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'You have to choose to forgive': Fargo woman overcomes tragedy of sister's death at hands of brother

FARGO -- Amanda Carlson awoke to her phone ringing. On the other end was a police officer. "This is concerning your sister Whitney," the officer said. "I need you to get to your mom's house right away." Confused, Carlson asked why. The officer wo...

Amanda Carlson visits the grave of her sister, Whitney Carlson, at Riverside Cemetery in south Fargo.David Samson / The Forum
Amanda Carlson. When Amanda Carlson's brother killed their sister. She lost her sister and she also lost her brother to prison. Amanda will talk about forgiveness and choosing the positive over the negative. (Dave Wallis / The Forum)

FARGO -- Amanda Carlson awoke to her phone ringing. On the other end was a police officer.

"This is concerning your sister Whitney," the officer said. "I need you to get to your mom's house right away."

Confused, Carlson asked why. The officer wouldn't say. "You just need to get here right away," he told her.

Carlson, then 22, raced to her mom's house in south Fargo where police and paramedics were gathered on the lawn. Her mom, with a blank stare and a ghost-white complexion, gave her the news straight: "Whitney's dead."

Carlson's spunky, warm-hearted 16-year-old sister was gone -- a loss that was compounded days later by the nightmarish revelation that her adopted brother, 15-year-old Sergei, was the killer.

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This grim episode, which played out in July 2007, left Carlson mired in sadness and anger for years. But over time, coping with such an unthinkable tragedy, she says, allowed her to reach a simple, yet life-changing realization. "Every day I get to choose my attitude, and I get to choose what kind of day I'm going to have," said Carlson, now a 30-year-old mother of two. "I am going to choose to be happy."

She said following this path of happiness has led her to forgive her brother, who's now 23 years old and serving a life sentence in the North Dakota State Penitentiary.

"You have to choose to forgive. Otherwise it could just take over your life," she said.

'The worst thing'

Learning her little sister was dead sent Carlson into shock, to the point that she felt numb. As investigators looked for clues inside the house, she tried to process what had happened. All she knew was Whitney was dead.

For hours, she waited with Sergei in the driveway until Whitney's body was finally brought out. Carlson recalled her brother was mostly silent and shed no tears. But that didn't surprise her. He had always been quiet and stoic, she said.

Just after 8 that morning, Carlson's mom, Penny, had found Whitney in her room not breathing. It fell to Carlson to break the news to her father, who had been divorced from her mother for five years and lived in Wisconsin. She reached him on his cellphone while he was driving.

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She made him pull over, and then she told him. A long pause was followed by five minutes of a father's weeping. "We just sat on the phone together," she said. "That is the worst thing I have ever had to do."

Later that day, as Amanda Carlson's father, the Rev. Scott Carlson, drove to Fargo, he had a brief phone conversation with Sergei. During the call, Scott Carlson sensed Sergei was being evasive about Whitney's death, so the father called the police to share his concern about his son.

"I don't know what his involvement is," Scott Carlson recalled telling the lead detective. "I'm not saying he did it. I'm just telling you my suspicion's up, and I think he knows something."

Two days later, Sergei confessed to killing Whitney. He told police that he crept into her bedroom, strangled her and then performed a sex act on her, according to court documents.

'Make sure it's a boy'

In 1999, the Carlson family was living in Eau Claire, Wis. Scott Carlson said he and his then-wife wanted to open their home to a fourth child. He said their three daughters -- Amanda, Natalie and Whitney -- supported the idea. It was 9-year-old Whitney who encouraged them to adopt a boy.

"We've got enough girls in this family," she told her parents. "Make sure it's a boy."

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The couple travelled to the Russian city of Perm, tucked next to the Ural Mountains. In an orphanage, they found Sergei, a 7-year-old boy who seemed happy and healthy.

Sergei had been at the orphanage for about two years. Previously, he lived in a small ramshackle house with his mother and grandmother, both alcoholics. "His father was in and out of their lives," Scott Carlson said. Authorities removed Sergei from the home due to neglect.

