It's been nearly 15 months since his wife was murdered and Mike Fortenberry said his family is doing the best they can.
Diane Fortenberry, 51, was killed by Jeffery Brooks on May 20, 2011, when she walked in on Brooks burglarizing her rural Osakis home.
"The destruction to the family unit when you lose mom and a best friend - that's been a hard thing to overcome," Mike said.
The Fortenberrys have two sons - Colter and Grayson.
On June 12, 2012, Brooks was sentenced to 35 years in prison for Diane's murder. He'll be eligible for parole around 2034.
REACTION TO SENTENCING
Mike agreed to sit down with the Echo Press and reflect on the last 15 months and share his reaction to Brooks' sentence.
He said he's relieved the case is over, he's grateful for the Osakis community's support and he feels there needs to be changes made to sentencing guidelines.
"I just want the legislators to know there needs to be some changes and stiffer penalties for these career felons."
Brooks has a criminal record that dates back nearly 20 years and includes burglaries in St. Paul and Cold Spring, drug possession in St. Paul and theft in Fergus Falls.
"There were opportunities to lock him up five years ago for burglaries. He shouldn't have been on the street to commit murder," Mike said.
"He meant to kill her and I don't feel the prosecution went after him hard enough to get the maximum sentence. I was thinking 30 to 40 years and this guy will die in prison, but now, come to find out, he could possibly live long enough to get out and hurt my kids or come after me. He got 35 years but in reality it is 22 and a half [years]. That's a hard thing to swallow. Just imagine if he was a 22-year-old. I'd be dealing with this guy [being released] before he was 50 years old. We're just lucky [Brooks] is a career felon and been doing it long enough that he got old enough and now we're locking him away for the rest of his life when he should have already been there.
"There needs to be some changes in the laws and sentencing," Mike said. "The legislators need to look at this - this could be their wife or kids, their mother, their father, this guy could have done it to them."
"It's been a little rough trying to understand the judicial system and some of the things that happened during the sentencing. It seems to me if you have money and assets, judges will slam you with a high penalty or fine, but if you have nothing, if you're a thief, a multiple offender, you get a $50 fine - less than a seat belt ticket, less than a speeding ticket - that's been a hard one to swallow.
"It was such a relief to get it to the courtroom, in front of the judge. I had to depend on the attorney general's office to be my family's voice and it didn't get heard until I had a chance to speak. I had a complete sense of relief getting that off my chest.
During sentencing, Mike had the opportunity to address his wife's killer.
"I felt like when he was crying, there was no water coming out of his eyes. During his sobbing and all, he held a Kleenex. I would have loved to have gone and squeezed that Kleenex. People say he was sobbing, but when I looked him in the eye, he quit; there wasn't a tear in his eyes when I spoke to him. I know he's sorry he got caught and has to go to prison," Mike said.
According to Mike, nine months before his wife was murdered, he saw Brooks casing his house.
"My boys had left a shed door open and I saw [Brooks] driving by at 10 miles per hour. I was in my garden and he didn't see me. But when our eyes met, I knew this guy did not belong in that area and I knew what he was up to. It was scary looking in his eyes - it was an evil guy. I stayed up at night for a month waiting for him to come back and Diane thought I was hallucinating," Mike said. "That haunts me to this day."
HOW LIFE HAS CHANGED
Mike said his life was turned upside down, and to some degree, it's still out of order.
"You change," he said. "When you're out in public, you don't feel like a regular person. Diane was from here so I feel like when I go out I'm Diane's husband, not Mike anymore. People pity you, instead of letting you live life again. It's been a big change. You have a lot of issues to deal with."
Mike said their sons are obviously changed forever, but they've been amazing through it all.
"They still have a love of life and they like to entertain their friends. They're the jokers of the bunch and they like to have fun and all.
"It's just sad that they had to go through this and see this. [Brooks] stole a lot of their innocence. It's hard to sit there and watch your kids go through that.
"I can't bring Diane back," Mike said, "I can't give them their mother back. The kids will never have a mother at their graduation, their wedding, the birth of their children."
It was one of their sons that came home to find Diane's body.
"The rest of his life, he'll see his mother's broken body. Every good memory ends with seeing his mom lying on the floor," he said.
"I came from Louisiana so I'm an outsider, but not really anymore - I feel like the community has adopted me and I feel like I'm in the right place to live; my boys don't want to move back [to Louisiana]. They love it here. They have great friends. The community has basically become my family. My family is over 1,400 miles away and I can't tell you how they've kept me going and supported me. Minnesota is definitely one of the nicest places I've ever been," he said.
"The community has done so many things I can't even tell you. One day I forgot to thaw out food and here a little lady comes by with a roast and potatoes and said, 'I was just thinking of you.' People drop off cookies. On Grayson's birthday after this happened, they didn't think I'd get him a birthday cake so he had five birthday cakes made by other people plus one I brought home. They've done amazing things.
"I can't tell you how many times Sheriff Pete Mikkelson and deputies have stopped over to see how we were doing," Mike said.
He credits local law enforcement for working hard on the case.
"I want everyone to know they did their job; they locked this guy up. It's the judges and legislators that need to look at themselves - especially the [retired] judge in Cold Spring who needs to feel ashamed that this guy was let loose.
"I didn't have a chance to say goodbye - that was taken away," he said. "There's been a lot of heartache and grief for Osakis in the last year. It's been a tough time."
Mike said the one consolation he has is that he and Diane had discussed "what if."
"I always expected to be the first one to go, but we talked about 'What would you want done with your ashes?' 'Where would you want to be?' 'What do you want for the kids?' We had some nice, long conversations at night in bed and that was comforting to me because I knew exactly what she wanted."
Mike said there are too many to mention, but one of his most vivid memories of Diane is her smile "And she made everybody feel special, she just had a charm and wit about her."
Diane loved to hunt and fish and Mike said she could do just about anything.
"All the farmers down south would say, 'Do you have another one like her at home? I should have married a girl from Minnesota.' They could not believe that she could fix things and do about anything she set her mind to.
"And she loved to garage sale, which I hated. So we'd take a trip to Duluth or somewhere and we'd see 100 garages on the way. We couldn't stop for lunch, but we'd stop for a garage sale. It just drove me crazy," he said with a laugh. "That was her thing. She liked to find hidden treasures and I just wanted to go see the countryside."
Mike said there's not a day that goes by when he doesn't receive an e-mail or Facebook message sharing a memory about Diane.
"They remember being around her and how infectious her smile was, how she always wanted everybody to have a good time and how she kept things light."
Now, Mike said, he's focused on getting the boys' education done and making sure they move on to good jobs.
"Just making sure they get what they need to make it through life," he said.