Family of victim speaks out at sentencing in North Shore murder case

GRAND MARAIS -- Marcus Lee Roberts was a hard-working father of five who cared deeply for his family and spent every spare dollar helping others, those closest to him told a judge Wednesday.

Judge Eric Hylden listens as Makaylee Roberts (left), the oldest daughter of murder victim Marcus Lee Roberts, accompanied by Shannon Freeman, reads her victim impact statement in the courtroom in Grand Marais on Wednesday during the sentencing of Kirk Lee Bigby. Bob King /

GRAND MARAIS - Marcus Lee Roberts was a hard-working father of five who cared deeply for his family and spent every spare dollar helping others, those closest to him told a judge Wednesday.

Nearly two years after the 35-year-old Twin Cities native was fatally shot while working at a holiday party at a popular North Shore resort, his family was left with far more questions than answers.

“Why?” asked grandmother Ardythe Smith. “Why did this happen to Marcus? My grandson was so unsuspecting. In an instant, he’d never see his children again, and his children would never see their father again.”

Elaisa Roberts, the youngest child of murder victim Marcus Lee Roberts, is comforted by family members during sentencing.


Roberts’ extended family - many of them traveling from the Twin Cities and southwestern Minnesota - filled a Cook County courtroom seeking justice for their loved one. Many wore T-shirts emblazoned with Roberts’ name and photo, along with the words “September 4th 1980 - Forever.”

They watched as his killer - 63-year-old Kirk Lee Bigby of Finland - was sentenced to a maximum guideline term of 12½ years in prison after an emotional, nearly two-hour hearing before 6th Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden.

“It’s changed my view of the world as a safe and fair place,” Roberts’ sister, Krista Thunder, told the judge before the sentence was handed down. “It’s not safe and it’s not fair.”

Kenny Thunder, brother of murder victim Marcus Lee Roberts, was one of several family members who wore a T-shirt in his honor.

Bigby, for his part, had no satisfying answers for the family. While maintaining that Roberts was the initial aggressor in the incident, Bigby acknowledged that he was highly intoxicated at the party and should not have been carrying a firearm.

“I’m sorry it happened,” he told the court. “I caused a lot of people a lot of pain.”

Roberts, of Bloomington, Minn., and his youngest brother, Kenny, were providing entertainment for a casino-themed employee party at Bluefin Bay in Tofte when he was shot by Bigby, a resort worker, in the early morning hours of Dec. 9, 2015.


Bigby claims to have almost no memory of the incident, though he said he remembers Roberts bumping into him so hard that it knocked the hat off his head. Witness accounts also were limited, but police said one reported seeing Bigby "just pull out a gun and shoot this guy" without any apparent provocation.

Despite his intoxication - about three times the legal limit for driving - Bigby and his defense attorneys asserted that he felt as though he was in danger at the time. He initially brought a self-defense claim, but waived that right and averted a jury trial in pleading guilty to an unintentional second-degree murder charge in May.

Elaine Pierce, the mother of murder victim Marcus Lee Roberts, wipes her tears with a tissue.

“I was in fear for my life. It was that simple,” Bigby said Wednesday. “I’m not a violent man. I wasn’t looking for trouble that night.”

Roberts’ family and prosecutors, however, disputed his contention - saying Roberts had no history of violence and that there was no evidence of a violent confrontation.

“I looked up to him,” Thunder said. “He was a big guy and he had a big heart. He taught me everything I know; he was my best friend.”

The family spoke of the struggle to move on without Roberts and the impact his death has had on his children and his young nephews and nieces.


“My children have been absolutely devastated by the death of their father,” said Jessica Jensen, the mother of Roberts’ two youngest kids. “They wake up with nightmares in the middle of the night.”

Roberts’ mother, Elaine Pierce, described the horror of waking up to a phone call notifying her that her oldest child died in the arms of his youngest brother after a senseless shooting.

“There is no way to describe this pain and emptiness,” she told the judge. “I don’t know if there will ever be another normal again.”

The 150-month prison sentence was the maximum term available under a plea agreement reached between Bigby and the Cook County Attorney’s Office. While Roberts’ family expressed belief that the sentence was too lenient, Bigby and defense attorney Dave Risk sought the minimum sentence of 128 months.

Bigby’s sister, Pamela Wilson, told the News Tribune after the hearing that she had “great sympathy” for Roberts’ family. But Wilson said she believed her brother’s defense was “severely hampered” not only by his intoxication but by “grossly inadequate” investigations by police and a medical examiner.

“There were no winners today,” Wilson said. “This has been a tragic situation. While we will never know what happened that evening, I know my brother feared for his life.”

While some members of Roberts’ family used terms such as “evil man” to describe the defendant, they also expressed a desire to forgive and pray for him.

Debra Zollner, the girlfriend of Roberts’ father, said no amount of prison time would bring their loved one back.


“We can’t hug him. We can’t call him,” she said. “For that, there is not enough time.”

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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