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Police: West Duluth supermarket’s fatal stabbing appears random

By Tom Olsen

Forum News Service

DULUTH, Minn. -- The seemingly random fatal knife attack on an elderly Proctor woman Thursday evening at a West Duluth supermarket has left an entire neighborhood shell-shocked, Duluth Deputy Police Chief Mike Tuksen said Friday.

Police confirmed that 75-year-old Sally Marie Pionk was the victim of the attack inside the West Duluth Super One store, one of Duluth’s busiest supermarkets, as she shopped just before 8 p.m. Thursday.

“This incident is particularly difficult because it steals our sense of security,” Tusken said at a press conference. “Every person who lives in that area has been to that store. For people in the western part of the city, that’s the epicenter of Duluth.”

Tusken said police are about “99.99 percent sure” the crime was a random, unprovoked act, but said police were continuing to investigate. He stressed that this type of crime is rare, and could not recall the last time the city had seen a random homicide.

A male suspect, 35-year-old Jesse Alan Dahlstrom of Duluth, was arrested at the scene and taken to the St. Louis County Jail on a preliminary second-degree intentional homicide charge. Police are not looking for any additional suspects at this time.

Records indicate that Dahlstrom has no criminal history, but Tusken said officers have had previous contact with him for “aberrant behavior.”

“I think that as our investigation continues, we’re going to see a correlation between someone who was in a mental health crisis and this crime,” he said.

But in a horrific crime with no clear motive, community members were left searching for answers.

West Duluth resident Julie Godfrey grew up knowing the Pionk family, including Sally, she said.

“It’s just a shock, Godfrey said of Pionk’s death. “She was always pleasant and always stopped to say ‘hi’ and see what’s going on in your life. She was just a good person all the way around. … She lived her life for her grandkids and kids.”

Kimberly Nerhaugen, the property manager of Ramsey Village Townhomes across Bristol Street from Super One, said the neighborhood is usually quiet.

“There are things that we don't know about, I suppose, but we feel pretty good about it here,” she said. “We've got a lot of professional people that live here. They use Super One all the time. I shop there. It's a very well-run store."

Tusken said Dahlstrom entered the store and was armed with what appeared to be a “non-descript steak knife.” Several employees took notice and followed the man through the store and were nearby when he attacked the woman.

Tusken did not disclose the nature of Pionk’s injuries, saying an autopsy was ongoing Thursday.

Three store employees quickly subdued the man and held him until police arrived, Tusken said. Some nurses who were shopping in the store unsuccessfully attempted to resuscitate the woman before paramedics arrived.

While he said police do not necessarily recommend that people intervene in hostile situations where a weapon in involved, Tusken commended the Super One staff for their “brave” actions.

“When the assault began, staff intervened, and although their intervention did not save the life of Ms. Pionk, it very well may have saved the lives of many others in the store,” he said.

Tusken said only about 10 minutes elapsed from the time Dahlstrom entered the store until the time he was escorted out by police. Officers arrived on scene only two minutes after the call was placed.

Super One Foods/Miner’s Inc. released a statement extending condolences to Pionk’s family, and also spoke of the heroism of its employees who “disarmed the perpetrator and held him down for several minutes until the police arrived.”

Employees and customers also came to the aid of Pionk following the attack, it said.

“We are truly lucky to have the right people in the right place who were quick to act,” the company’s store director, Pat Miner, said Friday. “They quite likely kept an already bad situation from getting a lot worse.”

The store’s loss prevention workers act as security, but Miner declined to say who aided in the incident.

The statement reads that the company is “deeply shocked and troubled by the senseless violent death” of Pionk, killed through what appears to be “a random act of unprovoked violence while innocently shopping at our store.”

The human resources department is working with employees, who have been offered and employee assistance orogram and also crime victim counseling service through the police department.

The company has been in business for more than 60 years, serving millions of customers, Miner said.

“We’ve never had an incident like this,” he said, and getting help for employees was important.

Tusken, who grew up in Morgan Park and said most of his family shops at the store, said the crime is shocking not only for the store, but the community as a whole.

“Random crime in this city is rare,” he stressed. “This crime is an anomaly. It’s just not what we see here.”

With officers responding to more than 100,000 incidents in the city every year, Tusken said there is no way to prevent every crime. But he said he is encouraged to see statistics showing that crime is trending downward in the city.

“One of the questions people will always ask after a story like this is ‘Are we safe?’” he said. “My answer is always going to be yes.”

The homicide is the third in Duluth this year.

In September, 37-year-old Carmen Mosqueda was charged with second-degree murder in the stabbing death of his 71-year-old mother, Mary Mosqueda, at her Lincoln Park home. And in July, 29-year-old Christopher Peterson was charged with suffocating his 13-month old daughter, Layna, to death. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

News Tribune reporters Jana Hollingsworth and Brady Slater contributed to this report.

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