ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Cloquet killer gets three consecutive life sentences

Family members of Jackie Defoe and Kevin Shabaiash Jr. described how have they have sought to forgive while living their "worst nightmare."

thompson,sheldon.jpg
Sheldon James Thompson
We are part of The Trust Project.

CARLTON — There will likely never be an explanation for why Sheldon James Thompson fatally stabbed his pregnant girlfriend more than 60 times and brutally bludgeoned her toddler son to death.

But the March 2020 murders of Jackie Ann Defoe, Kevin Lee Shabaiash Jr. and the couple's unborn child left an immeasurable impact on the community, nearly everyone in a Carlton County courtroom Wednesday afternoon agreed.

"They were my joy and happiness," Tammy Suomi, mother and grandmother of the victims, said in a statement to the court. "I don't know if I'll ever feel that joy and happiness again."

FILE: Jackie Defoe and Kevin Shabaiash Jr.
Tammy Suomi of Duluth holds a sign with photos of her daughter, Jackie Defoe, and grandson, Kevin Shabaiash Jr., during a silent protest organized by the group "Justice for Jackie" outside the Carlton County Courthouse on Jan. 19, 2021.
Clint Austin / File / News Tribune

At long last, the family was at least able to experience some semblance of justice as Thompson, 35, was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. With no opportunity for parole, it is assured that he will die in prison.

"This violent act has turned my life completely upside down," the victims' father and grandfather, Garrett Defoe, said. "I cannot form the energy to work. I get anxiety. I have depression. I've spent a lot of days since finding myself. I want to be mad. I want to react. Somehow, I have found peace."

ADVERTISEMENT

Defoe submitted a letter that was first read in Anishinaabemowin and then English by a relative. He said he's come to forgive Thompson for the crime, but will nonetheless spend the rest of his life healing.

"I'm at peace knowing my daughter and grandsons are now at home," Defoe wrote.

A jury on May 31 found Thompson guilty of eight counts of murder after a trial that lasted more than two weeks. Those included charges of premeditation for each for the killings of each of the three victims.

The bodies of Defoe, 27, and Kevin, 20 months, were found at their residence, 1620 Locke Lane, on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Cloquet on March 7, 2020. An autopsy showed that Defoe was 13 weeks pregnant with Thompson's child.

Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola argued at trial the couple's relationship was defined by power and control, and that Thompson "didn't want her anymore," taking her money and valuables and planning to flee the state after the slayings.

Ketola's summation of the case Wednesday boiled down to one word: harm.

"How do we quantify the harm done by Mr. Thompson?" she asked, listing the effects of the case on the family, friends, Fond du Lac Reservation, law enforcement, court and broader community.

"This case has forever changed everyone involved," Ketola said. "There is no sentence that this court can impose that will ever right the harm done by Mr. Thompson: three lives taken."

ADVERTISEMENT

While Minnesota law already required that Thompson serve life without the possibility of parole, Ketola said it was important that three terms be imposed consecutively in recognition of each victim.

Defense attorney Steve Bergeson urged the court to set aside passion in its ruling, arguing that one life term was sufficient for client, who declined to address the court.

"Giving a life sentence should be more than just optics," Bergeson said. "It should be rational. There should be some sort of proportionality. It makes no sense — scientifically, religiously — that someone can give more than one life."

But Eichenwald, calling Thompson's crimes "heinous" and deserving of life imprisonment, said there was "zero question in my mind" that consecutive sentences were appropriate.

"What has been taken from the family and friends of Jackie Defoe and Kevin Shabaiash Jr., and the community, can't be restored," Eichenwald said. "But this sentence, though of little practical difference in the outcome, does make a difference. ... It makes a significant difference for society to understand and respect that each individual life (was taken)."

The judge noted Minnesota lacks a death penalty, a reflection that even the worst criminals have an opportunity to change course and attempt to make amends. But she said Thompson's crimes show a "level of depravity" that is fully deserving a lifetime behind bars.

"From here on out, he's not going to hurt any other people," Eichenwald said. "It gives me no joy, no pleasure to send anyone to prison. But I don't do it only because the statutes of Minnesota mandate it in this case. Incapacitating Mr. Thompson, removing him from the community, is the only way to keep the community safe."

Members of the victims' family sobbed, exchanged hugs and breathed sighs of relief at the conclusion of the hearing. But it's far from the end for some like Suomi, who attended every court hearing over 27 months and had to testify at the trial.

ADVERTISEMENT

"I would do anything to trade places with them," she said. "They had so much more life to live. It's a mother and grandmother's worst nightmare, and I live with it every day."

Read more by Tom Olsen
The "trusted, steady leader" of the department since 2016, Tusken said he hopes to inspire a new generation of law enforcement officers at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
What to read next
The single-vehicle incident on Highway 23 involved a 19-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl.
A total of 1,295 runners finished the 5K and 81 competitors completed the Tough Turkey 1 Mile on Thursday in Duluth.
Read the latest news in the Carlton County, Dontcha Know newsletter published every Thursday.
The union represents about 1,500 custodians, cooks, groundskeepers and other service workers at the five campuses, including the University of Minnesota Duluth.