As Michelle “Shelly” Mae’s mother took the stand June 1, she had to correct herself for prosecuting attorney Daniel Vlieger.
“Michelle Mae was my daughter,” said DeAnn Evanson. She paused a moment, and then added, “is my daughter.”
Evanson, one of five to give victim impact statements in the sentencing of Joshua Karjala – who pleaded guilty April 15 to second-degree unintentional homicide in the death of Mae – then said she wakes up each morning to the same question.
“Every morning, I ask why,” said Evanson, supported on the stand by her husband, Chris.
Karjala, as part of a sentencing agreement, was sentenced to 330 months for the second-degree murder conviction. He must serve at least 220 of those months, though he was given credit for 660 days he had served in Aitkin County Jail.
Karjala also received additional time for previous crimes of burglary and fourth degree criminal sexual conduct – crimes that violated previous sentecing agreements. The time worked out roughly to time served.
The family was also given 90 days to decide on financial restitution.
By virtue of the plea agreement, the charge of second-degree murder with intent was dismissed.
Judge David Hermerding said, after the sentence was read, that he hoped the words from the family and friends in the courtroom would be “burned into (Karjala’s) soul.”
“These children go forward without a mother to comfort them at night,” Hermerding said. He added that, with Karjala a father himself, that his actions were “beyond any comprehension.”
Mae’s family reported her missing Oct. 3, 2019. Her 2004 Jeep Liberty was found a day later, and police began an intensive search.
Karjala, Mae’s last known contact, initially denied any wrongdoing, even telling police that she had safely departed.
With numerous law enforcement agencies involved, there were daily ground and K-9 searches. Search warrants were eventually obtained for Karjala’s property, and one of the K-9 units alerted to Mae’s scent.
Her body was found buried in a crawl space under Karjala’s home. At his plea hearing in April, Karjala maintained Mae’s death was an accident – the result of rough sex gone wrong.
Mae’s sister, Sara Young, said she will continue to dispute that sentence.
“My sister fought for her life that night,” Young said in a telephone interview, pointing to the autopsy report that showed her sister was hurt before she was killed – and that Karjala appeared to have defensive wounds as well.
“The fact that he was allowed to plea to second degree unintentional bothers me to my core,” Young said. “It wasn’t just an accident.”
The sentencing hearing turned emotional as family and friends of Mae – Young, her mother, her ex-husband, her best friend and a cousin – took to the stand to express the loss.
Kristine Nielsen, a close friend of Mae’s, said that she couldn’t sum up all of what she felt in words.
“Michelle was a mother, daughter, sister, friend,” Nielson said. “Michelle was a forgiver. I’m not sure you realize what Michelle was to everyone she touched. You didn’t just take Michelle’s life.”
She then called Karjala’s explanation of what happened the night Mae was killed no more than “lame excuses,”and added there was nothing that could describe the pain and loss felt by those who knew Mae.
Young said she went to her knees when she and her family received the call that Mae had been found.
“To this day, I have nightmares of my sister’s last moment,” she said. “What she might have felt.”
She said her anger still runs deep, and that no matter what the sentence, it wouldn’t be enough. She also praised Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida – who was in the courtroom along with other members of his department.
“If it wasn’t for your hard work and determination, we wouldn’t be here today,” she said.
Cousin Tasha Boreen said that Karjala tried to turn Mae into something she wasn’t – then added that the family knows that he lied and hid the body.
“We can never get Shelly back,” she said. “She cannot be replaced.”
Mae’s ex-husband Nicholas Krebsbach read a statement on behalf of one of Mae’s children.
Through a counselor, the child made a list of 11 points, which ranged from feeling the loss to how much pain Karjala had caused.
“I’m scared that someone else I care about will get hurt, too,” Krebsbach read.
Evanson was the last to present a victim impact statement, listing all the things that her grandchildren would never hear from their mother again.
“I love you. Amazing. Great job. You got this.”
She also said that the family is no longer whole.
“There was five, and now only four,” she said.
Her husband, Chris, was there to offer DeAnn support, but also decided at the last moment to speak.
After acknowledging what was said in the other impact statements, he said simply, “I hope you get what you gave.”
When asked for a statement, Guida said that the case showed how multiple agencies could work well together. In addition to the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Department and its search and rescue unit, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Minnesota DNR, the Cass County, St. Louis County and the Itasca County sheriff’s departments, Grand Rapids and Duluth police and several different K-9 units all worked together.
“The crime was committed in minutes, but it took days of investigations to unravel the heinous details of this case,” Guida said in an email. “Over 2,500 pages of investigation reports clearly showed the evidence needed for a conviction and Karjala accepted a plea agreement. This agreement was discussed with the family and law enforcement and received support from both groups.
“The family and friends of Mae will never forget the loss of Michelle, but our communities can be assured that this criminal will not be walking the streets and roads of Aitkin County with our cherished children for a very long time,” he added.