The brutal killing of a grocery store cashier and Loring Park neighborhood fixture had friends and neighbors mourning the victim Saturday, while the suspect with a history of mental illness who allegedly impaled him with a golf club is now jailed after a police standoff.
Neighbors described the victim, 66-year-old Robert Skafte, as a friendly and familiar face at the Oak Grove Grocery for decades as well as a talented dancer, leaving them shocked and saddened at the gruesome Friday afternoon crime.
"We are broken; our hearts are broken," said Gladys Torres, who lived next door to the store and said she was friends with Skafte.
Officers responded just before 1 p.m. on Friday to reports of a stabbing inside the store at 218 Oak Grove St. They found a man behind the counter with a golf club through his torso, Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara said at a Friday night press briefing.
First responders provided aid until the cashier was transported to HCMC, where he later died.
Early investigation found that the 44-year-old suspect had gathered some items in the store and went up to the counter before attacking the victim, O'Hara said.
"It appears he then went behind the counter and then began to assault and bludgeon the individual behind the counter in a very grotesque way," O'Hara said.
Officers tracked the suspect to the apartment building across the street, where police say he barricaded himself. He was arrested after a six-hour standoff, O'Hara said. He was booked in the Hennepin County Jail on suspicion of murder. The Star Tribune generally does not identify suspects before they are charged.
Police have not identified a motive, the chief added. "We will do our best to try and make sense of this, but this is horrific and absolutely senseless," O'Hara said.
Neighbor Tony Gutoski said he stopped by the store Friday when an ashen-faced woman stepped outside and told him someone was in a pool of blood. He ran in and came upon Skafte, partly on his knees and still conscious. He told Gutoski that someone who "was in there earlier acting crazy came back and attacked him," and that he kept fighting him but didn't know what happened.
The club was through Skafte's abdomen with the broken-off head lying nearby, Gutoski said. Medics tended to Skafte, who lost consciousness as he was carried outside.
"The only reason I knew what was going on is Robert was still conscious and talking when I found him," he said.
Gutoski, who knew Skafte well from frequent visits to the store, said visiting the market again will be difficult. An owner he spoke to said she was unsure whether it would reopen.
"It just makes me angry." Gutoski said. "He was a great dude."
A leading man of dance who performed on stages all across the Twin Cities, Skafte was an inventive and imaginative collaborator. His main company was Ballet of the Dolls, for whom he starred as Don Jose in "Carmen," Duke Albrecht in "Giselle" and the title character in "Hello, Dali!" a spoof on surrealist painter Salvador Dali.
"It's hard to wrap your head around something so tragic happening to someone so sweet," Dolls founder Myron Johnson said. "Robert was rare because he was a great dancer who could also act. He was such a bright light."
Stephanie Fellner Grey, who danced with Skafte as members of the troupe, said Saturday morning that he also was an occasional actor on local stages and "was one of my dearest friends."
Skafte's death "is quite literally evil colliding with the brightest of light," she said. "I can't even begin to wrap my head around the loss of our dear Robert. Our hearts ache and are broken, crying out to try and make any sense of this horror."
Following the attack, police quickly identified the suspect at his residence across the street in the 200 block of Oak Grove Street. He was already the subject of a person-in-crisis welfare check after he called 911 "wanting to speak to the FBI, refused to give further information." He refused to come out of his 16th-floor apartment when police arrived; a negotiator was called to the scene.
Other than a drunken-driving arrest, records show no criminal history for the suspect in Minnesota. He was ordered civilly committed for mental illness in Anoka County in January 2021, with a provisional discharge the following March. Court records show that at the time of the killing, he lived in a unit at the Minneapolis address and was issued an eviction summons in November after his lease was not renewed. On Nov. 30 he failed to appear at a housing court hearing and was ordered evicted.
Torres, the next-door neighbor, said she saw the suspect in the store in previous instances, alleging that he would complain about different things to workers, such as not being able to use EBT credits there.
Annie Schoenecker, 35, was one of more than 30 people who stopped by the memorial Saturday morning to place flowers and grieve. Schoenecker said she became a dance fan after seeing Skafte perform in Ballet of the Dolls when she was 14.
"He was my teenybopper crush back in the day," she said. "He and I became friends just by me going to all his shows with my aunt and seeing him at the [Stevens Square] farmers market he ran. ... He was a kind, gentle soul."
A similar outpouring of grief took place on social media, where Skafte was remembered as someone who "cared deeply about his neighborhood and everyone in it — regardless of whether he knew you or not," wrote one friend, Bill Holmes.
"Throughout the darkest moments of police and community violence, the civil uprising and the pandemic, Robert remained a beacon of glowing community and stability at Oak Grove Grocery," Holmes wrote on Facebook. "He was there when I needed a soda, a social interaction, and someone to remind me of the power of goodness in the world. Though times were dark, the world was still good and Robert was living proof of that goodness with the most subtle yet powerful gestures."
Skafte would water the flowers along the sidewalk every day, neighbor Angela Otis said, and she would often see him come outside to write a new saying on the chalk board outside the grocery.
"I looked at him as a brother," Otis said. "I used to just sit in the store, BS with him, and he was always happy, he never made anyone sad."
Torres said she wishes she could have been there to intervene, and that she thinks others in the neighborhood would have stepped in.
"I can tell you with certainty that if any one of us had been here, we would have taken a knife for Robert," Torres said.
This was the 66th homicide in Minneapolis so far in 2023, according to the Star Tribune's database. It's also the fourth homicide in the past week.
Star Tribune staff writer Rohan Preston contributed to this story.