Anarae Schunk’s room hasn’t changed.
Clothes hang in her closet, a pair of her shoes sits neatly near the door and books line her shelves — “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Life of Pi,” edges worn and greyed. On a full-length mirror hanging on the door, “You are beautiful” is written in dry erase marker, staining the glass with the round, lilting penmanship of a young girl.
Outside, a wall is lined with trophies from chess tournaments, and a table where she used to tutor elementary and middle school students is still set up.
But after the University of Minnesota student’s death in September, the house where her family has lived since just before her birth has become too still.
There are more than 20 years of signs of Anarae. For each one, her mother has a story.
Mariana Schunk, 60, laughs, remembering her daughter attaching a Christmas bow to a photo of herself on the piano in the living room. She smiles when pointing to a collage Anarae made with a series of photos: Mariana and her husband, Monty, at their wedding, a shawl joining their shoulders and wreaths crowning their heads; nearly identical baby photos of Mariana and Anarae stacked one over the other, which people often confuse.
The two still share the same eyes, smile and soft, round face. Mariana is pleased when the resemblance is pointed out, but she doesn’t see it.
She doesn’t see other similarities. Both she and Anarae had an innate tendency to befriend those on the outskirts of society and see something redeeming in them.
Mariana, who works in special education, never thought of herself as an activist. But now she’s found herself wanting to do more, from drafting a bill that would deny bail for repeat violent offenders, to writing a book.
Sitting at a table in the Burnsville Caribou Coffee where Anarae spent countless hours — and where she was on the night of her death — Mariana said she’s trying to piece together a way to move forward.
“I feel like I’m waking up,” she said. “I’ve just been so engrossed in grief that I haven’t been able to think.”
A missing person
On the evening before homecoming, students flooded the streets of Dinkytown. Twenty miles away, police gave Anarae’s family the news: They had found her University of Minnesota sweatshirt but not her.
In the beginning, Mariana said, it was just a missing persons report. Anarae was last seen with her ex-boyfriend, Shavelle Chavez-Nelson (also known as Anthony Lee Nelson), and his girlfriend at the time, Ashley Conrade.
Nelson allegedly shot and killed Palagor Obang Jobi, 23, in the parking lot of Nina’s Grill in Burnsville that night. Afterward, Conrade said she, Nelson and Anarae left the parking lot together.
Conrade told police Anarae went with her and Nelson to Conrade’s townhome in Rosemount, Minn., after the shooting. Police found a plastic tub containing a large amount of blood and a bloodstained quilt hidden in the rafters of the townhouse’s garage two days later. About a week after she went missing, police found Anarae’s body in a ditch. At that point, her body was so decomposed that the family wasn’t allowed to see her.
Anarae’s death is under investigation, but charges still haven’t been filed.
Nelson was charged with first- and second-degree murder for the parking lot shooting, and he’s currently being held in a state prison for charges unrelated to Jobi or Anarae’s deaths.
Conrade was charged with one felony count of aiding an offender for harboring Nelson in her home. She posted a $150,000 bond, with conditions, in late November.
When Mariana went to close Anarae’s bank account, a bank employee told her that Conrade had recently been in. Mariana started wondering how she’d respond if they ran into each other.
Before her death, the family had long talks with Anarae about dating Nelson after they learned about his dangerous past, but Anarae thought she could change him.
The 32-year-old had a heavy criminal history before he met Anarae, having been convicted of at least four felonies. He posted bail on an armed burglary charge three days before Jobi was killed and Anarae went missing.
Now, the family is left to wait until police file charges to learn the events that led up to Anarae’s death. Until then, Mariana and her family are searching for ways to cope.
The New Year rolled in quickly after Anarae’s death. Mariana and Monty joined a support group for people who have lost a loved one to homicide but found it difficult to hear other participants’ stories. They haven’t been back since their first meeting in January.
For now, there’s the day-to-day business that comes when a family member dies — getting an honorary diploma or shutting off a cellphone that, for a while after Anarae’s death, Mariana was still calling to leave messages.
Remembering the future
Every day is full of questions about what happened to Anarae — and what might have happened had things turned out differently.
For a long time, she was set on going to New York University. Her bedroom is still lined with the evidence — a puzzle depicting the gleaming skyline and a poster of the twin towers made up of thousands of tiny photos of the city.
An acceptance letter arrived, but there wasn’t enough money to go with it. Anarae was offered a scholarship and Mariana and Monty told her they’d have to figure out how to pay the remainder of the tuition. Without enough money to go, she gave up on the idea.
When Mariana looks at the poster and puzzle now, she shakes her head slightly and her sentences clip.
In the real story, Anarae went to the University of Minnesota, living at home for the first two years. In college, as in high school, she spent a lot of time alone. She would make excuses for the absence of her friends — they had boyfriends who they wanted to spend their weekend nights with or they were used to Anarae being busy with work.
Though Mariana has been moved by the outpouring of support since her daughter’s death, parts of it make her angry.
“You wouldn’t socialize with her when she was alive,” Mariana said, her eyes hot with tears.
Part of Anarae’s isolation came from being a commuter student at the beginning of college, before she moved into an apartment with friends. To get to school, she took a bus from Burnsville to Minneapolis.
Anarae bused most places, Mariana said, which is how she met Nelson. He approached her at a bus stop and asked about the book she was reading — a volume about chess.
