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Stationed in Vietnam in an area known as "The Devil's Back Yard," Arthur Torgesen twice eluded death while nearly everyone else in his unit perished. People close to him say Torgesen was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. But for all his great escapes, he could not outrun his demons.

Torgesen fled a bunker in Cu Chi before explosives wiped out more than two dozen other members of the 25th Infantry Division, said Dennis Olson, a fellow Vietnam veteran. But when Torgesen talked about cheating death before an ambush that killed 150 others, he told Olson he felt guilty and wondered if he could have "prevented the whole thing" by firing a warning shot.

"My father suffers from a rare post-traumatic stress," Michael Torgesen said last week while his father sat in the Anoka County jail, charged with second-degree murder after allegedly stabbing his wife to death and setting their Columbia Heights house on fire.

"He was in a lot of pain," Michael Torgesen said of his dad, "and had been in pain for years."

Artie Torgesen, 63, was recently diagnosed with cancer, his son said. He carried a limp and a cane to go with his memories of being shot in Vietnam. He had chronic pain in his arms and his hands, possibly from a fall in which he broke his collarbone after losing a wrestling match with a bottle of vodka, Olson and Torgesen's son said.

"The vodka took the edge off," Michael Torgesen said.

Cell phone message

But it was Artie's bride, Sherrill Harnden, 59, who gave him reason to go on. Just two days before Torgesen allegedly kissed his sleeping wife and then stabbed her repeatedly with a kitchen knife with a 6 1/2-inch blade, Harnden left a message for her husband on his cell phone:

"Thanks for being the greatest husband you've been."

"They loved each other," said Michael Torgesen, 30. "There's no doubt about that."

Artie Torgesen's plan was to die together with his wife, according to court records. The gasoline and lacquer that he told detectives that he poured on his wife as she lay in their bedroom July 18, he also poured on himself -- and he had burns on his chest, arms and, most severe, on his back to prove it.

Ultimately, though, he said he didn't have the nerve. He left the room, naked, and went to the living room.

Things had gotten too hot.

A history of problems

He began to feel the heat the day he returned home from Vietnam four decades ago. A tough Long Islander who never lost his New York accent, Torgesen had just gotten off the plane when a guy spit at him, Olson said. Torgesen broke the man's jaw.

"His first night home and he spent it in jail," his son said.

There were other incidents -- like the time New York-area authorities questioned Torgesen about possible mob connections. Years later, Torgesen told Olson that he was beaten so badly by police officers that his parents hardly recognized him.

Torgesen married a woman from Minnesota, moved to his bride's home state, and started a flooring company in downtown Minneapolis in the late 1970s. But alcohol took its toll on a marriage that produced one son -- Michael -- before ending in divorce.

Twenty-five years ago, Sherry Harnden entered Artie's life. He told Olson he met her at a party. The man who Olson says won a Silver Star by jumping into a bunker in the jungle with an M-16 and firing away found somebody with whom he could exchange love letters. A box of them was kept 'til the end, Michael Torgesen said.

"Sherry was like my second mom for 25 years," he said. "My dad had such a rough past. He was a grunt in Vietnam. She was someone who could take him off the front line."

Simply 'the best'

Their Columbia Heights neighbors admit they knew little about Torgesen and Harnden -- other than that police occasionally visited their home and he was heard screaming at her during his binges. Torgesen was arrested at least 13 times for driving under the influence, according to the Anoka County Sheriff's Office.

But Olson knew the couple differently. Artie adored Sherry, who went to the health club, worried about her weight, and cared about her looks, said Olson. As he once said to Olson after Olson's wife, Scharline, dropped by, "Our old ladies are the best."

"She was just a very caring, warm person," said Ann Harnden, Sherry's heartbroken mother. "She loved her family, Artie and Michael. If you were her friend, you were her friend forever."

Dennis Olson, 57, who lives in the village of St. Anthony, said he first met Torgesen about 15 years ago when Torgesen noticed a POW-MIA flag in Olson's garage. Torgesen introduced himself and the two exchanged Vietnam stories.

Talk occasionally led to Torgesen's medals. The Star Tribune could not verify those medals, but Michael Torgesen said he saw them while he was growing up and Ann Harnden said she, too, knew of them.

Torgesen had been drinking vodka the day he and Olson first met, Olson recalled. But his stories often had to do with morphine and the pain he felt in his knee, which had to be reconstructed after his discharge.

Last calls

It wasn't until around the time that Torgesen learned he had cancer, several months ago, that he and Harnden finally married. In February, Torgesen had cancer between his heart and lungs surgically removed, Olson said. But the cancer returned.

So did the financial woes and depression that plagued Torgesen for decades.

On Wednesday, July 16 -- the day Harnden left her verbal love letter on Torgesen's voice mail -- Torgesen called Olson. Olson's son, Zak, 15, died of leukemia four years ago, and now Torgesen was telling Olson "that he wanted to visit Zak."

"He said he was sick and tired of living with cancer, couldn't live this way anymore," Olson said. "He's talked this stuff to me in the past.

"He was a Vietnam war hero. He wasn't the type of person to kick back and die of old age."

On Friday morning, July 18, Torgesen called his son, Michael, leaving this message: "Everything is over for me." He called Harnden's mother to tell her Sherry loved her. And he called the Olsons.

"He was living with a lot of demons from Vietnam and drowning them out with vodka," Olson recalled Torgesen once saying. "He'd been off the bottle for a while and got into the vodka again at the tail end of his radiation regimen. He said it wasn't any fun anymore.

"He had to do something to stop it all."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419