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Stepmom of victim who inspired 'Leah's Law' dies

Sarah Gustafson, stepmother of Superior murder victim Leah Gustafson and advocate of Leah's Law in the Wisconsin Assembly, died Thursday in Duluth. Gustafson, 56, of Superior was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, shortly after her stepd...

Sarah Gustafson, stepmother of Superior murder victim Leah Gustafson and advocate of Leah's Law in the Wisconsin Assembly, died Thursday in Duluth.

Gustafson, 56, of Superior was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, shortly after her stepdaughter was killed, according to Richard Gustafson, Leah's father. A year later, Sarah developed a brain tumor. She initially responded well to surgery, but her health began to decline again this year. She had been hospitalized for a week when she died.

The Gustafsons led an effort in Madison to create a registry of violent offenders, similar to existing sex-offender registries, that they dubbed Leah's Law. The man convicted of killing Leah Gustafson in January 2006 had a long history of violent crimes. The Gustafsons argued that residents should be able to locate violent offenders on a registry just as they can locate sex offenders.

Leah's Law was approved this year by the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice, but didn't make it to the floor of the full assembly before adjournment this year. Supporters say they will push for the bill again next session.

Richard Gustafson said Sarah, whom he married about a year before his daughter's death, helped push for the bill in the 2007 Assembly even when she was fighting breast cancer. She did not go to Madison during the 2008 session.

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"She wanted to go, but she felt she didn't have the strength to properly support us down there," Richard said.

Sarah Gustafson worked as a registered nurse, specializing in adolescent behavioral health at Miller-Dwan Medical Center, her husband said. Her experience made her especially helpful to family and friends who were devastated by Leah Gustafson's death.

"She was quite experienced in people who had suffered emotional trauma," Richard said. "Even though it hurt her immensely, she was always willing to help other people in coming to terms with this terrible tragedy."

Originally from Grand Marais, Sarah Gustafson has a son and two daughters -- Cy Simensen, Maija Krueth and Hillary Simensen -- in Duluth. Her father, Robert Morrison, also lives in Duluth.

Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Downs Funeral Home, Superior. Visitation will begin at 5 p.m. Monday at the funeral home.

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