When Sergei arrived in the U.S., he didn't know any English, and he had to learn about flush toilets, escalators and other conveniences of modern life.

At school, problems with his behavior quickly emerged. "I think he was used to probably holding his own in the orphanage, and you know, they don't teach you to talk things through," Amanda Carlson said. "You're fighting for everything, for toys and for food."

Amanda Carlson, whose family moved to Fargo in 2000 when she was a high school junior, said knowing about her brother's harrowing life before adoption has made it easier to forgive him. "He's broken, and he came from a horrible life. Obviously, that's shaped who he is now," she said. "I feel bad that he never really had a shot at life."

Scott Carlson said he knew Sergei had problems as a boy, but there was never an indication he would bring so much harm to their family. "If there were any signs of this kind of violence, I promise you, I would have done something to protect all of my daughters," the 52-year-old father said.

Scott Carlson said he wishes he could go back and prevent his daughter's death. But he said he has no regrets about adopting Sergei.

"I think my best parenting happened with Sergei," he said. "As a parent, we do the best we can, and somewhere along the way our children begin to make choices on their own. And Sergei made a terrible choice."

The Forum sent letters to Sergei seeking comment but received no response.

'Never going to minimize it'

The last time Amanda Carlson saw Sergei was in 2010 when she, her grandma, her aunt, her dad and his current wife visited him at the juvenile detention center in Mandan. "He just kind of talked about what he does on a day-to-day basis," she said. "He acted like everything was normal."

In the first few years after Whitney's death, Sergei wrote cards to Amanda Carlson, apologizing for killing Whitney. "He was hoping that we would forgive him," she said.

Amanda Carlson wrote back to him, but it's been awhile since they last corresponded. She said he does not yet know of her forgiveness.

In October, she applied to be on his list of approved visitors at the penitentiary. She expects she will eventually visit him, but first she has to figure out why.

"It's obviously not going to be a normal brother-sister relationship," she said. "So I just need to really think about what is it that I want to get out of it."

More than anyone in the family, it's her father who's kept in touch with Sergei, usually visiting him once a year and fielding regular calls from him.

Scott Carlson, who lives in Sun Prairie, Wis., said he initially didn't think he would ever speak to Sergei again. But after much reflection, he decided to restart their relationship a little over a month after Whitney's death. But in doing so, he set ground rules.

"I'm not going to deny what happened. I'm never going to minimize it. I'm always going to be honest about my feelings," he said. "In my conversation with him, I'm always going to love and honor Whitney."

Despite the forgiveness Amanda Carlson and her father have shown, they both believe Sergei, who won't be eligible for parole until 2055, should remain behind bars.

"As much as I love him and care about him," Scott Carlson said, "I think he's right where he needs to be."

'I make pie'

Even though she's striving to live a life without bitterness, Amanda Carlson said there are still times when she struggles with the emotions stirred by her sister's death and her brother's betrayal. She accepts this as part of the grieving process.

"I am going to have those bad days, but all in all, I'm going to be really thankful for what I do have," she said.

For her, a big part of healing has been making pie. About five years ago, she made her first pie for a family gathering. "Since then, I've just fell in love with baking," she said.

She writes a blog about baking, and she recently started selling pies. "Some people run. Some people read. I make pie," she said. "It's just a passion of mine."

Her father said his daughter's choice to stay positive is a courageous one in the face of all that's transpired. Overall, the way his family has dealt with Whitney's death makes him proud, he said.

"The worst thing you can imagine happening has happened. And we're carrying on," he said. "We're living lives to the fullest. We're experiencing healing."

Amanda Carlson said enduring the loss of Whitney at the hands of Sergei has brought her family together more than ever. "You can just tell that we appreciate each other so much more," she said. "We've all just been there for each other. We rally around each other."

Amanda Carlson's blog

www.piemakesmehappy.wordpress.com

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