By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Jennifer Nibbe received the sentence that was expected Monday for killing her husband, James Nibbe, at their home south of Lake Crystal, but it became clear after the hearing that families and friends supporting both the victim and his killer don’t believe Jennifer Nibbe’s trip to prison will be the end of a tragic situation.
His family isn’t happy with the sentence, which was set in a June plea deal that dismissed a first-degree murder charge and the possibility of a life sentence. James Nibbe’s sister and brothers also said they have been considering taking civil court action to recover their brother’s belongings, including clothing and a funeral book, from Jennifer Nibbe’s father, Dan Gilman.
Gilman and Jennifer Nibbe’s attorney, Rich Hillesheim, said there is more to the story behind James Nibbe’s death. Hillesheim said he was prepared to tell a jury that his client was the victim of physical and sexual abuse. He also said a trial would have revealed “fairly uncomplimentary things about James Nibbe” that would explain Jennifer Nibbe’s transition from someone with no criminal background to a convicted murderer. Those things included an autopsy report showing he tested positive for the HIV virus.
“My heart goes out to the Nibbe family, but they have an idealistic view of who he was,” Hillesheim said after Monday’s hearing.
Almost every seat in the courtroom, including those in the jury box, were filled when District Court Judge Bradley Walker sentenced Jennifer Nibbe to 25 years in prison. With good time and credit for the 700 days she has already served in prison, Nibbe, 35, could be placed on supervised release in 15 years. Walker also ordered Nibbe to use her prison earnings to pay the $11,418 owed to Mankato Mortuary for the funeral she planned for her husband.
During victim impact statements, James Nibbe’s mother, Karen, said one of her worst memories comes from when she watched Jennifer Nibbe kiss her son’s cold lips at that funeral. Leslie Nibbe-Johnson, James Nibbe’s sister, said the entire family felt manipulated by Jennifer Nibbe’s actions after the murder and before her arrest several days later. She said her former sister-in-law never cried at the funeral.
“The only tears that you have shed so far have been in court . . . for yourself,” Nibbe-Johnson said. “You’re not sorry that you took Jim’s life, you’re only sorry that you told investigators that he was a wonderful person that didn’t deserve what you did to him.”
Dennis Nibbe said, because of a 12-year age difference, James Nibbe was almost like a son to him. He said he helped teach his brother how to golf, hunt and fish. The two of them spent hours together doing those things before James Nibbe was murdered.
“You’re getting a slap,” Dennis Nibbe said as he looked across the courtroom at the woman who loaded a shotgun, pointed it at his sleeping brother’s head and pulled the trigger.
“Fifteen years is a slap in our face. It says ‘Justice Center’ on the front of this building, but what you are getting today is not justice. It’s an agreement between lawyers.”
The tension between the family and friends of James and Jennifer Nibbe became obvious at least twice at the Justice Center. Walker scolded a member of James Nibbe’s family after he started yelling while Hillesheim said what he found out about James Nibbe didn’t “match” what his family said about him. There was another brief vocal confrontation outside the courtroom after the hearing between James Nibbe’s former employer and someone who was there to support Jennifer Nibbe.
Jennifer Nibbe didn’t apologize or ask for forgiveness when she was given an opportunity to speak before sentencing.
“I understand the Nibbe family not forgiving me,” she said. “I understand that. I understand the pain that I have caused. And I loved my husband. I have protected my husband.
“I’m not here to damage his reputation or integrity. But I don’t care how close you are to somebody, you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.”
During a prepared statement after the hearing, Nibbe-Johnson said the defense’s abuse allegations are “absurd.” She pointed out there was evidence Jennifer Nibbe was having an affair with another man and used her cell phone to send nude photos of herself to him.
She also said the family was ready to go to trial, even if it meant more of those allegations would become public. The decision to offer a plea deal for second-degree murder without premeditation, even though there was a recording of Jennifer Nibbe confessing to the murder, was made by Pat McDermott, assistant Blue Earth County attorney, she said.
“In the first 10 months of her incarceration, in the countless interviews by investigators with herself, her friends and her family members, there was never any mention of abuse of any kind,” Nibbe-Johnson said. “She, herself, has never ever said that there was abuse; it has all been manufactured accusations by her defense attorney.”
Walker’s voice was calm as he sentenced Nibbe, saying “lives have been shattered” for both families. After McDermott said he had been told media outlets have offered money for Jennifer Nibbe’s story, Walker also issued an order that will keep Nibbe from benefiting financially as a result of her husband’s death.
“Our justice system works the best it can,” he said. “Based on the information I have, this is an appropriate sentence.”
Nibbe-Johnson said there is “something beautiful” that has resulted from the tragic death of her brother. James Nibbe’s name will live on through Good Thunder’s Nib Fest in July and the James M. Nibbe Memorial Golf Tournament in St. James on the anniversary of his death in August. Both events fund the James Nibbe Outstanding Character Award scholarship that is provided annually to a student at Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial High School.