Anarae’s chess coach was a Russian immigrant who Mariana still talks to occasionally. After Anarae’s death, her coach told Mariana that she’d had plans to take Anarae on a trip to Russia and introduce her to men she might like.
“She would’ve fallen in love,” the coach said.
Mariana thinks now about going to Russia herself.
“I want to see these men,” she said.
Piecing the story together
Mariana and Monty never understood why Anarae dated the men she did.
They were “losers,” Mariana said, and she and Monty wished their daughter would find someone worthy of her.
Anarae dated Nelson for a few months, but broke up with him in fall 2012 after learning he was in a relationship with another woman — not Conrade — whom he was living with at the time.
“From the get-go, my husband said ‘I wouldn’t trust him,’” Mariana said.
On Thanksgiving Day 2012, Anarae was home alone — her parents were out of town visiting family — when the other woman came to the door. She told Anarae everything. When she left, Anarae called her parents in hysterics, and they immediately drove home.
Anarae didn’t have any contact with Nelson until July 2013, when he emailed her saying he wanted to repay $5,000 she loaned him while they were dating.
Mariana fixates on the money, and she wonders if it’s the reason Anarae met up with Nelson the night she disappeared — and if so, why she needed to get it back.
Mariana also wants to know if Anarae’s friends had any suspicions.
“I’m just thinking that the more people I talk to, the more I’ll find out,” she said.
Mariana talked to a waiter friend of Anarae’s who was working at Jensen’s Supper Club, another restaurant Anarae and Nelson visited the night of her death. All Anarae’s friend knew was that she and Nelson had stood outside the restaurant and talked for a while — long enough for Nelson to smoke a cigarette, Mariana said.
Mariana also discovered that a security guard she knows once worked in a prison where Nelson was being held.
In a conversation with Mariana, the guard described Nelson as wild, violent and a constant threat to the guards and other prisoners.
At one point, the guard lifted his hand to show Mariana a deep bruise across his finger, a wound he said Nelson gave him.
A new activism
Even when they find bits of the story to weave together, the Schunks are far from satisfied.
The five of them, including Anarae’s two brothers, led a regular life in a regular home. They were never particularly political, but as Anarae got older she would sometimes lean liberal to push back against her parents (though she canvassed for both Democrats and Republicans, something that still makes Mariana laugh).
Now, the family’s search for answers — and their resulting frustration with the court system — has led them to activism.
Mariana has reached out to the University’s Aurora Center and the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women to learn more about relationship violence. When she meets with advocates, the amount of information can overwhelm her. At times, she wishes someone would tell her what to do.
Mariana and Monty have taken some specific action, suggesting changes to current bail laws. The changes — in the form of two proposed bills named for Anarae — would harshen the consequences for repeat violent offenders, from denying them bail, to sentencing them to life in prison without parole.
Mariana and Monty have collected the bills and everything they’ve learned, including newspaper articles, court transcripts and statistics, into binders to show lawmakers.
Mariana wrote an introduction to each section. One of these introductions, to a transcript of Nelson’s bail hearing three months before Anarae’s disappearance, described the proceedings as “disturbing,” and Nelson as a “terrorist.” When she talks about the proposed laws, Mariana reveals her frustration.
“Judges have no accountability,” she said. “A lot of them are doing fine, but it’s these little instances.”
Mariana is perhaps the least angry member of her immediate family, but there are moments when she breaks. Talking about Nelson, she sometimes leans in and lowers her voice. “That P.O.S.,” she whispers, face hard.
For a while, she was considering writing a book about the value of life. Now, it may be children’s books.
“It’s not my mission to be empowered,” Mariana said. “It’s my mission to make something positive out of her life.”
‘We have our up and down days’
As time passes, the family continues to move through life. They celebrate birthdays and anniversaries; they work. Monty goes to the YMCA. He and Mariana Skype with their grandchildren.
“In the big picture things, we’re doing good,” Mariana said. “As expected, we have our up and down days.”
Once, in a moment of frustration, Monty stormed to the piano and took Anarae’s small, wooden urn in his arms, saying he wanted to show it to Nelson.
Mariana also holds the urn occasionally, giving it a tight squeeze.
“That’s all I have,” she said.
The two have been attending Nelson’s trial for Jobi’s shooting and met Jobi’s parents there.
All of the information can be a lot to take in, Mariana said.
“I think I hear it; then I process it; then at night I just cry about it,” she said.
In it all, there are moments of softness. Monty still plays the mix CD Anarae made for his 64th birthday — a compilation of everything from “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head” to Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.”
Mariana said she feels Anarae nearby at times. Once when she was cross-country skiing, she felt a strange force beneath her feet, pushing her through the snow. Another time, she went into Anarae’s room and found a vase had fallen from the closed egress window, scattering fake flowers across the floor.
When the family comes together, things are not the same. There’s a certain understanding, a closeness that wasn’t there before.
Her son, Tyson, calls her at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays to help her get out of bed and give her something to look forward to.
“I think we all realize we’re not the same people we were prior,” Mariana said.
But there are moments when Mariana is alone, and her mind races. She still goes downstairs to Anarae’s room and contemplates its museum stillness. There are days when she lies down on the neatly tucked quilt and feels beneath her back the foam mattress she bought to make Anarae more comfortable living at home.
She’s realized now how hard the surface is and feels guilty for not buying something softer.