her best interest. Bona believed Ed had improperly taken at least $80,000, but the transactions he identified took place more than six years earlier, so there were potential problems with the statute of limitations. Plus, the U.S. Attorney’s Office wasn’t interested in pursuing the case.

The Haweses were frantic upon hearing this. So, after talking things over with his supervisor at the financial-crimes task force, Bona decided to keep trying to help the family. But he kept running into blind alleys. In one instance, Andy had found an envelope at the home of his grandmother, Elizabeth Rettke, addressed to her and to Stephen Rettke, an uncle who had died in the late 1960s. Inside was a statement from a retirement account his grandmother knew nothing about. Andy concluded Ed had stolen the uncle’s identity and used it to establish new accounts.

Bona typed the names into Google and found a listing for an Elizabeth and Stephen Rettke in Alaska. He called and asked to speak to Stephen, but the woman who answered said he was out panning for gold. They chatted for a few minutes, during which time Bona was able to establish that the couple had an account with the investment house in question. Their statement had been delivered to Robbinsdale by accident.

Bona was increasingly convinced he was being drawn into a family feud, and had developed doubts about Andy’s mental stability.

At one point, Andy told him that Ed was trying to poison him by putting “special water” in a bottle labeled with Andy’s name. When Bona tried to broker a mediation, Ed agreed to participate but the rest of the family refused. Why couldn’t Ed just tell them where they money was, Elizabeth demanded to know?

In all likelihood, the money was gone. Bona had paid a visit to Ed, who didn’t seem to be living high on the hog. He was renting a room from a friend and driving a four-year-old Passat. It appeared as if Ed, once thought to be a financial genius by his loved ones, had used his family’s money to try to make a fortune day-trading. He went to seminars on ways to beat the market, and tried to interest his mother, who later professed she couldn’t make sense of what he was saying and just assumed he knew what he was doing. But Ed seemed to have failed as an investor.

There were questions about Ed’s personal life, too. He was the president of the local chapter of an organization called Isha, which promotes yoga—in particular, expensive training in its practice of “inner engineering” as a path to success. Some people have referred to it as a cult.

Over time, Isha came to play a central role in Ed’s life. He met with a meditation group in the Twin Cities several times a week and led frequent Isha trainings. To the people who knew him before his enlightenment, Ed’s deepening involvement with the group stirred big changes.

A former girlfriend was particularly struck by the transformation. “Ed was living a very different lifestyle from how he had lived when we were together,” she later testified. “He had what seemed like a completely different set of friends. He changed his cell phone a couple of times. It seemed like he had had this huge upheaval in his life and yet he just seemed to step into a brand new life without it affecting him at all. And yet the rest of his family was in great distress.”

He was also volatile and paranoid. In addition to the trail of clues related to the missing money, after Ed vanished Andy found papers in Ed’s office documenting his ex’s movements and a small arsenal of outdoor survival gear, including night-vision goggles and a crossbow. Ed bought guns and told friends he carried them everywhere. He had to, he explained, because he had found a note saying “I’m going to kill you” in his ransacked office.

With the authorities refusing to prosecute, Andy and Elizabeth began to fixate on the only asset that they knew remained in Ed’s possession, the 2005 black Passat. It belonged to Hawes Lawn Service, but Andy didn’t have a key, and the police had declined to help get the car back, noting that Ed’s name was on the title. The siblings began showing up places where they thought Ed would be, intent on repossessing the vehicle. But Ed just kept eluding them.

Andy and Elizabeth couldn’t let it rest. In July 2008, Ed was driving a landscaping truck down Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis when Andy appeared behind him. Andy rammed the back end of Ed’s truck a few times before speeding off.  In September, after Ed moved in with the father of a fellow Isha leader in Andover, Elizabeth was found trespassing, rooting around in a backyard shed. Ed got a restraining order against her.
 

 

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.

Facebook Comments