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Couple adopts grandchildren after Las Vegas shooting tragedy

Bob and Patricia Krussell of Dellwood stand next to their son-in-law, Steve Berger, left, on the night he asked for the hand of their daughter, Joanna Berger, in marriage during the summer of 2000. Steve Berger was shot and killed at a country concert in Las Vegas October 1, 2017. Courtesy of Bob and Patricia Krussell

ST. PAUL—Bob and Patricia Krussell from Dellwood pulled their chairs out from a table near the pool area at the White Bear Country Inn and looked around with thin smiles.

"This is fitting," Patricia said as they gathered recently at one of their favorite hangouts. "This is where Steve used to hold his business meetings."

Steve Berger loved to watch the Packers play the Bears with his son. He spent summer afternoons fishing with his youngest daughter. He flew to Chicago on a whim with his almost-16-year-old daughter to buy her an SUV that they drove home.

Berger, a financial adviser who lived in Shorewood, was previously married to Bob and Patricia's daughter, and the couple had three children. When a shooter fired at hundreds of outdoor concertgoers in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, Berger was one of 59 people killed.

The Krussells' daughter, Joanna Berger, had a massive stroke in 2014 and has limited movement on her left side.

After Steve's death, the three of them agreed that Joanna would have a hard time handling "everyday activities" with three kids. So this month Bob and Patricia signed the papers to adopt their grandchildren — who are ages 16, 14 and 10.

Decision to adopt

Bob is 70, and Patricia is 74. They're used to taking long walks, sipping on a drink on their deck or golfing during their summer afternoons. They have tan skin, wear sandals and drive around in a convertible. They've been in "retirement mode" for more than four years, ever since Bob ended his 40-year career as a material handler.

Steve's sister, Christine Moore, who has two children of her own, took care of the Bergers' children in Milwaukee for six months after his death. During that time, the Krussells teenage-proofed their basement, adding a "hangout spot" and two bedrooms.

The Krussells say they were the "natural choice" for adoption. Out of all the extended family members, the children were the most familiar with their mother's parents. Plus, the Krussells have the financial means to support the children comfortably.

Joanna, who lives in Mahtomedi, did not want to be interviewed.

Children: 'Not quite ready to come forward'

Bob and Patricia said their grandchildren didn't want to speak to the St. Paul Pioneer Press or be named in the story because they didn't want to be the objects of pity. She said the children will come forward about their father's death when they are ready to speak about it publicly.

At home, the topic of their grandchildren's father comes up naturally. Sometimes, the kids scroll through their camera rolls quietly: photos with their dad from vacations to Monte Carlo, Hawaii, Arizona, Superior Shores. Or from a night out at Benihana — their favorite restaurant.

Sometimes, they sniff the pillows Patricia made out of Steve's golf shirts. Sometimes, the younger girl will ask to go fishing: her favorite thing to do with her dad. Sometimes, the 14-year-old boy will slip into bed late at night with his grandparents.

And sometimes, they ask the unanswerable: "Why did Dad have to die?"

Standing out in the crowd

The Krussells said the 6-foot-6 Steve always stood head and shoulders over the rest of the crowd — so he was probably an easy target standing in the front row at the country concert in Las Vegas.

Patricia looked down at her hands as she thought about the shootings.

"I think he went down right away."

The Krussells distinctly remember the day they met their daughter's boyfriend in 2000. They were walking down Hennepin Avenue on their way to a restaurant, when a tall, muscular man with "movie-star good looks" confidently walked up to them to shake their hands.

Bob said that when his daughters were in college, he always told them to avoid talking to strangers in parking lots or at bars. But that's exactly how Steve and Joanna met: She looked lost at a bar near the University of Minnesota, he asked if she needed help, and five months later, they were engaged.

"But that's OK, because it was Steve," Bob said.

Booming voice and refrigerator hugs

On Sept. 27, the day before Steve left to celebrate his 44th birthday with friends in Las Vegas, the Krussells met him at a Maple Grove restaurant. Before he left, he hugged his in-laws and said, "I just love you guys."

"It was like hugging a refrigerator. He was so huge," Patricia said.

The death of this man — who had a booming voice and flashing white smile and suffocated people with his hugs — created such a dent in the lives of so many clients, friends, teammates and family members that it would be hard to exaggerate the impact he had, Patricia said.

"He crammed so much over-the-top living into his short life," she said.

He never cut corners. When he vacationed it "wasn't just on the beach." He'd plan adventures like scuba diving. Mountain biking. Fishing.


Not an easy road

The couple said the hardest part about their daughter's stroke followed by their son-in-law's death has been when they've questioned their faith. They said it was really hard to imagine a God who would allow something so "senseless" to kill their son-in-law.

Bob struggled to speak without choking up when he talked about Steve. "He was my best friend."

Patricia said they've had their fair share of "I'm-not-OK" moments. They are surprised when they hear themselves questioning God. Those moments usually happen in private: on their deck, in the car, at the kitchen table. And since their faith has always been their identity, she said, to question God is to question their entire existence.

"It's really hard," she said.

The Krussells said the help they've received from the community is what helps keep their faith. Dozens of neighbors, family and church members cooked them meals, offered to help with chores or driving and sent them letters.

"Somebody told me God speaks through people," Patricia said. "And I see that."

But it doesn't stop the pain, which they say will never go away. And for them, it will never make the mass shooting in Las Vegas any less senseless.

"You see headlines, and then you forget about it," Patricia said. "But people involved — how many people are involved whose lives are forever changed?"