PRIOR LAKE, Minn. – Mike Hage smiles as he pages through a family album.
He pauses at a picture of his daughter Nicole, at the time a toddler. “Pretty, happy girl,” Mike says proudly.
More photos follow, from Easter Sunday and Disney World, of Nicole, Mike’s wife Julie, and son Matthew.
But the pages of the old album always end at the same place, Nicole’s third birthday. “That is the end,” Mike says sadly. “She was three for two days.”
The horror unfolded in the headlines 25 years ago this month. Julie Hage, a 25-year-old nurse, had picked up her children at daycare after work and walked in on an intruder who had broken into the family’s Brooklyn Park home.
Two blasts from a shotgun killed Julie.
A knife ended Nicole's life.
The intruder tried to strangle with a phone cord, 4-year-old Matthew – before running a knife through his abdomen and leaving him for dead as the intruder drove away in the family car.
“It all changed from there when I got home and opened that door,” says Mike, who arrived home from work and found the bodies of his wife and daughter - and his critically injured son.
Prosecutors tried 16-year-old Jason Williams as an adult.
A jury convicted him.
He had ridden a bus to the Hage's neighborhood, then selected a house to burglarize at random.
“He chose mine,” Mike says slowly.
Mike Hage has declined every interview request since. At Williams' trial, he wore a cowboy hat and covered his face while entering and leaving the courtroom. His goal, both during and after the trial, was to shut the world out.
But now on the 25th anniversary of the deaths of his wife and daughter, Mike has decided it's time.
“It just was on my heart that I should come out of hiding,” he says.
Mike says two things kept him going in the days and months that followed the murders, “faith and Matthew.”
Matthew lived. Minus his spleen and part of his liver he may have saved his father, too.
“Really, if not for Matthew, who knows?” says Mike. “I had something to focus on and a reason to push hard to go forward again.”
Mike says he contemplated turning to alcohol or drugs, even suicide. “But I went on for him – and for Julie and Nicole.”
Matthew spent years in therapy for the trauma he’d witnessed. Like his father, he now owns his own concrete company and this past June got married.
Matthew shared details of the murders with Mary, his wife, after they started dating. “It's pretty amazing for somebody to, you know, come through all that and be so great,” Mary Hage says.
For Matthew, moving on has come with acceptance that no sense will ever be made of that October day 25 years ago.
“There is no rationalizing it,” he says. “There's no reason, there's just no reason.”
Jason Williams is 41 now and an inmate at Stillwater state prison. His sentence all but guarantees he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Mike says he rarely thinks of him. “I can have that peace and feel very safe that he's not going anywhere,” he says.
Mike went back to work at his father's concrete company, before starting his own.
He too married. Linda was a high school friend who lent support after the murders.
“She fell in love with Mathew and really was there from that point on,” Mike says. “It certainly wasn’t an easy thing for her to walk into. Would you take this on? Not everybody would.”
Linda doubts Mike will ever be completely over the loss. “I still see pain,” she says. “Things will trigger it.”
Mike agrees. “I can’t take that back,” he says. “I can’t take back what I went home to and what I saw, and how my life changed.”
But Mike also rediscovered happiness – as three more children arrived. Their photos share space in Mike and Linda’s home with Julie’s and Nicole’s.
“I love them. They're a part of our family,” Linda says.
Mike says Linda gave Matthew and him the opportunity to be part of a family again, “and not just be two lost boys, which is what we were, of course.”
In breaking his silence, Mike also wanted to say thank you to the hundreds of people – from around the world - who sent cards and letters after the murders. Their donations helped Mike and Matthew get back on their feet.
But after 25 years, Mike Hage mostly just wants people to know that faith and family got him through.
He hopes others may find comfort in that knowledge, during their own times of crisis.
“It wasn't easy, not at all – still isn’t,” he says. “But we're here.”