Sharon Stoltenberg is still reeling, understandably, from the murder of her son Bruce Walters.
All the emotion came back up this week when Walters’ killer, Peter Mayen, was sentenced to 80 years in prison for the killing, which took place over a year ago.
A big part of what eats at her is the way her son has been described in court in the media. Mayen, a Sudanese refugee who was Walters’ neighbor, called Walters a vicious racist who’d started a feud and threatened his family.
Stoltenberg doesn’t see that. She called me this morning to talk about how unfair the take-downs of Bruce’s character have been, largely because “Bruce isn’t here to defend himself.”
Her son’s problem with Mayen and his family started with disrespect of property, she said, not race. The day Mayen moved in, she said, Walters called her to say that the children had taken rocks from his landscaping and thrown them around the yard.
“He called me the day they moved in (about the rocks),” she said. “He didn’t say ‘I have black neighbors’ or ‘I have Sudanese neighbors,’ he just said ‘I have new neighbors.’”
Mayen’s family and friends testified in court that Walters called the Mayen family “n*ggers” on the day they moved in. Stoltenberg said the characterization of him as an innately racist person struck one of his closest friends, a black man who attended multiple hearings in the Mayen case and was in the courtroom again on the day Mayen was sentenced, as a misrepresentation.
“He turned to me and said ‘Sharon, this just isn’t right,’” she said.
The Mayens and their friends and relatives, Stoltenberg said, threw threats around as liberally as anyone. It’s worth noting that both neighbors called police on one another repeatedly for threats, noise or nuisance complaints in the months leading up to Walters’ murder. There were roughly an equal number of calls on both sides.
Stoltenberg recalls one conversation with a police officer on Sept. 30, 2011 – less than a month before the fatal shooting.
“I begged the policeman to take the threats seriously,” she said. “He wouldn’t do it.”
Again, Mayen says he felt threatened. His family members said they felt threatened. He tried, unsuccessfully, to take out a protection order against Walters. Walters, in turn, installed a surveillance camera on his garage in response to the escalating situation.
Ultimately, Walters was the one in danger. His belligerent talk was nothing more than that, Stoltenberg said, echoing a sentiment expressed by Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan during sentencing. Walters was all talk. Mayen was not.
“How many people end up running for their life and shot in the back?” she asked me this morning.
She also says she’s still afraid. She’s afraid of retribution each time she visits Sioux Falls, and says she doesn’t know if she’ll ever feel safe there again.
It’s a sad, sad postscript to a sad, sad story. I don’t know the truth of the interactions between Walters and Mayen any better than anyone else who wasn’t there to see or hear it.
Stoltenberg wants to put her son’s side of the story in the public eye, and I can’t blame her. Walters has been painted as a bigoted alcoholic who drove another man to murder. Based on what happened in court, many of Mayen’s friends and family appear to see the case in exactly that light.
At some point, though, the back and forth and the who-started-what discussion becomes meaningless. The fact is that one man is dead and another will spend the lion’s share of his life in prison over what was ultimately petty bickering that got tragically out of hand. No recounting of any version of events will change that.