From an early age, Michelle “Shelly” Mae loved rainbows.
They brightened up her wardrobe and featured in artwork she and her children created together. Gazing upward toward a large rainbow painting pinned to her living room ceiling helped Shelly through a dark period following the death of her infant son Tobbie.
On Oct. 20, the 35-year-old Outing woman was memorialized by a rainbow herself when family and friends released 150 red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple balloons to float toward the heavens. It was Shelly’s request for her memorial -- recorded in one of dozens of journals she kept over the years -- but her loved ones never expected to fulfill it this early in her life.
“She was full of life. She was a great listener, a great friend, a great mom. Full of life,” said DeAnn Evanson, Shelly’s mother. “She wanted to see her kids go off to school or get married and have babies. It was something that she was looking forward to because she knew how much I loved being a grandma.”
Instead, the opportunity to watch her children blossom into adults was stolen from the mother of three. After Shelly failed to return home from work Oct. 2, law enforcement officials began a missing persons investigation that ultimately resulted in the discovery of her body Oct. 15 on rural private property in Swatara. Preliminary results from the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office show Shelly likely died of homicidal violence.
The Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office announced Oct. 16 it had a suspect in custody -- 34-year-old Joshua Emil Karjala, who owns the property where Shelly’s body was found. Karjala has yet to be charged in the case, but he is jailed in Aitkin County for probation violations associated with a 2017 conviction for first-degree burglary and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct.
During a phone interview a day after her daughter’s memorial service, DeAnn said the nightmare began the morning she learned her daughter was missing.
“I knew something terribly went wrong,” she said. “She never, ever, ever left her kids. … We just knew it was something tragic, and we didn’t know what. It was absolutely horrible. I don’t know if there is really any words to describe it.”
After Shelly’s 2004 Jeep Liberty was located Oct. 4, it was another 10 agonizing days before Shelly’s family got answers. The experience has been surreal, almost as if she’s starring in a movie, DeAnn said.
“And how did I get in this horrible movie? You see these movies about things like this. You watch ‘Dateline’ and those shows of other families. You hope that never happens to you. And then all of a sudden it’s real and it’s happening,” she said. “You think to yourself, are they ever going to find her? … Is it going to be two years before they find her, or what if they never find her, like other families go through?”
‘I’ve never met anyone like you’
The second oldest of four children, Shelly grew up first in Brainerd and later St. Cloud. She was a gymnast and a dancer and she loved art, particularly painting and especially brightly colored rainbows.
“She made this rainbow and she super-glued it to the back of her bedroom door. Which basically, you know, ruins the door,” DeAnn said. “She loved bright colors. She would get flowers and it would all be bright colors. … That never changed.”
Shelly and her mother were very close, DeAnn said, and together, they loved music -- Brooks and Dunn, Sugarland and Martina McBride were artists they agreed on. Shelly loved to belt out, “Let freedom ring, let the white doves sing,” along with Martina in her 1994 song “Independence Day.”
“She’d always come to clean my house for me,” DeAnn said. “... Next thing we’d know, the cleaning of the house was done and we were singing. That was one of our deep connections because she enjoyed it. I am absolutely a terrible singer, I’m terrible. I can’t carry a note, a tune, nothing. But I would do it with her, because that’s what she loved doing.”
Just as DeAnn had a loving relationship with Shelly, Shelly had one with her own children: Michael Kroll, 14; Dominick Kroll, 12; and Serenity Krebsbach, 8. Together they often went to the park or worked on craft projects. Painting together was “a huge thing in their world,” DeAnn said.
In 2013, Shelly suffered the loss of her 4-month-old son Tobbie Krebsbach to meningitis. That was a devastating turning point in her daughter’s life, DeAnn said. She faced her pain openly, however, and made a point to be receptive to her children’s pain as well.
“She was a mother that was very open and honest with her kids. She never sheltered them,” DeAnn said. “She felt sheltering them from reality was the wrong thing to do as a parent. … She listened to the kids when they were also struggling with the loss of Tobbie.”
No matter how difficult things were for Shelly, she remained a positive person who people were drawn to, her mother said. Her charisma shined in her work as a bartender and server at various area restaurants and bars, including the Pickled Loon Saloon in Outing, and as a retail merchandiser with Driveline Retail Merchandising.
DeAnn said a letter read at Shelly’s memorial service, written by a friend named Jamie whom Shelly met in the aftermath of Tobbie’s death, poignantly described her daughter’s personality.
“Before you came into my life I was selfish, bitter, hateful, thought I was better than others. I was quick to judge without even giving anyone a chance,” the letter stated. “Then I sat down and listened to you talk, listened to your story. That instant my heart changed. You taught me that no one should ever be judged. You taught me how to be more empathetic, and that everyone has their own story to tell.
“You taught me all of these things just by being you. I’ve never met anyone like you, Michelle. I can honestly say that you changed my life, you made an impact on me that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Along with sharing personal remembrances, Shelly’s family and friends together sang a rendition of the soul classic “Lean on Me” at the memorial service -- yet another of Shelly’s wishes, fulfilled. As her loved ones look ahead to the difficult weeks, months and years before them, DeAnn said she takes comfort in knowing her daughter’s fate.
“I do believe this -- she’s in heaven, and it’s very peaceful, and all the stress and whatever goes away. She’s resting in peace.”
How to help Michelle Mae’s family
A GoFundMe account was established in an effort to cover funeral expenses and financially support Shelly’s children. Visit gofundme.com/f/michelle-mae to make a donation toward the $5,000 goal.