In a New Mexico impound lot, Shelbie Madsen picked up the last pieces of two lives that never seemed to stop shattering.
Her mother’s belongings — or what was left after three years of moving between friends’ and relatives’ homes — needed to be moved out of her dad’s truck and taken back to Utah. The truck would have to stay in New Mexico. Shelbie didn’t have the legal documents to show she had been Steve and Deanna Madsen’s daughter.
It’s just as well, Shelbie said. That truck is where her father killed her mother on Thanksgiving night and then fatally shot himself during a trip from Carlsbad, N.M., to Shelbie’s home in Price.
On Friday, Shelbie made the long drive to bring her mom’s remains back to Utah, plan separate funerals for both of her parents, and somehow find balance and closure in her memories of each of them.
"I'm very angry. Very, very angry," said Shelbie, 24. "But I still love him, and I can't not forgive him because I'm just going to continue with more harsh feelings and not repair from this. ... I want to be able to speak and let my mother's voice be heard — but his mental illness is also a voice that needs to be heard."
Steve Madsen wasn't always like this, his daughter said. When Shelbie and her brother were young children, the Madsens were "this perfect little family," said Misty Sweeting, who lived across the street from them in Salina.
Sweeting spent hours in their home as she was growing up, she said. Eventually she became the children’s unofficial aunt and moved in with the family when she was 18.
“The home was full of love, full of acceptance, and this family was something so many people dream of,” Sweeting wrote in a GoFundMe she created for Shelbie and her brother.
‘Deeper and darker’
But things began to change, Shelbie said. Steve started drinking when his dad developed serious health problems about 20 years ago, she said. His father’s death in 2002 was just the beginning of a series of family tragedies, Sweeting added. Months later, Steve’s sister and young niece were killed in a car wreck. A few months after that, his mother died, and an infant nephew died just two months later.
Sweeting recalled joining the family at funeral after funeral. Within a year, Steve was charged with minor drug and alcohol offenses. At one point, Steve attempted suicide, Sweeting said, and his fights with Deanna became increasingly violent.
“They took all their anger and aggression out on each other,” Sweeting said. “It was crazy to see the transformation, to just watch a family go from being a normal, cute little family to what happened.”
Things got even worse a few years after that; in 2008, Steve’s brother died of a brain aneurysm in California, and while the family was driving his remains back to Utah for burial, Deanna received word that her father had died, Shelbie said. In the months after that, Steve pleaded guilty in another intoxication case, and Deanna was charged with her first drug offense.
"They kept going further and further and deeper and darker," Sweeting said. "Watching Steve drink himself into numbness, and Deanna — she got so sick of the abuse she started taking extra Xanaxes. I just stayed there and tried to do the best I could for the kids at that point."
Shelbie grew up dreading the day she’d have to leave her parents.
"It did kind of hold me back from my adult life," she said. "I had the fear of losing them my whole life. I didn't want to move out because I thought they'd hurt each other."
‘She just lost herself’
The marriage finally dissolved in 2016, after Deanna’s mother died, Shelbie said. Deanna moved out of the Madsens’ home in Salina and spent the next three years staying with friends and family in various cities, and occasionally on the street.
"Her mom was her whole world," Shelbie said. "When she lost her mom, she just lost herself."
Meanwhile, court records suggest Steve’s behavior was becoming more destructive. In 2017, he pleaded no contest to drug and alcohol charges, as well as damaging or preventing use of a phone, and in another case he admitted to intentionally damaging property. Court documents do not indicate whether Deanna Madsen was targeted in those cases, and Salina police were not available for comment.
Shelbie said she realized she couldn’t be responsible for her parents’ choices anymore. She started working at Walmart and recently was promoted to assistant manager in a store in Price. She had settled into an apartment when her mom made plans to move in with her. Deanna had been living near a relative in New Mexico, but she wasn’t happy there, Shelbie said.
“I still stressed about them because they were both financially unstable," Shelbie said. "I sent money to each of them to help them out because, you know, they’re my parents. But it was a struggle thinking about them — Dad being alone, Mom being out in New Mexico and not having very many people she knew.”
But getting Deanna to Price was a problem. Deanna didn’t have a car, and Shelbie was reluctant to make a big trip right before Black Friday at her new job. That’s when Steve offered to drive to New Mexico and bring Deanna to Price, Shelbie said.
Although the couple had separated, they stayed in contact with each other, Shelbie said. But she had misgivings about her estranged parents making the long road trip together.
“I reassured him I could do it, but then he reassured me, ‘No, no,’ he could go get her,” Shelbie said. “That’s a big part of the betrayal — because of the reassurance.”
‘You’ve got to get help’
Steve arrived at Deanna’s home on Thanksgiving morning, and they loaded her things into his truck. Shelbie received a text message from her parents that evening, saying that they were on the road but they planned to stop for a nap.
They were near Roswell, about an hour and a half from Carlsbad, when Chaves County sheriff’s deputies got Deanna’s 911 call around midnight. She said a man with a gun was threatening to kill her and himself, Sheriff Mike Herrington wrote in a news release.
“As deputies were arriving on scene ... the male subject shot the female and then shot himself,” Herrington wrote.
The creeping sense of dread that had followed Shelbie for so many years suddenly came to life. Her mother had died at the scene, investigators told her, and her father was on life support at a hospital in El Paso. Deanna was 45 and Steve was 49.
After a 16-hour drive, Shelbie was by her father’s side, setting up a video chat with his family so they could all say goodbye before the machines were turned off.
"My aunt was in the room with me because I needed support," Shelbie said. "Even though it was the man who killed her sister, she was still there for me."
In the week since then, Shelbie has been handling her parents’ end-of-life tasks: finances, paperwork, and getting two bodies to another state. Relatives on both sides have tried to make the best of it, Shelbie said. Her father’s family, already decimated by tragedy, dispatched cousins to bring Steve’s body to Koosharem, where he will be buried. Steve’s family apologized to Deanna’s family, Shelbie said.
"We all understand," she said. "They've been really good toward each other."
Deanna will be buried in Utah County, where her parents live, Shelbie said.
It’s unclear what exactly led to the shooting, Shelbie said, and Chaves County sheriff’s officials did not return The Salt Lake Tribune’s calls for comment.
But Shelbie said she doesn’t believe her father intended to kill her mom when he volunteered to bring Deanna back to Utah. The fact that he took a gun with him doesn’t suggest a plan, she reasoned, because he took his gun everywhere.
"The only thing we can think of is they started arguing," Sweeting said.
In retrospect, Shelbie said, it seems like her father started down this path much earlier: when he started self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, rather than seeking professional help to cope with grief and loss.
Now, confronted with the biggest loss of her life, Shelbie said she doesn't want to make the same mistake.
“I never was one for therapy, but I’m definitely going to get it. I really think people with these issues need to get it,” she said. “I want people to understand you can’t think that one day it’s going to get better. You’ve got to get help."