Leah Gustafson remembered as caring, compassionate, trusting, perhaps vulnerable
By: Jana Hollingsworth,
Leah Gustafson was known for her hugs. Tight, strong embraces full of compassion. Hugs that her friends and family yearn for now, as they grieve the Superior woman’s death.
Gustafson, 29, was stabbed to death in her home last Saturday with one of her own swords, after a male assailant entered her apartment building around 4:30 a.m., according to a criminal complaint. It’s possible she opened the main door so the man could visit another tenant.
Leah’s funeral is today at noon in the Great Lakes Gospel Church, 518 N. 24th Ave. W. in Duluth’s West End. Visitation begins one hour prior to the service.
Jason Borelli, 31, Superior, was arrested and charged with first-degree intentional homicide in connection with the slaying.
Gustafson’s family and friends remembered her this week as a caring, vibrant and inquisitive woman.
“She reached out, befriended the underdog,” said Sharon Gustafson of Duluth, Leah’s mother. “If you needed money, she’d lend it to you even if she didn’t have enough for herself.”
She was an avid fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, said her father, Richard Gustafson of Superior, and was intrigued by its mythology.
“Leah had a sense of justice,” he said. “She valued the concept of good over evil.”
Enamored with all things historical, Leah collected swords as pieces of art and hung them on her walls. She attended Renaissance festivals and played the violin.
“She loved things of antiquity,” Richard Gustafson said.
Her curiosity of ancient cultures led her to obtain a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, after graduating from Superior High School in 1994. She worked at Cellular One in Duluth.
Sharon Gustafson said she was very loyal and close to her friends, with whom she shared a deep trust.
Leah loved to make people laugh, said Miranda Jones, a friend.
“She was one of the strongest people any of us ever knew,” she said. “When I was having a difficult time and I cried, she cried right along with me.”
She was honest and had an energetic laugh, said Kelly Ziebell, who knew Leah for 15 years.
“She never said goodbye without a hug,” Ziebell said. “If she saw you the day before, she still gave you a hug.”
Richard Gustafson said his daughter had a lot of self-confidence, “but I worried about her being too trusting,” he said.
Leah’s family doesn’t believe she had a relationship with Borelli, and views her death as a random act of violence.
While acknowledging she probably knew him, Richard Gustafson said Leah had recently ended a relationship and didn’t think she had begun dating anyone new.
Mike Gustafson, Leah’s brother, said, “she never could tell the difference” between good and bad people.
“She reached out very easily,” said Sarah Gustafson of Duluth, Leah’s stepmother.
Denise DeVogel had a lifelong friendship with Leah, meeting her when DeVogel was 4 years old. She considered Leah an aunt to her 3-year-old son.
“Her goal was to be a mom,” she said. “I’m grateful now that she didn’t, but she never got to have that chance.”
DeVogel said Leah was selfless, and always the person to call with a problem.
“She was like everybody’s Dear Abby,” she said.
Sharon Gustafson spoke of a day spent with her daughter getting lost for two hours on the way to see a movie.
“We ended up having this wonderful adventure,” she said. “It could have been irritating ... but she looked at life as an adventure.”
Richard Gustafson recalled Leah’s moments of toddler disobedience and how proud he was when she graduated from college.
“I have flashbacks — short little movies scattered in my mind of when she was a baby up to Christmas when we saw her last,” he said.
The Gustafson’s are struggling to put Leah’s death in perspective.
“We live in a community of exceptionally good people, but we live in a society where monsters roam,” Richard Gustafson said.
He said Superior Police Department investigators told him Borelli has a history of mental illness and suffers from bipolar disorder.
“But he knew the difference between right and wrong — he knew enough to flee,” he said.
DeVogel wishes Leah would have ignored the doorbell that night, “but it was her character to trust everybody,” she said. “She probably thought he was there to see her neighbor. I can’t imagine the trauma she went through.”
Richard Gustafson said his daughter was a brave woman.
“She loved life and would not give up easily,” he said. “She would fight to her very last breath.”
Jana Hollingsworth is a staff writer for The Daily Telegram. She can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at (715) 394-4421, ext. 137.