A few days before Sarah Papenheim, 21, was stabbed to death in her apartment in Rotterdam, Holland, she was texting friends back home in Minneapolis. She said she was excited to come back for Christmas and that she had finally saved enough money to buy a drum kit.
But on Wednesday, Dec. 12, Sarah was found in a “bath of blood,” her mother Donee Odegard told Fox 9. Shortly after her body was discovered, a 23-year-old male suspect was arrested.
On Dec. 6, Sarah messaged her friend Adam Pryor, 19, who lives in Wisconsin, and wrote that she feared her roommate: “My roommate told me he’s gonna kill 3 people. So I’m gonna have to go to the police,” Sarah said in an online conversation Pryor shared with Cosmopolitan. But he doesn’t know if she ever did. “It was obviously a startling text,” he says. “But I last spoke to her on Monday. It was the same old Sarah.” Dutch authorities, however, have not confirmed who the suspect is.
In interviews with Cosmopolitan, Sarah’s friends and family expressed shock and disbelief. “Her heart was so full of love and compassion, she would help anyone in need even if it put her in uncomfortable situations,” says her cousin Magdalena Schmeling, 24.
“She was an incredible person,” says her Dutch boyfriend Nico Karsmeijer. “She meant everything to me and I loved her more than anything.”
After her older brother Josh died by suicide at 20 in 2016, per news reports, Sarah enrolled in the Erasmus University in Rotterdam to study psychology with an emphasis on suicide. “Instead of letting the pain consume her, she decided to better understand and help people with mental illness,” says Schmeling. “My aunt has now lost both of her children and my heart is crushed knowing there is nothing I can do to bring her children back.”
“She told her mom she wanted to go somewhere where she could study psychology and work with people with mental health issues so they wouldn’t harm themselves or anyone else,” says Bernard Allison, 53, a well-known blues musician who became Sarah’s friend and a musical mentor. “That’s just the kind of girl she was. She left to get away, to have a clear mind, to focus on herself, and to get an education.”
Now, Sarah’s death has left friends and family across the world, from Istanbul to Arizona, in shock and disbelief as they remember a young woman known for her “Ronald McDonald” smile and whose bubbly personality shone even in her Instagram handle: @Happy_Paps.
Sarah was an accomplished blues drummer. In her teenage years, she played in weekly jam sessions at venues around Redding, California, where she graduated high school, and Minneapolis. That’s where she met Allison, and gained fans like The Time drummer Jellybean Johnson, known for collaborating with Prince. Friends and family remember that she stood out not just for her skills but also because she was the only female drummer on the scene.
“To see this young girl up there who wants to learn the blues, that is just not common,” says Bernard Allison. “The first time we played together, I was just so happy to see a young female up there. I got goosebumps.”
“It was absolutely incredible what she was capable of,” says her friend Trevis Forslund, 21, of Minneapolis. He says they would play together regularly when she was in town. “Guys would get up there and give her grief but she would hold her own.” In one instance, Forslund remembers one older man tried to get into her set. “He was telling her what to do, where to hit and what not, and she would not have it. She gave him this glare and he walked right off the stage. Everyone laughed at it. But she didn’t stop. She didn’t miss a single beat. She wasn’t even looking at the drum kit. She was just looking at this guy, getting in his face. That chick was a spitfire.”
Her popularity was obvious, says her cousin, Schmeling. “When I was visiting Sarah in Minnesota and I walked into a building with her, it was as if I was walking in with a celebrity. Everyone wanted to talk to her. As soon as she walked on stage, everyone could see how comfortable she was up there and how passionate she was about music.”
But it wasn’t until January 2017 that Sarah got her first taste of playing to a larger audience. Allison and his band were touring Europe and Sarah traveled from Rotterdam to Germany with her boyfriend, Karsmeijer, to see the show. It was her 20th birthday. As soon as she walked in the door, Allison spotted her. He then brought her up on stage, he says. The crowd sang Happy Birthday to her and she joined the band for a rendition of “Sweet Home, Chicago.”
After the show, Sarah and Karsmeijer hung out with the band a bit more before heading back to Rotterdam. “She updated us on her life and said she was saving up to buy a drum kit,” says Allison. “I just spoke with her last week. She was so excited to come home for Christmas. She said, ‘I actually saved enough money. I got my first drum kit.'”
Sarah was also dedicated to her education, says Adam Pryor. “I’d never seen anyone who worked that hard or long,” he says. “She had so little free time because she was going to school full-time and working full-time. She was paying for everything herself. It was one of the biggest things that impressed me about her.”
But even with a packed schedule, Sarah found a close circle of friends abroad. “She was so much more than can fit into words,” says fellow Erasmus student Aleyna Topoglu, 20, of Istanbul. “Lively, bubbly, always positive. I never saw her frown. The moment we met, she acted like we knew each other for a long time.”
Now, Dutch authorities hold the alleged killer in custody, and Sarah’s mother is in Holland, waiting to bring her daughter’s body home. Schmeling launched a GoFundMe campaign to help ease the financial burden. “Sarah just wanted to spread her love to everyone,” Schmeling says. “And she did.”