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GoFundMe page created by Grand Forks mother sheds light on family's recent struggles

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Photo from GoFundMe page created by Astra Volk2 / 5
Grand Forks Police near the scene where they are investigating the deaths of four people found in a home near Lewis and Clark Elementary School Thursday morning. Kirsten Stromsodt / Forum News Service. 3 / 5
Grand Forks Police near the scene where they are investigating the deaths of four people found in a home near Lewis and Clark Elementary School Thursday morning. Kirsten Stromsodt / Forum News Service. 4 / 5
Authorities were at the scene of a Grand Forks residence where four people were found dead on Thursday morning. Korrie Wenzel / Forum News Service. 5 / 5

GRAND FORKS -- Police have opened a homicide case -- but aren’t currently seeking any suspects -- after a Grand Forks woman and her three children were found dead in their home Thursday morning.

The bodies of Astra Volk, 35, and her children Arianna Talmage, 6, Aidan Talmage, 10, and Tyler Talmage, 14, were found in their home on the 1000 block of South 12th Street during a welfare check requested by Lewis and Clark Elementary School, where the two younger children were students.

An October newsletter from the school indicates Volk was a co-treasurer of the elementary school’s parent teacher organization.

Police say all four family members died of gunshot wounds. Authorities recovered a handgun in the house. In an evening press conference outside the family home, Grand Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said he couldn’t answer definitively whether that same gun was used to kill the family, nor where in the house the bodies were found.

He didn’t answer when asked about other details of the scene.

“I think any time that you have a scene where children are dead, it’s a horrific scene,” Zimmel said. “The condition of the house and anything related to that really doesn’t matter. … It’s a great tragedy, and I think we’re all going to be affected by it.”

Zimmel also didn’t answer when asked if police believe Volk had killed her children and herself, saying the agency needed further investigation before assigning action or motive to anyone in the home. But he did tell reporters to consider what authorities have said -- they found a gun in the house and aren’t looking for any suspects right now.

What comes next, Zimmel said, is a “whole lot of interviewing, evaluating evidence.”

“We’re trying to determine not only what exactly happened but, to the best of our ability, why it happened, ensuring the safety and mental and emotional health of all who might be impacted by this,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

QUIET NEIGHBORHOOD

As he spoke, the dark clouds and drizzling rain of night closed over a neighborhood that stunned neighbors had earlier described as “quiet.”

Passing motorists slowed to watch the house, some aiming smartphones at the scene for video, others pausing for a longer look or a word with bystanders. The Grand Forks Police community resource officer arrived to remove a caged pet from the house, the front of which had been covered by investigators with a dark privacy screen.

Investigators are still piecing together the timeline of events that led a school resource officer to discover the bodies of the family in their rented home just blocks from Lewis and Clark.

What’s already known is that school administrators asked the officer to conduct a welfare check on the home after the younger children didn’t arrive at school, a practice Zimmel said Grand Forks schools use on a “case by case basis.”

Once there, an officer peering through a window saw what looked to be a body. Police forced entry to the home and discovered the four deceased. Authorities still don’t know when the family was killed nor how long their bodies were in the home before being found.

Police closed down a stretch of roadway to accommodate a daylong investigation with assistance from the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Yellow crime scene tape cordoned off the home where the family had lived for only about two months.

FAMILY IN NEED

A troubled picture emerged of the Volk household. Just over a week ago, Volk had posted a plea for monetary assistance to fundraising site GoFundMe, seeking help in a post titled “Living expenses due to medical bills.”  

In the post, Volk said she and her two sons “suffer from mental illness, bi-polar, manic depression, autism” and that all had been “hospitalized for this.”

“I work full time but my wages have recently been garnished for medical bills,” she wrote. “I’m looking for help with 1 month’s bills to help get on our feet and look for a second job. I am trying to stay positive so I do not end up back in the hospital.”

Volk, who said on social media that she worked at Cirrus Aircraft, said the family was getting help from food pantries.

Court records show Volk had been in civil court three times in the past year for collections totaling to $3,700. Neighbors believed she was living alone with the children and was separated from her husband and their father.

Those same neighbors stood throughout the day on porches and sidewalks, talking among themselves or to the detectives moving door-to-door for information.

A small, pink bicycle lay on its side on the front lawn of the home. Though all the visible windows were shut fast, the garage door hung half-opened, slightly crooked. The door to the mailbox was open too, revealing at least a day’s worth of mail.

Many of those who lived nearby didn’t know Volk or her children well. Before police announced the case as a homicide, speculation had swirled as to how the family died in the home, which longtime residents say had recently been overhauled by its owners since going largely unhinhabited since the flood of 1997.

Paula Stevens was at the edge of the cordon at midday, standing with her arms folded, watching investigators at their work. She lives a few houses away and has been in the neighborhood for years.

“I hadn’t met them yet, and I had only barely seen them,” Stevens said.

Still, even with little personal connection, the depth of the tragedy was easy to feel.

“It makes your stomach go like ‘Woah,’ ” she said, gesturing with a clenching hand. “I can’t even grasp what might have happened here.”

The investigation of that is still ongoing.

Police will remain at the home until satisfied they’ve found everything they need to answer the questions that remain, Zimmel said.

The department asks anyone with information to contact police at (701) 787-8000. 

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

(701) 780-1134
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